Pool: Blasphemy, taboo and 'The Life of Brian'

I never owned a television when I was in college. After graduation, a couple of friends and I had a battered old black-and-white TV we only watched Sunday nights when ”Monty Python’s Flying Circus” was on.

Somehow, though, I never saw “Life of Brian,” one of the lodestones of my generation’s comedy culture. Loosely paralleling the life of Jesus, the 1979 movie is satirical and irreverent, depicting a character in first-century Judea beset by Roman colonialism and religious turmoil.

Some people thought it blasphemous; others regarded it as hilarious. Humor doesn’t age well. I saw it recently, and I noticed how it might transgress contemporary proprieties.

I’m not talking about the brief flashes of hirsute nudity that are uncommon today in mainstream movies. Instead, there’s a touch of a very secular postmodern blasphemy.

One character is ridiculed because his deepest desire is to become a woman. In the movie, he is jeered for the absurdity of this desire.

I wonder how this scene would play on college campuses nowadays. I could imagine protests at the “harm” such a depiction might produce in people whose identities are incongruent with the bodies with which they were born.

There might even be calls for “deplatforming” Monty Python for its “microaggressions.” I don’t know, but from what I can tell, the rarified sensibilities of activist students would be inflamed past all toleration. They’re not fans of toleration.

Another part of the movie involves the pronunciation of the Hebrew holy name of God. It’s rendered as “Jehovah,” which is not actually the pronunciation of the four-letter name that in English Bibles is printed as “Lord” in small capital letters.

A man is to be stoned for saying this word. A group of women (actually male actors dressed as women) put on fake beards so they can participate in the public execution.

As things get more ridiculous, the Holy Name is tossed about. One of the accusers says it, leading the crowd to turn on him. Eventually a religious elder says it’s impermissible to say that name, but in doing so he too says it, and at the end he is being stoned.

The crowd is clearly throwing sponges — this is not the brutal reality of an actual stoning in Iran or Afghanistan that one might find in the dark corners of the Internet. No, it’s comical and plays for laughs at the ridiculousness of taboo words.

Is that still funny? Recently a lawyer working for the University of North Texas uttered the word most taboo these days, the one that goes by the letter “n.” She was making a point about how unpleasant and offensive words are protected speech, and gave an example.

Well, her job was not protected. She had to resign.

It appears dangerous even to say that word when you are talking about what you can’t say.

A creative writing teacher in New York asked the makers of a documentary about James Baldwin, “I Am Not Your Negro,” why they used “Negro” instead of the word Baldwin actually said. She spent the summer being accused of racism.

John McWhorter, noted linguist and public intellectual, writes that the commandment against whites ever saying this word seems a manifestation of minorities’ social strength. However, ultimately it is grounded on weakness, as though any exposure to the word injures people.

McWhorter is a black man, so he’s less likely to be pilloried. The content of his ideas, not his skin color, should be what matters. That’s what they taught me in college philosophy classes.

I didn’t find “Life of Brian” as funny as I might have 40 years ago.

— Frank Thomas Pool is a writer and a retired English teacher in Austin. He grew up on Maple Street in Longview and graduated from Longview High School. His column appears Tuesday.

Today's Bible verse

“ ... and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

— Genesis 22:18

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