Editorial: In defence of blasphemy
A date unlikely ever to become part of the Church calendar – on 7 November 1979 Monty Python’s Life of Brian was released. It is now back in cinemas to celebrate its 40th anniversary.
It is a marker of how Britain has changed in 40 years that back then, the film was banned by several local councils, a Cornish councillor called for the Pythons’ imprisonment, and Christians picketed cinemas. A few years ago, a local evangelical church asked me to lead discussion after a screening of the film.
As much as I loved comedy as a teenager, I declined to see the film for years because of its mockery of Jesus. When I finally succumbed, it was quite a revelation. Jesus appears briefly in the film, delivering the beatitudes according to the New English Bible, while the crowds listen attentively – apart from the bunch at the back who can’t hear and get distracted. It’s really quite reverent to Jesus.
The main story involves Jesus’ contemporary, Brian, preaching nonsense in the street to hide from the Romans, and being dismayed to find himself seized upon as the Messiah by a determinedly gullible multitude. They twist his words, revere his lost sandal, and then split from those who honour his discarded gourd.
It seemed that what Christians had attacked as a blasphemous mockery of Jesus was actually a mockery of them. That’s not quite the same thing, is it? There is even a scene where a priest tries to defend the honour of God by organising the stoning of a man who committed blasphemy by saying the name of Jehovah aloud. Unfortunately, in the process, the priest can’t help saying the word and therefore gets stoned himself. So that’s a satire on believers trying to police blasphemy, which gets attacked by believers as a ‘scurrilous abuse of God’ in the campaigner Mary Whitehouse’s words. Two years previously, she had obtained a conviction for blasphemy against the publisher of Gay Times. For printing a poem about the crucifixion they got a £1,500 fine and a suspended jail sentence.
It is a strange idea that Almighty God needs to be protected by human followers, and trying to defend God’s name gets hopelessly entangled with defending our own names. I wish Christians had responded to the film with more grace and insight than trying to silence it. The Mormons did better when the scurrilous musical The Book of Mormon came out in 2011 – they had ads saying ‘You’ve seen the play, now read the book.’
Conservative Christians today increasingly fear that their beliefs are outlawed, and not without reason. In March, Pastor Oluwole Ilesanmi was arrested in London for preaching against Islam in public. Freedom of speech is, as ever, under threat. Christians would be able to make a better case for their own freedom if we had honoured the freedoms of others when we were in power.
This article was published in the May 2019 edition of Reform