Monty python’s Life of Brian was born in the mid 1960s. The rosy comedies of the 1950s lay like heavy pancakes on the belly laughs that never came; the art of Hollywood comedy seemed dead at the end of the era. In 1965 appeared The Greatest Story Ever Told, an $18 million disaster that added the biblical spectacular to the celluloid graveyard. Secularism, and a history Hollywood could bill as “centuries in the making,” had molded an audience mentality that saw Jesus as a Hallmark card figure with which they could no longer identify, an un-man without credible letters of recommendation. He had become part of a past that was no longer ours.

In the mid-1960s what some have called “the great comedy revival” began. But revival doesn’t quite fit the change. Associated with warmth and a gentle spirit, comedy became something cold and tough. Frank Capra’s Oscar-winning You Can’t Take It With You (1938) had symbolized the old ways. But by 1975, the symbol of the new comedy had become One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Monty Python’s Life of Brian scavenges parts of its anatomy from the corpse of the old biblical genre and electrifies it with the lighting of comedy’s new mood. The result for the Christian is a burlesque Frankenstein monster that is blasphemously funny and repellant. It is a creature made up of misappropriated and incongruous parts.

It is undeniably funny, from the opening moments when the three wise men mistake “Brian, called Brian,” for the infant Christ, to a stoning and the schoolmasterish official who warns against throwing stones until he blows his whistle. Brian hides from his raving followers in a hole occupied by a mystic silent for 18 years, who then erupts into a hilarious response of Hava Nagilas and choruses of “Hello trees! Hello sky! Hello rocks!!” And all this while Brian desperately slaps hand after hand over the mouth of the loquacious hermit and tries to hide.

The agony of it all is in the Christian’s inability to find control as he watches this. Humor by its very nature does not lend itself to control. It is built on the mismatch of reality to response; it is the unexpected. The timing does not leave you the opportunity to withdraw, to withhold. Lumps in throats and sentimental tears can be held back. Not laughter.

Some things need laughing at. In the pursuit of Brian’s new followers after their Messiah, Brian loses a sandal. Someone picks it up and cries, “Follow the shoe.” “Bring the sandal,” someone responds. “No, it’s a shoe!” “Follow the shoe-ites!” “Follow the way of the sandalites.” “He has given us a sign.” Surely the Lord has a good laugh sometimes at our divisions into “shoe-ites” and “sandalites.”

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But then suddenly we cross the line. Shall we laugh at the satirical portrait of the prophets? And at the final shot of the film with Brian on a cross, surrounded by a dozen others being crucified? One by one they join in a song, kicking their legs in a chorus line, and cheerfully proclaim, “Forget about your sin—give the audience a grin. Enjoy it—it’s your last chance anyhow. So always look on the bright side of death. Just before you draw your terminal breath … And always look on the bright side of life (whistle) …”

The satirical nature of the film compounds our questions. It is not a spoof, though some have called it that. “Unlike satire, spoofing has no serious objectives,” Pauline Kael wrote some years ago. Spoofing doesn’t attack anything that anyone could take seriously. The spoof apologizes for its existence. It assures us that it’s harmless. It isn’t aiming for beauty or expressiveness or meaning. The Marx Brothers were masters of the spoof, boiling cynics but never nihilists, the true heirs of Lewis Carroll.

By contrast, Life of Brian is satire. Satire is subversive; the spoof isn’t. There is a touch of maliciousness in spoof, but it reaches epic proportions in the satire. No target is too low or too serious for it. It assaults even its ultimate point of reference. In that sense, it is anarchy.

The repertory group, Monty Python, works from this point of view. Their first film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) set the pattern, not of artful outrage, but of anarchic blitzkrieg. Chivalry was their target then, a childish foray into mud, squalor, and death by knights riding make-believe horses while their servants trot behind, making hoofbeat sounds by clapping coconut shells together. The shells are hollow. And so is the world, they tell us.

In Life of Brian, the message is repeated on a more explicit level; the anachronism becomes not the middle ages but its religious sources and the life of Christ. Some care is taken at the start of the film to distinguish Brian from Christ. We’re not going to be talking about Jesus, the troop seems to be assuring us. But the effort is not fully convincing. The whole structure of the movie is built around Brian’s flight from messiah candidacy and its eventual end at the cross. Brian attempts to convince the crowd he is a bona fide false prophet in language that takes off from Matthew 7:1, 6:26–28, and the parable of the talents. And, in between the hilarity with which all of this is treated, our senses are further assaulted by four letter words, some frontal nudity, and the Benny Hill variety of British double-entendre.

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Even the repertory character of the playing works against the stability of an ultimate return to givens. The Marx Brothers spoofed, but their individual identities reminded us there was a “cosmic center” to their laughter and ours. The Monty Python players have no such identifiable individuality. The six players take a total of 37 speaking parts in the film, write the script, and one of them directs. The laughter continues. But it comes from the meaninglessness of the compass center. The chorus on the crosses at the end tell it all. “Life is quite absurd/And death’s the final word/You must always face the curtain with a bow … Keep ’em laughing as you go/Just remember that the last laugh is on you / And always look on the bright side of life …” Out of this vacuum Albert Camus provided his “absurd hero.” Out of it the Monty Python players provide their “absurd comedians.” I find myself asking, “On what basis can you laugh? Laughter is an acknowledgment of your recognition of a God-given world, and the mismatch of what we are to what we know is there at the center.” This film undermines the possibilities of human laughter by a deep pessimism concerning the possibilities of divine grace.

This is the basic difference between Life of Brian and the 1977 George Burns hit, Oh, God! One offers a blurred picture of God as Creator, softened and warmed by Burns’s portrayal of deity. It is an optimistic sentimentalism which denies the Lord of his work as Sustainer and Redeemer. But its reduction of God to the level of a Jewish old man in sneakers has enough of the real thing left to assure us that loving one another can overcome greed and cynicism. The tentativeness of that possibility is underlined but the possibility still exists. In Life of Brian the pessimism wins out and the possibilities vanish. Oh, God! belongs closer to the comedy world of the 1930s and can still affirm, though obscurely, that man can have a personal relationship with deity. Life of Brian belongs to the new world of comedy and questions even this humanistic possibility. Common grace has gone further to seed and becomes just commonness.

Is “life of brian” blasphemy? Stanley Kauffmann defends it against that charge. The story of Jesus, he says, is kept quite separate. Brian “is mistaken for a messiah, in an age that is visibly hungry for messiahs and has many candidates” [Nothing like us, right?]. His argument to me does not work. Blasphemy is more than strings of four-letter words in reaction to God. An unbelieving Paul may blaspheme by degrading the Lord with his contemptuous assault on the church (Acts 9:4). Bringing discredit to Christianity may involve a subtler form of slander (Rom. 2:24, 1 Tim. 6:1, James 2:7). There is such a thing as blasphemy by vicarious substitution. It is reflected in the words of a man walking out of the theater ahead of me. “Now, that’s the way I like my religion.” One shudders as he thinks of others walking out of other theaters with the same response.

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The world is indeed a fortunate place. Even contempt on this deepest level cannot erase the divine realities of forgiving grace. And, because of that, we can laugh even when we are hurt by our laughing.

Harvie M. Conn is associate professor of missions and apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia.

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