NEWS | Anne Lim
Sunday 17 January 2016
When Monty Python’s Life of Brian was released in 1979, Joan Taylor didn’t go to see the satirical film out of concern that it might ridicule Jesus.
It was only in 1985, while a young seminarian at Otago University in New Zealand, that Joan was pushed by other students to see it.
“We all laughed ourselves to exhaustion,” she recalls in her introduction to her new book, Jesus and Brian.
Joan immediately became a fervent Pythonist, relishing the way Life of Brian challenged her to reflect on what she valued.
But it was only when Professor of Christian Origins and Second Temple Judaism at King’s College, London, that she graduated to being a “Brianologist” – a jokey term for people who study the Life of Brian.
“I first became interested in using the film critically when I took over teaching an MA module at King’s College London, focusing on the Passion narratives,” she told Eternity. “In this module we employ film, art, theatre and literature as a means of reflecting on the biblical texts.”
Professor Taylor believes the film is a “wonderful parody of the biblical epic” that works on different levels, offering “sharp glimpses into key aspects of Jesus and his times.”
“The Pythons did their homework and read around the topic of the life of Jesus and the historical situation of first-century Judea, so they use what was current in scholarship in the 1970s for their humour,” she said.
“They had their own perspectives too. Bouncing off what they show – for example, the People’s Front of Judea – is a nice way into thinking about different religious-political factions around at the time of Jesus and revolutionary ferment, which gets linked in with messianic expectation. They ask what it was like to be an ordinary person at this time, which is really a very novel and interesting consideration.”
Professor Taylor’s interest in the film came to a peak in June 2014 when she staged a Jesus and Brian conference at which 15 leading scholars presented papers over three days in the fields of Jesus research and the history of Roman Judea, modern art, Bible and film, the blasphemy laws and Life of Brian’s initial reception.
“It was both scholarly and humorous, with many leading academics considering the film and also how it might be used as a first step to thinking about the first-century Judean context and Jesus himself,” Professor Taylor said.
“We had a wonderful time reflecting on aspects of the past, and also what the film was doing.”
To her great surprise Life of Brian’s director, Terry Jones, and actor John Cleese agreed to be involved in the enterprise, being interviewed on stage by the Dean of King’s College, Richard Burridge.
“They were extremely generous in giving their time to the conference, and I think they saw it as a way of making up for the bafflingly negative reception the film received from some circles when it came out,” Professor Taylor said.
“John Cleese was also amazed that after all these years scholars could use the film productively. He talked about it as a ‘minor miracle’ in itself.”
Jones has also written an introduction to the book, Jesus and Brian, which collates the essays from the conference.
Soon after the film’s release, Cleese and co-star Michael Palin had sparred in a notorious chat show interview with Bishop of Southwark Mervyn Stockwood and Christian commentator commentator Malcolm Muggeridge, who called it “such a tenth-rate film that it couldn’t possibly destroy anyone’s genuine faith.”
In the book, Professor Burridge considers how Muggeridge and Stockwood “missed a golden opportunity” to debate the life and work of Jesus in wider society.
One of Professor Taylor’s favourite essays in the book is a reflection by Helen Bond, Professor of Christian Origins at the University of Ediburgh, on how crucifixion in the ancient world really was used with a dollop of black humour.
“The closing part of the film which has the crucified singing Always Look on the Bright Side of Life is strangely Roman,” she said.
“Victims would be laughed at and, to show their endurance and resistance, they could laugh back at their abusers.
“Steve Mason [Distinguished Professor of Ancient Mediterranean Religions and Cultures at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands] actually goes against the film’s portrayal in suggesting maybe there was not so much conflict between Judeans and Romans as we think, just around the time of Jesus, and it was all quite complex, so scholars used the subject matter of the film to go in different directions. The conference aim was not about saying that the Pythons got it right, but that the Pythons present interesting ideas in the film that we can use for studying history and texts.”
Jesus and Brian is published by Bloomsbury, $37.99.