By Michael Nettleton
While shelving videos at my library-subbing job, I happened to spot The Life of Brian the Monty Python sendup of the story of the central figure of Christendom. I first saw it back in the early eighties when it was newish. On a whim, I took it home to watch again. It’s still laugh-out-loud funny and thought-provoking movie. Unless you’re a Bible literalist. In that case it’s high heresy, anti-Christian, and perhaps the spawn of Satan. Or perhaps you take yourself too seriously.
It started me thinking. (This is the point where my wife Carolyn jumps in and says “Uh-oh.”)
I feel the need for music to accompany this next part. How about REM?
I am a fervid agnostic. Which is like saying I’m a well-organized anarchist. An agnostic is a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena; a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God. Fervid might be the wrong modifier. We don’t proselytize much.
To paraphrase former Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld, who was trying to defend the lack of proof that Iraq was involved in 911: “There are known knowns, there are things we think we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say we know there are some things we do not know.” Now there's some state-of-the-art gibberish, yes?
Maybe I’m a born skeptic. I was the kid in Sunday school who asked questions like, “Why did Adam have a navel?” and “Adam and Eve had sons. Where did they find wives?” I was sent home with a lot of notes for my parents to read. I’m not sure what they said. I’m guessing the word “heathen” might have been included.
So, what led to me losing my religion? If indeed I ever had one. A couple of incidents come to mind. One of the teachers of my small town Sunday School class, a pillar of the local community, banged his bible and ranted about the “wages of sin,” and “burning eternally in hell,” for our transgressions. Because of him, I learned how to pee without touching myself. A bit messy, but apparently necessary. Until . . .
One day my friend Donny and I were standing on a corner in a nearby larger town waiting for my mother to pick us up from a movie. Suddenly, the doors of a local saloon banged open and our smug, self-righteous Sunday school teacher tottered out, arm in arm with a busty lady wearing a heavy layer of war paint. They staggered toward a motel with a flashing VACANCY sign.
From that moment forward my bathroom habits became much tidier.
Later in life, I was a disc jockey in another small town. My immediate boss, the program director, had been a drug-taking hippy until he was “saved” and “born again.” Rod (not his real name) and his wife made it a habit of dropping by the apartment I shared with my future former wife and “testifying” to us and trying to get us to see the light. We began spending evenings with all the lights out and ignoring the knocking on our door. Rod’s most annoying habit was attributing anything good that happened to him as “God’s will.” This included a last minute touchdown that won a football game for his favorite team. Anything negative that happened, even if he had instigated it, was “The work of Satan.”
Rod was also a certifiable paranoic. He was convinced the big boss had it in for him and was poised to fire him. He began picking up the general managers private phone line on the production room console at the same time the boss did and listening in to the conversations.
One day, I got called into the GM’s office. My stomach roiled. This couldn’t be a good thing. “Mike,” he began. “I have some bad news.” Now, my stomach is flip-flopping like Simone Biles halfway through her floor exercise. “I’ve had to let Rod go. I thought he was doing a really good job, but I found out he was listening in on my telephone conversations. I couldn’t have that.”
That sizzling sound you hear is Satan rubbing his hands together in glee.
Following Facebook, I see a lot of people using their religion as a bludgeon: Quoting scripture (or what they claim is scripture) to castigate those who practice a different religion are of a different race, of a different sexuality, possess different political beliefs or, face it, have different anything.
Many of the people I work with, do community theater with, sing in choirs with or have chance encounters with are devout Christians. None of them try to convert me or express scorn that I don’t share their convictions. It seems to me they are living in the spirit of the savior they believe in. Them I like.
And I, it appears will remain an agnostic until my last breath. I won’t let fear of death prod me into believing something I can’t prove.
I enjoyed my rewatching of The Life of Brian. It made me laugh and think about man’s need to explain the unfathomable. The film is not about ridiculing people’s religious beliefs. Instead, it uses satire to point out the absurdity of listening to people who claim to be prophets or speak directly to God. It is a counterpoint to those who use the Bible to reinforce their prejudices or repay petty grudges.
A closing note to those people. I am not the spawn of Satan. Honest.