One of the clues to our times is that the word "irreverent" has become almost exclusively a term of praise, while "pious" now sounds derisive. Iconoclasm has become a principle. We pride ourselves on being able to see through things -- which is all well and good. But when we see through them, do we succeed in seeing beyond them? Or do we merely become endlessly, indiscriminately tolerant of bad things?
Which brings me to a movie called "Monty Python's Life of Brian." This time the subject of the group's irreverence is Jesus Christ. I haven't seen it and don't plan to; I manage to miss a staggering number of films annually, and a film that insults Jesus goes right to the top of my miss-list.
Surely someone will wonder whether I intend to judge a film without having seen it. And I must say frankly that, yes, in a sense, and for a purpose, that is exactly what I am doing. About the film's execution I must be silent. But about the idea that the life of Christ is a joke, there is no need to be silent at all. And unless all the reviews distort, that is the idea behind "Life of Brian."
Now Monty Python is a funny group and they may indeed have made a hilarious movie. But a movie can be hilarious and bad. Even high art can be radically immoral, like Lini Riefenstal's classic celebration of Nazism, "Triumph of the Will." There is no debate about whether Miss Riefenstal knew how to point a camera. But there is also no debate about the objects on which she chose to lavish her admiring attention.
Some prudish people affect to find all bawdy jokes unfunny. That is wrongheaded. A joke is not immoral because it isn't funny, or unamusing because it is immoral. If only life were so simple. Some of the funniest wit is bawdy, or cruel, or otherwise improper. If Eveyln Waugh had had more charity, he would have written worse books.
Others make the reverse error of thinking that what is artisically good must be morally innocent. These are generally the people who are addicted to Irreverence. They think that anyone who objects to obscenity must object to sex, or that anyone who can't laugh easily at blasphemy must lack humor. Of course, they aren't altogether consistent, which is to their credit. They might stiffly refuse to laugh at a racist joke, without wishing to have their own sense of humor impugned. And they would be right. It should not be hard for them to sympathize with those who are protesting "Life of Brian" -- but I fear it is.
Richard Schickel, reviewing the film for Time magazine, shows an odd ambivalence. Those who protest, he says, "are quite right to do so, for this is no gentle spoof, no good-natured satire of cherished beliefs." But he winds up calling it "daring" -- intended as praise, though Faulst too was daring. He finds a hopeful note to conclude on: "Maybe all the earnest protests will attract those who need it most: adults who have not had their basic premises offended, and therefore have not examined them, in too long."
Schickel waffles, but no more than most people nowadays who have to deal publicly with embarrassing subjects like religion. When you can't recommend a thing for its own sake, you recommend it as therapy for something else. Maybe it's good for us to be offended. Thus we have passed from a taboo on blasphemy to a taboo on condemnations of blasphemy.
C. S. Lewis reminds us that belief in a benign God emerged from an era before anesthetics. Religion came to be, one might say, at a time when nothing buffered man from pain, the raw perception that things matter. Relativism, I suspect, is a bourgeois indulgence; we can afford to speculate. Why, we can even afford to make fun of people who believe, and to counsel them that a little shock may be good for them.