In October ’09 our Little Bangkok Sangha watched the Monty Python classic The Life of Brian. Nearly 30 of us joined for lunch and a good few more came just for the movie. Despite being frequently listed as in the top 10 funniest movies of all time, quite a few people had never seen it before.
By modern standards it is a fairly tame movie. But at the time it was banned in Catholic Ireland, denounced by the Pope, and even banned from many British cinemas. It caused quite a stir, especially in the U.S.
The anti-hero of the story, a hapless chap called Brian, was born the same day as Jesus. After being mistaken as the Messiah by the Three Wise Men, we join his story at the age of about 30 mirroring the story of Jesus. The Python team invented Brian because they did not want to mock Christ specifically – claiming they could not find that much to lampoon in the teachings. Instead they focussed on what the common people of the time thought and felt.
Thus we have the teaching on the mount – the only part where Jesus actually appears, safely off in the distance. The listeners to the sermon are the focus of the camera, and despite being in the presence of the Son of God, they are more concerned with telling each other to be quiet, and swapping petty insults.
‘Blessed are the Greeks’ they hear, and ask what is so special about the Greeks (or the cheese makers), before they fall into squabbling. The film continues along this tack. The teachings might be great, but the common man is more concerned with the person next to him, rather than who will be inheriting the earth.
This theme is repeated throughout. Brian is taken up in a spacecraft, and then left back on the ground. Minutes later, the people chasing Brian lose sight of him and wonder if he has ‘been taken up’. Of course, he was taken up moments before but no one really cared – even the witness to the spectacle whose only comment was ‘Lucky bastard’.
‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone’ is another teaching. Yet we see the common people of the time are not throwing their stones (bought from stone vendors) because they felt the criminal was sinful, but because it was a common entertainment in a brutal society. ‘The birds do alright don’t they …‘ said Brian unimpressivly, in a mockery of the famous teaching. No one cared. ‘No, I am not the Messiah’ said Brian echoing the words of Christ who refused to be called such (we are all sons of God, but die as princes).
The Romans are not spared. Taking a bad rap in the Bible, we are reminded they brough a kind of peace, roads, aqueducts, education etc… Referring to the Pontius Pilate episode where the common people are asked to judge Christ, we see the crowds mocking the Roman Senator who offers to set one of the prisoners free. The point is that despite the drama of the Biblical story, in all likelihood, the common people, crude, barbaric, and low-class as they were, probably did not give a hoot. Criticism of the Romans comes later, with the man hung in the cell – it was these kind of people who really had cause to hate the Roman empire.
The Python team always insisted they were lampooning organised religion as a whole, and not the story of Christ. And this is probably true. Much of the story focussed on how people blindly follow leaders, including those leaders who are unwilling. They also were clear not to criticise Christ or the Bible, but only show that the people of the time were not terribly caught up in the monumental occasions afoot.
No one felt very offended, and in the modern world of brutal video games o f slaughter and mayhem, it is a fairly tame bit of fun. And much of the lampooning could just as easily have been directed at Buddhism.
So who was Brian anyway ?
He’s not the Messiah, ‘ees a very naughty boy