I went to the Battle of Ideas at the Barbican last weekend, a free speech festival organised by the Brexit Party MEP Claire Fox, and listened to an interesting discussion about The Life of Brian. I hadn’t realised this, but the Monty Python film is exactly 40 years old, having been released in the UK on 8th November 1979. The opinion of the panel, which was comprised of comedians and intellectuals, was that its lampooning of rigid, orthodox thinking is more relevant today than ever since we’re in the midst of a new wave of puritanism, albeit one inspired by left-wing identity politics rather than Christianity. After all, what is ‘hate speech’ if not a type of blasphemy?
When I got home I watched the famous debate between John Cleese, Michael Palin, Malcolm Muggeridge and Mervyn Stockwood, then the Bishop of Southwark, which is on YouTube. It’s worth viewing for the old-fashioned put-downs alone. ‘Now I wasn’t in the least bit horrified,’ says Stockwood, who’d been to a BBC screening just beforehand. ‘People said, “Oh now, Bishop, when you go there you’ll be absolutely horrified,” but I wasn’t at all. After all, I wasn’t vicar of the University Church for nothing. I’m familiar with undergraduate humour. And I’m also the governor of a mentally deficient school and once I was a prep school master so I felt frightfully at home.’
The consensus is that the young Turks got the better of the two elderly Christians – and that was certainly my view when I watched the debate in 1979 aged 16. But seeing it again, I was struck by how callow the liberal pieties of Cleese and Palin sounded. They maintained that the satirical target of The Life of Brian wasn’t just Christianity, but all forms of received wisdom. What they objected to was the idea that we should take anything on faith, particularly a belief system with a strong moral component – and Cleese cited Marxism as another example. Rather, we should resist the gravitational pull of all these doctrines – whether embodied in the Church of England or the Judean People’s Front – and work things out for ourselves.
I believed that 40 years ago, but it’s hard to get around the fact that the rapid decline of Christianity in Britain and America in the intervening period has not led to a new age of enlightenment. On the contrary, we appear to be in the grip of various secular belief systems that are far more dogmatic than modern Christianity. Turns out, the Pythons were naïve in thinking that mankind’s yearning for religious faith was an aspect of our nature we could grow out of. The ebbing away of the Christian tide has left a God-shaped hole in the Anglosphere and it has been filled with something more sinister – a constantly mutating moral absolutism. Its latest manifestation is Extinction Rebellion, but no doubt it will be something even more fanatical and Millenarian in a few years’ time. These quasi-religious movements resemble Christianity in its fundamentalist, pre-Reformation period when it was less willing to forgive heretics and sinners. (To read more, click here.)