Monday, 23 June 2014

Jesus and Brian - or "What have the Pythons done for us?"

A little break from my series. I have been attending this 2½ day conference in London which is an amazing combination of  the serious and the jovial: biblical criticism and the best Monty Python film - arguably the funniest film - ever produced. It's a marvellous excuse for stuffy biblical critics to let their hair down, and for some of them get paid (!) into the bargain.

The conference programme has seen talks from far-flung experts all gathering in London, plus some well-known, home-made British figures contributing their already acknowledged expertise. Philip Davies shared the stage at one point with James Crossley, both of whom are published authors on this subject. 

The conference has been addressed by 2 "Pythons" themselves, Terry Jones and John Cleese, which has been great fun. Time and again there have been positive comments from the biblical critics about how well-informed the film was about some of the details of scholarship in historical Jesus studies, much to the bemusement of John Cleese (and probably Terry Jones as well, although it was difficult for him to get a word in edgeways when Cleese was in full flow!)
Terry Jones (getting a word in edgeways), John
Cleese (in a rare moment of calm) and Richard Burridge

George Brooke, a well known expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls from Manchester University, managed to raise a rueful laugh amongst the assembled professorship when he noted that the Pythons, before they wrote the script for the film, had actually gone and read the Scrolls, in contrast to the practice of most of his students.

Whilst not every portrayal in the film of 1st century Judean life in the film has held up to scrutiny, it is remarkable how much has done so. So, for example, there was some debate as to how much resistance and resentment there was towards the Romans actually at the time of Jesus' ministry and death - obviously there was rather a lot in the 60s CE, but how much of this, as per the portrayal of the film, went back to the setting of the film in the 20-30s? N.B. The on-screen titles put the action at, "Judea AD 33... Saturday Afternoon... About Tea Time".

Shocking and Blasphemous?
There was also some considerable discussion about how shocking, or even blasphemous, the film had set out to be. Cleese and Jones maintained that this had not been their intention; they had been clear that it was not a parody of Jesus himself, rather it was a dig at people who were silly enough to impose their ideas on a poor, unfortunate contemporary of Jesus, Brian; if Mervyn Stockwood, the Bishop of Southwark, and Malcolm Muggeridge (in a famous 1979 chat show interview with John Cleese and Michael Palin) had thought they were lampooning Jesus, this was because they had missed the first 15 minutes of the film; thus they had failed to understand that Brian and Jesus were not supposed to be one and the same person. Cleese even went on to say at the conference that he didn't feel he could parody Jesus, because so much that Jesus had to say was really rather sensible; it was many of his followers who deserved the ridicule.

This found support, rather oddly, in the person of Revd Canon Prof Richard Burridge (I've given his titles so you can see where you might have thought he would be coming from), who agreed that the opposition of the churches to the film in 1979 and early 1980s had been one big mistake. James Crossley in turn took issue with this, pointing out that whilst the film did distinguish between Brian and Jesus, nonetheless there were clear parallels between the 2 characters: both were born in the same neighbourhood, they had questionable paternity, Mandy (not Mary) was asked if she was a virgin, Brian was sometimes referred to as "Brian of Nazareth", they both were reticent to accept the title "messiah" (the Messianic Secret seems to have been a concept that the Pythons had come across), they both preached apocalypticism (for Brian this was briefly, reluctantly and by accident), they were both misunderstood by their followers, they were both crucified, etc.. So wasn't the ridicule that the film piled on Brian, or at least the situation he found himself in, really directed at the gospels' portrayal of Jesus? Whilst Crossley is a great speaker and had assembled a case, I do think counter arguments could be made to much of this.

The only time when there was serious disagreement though was when Paula Fredriksen and Bart Ehrman were both quizzed by one member of the audience (sorry I don't know his name) who was surprised to be told that the majority, and a large one at that, of historical Jesus scholarship continues to understand Jesus as being an apocalypticist. This criticism seems to follow the ideas of John Dominic Crossan and Burton Mack. I do feel that this nameless interrogator really didn't stand a chance - his questioning felt as effective as Otto's crack suicide squad.

I think the prize for originality must go to Katie Turner and her talk on clothing in the first century. I hadn't imagined this subject was going to be quite so fascinating. Turner is a PhD student at King's College London which was hosting the event, and she had clearly looked into this issue in some detail. She was able to show that, whilst not perfect, The Life of Brian had got its first century costuming much more accurate than any other film or documentary on 1st century Palestine. Indeed it was more authentic in this regards than 2 documentaries, one each made by The History Channel and the BBC; and The Life of Brian was even more accurate than Mel Gibson's The Passion of Christ. All this despite these latter works claiming to have a high degree of authenticity and accuracy. Her information and accompanying slideshow were most impressive.

Ehrman laid into those who have been arguing that eyewitness testimony was a corrective factor in the transmission of the gospel stories, helping them to be reliable. He presented a brief but devastating critique of the idea that eyewitness were available and able to help preserve an accurate tradition which has ended up in the canonical gospels. He didn't have to name arch evangelical Richard Bauckham and a small band of followers who have picked up on Bauckham's theme - everyone in the room knew who he was talking about. I was pleased to hear someone trying to stop this rot, and Ehrman certainly knows how to sock it to people.

Who were absent? Well Mark Goodacre attended the first 2 days, but wasn't giving an address, which surprised me given his interest in films. You can see his two reports here and here.

John Cleese mentioned that the film had got a much better reception in the protestant north of Europe than in the more catholic south. I have to admit that amongst the international audience at the conference (and amongst the presenters, for that matter) I did not detect anyone from France, Spain, Portugal nor Italy. But there was one Brazilian who even said she was struggling with her English, which raises the question of how she coped with the film.
John Cleese's after-dinner speech
Northern Europe was represented most memorably by a Norwegian delegate who proudly asked a question of Cleese just after the Python had said that the silliest question he had ever been asked was by a Norwegian! I'm most familiar with France amongst the southern European catholic countries, and I would modify Cleese's comment slightly in respect of this country: the film is popular, but it hasn't received the cult status that it has in Britain and parts of North America.

I think overall Cleese's comment is largely correct though, and probably this is due to another aspect that was widely discussed during the weekend. In order to understand the parody that the film offers, you have to be familiar with the subject matter that it is parodying. For example, to understand (get) "Blessed are the cheese-makers" (and all those in associated dairying industries!) you have to be au fait with the sermon on the mount/plain and "Blessed are the peace-makers". This level of basic biblical literacy is probably slightly more to be found in dominantly protestant countries than catholic ones.

But there is another reason for its popularity in this domain, that is that the film is thoroughly British. Even the close links with the largely Anglo-Saxon countries of the USA and Canada don't guarantee total comprehension. In this respect Cleese cited what audiences made of the character Reg and the minutiae of the disputes within his group and with other splinter groups - the Judean People's Front, the People's Front of Judea, etc.. I had taken these scenes, as it turned out, correctly; they were intended to be a parody of British trade unionism and tiny extreme left-wing political groups (Socialist Workers Party, etc.), and their tendency to fall out with each other over entirely insignificant details rather than concentrate on the bigger picture of what they were trying to achieve. In America, because they were unfamiliar with these finer points of British political life, filmgoers tended to understand these scenes to be a parody of Middle Eastern political groupings. Goodness knows what Southern European countries thought!

Insider Information?
Julian Doyle, who edited the film, stayed with the weekend's proceedings throughout, and gave an interview at the end. He also asked many questions and made many points during the whole conference. He could pick people up on the finer points of the film quite easily, and had clearly read some biblical research as well, although he was not so strong in this latter area. One thing that was quite interesting from a biblical critical point of view was his descriptions of the difficulties involved in putting on the performance. The film was largely shot in Tunisia, reusing sets from Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth. This certainly helped bring the film along and kept the costs down.

The idea of mishearing Jesus' sermons ("Blessed are the cheese-makers") seems to have come from the practicalities that were experienced in doing scenes with large numbers of crowd actors. Doyle also described the difficulties in sourcing sufficient quantities of wood to make the crosses - Tunisia isn't known for its trees, and nor is Judean Palestine. He mentioned biblical references to importing wood from the Lebanon, and very much sympathised with the predicament of those who needed quantities of wood in the biblical period. He went on to describe the difficulties in cutting the wood and indeed the construction of the crosses.

I think this demonstrates how trying actually to re-enact something, so-called "presentation criticism", can bring useful insights into the ancient texts.

Finally a word about how the talks were given. Most speakers delivered their addresses from a written script, and as the lectern was set quite low, this gave them some difficulty in maintaining eye-contact with the audience. In fact some of them were so hunched over the podium, I got the impression they were having difficulty making out their notes. One speaker was even quite difficult to hear, possibly because of this strained posture.

Only a couple of speakers (Steve Mason comes to mind as one of them) gave a polished performance, that is not relying on orally delivering a paper line-for-line from its written form, and these freer talks were much more pleasant to listen to, in large measure due to the much easier flow that this approach gave. Even consummate rhetorician, Bart Ehrman, spoke from his notes, although it must be admitted his delivery was better than others - he tripped over his text less than many others, probably because of his considerable experience at events like this.

I do think that professionals who give such talks really need to abandon the robotic delivery-verbatim-from-a-written-text approach. It can turn an interesting subject into a very dull, dry experience. My suggestion is that speakers learn the main points they wish to get across; perhaps they need to write out bullet points as an aide-memoire; but my mantra would be, "Don't read out word-for-word your own paper".

Despite these criticisms the event was thoroughly enjoyable, entertaining and informative. A video of the event is being produced, and I understand that when it is edited it will be put on the Kings College London Youtube channel. If it shows the presentations well, it will be very much worth a look.

1 comment:

  1. Life of Brian is one of my all time favorites - I have been an amateur biblical scholar for 40 years, and its grasp of biblical scholarship and critical themes struck a chord. The satire would fly over the heads of most American protestants/evangelicals because the ones I know seem to be abysmally ignorant of biblical criticism in general and even the early history of their own religion. Sounds like a GREAT conference.