A happy coincidence! As the ethical challenges to the church created by the Occupation's presence at St. Paul's grew increasingly Pythonesque, the BBC screened a dramatised reconstruction of the Pythons' own encounter with organized religion.
When the Pythons released Life of Brian, back in 1979, their mild lampooning provoked a religious furore even greater than the reaction to the Occupation's tents at St Paul's Cathedral, despite the fact that the film focused not on Jesus -- who was portrayed throughout with conspicuous respect -- but on the hapless Brian, a baby born in a neighbouring stable.
The plot is triggered when a religious follower misidentifies the adult Brian as Jesus, and the word passes swiftly round to others who are equally credulous. Brian's desperate efforts to prove that he isn't their Messiah only make them more convinced that he is.
The moral of the movie is clear: when people attach their identities to an ideology, they become disinclined to let a few measly facts get in the way of their fundamentalist 'truth'.
The film didn't apply this warning only to followers of organized religion. It showed political activists falling into the same trap -- as the priceless 'What have the Romans ever done for us?' scene unforgettably demonstrated. Here's an abbreviated extract:
Reg: [The Romans] have taken everything we had... And what have they ever given us in return?
Xerxes: The aqueduct.
Reg: Oh yeah, yeah, they gave us that. Yeah. That's true.
Masked Activist: And sanitation!
Stan: Oh yes... sanitation, Reg, you remember what the city used to be like.
Reg: All right, I'll grant you that the aqueduct and sanitation are two things that the Romans have done...
Matthias: And the roads...
Reg: (sharply) Well yes obviously the roads... the roads go without saying. But apart from the aqueduct, the sanitation and the roads...
Another Masked Activist: Irrigation...
Other Masked Voices: Medicine... Education... Health...
Activist Near Front: And the wine...
Masked Activist at Back: Public baths!
Stan: And it's safe to walk in the streets at night now.
Reg: All right... all right... but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order... what have the Romans done for us?
And yet, when the film was released, an extraordinary thing happened. Life imitated art. Thousands of real-life religious people confused Brian with Jesus, just as Brian's mad-eyed fictional followers had in the movie. It didn't matter how many times the Pythons explained that Brian and Jesus were two separate characters, their protestations had no more impact than Brian's had.
The Pythons' enraged critics seemed unable to absorb the simple, central logic of the film: not only were Brian and Jesus different characters, they had to be different characters. Otherwise, where was the joke when the followers pursued Brian? Perhaps no-one wants to get the joke when the joke's on them. Even less when the joke is them.
In the UK, ancient blasphemy laws were hauled out from the dungeons, clanking heavily, and dropped on this charming and endearing film -- luckily not quite crushing the life out of it. It survived to become one of the best-loved comedies in the world. In 2006, it soared to the top of Channel 4's best film comedy list even though, a quarter of a century earlier, the tide of sanctimony against it had risen to a world-spanning tsunami of outrage and the film was banned in dozens of countries.
Nowadays audiences laugh where once they took offence. They understand the ludicrous credulity of Brian's followers and of the Judean People's Front (or was it the People's Front of Judea?). But laughing at other people's failings is one thing: what about seeing our own?
One of the best questions I have ever been asked was: 'What are you being blind to now?' An answer popped out of its hiding place like a Jack-in-the-box before I had time to censor it. I've since asked others the same paradoxical question. Some people parry, hiding their secrets with the bland counter-question: 'How can I know, if I am blind to it?' But others are startled into sudden honesty with themselves.
If a Jack-in-the-box startled us into honesty not only about small personal secrets but about the big picture of the world, and our part in it as global citizens, what might we see?
First we might see the state of the world: tableaux of economic meltdown appearing like dancing apparitions on the horizon; symbols of worldly success, prized above empathy and compassion, encouraging looting and violence; oceans acidifying and submerging islands that are home to animals, birds, trees, bees, children... Terrifying and painful sights.
And then we might see our secret slipping out about how we help maintain this nightmare reality: through the absurd, concealed hope that we can somehow keep on living our familiar lives -- our high consumption, high-waste, self-aggrandising lives -- without it really mattering. It's a hope as ludicrous as the hopes of Brian's foolish followers that he is their Messiah.
But all is not -- quite -- lost. All over the world, movements and groups are springing up that contest the comforting blindness. The Occupation is one such movement, growing fast. And here's a video sent in to OneWorld a few days ago of a small group standing by the kerb in their hometown, singing in the rain. They're expressing their desire to protect life on earth, and despite the freezing November weather, they look like they're having fun.
Ah, now they're dancing -- not quite Gene Kelly, more a shuffle, but then there's not much room as more and more people are joining in, and there are more umbrellas and more traffic than Kelly had to contend with.
Their humour is infectious. I wonder if the Pythons would have joined in too, if they'd been passing?
With thanks to the Pythons for the extract from the Life of Brian, and to the citizens of Totnes for singing in the rain.
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