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And Now for Something Not All That Different: John Cleese on Religion

Let’s get clear right away that I am a fan of John Cleese’s. I loved Monty Python in the early 1970s, memorizing (as one did) whole sketches from LPs borrowed from older and discerning teenage friends. Fawlty Towers, to be sure, makes me cringe rather too often. But A Fish Called Wanda was original and amusing, and I’ve enjoyed Cleese in guest appearances here and there ever since. In short, Cleese makes me laugh as do few others, and I tip my hat to him.


Let’s also get clear that I admire his ability to speak well in public. In interviews, speeches, and the occasional column he has shown a commendable ability to communicate substantial ideas in plain and often winsome language. And not just humorous language, but sometimes poignant, and even powerful.


Cleese is a graduate of Cambridge University, a former rector of St Andrews University, and a former visiting professor at Cornell. Indeed, he was acclaimed as “fully a public intellectual” by Cornell’s provost.


Why, then, does such an evidently intelligent man insist on speaking about a subject he patently knows little about, and insist on speaking about it both frequently and dogmatically? And what might that tell us about engaging with thoughtful people about religion in a way that better comes to grips with the issues at stake?

Let me focus on his little book Professor at Large: The Cornell Years (2018), from which parenthetical page references will follow.


It’s a surprising book coming from someone who characterizes himself as primarily a writer, since almost all of it is transcriptions of interviews he either gave or conducted. It is also surprising in that it repeats themes and even particular stories and ideas, although it barely surpasses 200 pages in length. One might have hoped for a larger harvest from a decade spent teaching at an Ivy League school.


In fairness, perhaps Cleese and his editors humbly underestimated the appetite for Cleese’s actual lectures—on management, or group dynamics, or moviemaking. Perhaps I overestimate it.


So let’s take it as it is. And because it is constituted mainly by interviews and because it repeats a fair bit of content, it is striking what is addressed and how. And one of the main topics, to my great surprise, is religion.


By “religion” Cleese does mean to discuss “religion-in-general,” but his foil clearly is Christianity, and particularly the form of it dealt out to him by his English preparatory and grammar schools in the 1950s. This “Christianity” is the vacuous, repetitive, stultifying, pompous, and windy version so delightfully and frequently skewered by the Pythons—and by Peter Cook as the bishop in The Princess Bride (a role Cleese has publicly regretted turning down).


Who would want to champion that obnoxious nonsense? And Cleese, along with fellow Python Michael Palin, dignifiedly did televised battle with the same condescending cant as they defended The Life of Brian against an impossibly supercilious Anglican bishop (Mervyn Stockwood) and a disappointingly clueless Malcolm Muggeridge. Cleese and Palin averred that Life of Brian was not an attack on Christianity per se, let alone the New Testament, and least of all Jesus Christ. Instead, as is typical of Monty Python satire, it mows down all sorts of nonsense, from religious fanatics and power-mad clergy, yes, to overbearing Latin tutors.


Except: Cleese reveals in this much later book that he himself, at least, does have several bones to pick with orthodox Christianity, with the New Testament, and, I have to conclude, with Jesus Christ.


As a young man, Cleese testifies, he read an essay by Aldous Huxley that makes the commonsensical distinction between institutional religion—which is reduced pejoratively to rules and concepts as means of social control by powerful clergy—and mysticism, which is glorified as free and splendid and elevating and what-have-you (82, 218).


What-have-you, indeed—since mysticism of all sorts notoriously spends most of its energy denying and debunking and divesting and denuding institutional religion so that all that remains is an ineffable union of the self with the One. Cleese engages in that sort of thing, too, with the vigour, confidence, and ignorance of the all-too-typical convert.


For instance, Cleese trades in the canard that the New Testament documents aren’t historically reliable and weren’t even recognized as authoritative until the fourth century (151). If anything, however, the scholarly tide has been steadily turning toward earlier dates for New Testament books, greater appreciation for their historicity, and growing recognition of a strong first-century consensus about at least the main books of the canon.


A single course or book on Biblical introduction would have set him straight on that. Why didn’t a Cambridge/St Andrews/Cornell man consult such?


Cleese’s attempt to liberate Jesus from an authoritarian, fear-mongering Church then goes so far as to declare that Jesus didn’t talk about hell, when, in fact, he did—and quite a lot (137). Confirming that datum would have taken about four minutes on Google. Again, such a sweeping and easy-to-falsify claim is downright embarrassing for an educated person.


(Speaking of the shame of the learned, how can Cornell University Press allow slips such as “Thou seeing, they do not see. Thou hearing, they do not hear…” [86] and “Sir Thomas Aquinas” [145]? There are enough mistakes at this level in both typography and substance to make me wonder how Cleese could visit this Ivy League school for a decade and not be corrected on such elementary points. Where were the Cornell faculty members to help him?)


Very troubling is Cleese’s cluelessness about the literal interpretation of Scripture, which he reduces—in clever schoolboy fashion—to moronic misinterpretations of parables as news stories. “A certain man had two sons.” “What were their names?” Etc. Any elementary Bible study course deals with such matters.


More troubling is his throwaway comment about the Cross of Christ being an “odd choice” as the central symbol of Christianity. Instead of quoting any one of a hundred theologians who could tell him why it is and should be, he quotes instead a Buddhist who merely says, “How extraordinary to have an instrument of torture as the central symbol of your religion” (143).


Insidious here is Cleese’s insinuation that the Cross represents the Church’s insistence on acquiescence to its authority on pain of eternal damnation and the Church’s use of inquisitorial torture to police such belief. But to posit such a linkage is to completely misunderstand the function of the Cross in Christian doctrine and symbology, as even a cursory glance at a Wikipedia article on Christian theology would make plain.


Cleese’s ultimate celebration of the apogee of religion being mystical union with the divine—and the reduction of the divine to an impersonal force, or essence, or something (we all waited in vain for John Hick to give It its proper name)—is his to make, albeit at his peril. But he goes much too far in seeing one’s embrace of mysticism as a sign of (wait for it) mental health.


Cleese invokes his father-figure psychiatrist, Robyn Skinner, as authority for rendering religious beliefs onto a scale of psychological wellness and awarding top points for belief in Nirguna Brahman, T’ian, the Logos, and the like. Alas, he doesn’t give us any reason for preferring this religious option to, say, belief in a personal deity, which is the option taken by Christians, Muslims, and devotional Hindus, to name well over half the world’s population. The elitism of mysticism, a perennial element in “the perennial philosophy,” is thus again revealed as the ugly face behind the serene and smiling mask.


In matters small and great, therefore, Cleese looks wildly out of his depth, and yet he blithely splashes on. Why do smart people risk looking stupid by talking about religion when they demonstrate no adequate knowledge of the subject?


I think of Richard Dawkins, an accomplished biologist who has made himself look foolish—and nastily so—when yammering on about religion. The university audience at the speech of his I attended, which seemed from their laughter and applause to be largely fans of his, nonetheless gasped in dismay as he drew a straight line from the idiotic Gumbys of (I’m not making this up) Monty Python to . . . Hasidic Jews.


I think of the late Christopher Hitchens, a significant and entertaining literary critic, who set himself on fire in his raging against, of all people, Mother Teresa.


I’d now like to digress for a moment and make fun of those ridiculous, pinheaded physicists one hears so much about. You know, the ones who go on and on about “quantum this” and “quantum that”—as if they had a single clue what they’re saying.


I mean, look here: Is light a wave or a particle? You’ve had a century to argue about it, so let’s have it. Which is it?


And we’ve had enough of your “entanglement” and “action at a distance,” as if two electrons, light years apart, are somehow subject to each other’s state changes. As if! It’s just voodoo nonsense.


Just like your “charmed particles.” Subatomic entities subject to magic? Get serious!


And who among your learned ranks can give the rest of us a simple, clear, and coherent mental picture of the quantum world? Not one of you! You’re just playing with concepts and quantities—on the order of, one might say, speculating on the number of angels who could dance on the head of a pin. Get back to us when you have something useful to say!


Digression over. Point, I trust, made.


Here’s a helpful little rule: When someone clearly intelligent says something clearly not, something else is going on.


John Cleese helps us understand a bit of what’s going on when he talks not only about his suffocating religious teaching at school, but also of his mother. Muriel Cross (yes, that was her maiden name) was a woman so in thrall to fear that she subjected herself and her family to a rigid, smothering imperium of small-minded, stay-at-home, mind-your-business correctness. As Cleese says, his mother only ever wanted one thing: her way, all the time (144, 202). No wonder Cleese is in reaction to authoritarian, narcissistic, and mindless religion.


As a fan of John Cleese the comedian, I am grateful that he refused to succumb to the superficial and self-serving piety of his schooling or to the crushing control of his parentage. But to spiral off into mystical mist seems rather an overreaction. And to claim that you have Jesus, of all people, on your side, as well as mental health in general, is to overclaim at a breathtaking scale.


It would be easy to make fun of, if it weren’t so sad.


Yes, Cleese encountered a bad, brainless form of religion calling itself Christianity. But he’s had a few decades since then. Why not read good books on Christianity? The answers to his questions and the corrections to his mistakes are readily enough available in books by his countryman Alister McGrath, or Americans Tim Keller or Bill Craig, or even a Canadian author I like to recommend on occasion. (If you’re a Cleese friend, or even just a fan, send him a copy of Can I Believe?)


For that matter, why hasn’t John Cleese gotten out a bit more and met a few new people? A man of his celebrity likely could have gotten an audience with almost anyone in the world—if not the Pope, then surely the Archbishop of Canterbury, or even N.T. Wright! Now that would be a conversation (with Tom, I mean, or perhaps with Rowan Williams) worth watching.


Well, I myself likely will never meet John Cleese and neither will you. So is there anything personally and practically to take away from (be-)musing on this public figure’s foggy religiosity?


Yes, there is. First, pastors, youth leaders, and parents: please teach basic apologetics. Teach people why they can trust the historicity of the Bible, and especially the New Testament accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus. Teach people why the skepticism of John Cleese—or even someone as knowledgeable as Bart Ehrman—can be answered by solid evidence and argument. The counter-arguments are everywhere. Equip your people to answer them.


Second, pastors, youth leaders, and parents: teach good Christian doctrine. What is sin? What is salvation? What is prayer? What is the end for which God made the world? Why ought people to become Christians, really? Don’t assume most churchgoers know good answers to these questions.


Third, pastors, youth leaders, and parents: cultivate relationship with God among the people in your care, not mere compliance with your religion—or you! Cleese is importantly right that true religion must centre on experience. Evangelicals are forever telling people that “Christianity isn’t a religion: It’s a relationship!” And Cleese makes a powerful point when he says, “People are changed not by exhortations to do things, but by experience” (85).


True religion, however, is not just any spiritual experience, nor any experience I might prefer. The whole Old Testament is a warning, via the dark narrative of Israel’s cyclical dalliances with one alternative deity or another, that religion itself is not a good in Yhwh’s sight. Nor is mysticism in general.


What we humans are created to need is authentic and moving experience of the one true God. And a sustained relationship with God is possible only upon repentance and faith in God by way of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. So let’s not aim at making religious and ethical drones of our young people, but aim instead at fostering dynamic children of God and fervent disciples of Jesus who walk in the Spirit.


Fourth, pray for the famous, who influence so many. John Cleese has done us all a lot of good in his comic creativity and in a number of educational ventures as well. (I’ve enjoyed his video disquisition on wine, for instance.) But his confused ideas surely confuse many fans. Let’s pray for him and for any other influencers whose influence you fear—or whose influence, instead, you want God to extend.


Finally, pray for that religiously critical friend of yours, or family member, or acquaintance. At least he or she cares enough to be critical! The ones I worry about the most are those that blithely don’t care.


In that respect, I bless John Cleese for caring. I hope he finds his way yet through the mist to the Master. [For help in engaging in apologetics and teaching better about salvation, among other topics pertinent to this post, check out ThinkBetter Media's Mini-Courses, listed here.]


 Mini Courses 


Understand key ideas in important Christian theology, ethics, and history in 30 minutes (or less!) in ThinkBetter Media's mini-courses, created by award-winning theologian and historian Dr. John G. Stackhouse, Jr. 

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