In 1979, John Cleese and Michael Palin had a debate about Monty Python’s film The Life of Brian with two defenders of the Christian faith — one an English bishop. The question is whether the film’s parody of institutionalized religion and religious hypocrisy amounts to ridiculing the personage of Jesus and Christianity in general.
Unsurprisingly, the very intelligent Cleese gets the better of his religious opponents, who come across as defensively arrogant and pathetically sentimental. Far more powerful a display of religious wisdom would have been a welcoming of the film’s critique as Christian in spirit, taking “Christian” in its most authentically catholic sense. As Cleese points out, the crime for which Jesus was crucified was his impassioned protest against … wait for it … the hypocrisies of institutionalized religion! Christianity in this sense would require ongoing and unsparing self-critique, and we have every reason to expect that Jesus would have despised much about the history of the Christian institutions established in his name: his fetishization as messiah not only took precedence over the principles of action he advocated, but became an excuse for their regular violation.
One of Life of Brian’s points is that you cannot really institutionalize Jesus’ fundamentally anti-institutional critique without doing tremendous damage to it. When Cleese claims that what the film advocates is thinking for oneself, he leaves out its most subversive implication: that the same sentiment is essential to Jesus’ teachings, once they have been resurrected from the very deep ashes of their institutionalized decay.
— Wes Alwan