I went to the Battle of Ideas at the Barbican last weekend, a free speech festival organised by the Brexit party MEP Claire Fox, and listened to an interesting discussion about Life of Brian. The Monty Python film is exactly 40 years old, having been released in the UK on 8 November 1979.
The opinion of the panel, made up of comedians and intellectuals, was that its lampooning of rigid, orthodox thinking is more relevant today than ever, since we’re in the midst of a new wave of puritanism, albeit one inspired by left-wing identity politics rather than Christianity. After all, what is ‘hate speech’ if not a type of blasphemy?
When I got home I watched the famous TV debate between John Cleese, Michael Palin, Malcolm Muggeridge and Mervyn Stockwood, then the Bishop of Southwark, which is on YouTube. It’s worth viewing for the old-fashioned put-downs alone. ‘Now I wasn’t in the least bit horrified,’ says Stockwood, who’d been to a BBC screening just beforehand. ‘People said, “Oh now, Bishop, when you go there you’ll be absolutely horrified,” but I wasn’t at all. After all, I wasn’t vicar of the University Church for nothing. I’m familiar with undergraduate humour. And I’m also the governor of a mentally deficient school and once I was a prep-school master, so I felt frightfully at home.’
The consensus is that the young Turks got the better of the two elderly Christians — and that was certainly my view when I watched the debate in 1979 aged 16. But seeing it again, I was struck by how callow the liberal pieties of Cleese and Palin sounded. They maintained that the satirical target of Life of Brian wasn’t just Christianity, but all forms of received wisdom. What they objected to was the idea that we should take anything on faith, particularly a belief system with a strong moral component — and Cleese cited Marxism as another example. Rather, we should resist the gravitational pull of all these doctrines — whether embodied in the Church of England or the Judean People’s Front — and work things out for ourselves.
I believed that 40 years ago, but it’s hard to get around the fact that the rapid decline of Christianity in Britain and America in the intervening period has not led to a new age of enlightenment. On the contrary, we appear to be in the grip of various secular belief systems that are far more dogmatic than modern Christianity. Turns out, the Pythons were naive in thinking that mankind’s yearning for religious faith was an aspect of our nature we could outgrow. The ebbing away of the Christian tide has left a God-shaped hole in the Anglosphere and it has been filled with something more sinister — a constantly mutating moral absolutism. Its latest manifestation is Extinction Rebellion, but no doubt it will be something even more fanatical and millenarian in a few years’ time. These quasi-religious movements resemble Christianity in its fundamentalist, pre-Reformation period when believers were less willing to forgive heretics and sinners.
The irony of Life of Brian is that by lampooning Christian beliefs for perfectly honourable reasons, the makers of the film contributed to the demise of the church’s authority and that, in turn, created a vacuum that has been filled by far more egregious examples of the closed mindset they objected to. The Pythons didn’t realise it 40 years ago, but the muscular Christianity that had been drummed into them at their private schools and which they hated with a kind of life-defining passion was acting as a bulwark against less organised forms of irrationality. They couldn’t imagine anything more suffocating or tedious than that ‘vast, moth-eaten musical brocade’; but they were wrong.
Cleese and Palin would probably say I’m overstating the influence of the film, and perhaps I am. But it made quite a splash at the time: 39 local authorities in the UK either banned it or insisted on an X rating, which amounted to the same thing, and it was banned outright in Ireland and Norway. Partly as a result, it became a touchstone of rationalist, anti–religious intellectuals such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. It was certainly not responsible for the accelerating decline of Christianity in Britain and America, but it gave it a little turbo boost and, in doing so, left the world a darker place. In five weeks’ time, God help us, the Anti-Judean People’s Front may even take up residence in Downing Street.
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