Michael Palin and John Cleese congratulate each other on BBC radio over ‘Life of Brian’
I confess that I have never seen the culturally iconic Monty Python film ‘Life of Brian’ although I have seen several clips and heard much discussion of the film and the controversy about it over the last 30 years. I do know what it and the Pythons are about, but genuinely never felt like seeing the film. Anyhow, this post isn’t so much about the film as about the self justifying words of Michael Palin and John Cleese whom I heard on Radio 4 Today programmes on Monday this week. Palin was given the opportunity to edit the 3 hour main news programme: how lovely for him to be given such a privileged platform. He and Cleese chatted about a televised debate about the film that had been broadcast on ‘Saturday Night, Sunday Morning’ when the film came out in 1979. A few selected excerpts were played as the two Great Men congratulated themselves for being so wonderful and having defeated their foes in debate.
The opponents were the elderly and very eccentric Catholic broadcaster Malcolm Muggeridge and Mervyn Stockwood the bishop of Southwark. Cleese said in the most contemptuous terms they were boring and stupid and did very badly. By all accounts, neither put up a very good set of criticisms of the film, and what is sadder for me is that neither put up a good intellectual case for the Christian religion being true. Apparently neither thought it was necessary to do so, and thought that ‘Life of Brian’ was a mucky little film that would be forgotten and sink without impact. In this they were evidently much mistaken. But does it follow that because Christianity was not effectively and energetically defended on that particular occasion, that it is not possible to defend it well? Was this such a ‘famous victory’ that it deserved 10 minutes of celebration on prime time national radio 34 years later?
As Cleese put it this week, he felt that no intellectual case for Christianity was put. Well, he has had thirty years to reflect. Was he saying that the Python team had met their enemy, beaten him soundly, and that that was that? I don’t know, because as always on the BBC whenever some ‘right on’ personality comes on (don’t forget Palin was editing) there was no dissenting opinion or awkward questioning allowed from an articulate Bible believing Christian. Of course they wheeled on a BBC vicar the ‘Professor of Biblical Interpretation’ Richard Burridge who is organising a conference on the Pythons and took their side. He had a good chuckle and expressed disappointment at the poor performance of Muggeridge and bishop.
Cleese, Palin and the rest of their friends have always denied that the film was anti Christian. They say that they saw it as ‘making people think’. Yet from their actual words, then and now, they clearly despised and still despise people who follow Jesus, labelling us hypocrites, bigots, warmongers and stupid. What, really, all of us? Not even slightly unfair, generalising or lacking in objective judgment? And if the people who follow Christianity are so vile, then surely Christianity must be vile too? Just a hint of cowardice perhaps? Hate Christianity (its certainly a very inconvenient religion for someone so often divorced as Cleese) but not quite the gall to attacks it directly, so make fun of its followers.
The reverend Professor Burridge on Monday’s programme said that the initial working title of ‘Life of Brian’ was ‘Jesus Christ, Lust for Glory’ but apparently when they did some research they realised that it would not be possible to make fun of Jesus in that way. Cleese and Palin didn’t mention this, perhaps it might have sullied their ‘we’re not anti Jesus’ credentials. Perhaps they weren’t brave enough, or perhaps the film’s backers told them it might lose money if it directly attacked Jesus. I don’t know, the interview was as I have said entirely one sided.
Palin made fun of the bishop (putting on an annoying silly voice) for going on about ‘the Incarnation of our Lord’ instead of making an intellectual defence of Christianity. Fair comment, Christian leaders (if Anglican bishops can be said to be that these days, or even then) need to do much better. Many have done, they were not mentioned in this self congratulatory piece. But even so, is this a fair criticism? If Christianity is true, then ‘The Incarnation of our Lord’ , that God became man in Jesus in order to save us from our sins and allow us to become adopted into God’s family and receive the gift of eternal life, IS actually the most important thing that has ever happened in human history. If Muggeridge and the bishop failed as accused to make the intellectual case that Christianity was true, then Cleese and Palin certainly made no intellectual case that it was NOT true. They just employed their trademark knowing, sneering, self satisfied mockery of what is held sacred, a style which they dignify with the term ‘iconoclasm’.
He said ‘Don’t just believe because someone in a pulpit tells you to, work it out for yourself’. Well I agree with that and put it into practice, as I will discuss in a near future post about why I am leaving the Anglican church, but do Palin and Cleese practice what they preach? Cleese made some great swelling assertions about the authenticity and authorship of the Gospels which were pure atheist tripe that a proper scholar could knock flat in 5 minutes, proving that he wasn’t particularly good at following his own advice to research things properly before basing your life on them.
He described himself as approaching Christianity and finding it ‘a tenth rate series of platitudes’. And what was he offering instead? Would he describe ‘thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’ as a tenth rate platitude? So knowing. So wise. Such a tosser.
Cleese and Palin accused Christians of following ‘the exact opposite’ of what their religion taught, accused churchgoers of ‘..going to church, singing hymns, and then standing by while their money was spent on guns and bombs’. What on earth is that about? In what sense were Christians doing that in the sense that everyone else was not doing exactly the same because in fact they had no choice? Was Palin preaching obligatory pacifism including national defencelessness? Was he saying that Christianity implied pacifism and that therefore these hypocritical churchgoers should have refused to pay their taxes and been sent to prison for it until Britain disarmed unilaterally? As it stands this is rank nonsense and a blanket accusation against all Christians of being hypocrites, which of course by implication (but not by any facts or arguments) the Monty Python team were not.
Cleese said haughtily about this interview, their famous victory, that ‘…there is still no attempt at a proper discussion…it remains the case now that there is no attempt at a proper discussion about religion.’ Excuse me, where has he looked for such a discussion? If C S Lewis is too old hat, has he tried reading Lee Strobel? Or any of the many other educated Christians who have mounted an intellectual case for their faith? Of course if he watches the BBC he will never see a rational discussion of Christianity there by someone who actually believes the Bible is true. It’s not allowed. So he is wrong on the facts again. Or perhaps ‘not even wrong’? The ‘knowing’ sneers that are so often used to dismiss reasoned arguments about faith are part of the Python’s legacy. Cleese gives the impression of being so in love with a vision of himself as a wise, thoughtful, fair minded person that he thinks that all he has to do is make a bold statement and that itself establishes his opinion as fact. And he accuses others of failing to engage with the facts and arguments?
I remember seeing Cleese on TV around the time of this film, it may have even been an interview from the set, saying that when he heard swearing on a TV show he always made a point of writing in to say that he approved and enjoyed it, in opposition to the old fogeys like Muggeridge who objected. Well John Cleese, you were successful in this matter. As you put it, you won. Our schoolchildren are foul mouthed, dumbed down and believe in nothing except their own rights. We have a failing, hedonistic, disrespectful society which hails you and others like you as cultural heroes. Your self-serving ‘iconoclasm’ helped to create a vacuous, populist cynicism as you smashed down the foundational values of the society that had fed, protected and educated you and put nothing in its place.
Interestingly, Palin chose as his ‘Thought for the day’ speaker a Hindu, who fluffed her words and was talking about reincarnation as if it were an established fact. Was this Palin being ‘ironic’ (a term that excuses everything in these post-Python days) or was he taking the piss, or does he think that Hinduism is as valid as Christianity. Which, incidentally, Charles Darwin wrote in a letter was his opinion.
John Cleese, you were never as funny, clever, brave or original as you love to believe. You are a sad, faded cultural icon of a decaying civilisation. In the coming Judgment, Mary Whitehouse and even Malcolm Muggeridge will be called as witnesses against you. And your mate Michael Palin won’t be writing the script or preventing hostile questions being asked then.
PS Michael Palin, do you get bored of people asking you when you are going to film ‘Life of Muhammad?’