BBC4 TV last night re-screened a studio discussion between John Cleese and Michael Palin ("Monty Python") with Malcolm Muggeridge and Mervyn Stockwood, Bishop of Southwark at the time when "The Life of Brian" was first released, over 30 years ago.
During the course of the debate, something rather revealing emerged from John Cleese. It seems that his main encounter with Christianity was as a schoolboy at Clifton College. A number of speakers, over several years, addressed the schoolboys, including Mervyn Stockwood. Clearly, Cleese, possibly to his credit, mentally lampooned all simplistic platitudes, having a sharp eye for "class" and humbug.
However, the example he gave of the perceived "inflexibility" of Christians was an address on "Bible Smuggling to Tibet", conducted by an organisation that specialised in getting Bibles into dangerous places. No doubt, the Chaplain of Clifton College thought that the "danger" element would interest boys. The story entailed a lot of failed attempts and obstructions, until finally the Bibles were delivered, at great risk. The speaker then claimed that "God had been with them" and that He had "wanted Bibles in Tibet". The boy Cleese came to the quick conclusion this was pure humbug as, in his words, "Clearly God had not wanted Bibles to reach Tibet", as evidenced by all these obstructions. He clearly had not noted Jesus's command to preach the gospel to all nations.
One needs to pick apart a schoolboy's presuppositions. One soon sees that there is a certain "myopia" operating in parts of John Cleese's acute brain. It is not Christ whom he found so laughable, but believers and their "fixed" worldview He thought Christians call "black" "white", because they are unable to question their beliefs in the light of "evidence" to the contrary.
Cleese, the schoolboy's false presupposition was that "appearance = reality", a scientific or purely rational viewpoint. However, two great themes of the Bible are:
a) the forces of evil try to obstruct believers
b) God's work (Providence) constantly brings good out of evil, in response to faith.
If there were no obstructions for believers, priceless "faith" would not be developed. In addition, all great writers write about the difference between "appearance and reality". One of the greatest challenges of our lives in which believers feel aided by a moral worldview and God's guidance, is to negotiate a deceptive and treacherous path towards spiritual and emotional maturity.
Christians do experience many testing obstructions in delivering Bibles, in finding the right job, in affording a modest house, and in finding a true partner. Their life may not be famous, successful or wealthy, like John Cleese's. However, I would hazard a guess that living in the real world, they are more likely than some unbelievers to avoid an anti-social end, remain sane and grow in Christ-likeness. Ultimately these qualities matter most. This is achieved not by superficial values, comedy, laughter, leisure and luxury, but through a God willing to give His people trials and tests of faith.
Romans 5 says : "Suffering (e.g. pain, trial and loss) produces endurance (determination to carry on), endurance produces (Christian) character and character produces hope (uplift and encouragement, closely allied to faith)."
Reputation, sanity and "Christian character" in old age are precious (see Proverbs). To live a meaningful, creative, respectable, stable life and maintain your sanity are, even in this world, enviable. Over and above that, as Mervyn Stockwood pointed out, committed Christians often end up with three particular rewards: a record of public service, "legacy" and sometimes, national influence for long-term good.
The "Life of Brian" would not shake anyone's established faith, but it may give the wrong impression to confused youth. It was, in my view, a full frontal attack on Christians whom Cleese, it would appear did not understand. An irritated Stockwood, probably wrongly, awarded Cleese and Palin "the reward of Christ's betrayal" : thirty pieces of silver, even though he also stated that Christianity survives Marxism (which later proved true) and any attack. Malcolm Muggeridge claimed that the Life of Brian would be seen as a rather "grubby" little film in after years, after the Pythons were dead. Both of them thought, prophetically, 30 years ago, that Western Civilization was ending, due to the loss of Christianity as its core.
I hazard a prediction based on historical evidence, which may be invisible to John Cleese and the Pythons. The "Life of Brian" tried to lampoon Christians as brainless dolts but, historically, its poor taste and myopia will seriously undermine the reputation of the "nonsensical" Pythons. The largely fundamental atheist BBC is doing its best to keep the film relevant by showing it on national TV this weekend, but even that wide exposure will not halt "the inevitable".
As examples of the influence down the ages of some great Christians, see full "Luther" film here, this moving old film on John Wesley here and this story of the sensational Charles Spurgeon here