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Monday, July 05, 2004
The meaning of the life of the Life of Brian

Andrew Stuttaford has a piece at National Review Online hailing the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Monty Python film The Life of Brian. I'm rather sympathetic to his fondness for the film. Some of the jokes - the convict chained up in a dungeon preaching tough law and order policies, the protagonist being corrected on his Latin, the cockney talking his way out of crucifixion and then admitting he was guilty after all - were hilarious. The detailed defence of Roman imperialism was as wise as it was amusing, and could even serve as a model for American propaganda in that part of the world should the US take the foreign policy route that Niall Ferguson recommends and predicts she will.

Nor can I believe anyone seriously thinks it an indictment of Christianity. It certainly had offensive moments, but only someone as moronic as "Brian's" followers could believe that people of those days were as stupid as they had to be for the film's plot to work.

But as Stuttaford points out, it was a clear attack on a certain sort of religious attitude, if not exactly a groundbreaking and original victim.

To be sure, Life of Brian is unlikely to make it very soon into the Vatican's video collection but, unless the Pythons' secularism is of itself "offensive," there really ought to be little in their film to annoy most people of faith — so long as they have a sense of humor, that is. The real target of the movie's satire is not religion as such, but the unholy baggage that too frequently comes with it — the credulity, the fanaticism, and that very human urge to persecute, well, someone.

... At the time it was made, the Pythons' "Passion" seemed to be taking aim at a soft target. In the West, at least, centuries of superstition, intolerance, and fanaticism seemed gradually to be receding into the past, mourned by a dwindling few. The established religions appeared reconciled to a comfortable, if decreasingly prominent, niche within the secular states of the post-Enlightenment, and where the West led, the rest of the world would surely follow.

But the broader significance twenty-five years later of this attack is in how much more relevant it is now than then. What must in 1979 have seemed like a parting wave to medieval religious fanaticism looks in 2004 like a contemporary commentary on the most important issues the world faces.

[T]he return of militant Islam and its encroachment once more on the people and the territories of the West force us to face, yet again, the horrors of religious war, this time an onslaught from Arabia's seventh-century darkness, in which the promise of heaven will be used as a justification for true believers to create a hell on earth for all those who oppose them. In a time when young men fly planes into office buildings in the hope of earning themselves an eternity with 72 virgins, it's difficult to look at those parts of Life of Brian in which the movie played on the baroque cruelty of (what then seemed) ancient history without as much unease as amusement. The long and originally very funny sequence that culminates in John Cleese being stoned for blasphemy now conjures up images of the Taliban's bestial Kabul. Later on, we see the Judean People's Front planning to kidnap and then behead the wife of Pontius Pilate, and the bloodiness of the scheme only serves to underline the utter incompetence of the conspiracy. We laughed then, back in 1979. Beheading? Ridiculous. We don't laugh so easily in 2004. Not after Daniel Pearl. Not after Nick Berg. Not after Paul Marshall Johnson.

A perspective as depressing as it is undoubtledly correct. But Stuttaford ends his own piece on an optimistic note, and I would add one of my own.

For many who have watched the film, the rather arrogant, superior attitude within is probably rather more difficult to stomach than the accompanying jokes and jibes. There was just a little too much smugness in the assumption of those who made the film that history was firmly on their side, that times would continue to move on in the direction they favoured. And if there is any perspective on the future common to all liberals, it is that one.

The historicism of modern liberalism is integral to a huge proportion of its arguments. If they're honest, the future most liberals dream of - where faith is a private eccentricity and a common morality non-existent, where the word 'freedom' simply means an absence of moral and legal obstacles to the pursuit of sensual gratification by sex and drugs, and where all of life is ultimately a return to the freedom of infancy, with all personal responsibility transferred to the state - is seen by them not so much as a possible world to be fought for as an inevitable world to be brought about as soon as possible. This tendency to inject time with inherent political and cultural properties is obvious to anyone who has heard the average liberal speak and debate. Oh, some embittered reactionaries might drag their knuckles in trying to prevent this future, certainly, but the idea of a successful backlash, of the world following a very different course, isn't really one to which the left gives much thought. And while this arrogance shines through so many of the Life of Brian's scenes, we now know just how misplaced it was when it comes to the particular target at which the film was aimed.

Is it wrong to take a little pleasure in that mistake, to reflect that if these liberals managed to be wrong about one of the things about which they reasonably feel secure, they can certainly be wrong about the inevitability of their triumph in areas where majorities continue to oppose them? I don't think so. The relevance to the modern world of a film whose producers smugly assumed was only about the past is a testament to how misplaced liberal arrogance can be, and should be an inspiration to those who do not share in their vision of the future.

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