In 1997 “The Life of Brian” by Monty Python comedians was a tremendous hit in Britain and a scandal. The cast was composed of Eric Idle (a contemporary of mine at Cambridge); John Cleese, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam, and Graham Chapman, names that dominated British comedy for several decades. It is my favorite comedy of all time. Even better than Mel Brooks or Gene Wilder.
It was set in Judea at the time of the Roman occupation and the rise of Christianity. It was iconoclastic in the truest sense of the word. It made fun of almost every possible cultural, political, and religious norm of British society. A group of fractious, petty, argumentative Judean rebels who sound like Marxists, Leninists, Trotskyists, and Stalinists trying unsuccessfully to defeat the Romans but can’t agree amongst themselves politically. Nowadays like Republicans and Democrats or the West Bank. Centurions behave like schoolmasters teaching recalcitrant schoolboys Latin. Women disguised as men to get into a stoning and the Dead Sea hermits get a walk-on role.
The figure who was supposed to represent Jesus was a nerdy naughty boy called Brian, who accidentally finds himself in the position of being worshipped by hordes of followers. But his mother called him “ just a very naughty boy.” Poor Brian found himself hounded by everybody, Romans, Jews, and pagans until finally, the whole group ends up being captured and crucified by the Romans. It all ends with Eric Idle leading them in the song “Always Look on the bright side of Life.” Brilliantly, it held up a mirror to the hypocrisies, pretensions, and standards of British society and was merciless. Without a doubt, it was blasphemous, which made it additionally popular because in those days when the church of England was still important, its pomposity was regularly the butt of comedians just like in the later “Three Weddings and a Funeral.”
Some weeks ago, John Cleese, announced that he was working on a stage adaptation of Life of Brian. He came under huge pressure from influential members of the artistic community to omit a certain scene from the production. But thankfully he refused and pushed back.
You can see clips from “The Life of Brian on YouTube” and the whole film on Netflix. One of my favorites is “ What Have the Romans ever done for us?” Particularly amusing because it mirrors a debate in the Talmud about what the Romans ever did for the Jews. The sketch that he was asked to remove was of Eric Idle insisting on equal rights as a woman. He wanted to have children and be called Loretta. If ever there was an iconic example of how cultural norms change this is it.
I was the Principal of Carmel College when the film came out. A Boarding school of hundreds of pupils with more non-Jewish staff than Jewish staff. I got hold of a copy of the film to show to the school because I thought it was both hilarious and relevant and a necessary contribution to an open-minded education.
Some of the Christian teachers were very upset and they came to me to protest. They argued that if I expected them to treat my religion with respect, why couldn’t I treat theirs with respect too? I replied that one should indeed respect the rules and the laws of the religions of others. But that doesn’t mean you cannot make fun or satirize. That has always been a feature of literature and comedy. After all both Luther and Erasmus made fun of the Catholic Church. In the end, because I was a dictator (in those days headmasters or principles could be dictators) I went ahead, and it was shown.
There is something about the crime of blasphemy that offends me. It is not a crime against other people. Only against religious orthodoxy and authority. Iconography originated as a movement to stop worshipping images and saints. Hunting blasphemers was a very popular pass time hundreds of years ago. Thousands were burnt for professing theological variants with Christianity. It is still on the books in some Christian countries. But we have moved on since then and in the free world we no longer execute for it.
Yet in many parts of the world today you can be stoned to death for saying anything that is considered blasphemous. If anybody suggests that Mohammed was in some way an imperfect person, that will earn a fatwah and a death sentence. Of course, nowadays everyone is terrified of blasphemy. And much of the intellectual world actually defends the fanatics because of their distorted concept of racism, political correctness, or woke, and of course they need the votes politically.
Anybody or anything that takes itself too seriously should be held up to ridicule. Even religion. And if it isn’t confident enough to stand up to criticism or ridicule then there is something wrong. I’ve always believed that it’s very necessary to have a sense of humor when it comes to religion. It is an important counterbalance to fanaticism. Nothing upsets the Jihadi so much as to be laughed at. Even the Book of Psalms says that the Almighty sits up in heaven and has a good laugh at our pretensions. But now the so-called enlightened world has added a new kind of blasphemy declaring that it is not all right to make fun of secular religion. Whereas once I thought fundamentalism was a religious problem, I see now it has infected the whole intellectual world.
We Jews have always faced humiliation and ridicule. Centuries of Christian polemic and enlightenment dismissal rained down on our religion and our holy texts and we’re expected to lap it all up. In the interests of free speech, I do not object to people saying what they want to say so long as they don’t encourage violence against somebody who disagrees with them.
This episode is a sign too of how comedy has lost its way. Comedy is traditionally a means by which the weak can check the power of the powerful by pointing to their vanity, self-regard, and absurdities. Aristophanes mocked the Athenian rulers of his day as later Erasmus and Luther used humor to prick the pretensions of the Renaissance papacy.
Anyone who can steel themselves to sit through a late-night talk show or Saturday Night Live knows that today all the “jokes” are designed to affirm the audience’s belief in the superiority of their progressive political views and not to challenge them to see the ridiculous elements of their own beliefs. There is a reason why totalitarian states have never liked comedians.
I weep for the culture that has descended to this pettiness. And may the Messiah ( no not Brian) come quickly and help us clean up this mess.