Baker Academic

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Life of Brian, the Historical Jesus, and Michael Myers—Chris Keith

This past weeked was the Jesus and Brian Conference at King's College, London.  The conference was a massive success and I look forward to the published proceedings from T&T Clark/Bloomsbury.  The roster of speakers was a veritable Who's Who and one thing that I particularly liked was that the topic itself seemed to inspire a lot more informality and hilarity from the speakers, though all the presentations were thoroughly academic.  Since there was frequent quotation of Monty Python's Life of Brian, I don't think that I've ever heard more cursing from a more distinguished group and to better effect.  It was great.  If I had to pick a single favorite presentation, it would probably be Guy Stiebel's, which was not only a fascinating discussion of archaeological evidence that relates to issues in Life of Brian but also downright hilarious and included shirtless pictures of Putin (see picture), a Roman vagina (scabbard, similar to here), and Roman phallus from Masada.  There were grumblings online and among some of the attendees about the fact that, at every tea/coffee break or lunch break, the organizers put all the speakers in one room with all the attendees in another room.  I would have to add myself the number who didn't appreciate that this inhibited break-time chats with the speakers, which is typically a highlight when it comes to conferences.  But that was one drawback to an otherwise tremendous success.

I'm not going to describe every presentation in detail.  Mark Goodacre has already given a snippet of them here and here.  Instead, I want to offer just one reflection on an issue that came up really throughout the conference, namely the question of whether Brian is intended to be a Jesus figure.  I'm thus speaking into a running dialogue between Richard Burridge, who has defended the Pythons for carefully distinguishing between Jesus and Brian, and James Crossley, who has pointed out that Brian sure does seem to be functioning as something of a historical Jesus.

I think that the truth is somewhere in the middle, and that the answer to the question "Is Brian supposed to be Jesus or is Brian not supposed to be Jesus?" should be a deliberately ambiguous "yes."  I suggest further that this is part of the brilliance and success of the film. 

On a formal narrative level it is true that the Pythons were careful to distinguish between the character of Jesus, who is a Jesus from the Gospels, and Brian.  This is undoubtedly clear and I noted it in an earlier post as well.  In other words, when someone accuses the Pythons of making a mockery of Jesus, they can rightly defend themselves and others can rightly defend them by saying, "Yes, but Brian clearly isn't Jesus," and both defenses have been made, as was repeated at the conference.

But, to agree with a point that Crossley made, the Pythons seem to give mixed signals when they address this issue and, in my opinion, Brian most definitely is a narrative vehicle designed to get the audience to think about Jesus even if he is distinguished from the character of Jesus.  For one thing, if it wasn't the case that Brian was a Jesus-esque figure, I can hardly see why a bunch of Jesus and Gospels scholars would be gathered at KCL this past weekend to discuss the film and the historical Jesus.  As a further matter, however, I would cite an interview of John Cleese that was shown during the conference.  Cleese points out that the Gospels are funny from a particular view, and makes some funny comments about Joseph trying to explain Mary's impregnation by the Spirit to his buddies down at the pub over pints.  If I understand Cleese and the context of his comments rightly here, the movie is designed precisely to enable this type of view of the Jesus story, whereby one can ask questions and imagine historically outside the ecclesiastical boundaries of interpretation.  What the Pythons presumably realized is that they could accomplish this effect much better with someone mistaken for Jesus than they could with Jesus himself.

Needless to say, historical Jesus scholarship is also designed to enable views of Jesus other than the Gospels' views.  But this leads to an important point that Crossley made, seemingly as a side comment, during his paper.  I want to pick it up here.  He pointed out that he teaches mainly evangelicals, and all of them seem to love Life of Brian but hate historical-critical Jesus scholarship.  As someone who grew up in the Bible Belt, I can affirm the general (though not ubiquitous) truth of his observation.  I know lots of conservative Christians who love Life of Brian but not John Dominic Crossan.

Now, let me tie these previous two paragraphs together with a proposal that also helps explain why we teachers of historical Jesus scholarship love to use Life of Brian as a pedagogical tool, and especially with very conservative students:  Life of Brian functions in some (not all) ways, and for some (not all) groups, like a horror film.  Part of the thrill and rhetorical function of horror films is that they allow the audience to confront real fears in a safe space.  There really are serial killers out there, and some of them are as deranged as Michael Myers.  We know that this is actually a societal reality but it's almost too much to process it as a reality.  Confronting gruesome murder on the nightly news is categorically different from watching it on Halloween weekend at a theater and that's because of the differing genres and their relations to historical reality.  Horror films allow people to confront real fear in a context where the narrative provides boundaries for the fear, thus the frequent statement, "It's just a movie."  The horror genre is specifically designed to provide a safe space for confronting unsafe realities.  Life of Brian, though clearly not a horror film, nevertheless functions in my mind generically in a similar way with the particular audience that Crossley mentioned.  It takes Jesus out of a context of ecclesiastical sanction and places him (qua Brian) and the other characters of the Gospels in a context wherein it is not taboo to think of them in different ways.  It thereby enables--better, outright demands and seizes upon for comedic effect--the ability of the audience to conceptualize the Jesus story from the perspective that John Cleese mentioned in his interview, to think of events from the Gospels from a more day-to-day life perspective.  It's the juxtaposition of this "holy story" with day-to-life in all its silliness (or at least a distinctly Python version of silliness) that makes the film so great.  The audience, or at least one type of audience, confronts the historical Jesus in Life of Brian the way that it confronts Michael Myers in Halloween movies:  it's easier to face certain real possibilities in a genre that provides a certain distance from reality. 

To go back to Crossley's observation, this is why, I think, some conservative people love Life of Brian but not John Dominic Crossan and historical critics.  It's not that they've (in most cases) worked carefully through Crossan's work and have formed their own counter-opinions in light of their own research.  Most of them encounter Crossan only on documentaries.  Rather, it's the difference of genre and relation to claims for reality.  Due to the genre (and the legitimacy of the "Brian is not technically Jesus" defense), some Christians and others who esteem the Jesus story can laugh at Brian, but not Crossan's Jesus.  Watching Brian is like watching a horror film but reading historical Jesus scholarship is (for some) like watching the nightly news. 

Of course, and though it hardly needs saying, there are those who refuse to pay attention to the genre differences and the sophistication of what the Pythons were doing, like the Bishop of Southwark and Malcom Muggeridge.  And, with Burridge, I consider their response very unfortunate (although completely unsurprising).  There are also, of course, many for whom the historical Jesus is not something to be feared.  But I've here been trying to think through Crossley's observation about why some conservative Christians so quickly embrace Life of Brian while simultaneously rejecting historical Jesus research.

Overall, I suppose my point is simply that the question of whether Brian in Life of Brian is supposed to be Jesus somewhat misses the point.  As far as I can tell, he both is and is not a Jesus figure.  On a formal narrative level, of course he's distinguished from Jesus.  But in terms of Brian's rhetorical function in the film, I think he clearly is intended to provide the audience a view of (the historical) Jesus, and that the movie is wildly successful in providing this comedic, though certainly not uninformed by research, perspective.  "Blessed are the cheesemakers."

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