Monty Python’s Life of Brian: Religious Satire, Political Satire, or Blasphemy?

Before I saw Mon­ty Python’s Life of Bri­an, I only knew that reli­gious peo­ple did­n’t like it, which intrigued me. Then I found out that some reli­gious peo­ple like it very much indeed, which real­ly intrigued me. Build­ing its sto­ry on a satir­i­cal par­al­lel of the life of Jesus Christ, Life of Bri­an could nev­er have helped draw­ing fire. But the Pythons knew how to use it: “So fun­ny it was banned in Nor­way!” read one of the film’s posters, and indeed, the Nor­we­gian gov­ern­ment put the kibosh on its screen­ings, as did Ire­land’s, as did a num­ber of town coun­cils in Eng­land. “As a satire on reli­gion, this film might well be con­sid­ered a rather slight pro­duc­tion,” writes Richard Web­ster in A Brief His­to­ry of Blas­phemy. “As blas­phe­my it was, even in its orig­i­nal ver­sion, extreme­ly mild. Yet the film was sur­round­ed from its incep­tion by intense anx­i­ety, in some quar­ters of the Estab­lish­ment, about the offence it might cause. As a result it gained a cer­tifi­cate for gen­er­al release only after some cuts had been made. Per­haps more impor­tant­ly still, the film was shunned by the BBC and ITV, who declined to show it for fear of offend­ing Chris­tians in this coun­try.”

All this con­tro­ver­sy came to a now-infa­mous 1979 tele­vi­sion debate: In one cor­ner, we have Python’s John Cleese and Michael Palin. In the oth­er, we have con­trar­i­an satirist Mal­colm Mug­geridge and Bish­op of South­wark Mervyn Stock­wood. You can watch the whole broad­cast on Youtube (part one, part two, part three, part four). In the extract above, you can hear Cleese argue that the film does not, in fact, ridicule Jesus Christ, but instead indicts “closed sys­tems of thought” of the type drilled into his con­scious­ness dur­ing his board­ing school years. Palin takes pains to under­score its nature as not whol­ly a reli­gious satire, but more of a jab at mod­ern Eng­lish soci­ety and pol­i­tics trans­posed into the Bib­li­cal past. Mug­geridge and Stock­wood, while den­i­grat­ing Life of Bri­an’s cin­e­mat­ic mer­it all the while, nonethe­less see in it a dan­ger­ous poten­tial to cor­rupt the youth. But it turns out that they’d shown up at their screen­ing fif­teen min­utes late, miss­ing the scenes which would have told them that Jesus Christ and the hap­less Bri­an of the title are two dif­fer­ent peo­ple. Indeed, Bri­an is not the mes­si­ah. The les­son here: watch Life of Bri­an in full, as many times as it takes to get you draw­ing your own non-received con­clu­sions about reli­gion, soci­ety, and com­e­dy.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Mon­ty Python’s Best Phi­los­o­phy Sketch­es

Mon­ty Python’s Away From it All: A Twist­ed Trav­el­ogue with John Cleese

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on lit­er­a­ture, film, cities, Asia, and aes­thet­ics. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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Comments (4)
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  • Fred says:

    If God can’t take a joke, who can?

  • Hanoch says:

    “Closed sys­tems of thought of the type drilled into his con­scious­ness dur­ing his board­ing school years.” Anal­o­gous to that which exists at today’s uni­ver­si­ties, per­haps? It is hard to take seri­ous­ly those on the left who advo­cate open-mind­ed­ness and dis­cus­sion, except when it involves the issues near and dear to them.

  • Brian says:

    Fun­ny, the only closed minds i see in this video are the “Xtians”

  • christopher palermo says:

    The clip from the movie is a pre­scient thumb in the ass to “The Human Mic”. Remem­ber? that cute lit­tle act of civ­il obe­di­ence that the O folks were so proud of a few years back? Nev­er mind.

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