October 27, 2010

Bully Church

On my flight back from London Monday I saw a beautiful but disturbing film, "Agora," telling the story of 4th-century Alexandrian struggles between Christians, Pagans and Jews, centering on the figure of the philosopher Hypatia, whom even early Christian historians record was treated horribly by other Christians. It is beautifully filmed, if slow-paced; most of the "action" arises from the zealotry of some of the Christian mob, employing literal hubris to make their points against Jews and Pagans alike, and it is not exaggerated. The formerly persecuted become the chief persecutors. The church "wins" but at a terrible cost to reason, human dignity, and, I think, to its own best interest, and better self.

The film provides an interesting commentary on fanaticism, liberty of thinking, the terrible pressures of conformity to majority rule to the point of tyranny. When the gospel becomes not "this is what I believe" but "this is what you must believe" we have crossed a fearful boundary from grace to law — in contradiction to the very message intended. The church becomes a bully, a crowd of bullies, who stone and burn, and crucify. It becomes the thing it rightly rejects, and rejects the one whom the builders rejected. It lays waste while it claims to edify.

[Update: I neglected to mention that I watched this film in conjunction with rereading the Apostolic Fathers and other Ante-Nicene texts. I'm towards the end of Justin Martyr, writing in a period prior to that of Hypatia, when the Christians were on the sharp end of the stick. However, I have to say that I can see why Justin was martyred, and see the seeds of the very intolerance later displayed in Alexandria. Justin is contemptuous of pagans (the Apologies) and Jews (Dialogue with Trypho, A Jew) to the point of insult. His arguments are specious and tendentious, and when they fail to persuade he says it is just because his interlocutors are either demon-possessed pagans or God-damned Jews. Not a pretty sight; but it helped provide a context for "Agora."]

Speaking of paradox, however, the film also got me thinking — relying as it does on the symbol of the conic sections and the ellipse — about the divine and human natures of Christ. The ellipse is the actual course of our island home's orbit round the sun, not in fact the ideal shape, the circle. The ellipse has two centers, and its realization — its incarnation if you will — revolves around them so that the sum of the distance to each is always constant. As Hypatia says — in the film; I have no idea if she ever said such a thing in reality — "A circle is merely an ellipse in which the two centers coincide."

In any case, this is a commendable film, and I look to a second viewing at an altitude below 40,000 feet. (Though one repeated visual theme of the film is a God's-eye-view of earth from space, zooming in, or out, of the oculus of the temple of learning, which though round, from an angle forms the double-centered and paradoxical ellipse.)

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Another update: Please check out Faith L. Justice's analysis of the historical realities as represented in the film, at a blog I will definitely revisit "Historian's Notebook."

14 comments:

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Philip Jenkins' newish book "Jesus Wars" fills in a lot of useful background on all period, and makes scary reading indeed — a strong argument for open and transparent religon, not bully-boy stuff...

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Thanks, Bp Alan. I neglected to note, and have updated the post proper, that I was just in the process of rereading Justin Martyr, whose intolerance and brashness -- even when under persecution -- help to explain the tipping of the scales when Christians came to power.

The film offered powerful echoes of so many strifes -- in particular reminding me of the Sunni / Shi'ite conflicts; as even the Christians are not all of one mind, and have their own far right crowd who, in the film, look like Mujahideen!

faithljustice said...

I saw Agora when it first came out in NYC and am looking forward to the DVD with its extras. It was a beautifully shot movie, addressing an important modern theme. I also felt there were a few historical distortions. The Great Library of Alexandria didn't end as Amenabar depicted and Synesius wasn't such a jerk. However, that's what artists do. I don't go to movies for accurate history. For people who want to know more about the historical Hypatia, I highly recommend a very readable biography by Maria Dzielska called Hypatia of Alexandria (Harvard Press, 1995.) I also have a series of posts on my blog on the events and characters from the film - not a movie review, just a "reel vs. real" discussion.

JCF said...

Is this one of those movies that (like the Darwin flick of a year or so ago), isn't being shown in the US of A? (Cuz of, y'know, the crazies?)

Definitely want to check it out. (And not just because Rachel Weisz = Yum! ;-D)

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Thanks, fiathljustice! I was aware of a few of the historical compromises by the screenwriter, but as you say take it as part of the artistic endeavor. Obviously the actual more long-and-drwan-out destruction of the Library would not make for as dramatic an effect -- tho I think the writer did avoid going to the other more Hollywood extreme of a single great CGI conflagration, so I appreciated a slight tip of the hat to the more gradual destruction. I will check out your blog for further insights. I first heard of Hypatia, if memory serves, in the Carl Sagan "Cosmos" series. Also a tad slanted, of course!

JCF, as indicated above, this did play the US, but I think largely in the "arthouse" circuit. I was unaware of it until I took the flight, so thanks BA!

WSJM said...

For what it's worth to those who wallow in middle-brow culture (!), Netflix has "Agora." I've brought it to the top of my queue.

WSJM said...

Looking back on my comment, I realized that I should be clear that I am not suggesting that "Agora" is middle-brow, I am simply admitting that Netflix is middle-brow!

David |Dah • veed| said...

OK, I watched this movie last evening. Its production values were splendid. In my mind it was hard not to feel that we were seeing it very closely portrayed as far as the culture and society surrounding the events depicted.

You did not warn me to protect my vow of Purity of Heart when I found myself with lustful tugs at the heartstrings for the beauty of young master Minghella.

This movie disturbed me immensely. If it was even close to accurate, how could one use the hand that bore a blade that so freely dispatched precious souls to their eternity, to offer bread to the poor and needy. These were blood thirsty Christians!

BTW, should not there have also been Montanists complicating this story?

Grandmère Mimi said...

WSJM, the real question (at least for me) is, are YOU middle-brow?

Sorry. I couldn't help myself.:-)

David |Dah • veed| said...

Forgive me, in rereading my comment I realize that I have my sects confused. I should have asked should not Donatists have also been around to complicate this story?

(BTW, young master Max Minghella played the role of Davus the slavus.)

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Thank you, Dahveed, for the mention of young Max. I found the scene in which as a newly minted Christian his version of the Lord's Prayer quickly transforms into a mantra-like petition against Hypatia loving Orestes to be very powerful. It reminded me of the thousand year prayer of the young robot in AI, the prayer to be "real" -- equally futile, equally touching.

I do get the feeling the film has the atmospherics right, though I know some details are off. As to the heretics, I associate Donatists more with Carthage than Alexandria, and don't know how much of a force they were that far east.

Mimi, we are all brows all over in this wonderful church of ours! The more the merrier.

David |Dah • veed| said...

In doing a bit more research, the Alexandrian Christians at this time had Novatians in their midst. The Donatists predecessors, with similar ideas. It seems that Pope Cyril expelled them and stole their holy vessels during this period.

WSJM said...

Grandmère Mimi, no, I am very high-brow. My brow extends all the way from my eyes across to the back of my head. As my photo bears witness!

Grandmère Mimi said...

WSJM, I see that you have quite a high brow. There are brows, and there are brows, and, as Tobias says, we have all sorts in our blessed church.