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The Bright Side of Brian?

Watched 'The Life of Brian' for the first time a few months ago. It was hanging around on iPlayer, and I thought I'd find out what all the fuss was about. Seems to be a 'marmite issue' for Christians: for some, a reason to get extremely heated, angry and offended, for others, the opportunity to show just how 'with it' and cool we can be by *gasp* actually liking it.

The 'Brian' of the title is born on the same night as Jesus in a stable a few doors down, where he is accidentally visited by the 'three wise men'. Thereon in his whole life is a constant sequence of coincidence and mistaken identity as he unwittingly draws a devoted following of messiah-seekers who convince themselves that he is 'the one'.

The film is very deliberate in establishing that Brian is not Jesus, who is himself represented (at a distance) in an apparently rather genuine and respectful way. Whether that was to attempt to placate the inevitable 'Christian angry' or an acknowledgement of the fact that, whatever you believe, it is hard to deny or mock the impact and wisdom of Jesus, I'm not sure.* But to me it served to highlight the very real and powerful differentness of Jesus compared with the other revolutionary and anti-Roman movements and figures of his day -- of which, as the film does a good job of emphasising, there were many.

The satirical critique is rather more directed against elements of human folly -- shallow and self-serving 'religiosity', over-credulity, and double standards. Crowds listening to the Sermon on the Mount miss the point ("I think he said, 'blessed are the cheese makers'") and start arguing amongst themselves. A healed leper moans at having lost his source of income because of Jesus ("What I was thinking was I was going to ask him if he could make me a bit lame in one leg during the middle of the week. You know, something beggable, but not leprosy, which is a pain in the ass to be blunt and excuse my French, sir"). And when Brian starts ad-libbing religious-sounding nonsense to camouflage himself from Roman soldiers who are trying to seize him, he all too quickly attracts a determined following. (Brian: "I am NOT the Messiah!" Arthur: "I say you are Lord, and I should know. I've followed a few.")

The film can also be viewed as a rather neat depiction of how things might have turned out if Jesus wasn't the Messiah** (a simulation of the 'null hypothesis', to abuse statistical terminology). If Jesus was 'just another Brian', somehow drawing a crowd, and causing a stir, and then dying humiliated and discredited, why wasn't that the end of the matter? A similar observation is made in Acts 5, when the Jewish council are debating what to do with the apostles (whom they have arrested for preaching about Jesus) and Gamaliel stands and says:
"… before these days Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. After him Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him. He too perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!" (Acts 5:36-38)
Indeed, without the resurrection what really distinguishes Jesus from Brian? He said some pretty powerful things, but his authority to say those things derives from who he is and the truth of who he is is rather undermined if his ministry simply ends in his execution. Moreover, if the disciples had not believed that they had encountered the risen Jesus, what message would they have preached and given their lives (literally) for? Paul explicitly recognises the central importance of the resurrection in a letter to the church in Corinth:
…if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Cor 15:14-19)
All things considered, then, the film won my appreciation on some level. It presents interesting questions and reasonable criticisms, and provides some really quite useful prompts towards understanding the historical context for Jesus' earthly life -- something we don't think about enough, perhaps. And it helps to clarify the significance of the claim that Jesus' death, unlike Brian's, was not the end.

But, and this is a BIG but, I still hated it. For me, it failed in its primary objective: to be funny. Not that it didn't have its moments…but any chuckle-worthy one-liners from the early part of the film were long forgotten by the closing scene which I found utterly appalling. It is perhaps surprising that I didn't know it was coming (I knew the song, but not the context in which it had been used) -- but it at least meant I got to experience the full shock-factor of 'comedy crucifixion' to the cheery accompaniment of 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life'.
“The Romans used spikes that were five to seven inches long and tapered to a sharp point. They were driven through the wrists […] And it’s important to understand that the nail would go through the place where the median nerve runs. […] Do you know the kind of pain you feel when you bang your elbow and hit your funny bone? That’s actually another nerve, called the ulna nerve. It’s extremely painful when you accidentally hit it. Well, picture taking a pair of pliers and squeezing and crushing that nerve […]That effect would be similar to what Jesus experienced. The pain was absolutely unbearable. […] In fact, it was literally beyond words to describe; they had to invent a new word: excruciating. Literally, excruciating means ‘out of the cross.’ […] At this point Jesus was hoisted as the crossbar was attached to the vertical stake, and then nails were driven through Jesus’ feet. […] First of all, his arms would have immediately been stretched, probably about six inches in length, and both shoulders would have become dislocated—you can determine this with simple mathematical equations. […] Once a person is hanging in the vertical position […] crucifixion is essentially an agonizingly slow death by asphyxiation. The reason is that the stresses on the muscles and diaphragm put the chest into the inhaled position; basically, in order to exhale, the individual must push up on his feet so the tension on the muscles would be eased for a moment. In doing so, the nail would tear through the foot, eventually locking up against the tarsal bones. After managing to exhale, the person would then be able to relax down and take another breath in. Again he’d have to push himself up to exhale, scraping his bloodied back against the coarse wood of the cross. This would go on and on until complete exhaustion would take over, and the person wouldn’t be able to push up and breathe anymore. As the person slows down his breathing, he goes into what is called respiratory acidosis—the carbon dioxide in the blood is dissolved as carbonic acid, causing the acidity of the blood to increase. This eventually leads to an irregular heartbeat. In fact, with his heart beating erratically, Jesus would have known that he was at the moment of death, which is when he was able to say, ‘Lord, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ And then he died of cardiac arrest.” (Dr. Robert J. Stein, leading forensic pathologist. From 'The Case For Easter' by Lee Strobel).

As such, I'm not laughing. Even if I didn't believe about Jesus the things I do believe, I simply do not see, nor wish to see, nor feel much empathy or patience with other people seeing, the funny side of crucifixion. And if, as I believe, he underwent that willingly (see John 10:17-18) out of love (John 15:13) as part of a redemptive plan for all of creation (Romans 8), the 'bright side' of his execution is at once far brighter and far less amusing than Monty Python would have you suppose.

* Eric Idle is reported to have said "He's not particularly funny, what he's saying isn't mockable, it's very decent stuff..."

** In Christian theology the title 'messiah' is often supposed to have incarnational or trinitarian implications -- but this was not the way the word was understood in first century Judaism (i.e. to Jesus' contemporaries). That's not to say that the ideas do not go together, simply that we cannot get to one from the other from the original meaning of the word (rather, we must incorporate other aspects of Jesus' life and teaching). For a bit more on this, check out this (relatively short) essay by N.T. Wright -- not saying I agree with everything he says (I'm wary of naively accepting every well-made argument when I've still so much to learn), but it's quite a useful starting point on understanding Jesus within an appropriate historical context, and particularly helps clarify the distinction between Jesus and other messianic movements of the time.