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Jesus and Brian

Reflections on the conference

The conference Jesus and Brian or: What Have the Pythons Done for Us? ran over the weekend 20-22 June 2014 in the Edmond J Safra Lecture Theatre, King’s College London, and was a huge success. 

Devised, designed and organised by Professor Joan Taylor, this conference aimed to use Monty Python’s Life of Brian as a tool to reflect on Jesus and his times, among other subjects. Delegates flew in from all around the world to be treated to three days of superb papers from top scholars in the fields of Jesus research and the history of Roman Judaea, modern art, Bible and film, the blasphemy laws and the film’s reception. 

Terry Jones, John Cleese and Richard Burridge at Jesus and Brian

Major highlights of the conference were the appearance of Pythons Terry Jones and John Cleese, who spoke about the film in conversation with the Dean of King’s College London, Richard Burridge, on Friday evening. John Cleese’s enthusiasm for the conference was palpable, joking that probably the best thing the Pythons had done was that they had been responsible for this conference. He was clearly astounded and pleased that the Pythons’ work could have resulted in this gathering of eminent scholars 35 years after the film’s initial appearance and appreciated the vindication in the light of the film’s initial reception. The audience were treated to the memories and reflections of Terry Jones and John Cleese, and all manner of other related things both thoughtful and funny, as the Pythons proved themselves to be just as subversive as ever. 

John Cleese gave a brilliant and hilarious speech at the conference dinner, which was held in the beautiful hall of Inner Temple on Saturday evening, an event hosted by the Master of Temple Church, Robin Griffith-Jones. In inviting the audience to question him from the floor, he courageously laid himself open and elicited some excellent queries (as well as some questions that could have been at times good fuel for a Python sketch). At every turn he demonstrated his stunning wit and eye for the absurd that had the audience erupting in laughter and applause.

The Life of Brian film editor Julian Doyle spoke with conference organiser Joan Taylor at the end of the sessions on Sunday, recollecting the making of the film and providing some fascinating insights, with a contagious enthusiasm and disregard for political correctness that seemed to reflect well the Python perspective as well.

Among conference participants there was an overwhelmingly positive reaction, with several saying it was the best conference they had ever been to, and many saying it was a ‘triumph’. The papers presented were rich, diverse, provocative, ground-breaking and well-prepared, and each one clearly delighted the delegates. In using the Life of Brian as a tool for study, aspects that have not always been considered were drawn out and re-examined. The speakers were all engaged in the project and provided an enormously exciting range of top rate studies. These speakers were chosen by the conference organiser as being among the most esteemed and creative in their fields, and they rose to the challenge of this conference in a way that surpassed expectations, providing the audience with paper after paper of high quality analysis. The creativity and intelligence of the papers were exemplary, and will be collected together in a book to be published by T&T Clark Bloomsbury next year, Jesus and Brian, edited by Joan Taylor.

All speakers were filmed by King’s College London exclusively for conference records, and discussions are in progress about the public availability of these.

The method of study of this conference is essentially one pioneered by TRS staff. Paul Joyce and Diana Lipton’s recent book on the book of Lamentations defined and demonstrated a type of analysis they have called ‘reception exegesis’ in which creative works are used as tools to interpret biblical texts. This is used in our MA module 7AAT230 The Passion: History, Text and Representation, first designed by Eddie Adams and then developed further in the teaching of Joan Taylor. Here the students are asked to engage with an item of ‘reception’ (they have used literature, film, art, photography, theatre, even Manga comics) as a means of reflecting on a passage of the Passion narratives. As such this links with key goals of the School of Arts and Humanities to make our studies culturally relevant, with an awareness of our situation in the hub of cultural activity in London. The multidisciplinary and creative dimensions of the event were obvious to all.

The conference organiser Joan Taylor would very much like to thank from the bottom of her heart all who made this event a memorable success: the wonderful Terry Jones and John Cleese for their extreme generosity in giving their time to the conference at a very busy period of their lives, with intense O2 rehearsals taking place. Thank you also to Julian Doyle. Thanks to all the speakers: Martin Goodman, George Brooke, Bill Telford, Philip Davies, James Crossley, Helen Bond, Guy Stiebel, Steve Mason, Paula Fredriksen, David Shepherd, Aaron Rosen, Katie Turner, Amy-Jill Levine, Bart Ehrman, Adele Reinhartz, Richard Burridge and David Tollerton. Thank you to colleagues in the TRS department who chaired sessions: Paul Joyce, Eddie Adams, Robin Griffith-Jones, Ben Quash, Jonathan Stökl and Aaron Rosen. 

Thanks also to those who managed the perfect running of the event: first and foremost conference administrator Michelle Fletcher for her tireless work in seeing to small and great matters both practical and organisational and for being the best right hand woman in the world, there solving issues no matter how vexing, giving of her time way beyond the call of duty night and day. In addition, thank you to Katie Turner for her quick response AV skills and help especially at the start of this journey. Thanks to: Richard Burridge for his support in promotion of the conference and enthusiasm for it; Robin Griffith-Jones for sponsorship and hosting at Inner Temple;  Sarah Slater, King’s College London Events manager, for great management of catering and rooms; Jonathan Pickering of the College e-store; the AV guys; and the School and TRS office staff, especially Pelagia Pais, Sophie Smith, Wendy Pank, Catherine Mitchell, Chelo Rodriguez and Matt Claridge. 

Finally, great thanks to Russell Goulbourne, Head of the School of Arts and Humanities for the important conference support and for really believing in this, as well as Paul Joyce, Head of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies and Dominic Mattos of T&T Clark Bloomsbury for additional conference funding. 

Our friend Mark Goodacre has done excellent blogs of Day 1 and Day 2.

For the Twitter Feed see #jesusandbrian and #jesusandbrian14.

by Joan Taylor

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