Agora: some thoughts

Religion / Science

I finally took the time to watch the movie Agora. It was recommended to me over Christmas. It’s been on the top of my NetFlix queue for a month or two waiting for me to have the time to watch it.

I’m also reading Phillip Jenkins’ latest book “The Jesus Wars” and thus reading his description of the same time in history as is being dramatized in the movie. I suppose it’s the book that’s finally gotten me to pop the DVD into the player and invest the evening.

Agora is the story of Hypatia, a historical figure in 4th Century Alexandria – a period covered in Jenkins book as being a time in which much of the theological controversies of the early Church came to their head; particularly the discussions regarding the nature of God and the specific details of the relationship between the divine and human with in the historical person of Jesus.

The film opens with what is to me an anachronistic presentation of Ptolemy’s description of celestial motion. Anachronistic because Ptolemy did his work in the early part of the second century and movie takes place in the 4th. I suppose the writers are attempting to set up a controversy between the scientific world of the Hypatia the philosopher and the religious worldview of the street in a way that is meant to evoke the Renaissance controversy between the Pope and Galileo. It spins out a domestic controversy of the conversion of Hypatia’s family slaves to Christianity in opposition to the Pagan beliefs of her and her father.

(A side note, Hypatia’s scandal at Ptolemy’s circles within circles is something that doesn’t actually bother people until Roger Bacon’s day and the application of Occam’s Razor.)

What’s interesting to me is the way the film makes real the shame and honor culture that Jenkins describes as being the driver of so much of the what is to us today inconceivable violent controversy between religion in a cosmopolitan culture. As Jenkins suggests, to get a better sense of what it was like in those days, it’s necessary to think of Alexandria as being like modern Baghdad with its conflict between Muslim sects, Christians and others. What we think of as unimaginable is being played out day by day with bombings, martyrdoms and honor killings all in the response to some perceived slight to one’s religious views.

Christians managed to convert from following a God who refused to do violence in response to violence, to doing murder in God’s name in less than a third of a millennium.

The film shows the pagans, trapped in the Library by the encamped Christians, discussing the nature of motion and planetary dynamics, as a way of setting up what the Christian rabble are going to destroy in revenge for the attack of the pagans upon them. The message seems to be that the Pagans are noble and educated. The Christians are hypocrites. Interestingly the destruction that occurred in Alexandria is sometimes argued to have taken place because of a spilling over of the anti-Arian arguments in the city at the time (though this view is controversial). The details of the destruction presented in the film are rather a bit of a stretch – to say the least. The part where the Christians are shouting Alleluia as the culture that has resulted from thousands of years of human intellectual inquiry strikes me as excellent drama but not particularly balanced.

This film was the highest grossing film of the year in Spain. I don’t recall of hearing about much outrage, though apparently the Catholic Defamation League of Spain objected to its message. Which means the majority of people who flocked to see it must have essentially agreed with its sense that the anti-intellectual Christian rabble is the greatest destructive force in civilization. Though to be honest, I expect filmgoers who agreed with the movie’s view would not have excluded Islam from the honor either.

The film’s argument that religion is essentially destructive is awfully one sided in its presentation. But frankly its historicity makes it hard to argue against. Those who follow the crucified savior are probably well chastened by that. I am.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...

1 Comment

  1. I saw Agora when it first came out in NYC and loved Weisz’ performance as Hypatia. I thought the film was beautifully shot, a bit uneven, and a wonderful exploration of modern themes (as you point out similar to what is happening in Iraq) in a historical context. I’ll check out The Jesus Wars, looks very interesting.
    However, Agora is entertainment and a fictionalized version of Hypatia’s life. For more about the historical Hypatia, I recommend a very readable biography Hypatia of Alexandria by Maria Dzielska (Harvard University Press, 1995). I also have a series of posts on the historical events and characters in the film at my blog – not a movie review, just a “reel vs. real” discussion.

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