In 1979, the British comedy troupe Monty Python released their most controversial and irreverent movie, Life of Brian. The basic premise of the film was that “Brian” was born on the very same day as, in the next stable over from, Jesus.
This coincidence leads to sustained confusion and hilarity. Throughout his life, Brian is repeatedly mistaken for the Messiah. As the film unfolds, the Monty Python guys send up a number of New Testament stories, including: the Sermon on the Mount, the stoning of a sinner, and the trial before Pontius Pilate.
When it was initially released, Life of Brian was met with protests and accusations of blasphemy in Great Britain and the United States. Some countries gave the movie an “X” rating to prevent it from being seen by a wide audience. Still others, including Ireland and Norway, banned the movie outright. As is so often the case, the movie’s notoriety contributed to its box-office success. A clever marketing campaign in Sweden billed the film as, “So funny, it was banned in Norway!”
I was in high school when “Life of Brian” first came out. Our local Presbyterian preacher cautioned parents—warning that the movie could prove “corrosive to your children’s faith.” So, at my mother’s request, I did not see it…
Until seminary! Arriving at Divinity School, I discovered that, not only had all of my contemporaries seen the film, but many of my respected professors too. Some of them had memorized lengthy bits of dialogue. So, I watched it. I laughed. I cringed. I cackled some more. True to its billing, the movie was caustic, but not to my faith. The real target of the film’s humor was not religious belief, but religious hypocrisy.
There have been times, of course, when allegedly humorous send-ups of Christianity have missed my funny bone. Sometimes attempts at religious comedy come across as mean-spirited and crude. I suppose a healthy debate could be had trying to define the fine line between 1) prophetic humor that unmasks religious hypocrisy and 2) malicious comedy that drags another person’s sacred beliefs through the mud.
This week, though, I am pulled in another direction. In the aftermath of the massacre of the staff at the French satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, I have been considering the question: “Can God take a joke?” In particular, “Can God handle a bad joke, a rude joke, a joke that we find offensive?”
There are a lot people in this world (of various religious persuasions) who seem to think that God’s honor needs defending. Is this the case? Is God offended by our crude attempts at humor? Is God angered by a cartoon depicting a famous religious figure in unflattering circumstances or by songs and satire that poke fun at some aspect of religion? Does God take offense and expect followers to avenge the divine honor?
The classic Christian answer to this question is “No.” God isn’t petty. God doesn’t slouch around heaven with a wounded ego. God doesn’t need armed defenders. The Apostle Paul put it this way, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves. For it is written, Vengeance is mine, says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19) Amen, brother Paul.
The tragic news out of Paris this week should set every religious tradition on alert. When people of faith lose their sense of humor, they embrace one of the oldest sins in the book—idolatry. The assailants in Paris fashioned a deity out of their own broken image. Any God who would require his followers to exact vengeance on unarmed cartoonists is a petty, insecure deity undeserving of human devotion and love. This is not the powerful, trustworthy God, I would wager, whom most of the faithful—Christian, Jew and Muslim alike—worship and adore.
My friends, it takes personal courage to listen to the critics of our faith, and it takes spiritual maturity to love them, but love them we must, for their role in keeping the faithful honest and humble is crucial, regardless of whether we find them funny.