by on August 1, 2010 at 6:47 am in Film, History, Religion, Science | Permalink

I am surprised this film, set in ancient Alexandria, has not occasioned more controversy.  It is the most pro-science, pro-rationalist, anti-Christian movie I have seen — ever. — and it does not disguise the message in the slightest.  The director and scriptwriter is Spanish and Chilean, namely Alejandro Amenábar.  It offers a Voltairean portrait of Judaism, as an oppressed rabble, most of all responsible for the crime of having birthed Christianity.  There are some not-so-subtle parallels shown between the early Christians and current Muslim terrorists.  

The visual rendering of antiquity is nicely done and without an excess of CGI.

Here is a positive New York Times review.  Here is a positive Guardian review.  Not everyone will like this movie.

1 Kerub August 1, 2010 at 7:22 am

Sure it should have occasioned more controversy.

But it seemed to me that a very (very) light hint to elitism of intellectuals (in the person of Ipazia father) compared to some deep social compassionism of early cristians.

2 TheophileEscargot August 1, 2010 at 8:32 am

I thought it was fairly even-handed between the Christians and the Pagans. Most of the Pagans are depicted as belligerent, oppressive when they have the upper hand, and tolerant of slavery and the abuse of slaves.

I think the people who see it as anti-Christian are do so in from a frame where they expect Christians to be depicted as morally superior.

3 dearieme August 1, 2010 at 9:27 am

“slave labour. Early Christianity, for all its warts, helped end that practice”: did it really?

4 jpmeyer August 1, 2010 at 9:55 am

My guess is that the film has only been showing in about 1-6 theaters nationwide (in America; it has had a slightly more wide release outside America) for the last 2 months.

5 sd August 1, 2010 at 10:16 am

Well, the movie certainly will frustrate some people, for the same reason that The DaVinci Code frustrated some people. Namely, that it portrays as historical “fact” a number of things which are outright fantasy and thus many of the rubes who see it will think that they’ve learned something about late antiquity that empowers them to hold forth about this or that aspect of modern Christianity. The list of historical farts in the film is too numerous to detail here, but to address the biggest three goofs of the film:

1) No, Christian mobs did not destroy the Great Library of Alexandria. The Great Library, such as it was, was destroyed centuries earlier – before Jesus was even born. In late antiquity a small collection of books and scrolls kept in a pagan temple in Alexandria was likely destroyed in mob violence which destroyed the temple itself, so I suppose it was a “library” in “Alexandria” but “Great?” – not so much.

2) Hypatia was not a scientist of the astronomical or any other variety. She was a Neo-Platonist philosopher (i.e. one of the more mystical branches of ancient Greek thought). Neo-Platonism, far from being feared by early Christians, was absorbed by early Christianity (c.f. St. Augustine) because it provided an intellectual framework and toolkit that made it possible to translate The Gospel message to a Greek-speaking and Greek-educated audience.

3) Hypatia was not killed because she offended Christian sensibilities. She was killed in the crossfire (metaphorical of course) between rival political factions in Alexandria.

I suppose you could interpret the pointing out of these things to being “too sensitive” – but really, if I made a film slandering Jews or Objectivists or Buddists or any other group, portrayed the film as being “a true story” (its twue! its twue!) and filled it with a bunch of outright falsehoods, I would expect those groups to be a bit peeved.

6 Gene Callahan August 1, 2010 at 10:41 am

“It is the most pro-science, pro-rationalist, anti-Christian movie I have seen…”

It’s hard to know how to even respond to such gibberish. One might first consider that science arose only in a Christian context, and that the historians who have examined the issue have concluded that Christianity was essential to its arising. Or, as sd points out, that in order to make a move this “pro-science, pro-rationalist, anti-Christian” one has to irrationally make up one’s own history.

7 Andrew edwards August 1, 2010 at 11:52 am

It is kind of disappointing that the NYT review treats the massacre of Hypatia as some kind of twist ending not to be revealed, when it is one of the darkest episodes in early Christian history. People should read more and the Times should expect it’s audience to at least have the energy to google historical names.

Re: edward Burke – the historical event it treats pre-dates Protestantism by about a thousand years. However, it was an important precursor to the split of catholic and orthodox churches. My early church theology fails me as to where the crowd who killed Hypatia ended up in that fight – maybe they were ultimately coptic?

Re: gene callahagn – you had me agreeing with you that calling Christianity categorically anti-science is overkill, until you tried to say that “science arose only in a Christian context”, which is so hilariously wrong, ignorant, and offensive that I shot milk out of my nose.

Re: ad – yes, she was killed because she fell afoul of some of the very fine points of early church theology, as believed by the loopy crowd in question. The fight whose crossfire she was in (if by “crossfire” you mean “dragged out in to the street tortured mutilated and executed”) was one of church theology and they didn’t just accidentally murder her – she was killed by one side because they (idiotically, but since when has that stopped zealots) thought she was on the other side.

8 Joe Carter August 1, 2010 at 1:16 pm
9 Pat Mathews August 1, 2010 at 1:30 pm

Mike Flynn had a 6-part commentary on this movie, almost all of which concerned itself with the actual history of the period. His verdict: it was about as accurate as portraying D-Day as a Viking movie. (My summary, not his.)

Link: http://m-francis.livejournal.com/

You’ll have to scroll down.

10 BenK August 1, 2010 at 2:33 pm

You are correct that this was a ‘pro-rationalist’ movie, but it was not in any sense ‘pro-truth.’ It is as much a fiction as, for example, the murder of Napoleon by Hitler in the on-going conflicts among Germany, France and Russia. In short, if there is any sort of ‘truth’ in the movie, it is well hidden by the bizarre and counter-factual ‘evidence.’

This is why the movie didn’t stir more controversy. If anyone is planning on attacking early Christianity, they need to mix a much larger grain of truth into their attacks before they can be taken seriously – by anyone, pro or con.

11 agnostic August 1, 2010 at 4:40 pm

Back on planet Earth, bashing Christianity — especially among the ancients — couldn’t be less controversial. So the lack of it here is to be expected.

What truly causes an uproar is a movie like Passion of the Christ.

12 jhn August 1, 2010 at 6:45 pm

This movie is great because it doesn’t try to be fair. It’s a fable that condemns Christianity and superstition and defends science and rationality. There are enough soppy religious fables out there, so why not have one for the good guys?

13 NSK August 1, 2010 at 7:26 pm

does not trust in particular the anagram GOD-DOG. Too literary

14 Robert Speirs August 2, 2010 at 8:45 am

” … pro-science, pro-rationalist, anti-Christian …”

Contradiction in terms. Just ask Chesterton.

15 Andrew edwards August 2, 2010 at 11:20 am


From Socrates scholasticus’ account:

” it was calumniously reported among the Christian populace, that it was she who prevented Orestes from being reconciled to the bishop. Some of them, therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter, waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Caesareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her with tiles”

Why would someone “report” this? As I said earlier, it’s not like she was killed by accident – someone did this deliberately. Diarmaid MacCulloch:

“the council of constantinople radically narrowed the boundaries of acceptable belief in the church, creating a single imperial Christianity backed up by military force…. Now “catholic” christianity was given monopoly status, not just against it’s own Christian rivals, but against all traditional religion: ancient priesthoods lost all privileges and temples were ordered closed….

“the Olympic games were no longer celebrated after 393. Further decrees… Banned non-Christians from service in the army, imperial administration, or at court. This was backed up by ruthless action: some of the most beautiful… sacred places of antiquity went up in flames…. Monks were prominent agitators in the crowds which exulted in the destruction…. Perhaps the most repulsive case was the death in 415 of Hypatia…. Christian mobs were persuaded that she was instrumental in preventing the prefect of Egypt from ending a quarrel with bishop Cyril… so she was dragged from her carriage… and murdered. The perpetrators went unpunished. It was a permanent stain on the episcopate of Cyril and few historians have had the heart to excuse it.”

16 Careless August 2, 2010 at 12:35 pm

$70 million budget, $33 million worldwide gross, 1% in the US.

17 Silas Barta August 2, 2010 at 4:46 pm

Andrew_edwards wins the thread, especially with the remark at Aug 1, 2010 2:34:21 PM. That was epic!

18 Andrew edwards August 2, 2010 at 6:51 pm

Not sure I “win” anything – but the facts as I understand them are out now.

I think it comes down to what you are trying to prove. Chris is right that this episode is very far from proving that Christianity is unusually bad in the scheme of major belief systems. But I think it is very much in bounds to describe Hypatia as killed by a Christian mob energized by clergy over a point of theological dispute.

Also the subject-changing about how the library they burned not being all that big doesn’t forgive or alter that the library was burned.

I feel like it is also safe to say that this is not exactly the church’s finest moment. Whether or not the negatives are outweighed by positives, this clearly belongs in the “negative” column. No one but the crudest judge would say that the mob there, or the aspects of the institutional church behind them represent the totality of their faith. But they do represent a subset of their faith.

And I do think it is fair to cast moral judgement on the side of Hypatia, and against her Christian persecutors.

19 Lee August 3, 2010 at 8:55 am

I watched Agora in Bethesda yesterday.

I agree with Tyler that the movie is pro-science, but I saw its attitude toward Christianity as more ambivalent. I would bet the director was inspired by Carl Sagan (the scenes of the planet from space, the emphasis on the library of Alexandria, the female rationalist heroine).

But Tyler, didn’t you think the scene where the young slave learns to practice Christian charity and subsequently to pray is moving–and meant to be? And certainly the prefect and others point out to Hypatia that her interest in the orbits is completely irrelavant to the moral/political problems they actually face. She is not altogether sympathetic. And the young Christian is not a villain.

When the camera zooms out to show how tiny their conflicts are in relation to the Earth and its motion, you can understand that two ways. The first is the obvious rationalist point that their conflicts are parochial. But the other is to see it as showing the cold indifference of orbital theories to the very real problems between people in Alexandria at that time: very poor people in need of food, the necessity of political compromises, etc.

I am an atheist who will be recommending this movie to friends because of the plausible depiction of a young slave’s conversion to Christianity a few centuries after Jesus and the terrible crosspressures he was feeling on all sides. The didactic pro-science blah-blahing about some philosopher’s anticipations of Kepler is much less plausible and certainly less interesting.

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