Friday, November 17, 2023

Too Hot to Handle: Nothing to Complain About

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Monty Python’s Eric Idle on their movie Life of Brian:

“Our movie is a kind of parody of a Hollywood biblical epic. And we realized we couldn’t really write about JC, because there’s nothing you can complain about. The man said, you know, ‘Blessed are the poor,’ ‘Feed and help people ...’ There was something more interesting about exploring what followers of a religion do, both to the religion and to the people they follow, and how unhealthy that becomes.”

Tom: Now, if we really wanted to be critical, IC, we could probably carp about Idle misquoting the Sermon on the Mount or being a bit flippant, but I found the point he was inadvertently making here much more interesting, and that is this: a troupe of comedians legendary for fearlessly spoofing everything under the sun drew a line in the sand at trying to make fun of Jesus Christ. And they did it themselves, not out of fear or respect, apparently, or even because of economic considerations, but rather because they came to the conclusion there were no legitimate laughs to be had at Christ’s expense. There really is nothing you can complain about in the life and character of God’s beloved Son.

Immanuel Can: No, indeed. It’s interesting that the Lord always seems to get a reaction nobody else ever gets, isn’t it?

Mocked, Parodied, Blasphemed ...

Tom: I find that fascinating. Now, it doesn’t mean that Jesus does not get regularly mocked, parodied and even blasphemed in the attempt to get laughs and diminish his influence. He certainly does. But such attacks are never devastating. He’s been around the popular culture for two millennia and has yet to sustain fatal damage from the critics. Isn’t that curious?

One reason for this, I think, is that comedy at its core is about observing truth. Once you’ve hit on a feature about an individual that is essentially aligned with reality and observable by all, then you can distort it to great comedic effect. Big jaws, prominent noses, a drinking problem, stammering, squeaky voices, the tendency to tell fibs, bad hair ... all these are regularly exaggerated for laughs. The caricature resonates because it’s based on something that is really there and that everyone can see for themselves.

But none of that works against Jesus. We don’t have any audio or video. What we have are his words and his conduct, and even if you don’t like what he taught, it is very clear that he was never hypocritical or inconsistent about it. So attempts to mock him tend to fall flat, because there’s nothing recognizably true in the caricatures we see of him. We look at those distortions and have difficulty getting too offended about them because they so evidently miss the mark.

IC: Yes. There’s something that just comes off as inherently immoral about abusing the character of Christ, even among people who evince no particular belief in him. There’s even a point made in Life of Brian to separate the title character from him, and a moment of grudging respect when Brian encounters him at a distance. Not that the movie’s not indirectly blasphemous … it is. But direct slander of the Lord was somehow just not going to play.

Moral Glory

Tom: There is a quality in our Savior that defies the very natural attempt to reduce him to anything less than what he is. You may not want to admit it. You may use the initials “JC” to avoid sounding pious or deferential. But something in the human conscience resists taking that final step toward damnation. I think of the apostle Paul saying, “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed.” That’s a powerful statement. What does it say about a person that he could look at the ample testimony we have about Jesus and find the Son of God somehow not up to his personal standard?

IC: There was an old book by J.G. Bellett entitled The Moral Glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. That kind of says it all. There’s not a figure in history who came close to silencing his critics by pointing to his own conduct. But Jesus Christ could ask the people of his own hometown, “Which one of you convicts me of sin,” and not get an answer.

Tom: I always wonder about the statement of the criminal beside Jesus on the cross, the one who silenced his fellow thief with “[W]e are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” How did he know, I wonder? He seems to have formed a very strong opinion about it, but given his own situation, it’s a little unlikely he was around for Jesus’ show trial to see the miscarriage of justice that was perpetrated on the Lord. At any rate, he saw something there that convinced him Jesus was entirely innocent of the things of which he was accused. And this is the sort of thing the gospel writers point to all the time.

The “Great Moral Teacher” Evasion

IC: I always feel a vague sense of disgust when someone who is not a Christian says to me, “Well, of course, I recognize that Jesus was a great moral teacher …” or some platitude like that. I’m sure it’s their way of saying, “Well, of course I know he’s a good person, and I want you to think I’m a person who admires good people, but I haven’t the faintest intent of paying any real attention to anything he actually represented or said.”

It reminds me of the Lord himself saying, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” How can somebody admire the Lord as a moral example, and then completely bypass the whole message of sin, judgment, righteousness and salvation that he himself was not only speaking but embodying? Yet that’s what we do when we treat the Lord as only a moral example.

Tom: Agreed. What do you think about Idle’s last sentence, where he talks about what followers of a religion do to the religion and to the people they follow, and “how unhealthy that becomes”? Presumably there he’s talking about the Jews and their reaction to Christ, but he seems to be taking the crowds who experienced the healings and listened to the teaching of Jesus, and who laid down palm branches and cheered him during his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and muddling them together with the Jewish religious establishment who crucified him because they envied his popularity with the people. There may have been some minor overlap of those who originally followed and then turned away, but surely those are two mostly-separate groups of people.

IC: That’s it. It’s never a dangerous or morally bad thing to become more like Christ. That’s always an improvement. What’s dangerous is to think that one has a better idea.

Original image courtesy Eduardo Unda-Sanzana [CC BY 2.0]

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