Friday, January 23, 2009

Life of Brian -- crucifixion but no resurrection

Director: Terry Jones, 1979.

I first saw Life of Brian in England when it was released. That was before I was a Christian. It had drawn accusations of blasphemy from some denominations. It was even banned in some countries. I thought it was hysterically funny back then. Seeing it again, now as a follower of the Christ, I still think it funny, though not quite as hilarious as I did 30 years ago.

This is Monty Python's sequel to The Holy Grail. Irreverent, it is a parody of life in first-century Judea. Of course it is a send-up of the life of Jesus, but in the silly Pythonesque way. If you like British comedy, and Monty Python in particular, you will think this funny, albeit full of profanity and even full-frontal nudity. If not, you might find it offensive and would do well to avoid it. are the whole gang, Eric Idle, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Graham Chapman. Each plays multiple roles, including female characters. In particular, Chapman stars as Brian Cohen and Jones plays his mom, the non-virgin Mandy.

The film starts like a Christmas story, with three wise men following the star to Bethlehem. There they find a new-born baby wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger. But the baby is Brian, not Jesus. They have mistaken their final destination by 20 yards, a normal mistake even with a gps receiver. Discovering their mistake, they hastily take back their gifts and withdraw to the correct stable. This is the story of Brian's life. Mistaken identity will be the death of him.

As a man Brian resents the Romans. But then his mom lets him into a secret. He is half-Roman. She is a Jewish prostitute and his father was a centurion. Such revelations can cause havoc with a psyche, and Brian is no exception. He resorts to joining a terrorist organization, the Judean People's Front.

The film is a series of skits loosely connected together. Several are unforgettable. There is the scene of political fomentation, initiated with the question, what have the Romans ever done for us? Or the ex-leper scene, where a leper cured by Jesus is complaining of his lost livelihood. There is the stoning of a blasphemer skit, where the women, dressed as men, buy hand-crafted stones but are over-anxious to indulge in this Saturday afternoon entertainment. Then there is the weird space-ship animated/live-action sequence, thrown in apparently as a way to save Brian's life.

As much as this is a comedy, it is also a send-up of religion and religious intolerance. The multiple revolutionary organizations opposing the Roman rule parody the schisms and denominations in the church. They won't even work together and when caught trying to execute identical plots, they argue over whose idea it was and then fight each other rather than join forces. Sadly, we sometimes even see arguments within the Church as denominations fight other denominations over doctrinal disagreements. Jesus commanded his followers to love one another (John 13:34). By doing this, the world would know who we are (John 13:35). We are to give a witness to the world of the love of Jesus not the anger of humanity.

Another spoof is targeted against biblical interpretation. When the real Jesus is preaching his sermon on the mount, those at the back of his audience cannot hear well and wonder what he said. "I think it was 'Blessed are the cheesemakers.' " One spectator replies, "Aha, what's so special about the cheesemakers?" And another comments, "Well obviously, it's not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products." Too often arguments have ensued about how to interpret the Bible. Conservatives support a grammatical-historical interpretation, focusing on the literal meaning as understood by contextual analysis. Liberals have tended towards non-literal even allegorical interpretations. I approach the Bible as I would other texts, although of course this is holy scripture. Some portions of the Bible are poetic, others apocalyptic, others epistolary, and still others parabolic. Each genre requires us to approach it on its own terms. of Brian, shot on the some of the same sets as Zeferelli's Jesus of Nazareth, does give a picture of what life might have been like for followers of Jesus. As Brian inadvertently was seen as the Savior, people flocked to him. "I'm not the Messiah! Will you please listen to me? I am not the Messiah, do you understand? Honestly!" But even against his wishes, they said, "Only the true Messiah denies His divinity." And Brian is put into a quandary. Even his mother says, "He's not the Messiah! He's a very naughty boy!" The film makes it clear that Brian is not the Savior. He does not want to be followed by these folks. Even when he accidentally loses a sandal, they think he has given them a sign, like foot-washing (John 13:17).

In this humorous way, we get a glimpse of what Jesus experienced. Many, looking for rescue from Roman rule, wanted to follow a messiah. There had been others claiming to be from God, but Jesus was (and is) the only true Messiah. And He didn't turn people away. He gave them signs, miracles, but even these followers were fickle. When they heard Jesus tell them to eat his flesh and drink his blood (John 6:66), pointing to the sacrament of communion, they turned away in disgust. Like the crowds following Brian, many who followed Jesus were not true believers and when trouble or undesirable teaching came they left. of Brian falters a little toward the end, with some extended skits. But it closes with a bang. With over 100 criminals crucified on Passover, one (Eric Idle) leads them in a song, encouraging the dying to "always look on the bright side of life." Whistling while dying, they all join in on this finale. And it is good advice, even biblical advice (Phil. 4:8). As followers of Jesus, we are to be optimistic, even in the face of death. Death can kill our physical bodies but not our souls. Whether on the cross or on our life's course, our attitude will determine our response to circumstances. Maintaining a good attitude, focusing on what is good and right, and looking on the bright side of life will help us stay the course.

Although irreverent, it is not sacrilegious or blasphemous. The Life of Brian focuses on his birth, life and death. Pointedly absent is resurrection. Brian was a man and he did not rise from the dead. He whistled off into the sunset. Jesus, on the other hand, was Messiah. He died but he rose again (1 Cor. 15:20). And being resurrected he lives now. His resurrection allows us, his followers, to gain victory over sin and death even in our own lives (Rom. 6:8, Phil. 3:10).

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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