Blasphemy Then and Now
Carl R. Trueman
When I was growing up in England in the seventies and eighties, Monty Python infused my childhood and youth. The TV series decisively shaped my sense of humor. At age fourteen, I attended a talk by Monty Python creator Terry Jones on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. His display of wit, broad learning, and love of engaging big ideas left me with a lasting desire to teach and to write. And Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life was the only movie I ever sneaked in to see while underage. Python defined a certain generation of English schoolboys, of which I am one.
The Pythons were always controversial, however, because, like all great comedians, they mocked the powerful and the complacent, whether it was the landed gentry, the politicians of the day, or simply the pompous and self-important. And of course, they mocked religion in the infamous movie The Life of Brian. The film was set in the first century, and its comic schtick depended upon the constant confusion between Jesus Christ and an ordinary bloke, Brian, who happened to have a somewhat parallel life. The most notorious scene, at least when the film was launched, was the crucifixion, where Brian hangs on the cross and sings “Always look on the bright side of life.”
At the time, Christians in the United Kingdom protested the movie’s overt mockery of Christianity. And it was undoubtedly blasphemous. But that was over forty years ago. It is therefore both a little surprising and very instructive that the movie has been back in the headlines recently, again for blasphemy. Yes, it is still blasphemous. But this time the offending content speaks eloquently of the changes that have taken place in Western culture over the decades since the film’s release.
Some weeks ago, John Cleese, one of the film’s stars, announced that he was working on a stage adaptation of Life of Brian. He came under huge pressure from significant and influential members of the artistic community to omit a certain scene from the production, but refused to cut it. In the scene in question, a man named Stan claims to be a woman called Loretta and expresses the desire—and demands the right—to have a baby. Anyone watching the scene today can see the contemporary madness of our current “trans moment” being played out in all of its self-evident incoherence and contradictions. Humankind cannot bear very much reality, as T. S. Eliot opined, and that seems especially true of the progressive political class and its commissars among the creative types. In 1979, the scene was a cause for laughter. Collective madness today makes it a cause for lamentation.
The incident is significant in at least two ways. First, it is a sign of how comedy has lost its way. Comedy is traditionally a means by which the weak can check the power of the powerful by pointing to their vanity, self-regard, and absurdities. So Aristophanes mocked the Athenian rulers of his day as later Erasmus and Luther used humor to prick the pretensions of the Renaissance papacy. Yet things have a tendency over time to turn into their opposites.
Technology promised liberation from fear by allowing us to control nature, but then delivered the Holocaust and the nuclear bomb. The internet aspired to democratize information, but then fostered ideological silos where individuals can happily avoid being challenged by any views with which they disagree. And comedy, predicated on offering a healthy check to the powerful, has ironically become a tool of the powerful by which they can keep dissenters disempowered and on the margins.
Anyone who can steel themselves to sit through a late night talk show or an episode of Saturday Night Live knows that today the “jokes” are designed to affirm the bien-pensant audience’s belief in the superiority of their progressive political views and not to challenge them to see the ridiculous elements of their own beliefs. The scene with “Loretta” in The Life of Brian is offensive because it does exactly that. And in a world where comedy is part of the culture industry, that is completely unacceptable. There is a reason why totalitarian states have never liked comedians and it has nothing to do with the poverty of their punchlines. Quite the opposite.
But this incident does not simply reveal how members of the artistic class have assimilated their craft to the political tastes of the day, to the point where they are trying to castrate comedy of any contrarian social potency. It also reveals what is—and what is not—sacred to the officer class of today. The original movie was controversial because it mocked the God-man, the central truth of the Christian faith. Now it is controversial because it mocks the man-god, the central truth of our contemporary world. That it is “Loretta,” not Brian, who is now the most offensive character in the story is indicative of a sea-change in our cultural understanding of what is holy and what laws must therefore not be transgressed.
Opponents of blasphemy then and of blasphemy now share something in common: a concern to protect that which is sacred. But that is where the similarity begins and ends. Old-style blasphemy involved desecrating God because it was God who was sacred. Today’s blasphemy involves suggesting that man is not all-powerful, that he cannot create himself in any way he chooses, that he is subject to limits beyond his choice and beyond his control. That such blasphemy is obviously and undeniably true does not make it less offensive to the modern secular priests and priestesses whose power depends upon guarding our culture from reality. Ironically, John Cleese has now been indicted for blasphemy under both regimes. Regardless of where one stands on the merits of Life of Brian, his constant state of disfavor would perhaps suggest that he is actually an exceptionally competent comedian.
Carl Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.