West meets East in John Cleese

Don Lattin of the San Francisco Chronicle must be the envy of every religion writer who loves the comedy of John Cleese. Lattin nabbed an interview with the Monty Python veteran before Cleese made a series of Bay Area fundraising appearances for Esalen, the Big Sur-based institute known for spreading Eastern thought in the West.

Lattin traces Cleese’s disenchantment with the Church of England, including this moment:

For a while, in his early teens, Cleese waited to be touched by the power of the Holy Spirit. “I really did expect a golden haze to descend gently on my shoulders. Eventually, I switched out of disappointment to atheism.”

Cleese found his life transformed by reading Tao: The Watercourse Way by Alan Watts and Al Chung-liang Huang and by an impromptu visit to Esalen in 1980.

Lattin wraps up the story with this paradox:

Atheist no more, Cleese now believes “without the slightest doubt” in reincarnation, poltergeists and other paranormal phenomena. At the same time, he also believes that “a lot of the California New Age is nonsense.”

Here’s another facet of Cleese’s spiritual life: in 1988 he recorded the definitive audio version of The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. Audio Literature of Berkeley, Calif., distributed the recording in abridged form on two cassettes, and in unabridged form in an anniversary package. Both versions, plus a three-CD set from England that includes “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” are available on eBay.

Joss Ackland, who depicted Lewis in the original Shadowlands, also has recorded an unabridged version of Screwtape, but Cleese does a far better job of it. Cleese’s Screwtape mutters darkly, shouts and even loses himself in laughter. Cleese’s performance is both hilarious and chilling.

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  • Kerry Wood

    Here’s what I think is the real “money quote” from the article on John Cleese:

    “For me, the great problem growing up in England was that I had a very narrow concept of what God can be, and it was damn close to an old man with a beard,” Cleese said. “God was treated like this powerful, erratic, rather punitive father who has to be pacified and praised. You know, flattered.”

    When someone says that he/she does not believe in God, the best response is “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in. Chances are, I won’t believe in him either.”

    It’s too bad John Cleese has yet to experience the true God – one in whom he can believe.

  • c matt

    You know, I never understood the appeal of this re-incarnation thing. It seems, perhaps unintentionally, the movie Groundhog Day demonstrates its utter pointlessness. If all I have to look forward to is another earthly life, and then another earthly life, and then another earthly life . . . ad infinitum, whats the point?

  • http://www.kenshogodchaser.com Kensho Godchaser (Jay Allen)

    Reminds me of the Python appearance at the Aspen Comedy Festival when Idle and Cleese started arguing over whether or not their treatment of Christ in LIFE OF BRIAN was straightforward or heretical. As I remember, idle stated that they didn’t make the film *about* Christ because they had to much respect for him.

    Great article – thanks for posting.


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