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Beware of Agora: Part 3. – Even Atheists Are Rejecting This Film's Version of History.)

I wonder what Amenabar will say when he’s confronted with the real history of his subject.

Alejandro Amenabar

The more I read about this film, the stronger my Agora-phobia becomes. It’s just so PC to paint Christians as history’s villains. Imagine what would happen if people started rewriting history and portraying , say, homosexuals… or environmentalists… or African Americans… as responsible for crimes and atrocities that were not really their responsibility. The mainstream media would make quite an event of it, tarring and feathering whoever dared to distort historical accounts to indulge a particular prejudice. But if someone writes historical fiction that looks credible, and casts Christians as the maniacal villains in place of the folks really responsible, mainstream audiences nod solemnly as if this is, and has always been, the way events play out.

The ever-resourceful du Garbandier has pointed to the most thorough take-down of Agora‘s spectacular misrepresentations of its subject that I’ve yet seen.

And this article’s by an atheist who writes:

…as usual, bigots and anti-theistic zealots will ignore the evidence, the sources and rational analysis and believe Hollywood’s appeal to their prejudices. It makes you wonder who the real enemies of reason actually are.

[UPDATE: My favorite film critic, Steven Greydanus, has posted his own commentary, and it’s well worth reading.]

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32 Comments

  1. linds
    May 27, 2010 at 4:37 pm — Reply

    I just wish we could look at history clearly. It’s hard enough to figure out what really happened from primary sources without all this stupid politicization of the past (demonizing on one side and white-washing on the other). If we can’t resist that temptation, we’ll never learn from our history.

  2. Gaith
    May 27, 2010 at 10:52 pm — Reply

    Sorry, Jeffrey, but the fact that this film appears to get its story totally wrong does not in any way argue against the larger idea of Christians (though I’d prefer to say “Christianity”) as “history’s villains.”

    You clearly feel that Christianity is more credible than Greco-Roman paganism. Fair enough, feelings are feelings, and not subject to logical proofs. I see no logical basis whatsoever, however, for *believing* that assertion. All religions can’t be right, but they can all be wrong.

    I recommend to you this LAT op-ed from a few years ago, titled “Gods, or God? Perhaps the Greeks and Romans had the right idea with their polytheism” : http://articles.latimes.com/2007/oct/23/news/OE-LEFKOWITZ23. The key quote: “Openness to discussion and inquiry is a distinguishing feature of Greek theology. It suggests that collective decisions often lead to a better outcome. Respect for a diversity of viewpoints informs the cooperative system of government the Athenians called democracy.”

    The Greeks invented a form, albeit limited, of self-government; a Roman invented the steam engine. It would a millennium of Christianity-dominated European history to resurrect those two ideas.

    Of course, if monotheism is the fundamental error that I posit, Judaism was the original sin – but at least the Jewish faith places little to no importance upon conversion of others. If its notion of the divine was antithetical to Greco-Roman civilization, its threat was at least a manageable one. But Christianity and the Roman Empire didn’t seem to get along.

    Myself, I can’t help but wonder what *might* have been had Jesus been forgotten and paganism endured. Could centuries of ignorance and comparative barbarism have been averted? We’ll of course never know, and either way, contemporary secular humanitarianism is, in my opinion, the species’ crowning intellectual achievement to date.

    Maybe history is too complex to label any particular thought or group as a (never mind THE) villain. But if I had to pick one idea/group, Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheism and its adherents would certainly be it. The argument could be made.

    But casting homosexuals as the villains? Not only does a large faction of Christianity do just that all the time… But it’s like comparing roast beef to Tuesday. No argument whatsoever.

  3. May 28, 2010 at 6:03 am — Reply

    In my judgment there would be little use in responding to Gaith and his traveling bag of pet prejudices, not only against Christians but against history itself. I would only make an observation about reason. Sadly, claiming the high ground of reason, rationality, logic, etc. against the untutored masses is a popular internet pastime. The type of person who does this tends to suppose that the purpose of reason is to elucidate things, i.e. to make things lucid, to clarify, to lay bare whatever facts or truths the mind looks to illuminate. And yes, reason does this. But what people like Alejandro Amenabar, Christopher Hitchens, and, from the looks of it, Gaith here overlook is that many of the most powerful instances of reasoning, guided by imagination and charity, are powerful precisely insofar as they serve to illuminate just how little we actually know and how dimly we really see. The world is steeped in ambiguity and mystery, and the truly reasonable student of history will respond in deep humility to the marked complexities of time and place. Only a pretender to reason and logic would observe the world and its inhabitants in all their difficult mystery and stifle and smother them by cramming them into one’s Little Golden Book of Ideology and calling that process reason or logic. Let the self-proclaimed masters of reason demonstrate their reasonableness by their profound humility in the face of life itself.

  4. Julio
    May 28, 2010 at 8:09 am — Reply

    Gaith,

    Let’s start here: “Fair enough, feelings are feelings, and not subject to logical proofs”

    It seems all calls for “openness and discussion” begin with a broad dismissal of Christianity. To pick on your point of reference, nobody is under the impression that Greco-Roman paganism had any basis in fact. By and large, most people accept it today, and maybe even then, as mythology, any possible nugget of historical fact being obscured by ages of expansion through imagination. Christianity on the other hand, is centered on a historical figure and an event which has a date and eyewitness testimony.

    Much discussion and research about the reliability of that testimony has been done. And, while there are those who posit that the accounts are unreliable, there are those who come to the opposite conclusion using commonly accepted methods of scholarship. So before you continue to propogate the “unthinking Christian” stereotype, I have to ask, have you taken the same honest and open-minded look that you call for at that research?

    Second, while acts done under the banner of Christianity have not always been positive or even “Christian” by Biblical standards, it is an incomplete view of history to place all ills at the feet of monotheism in general and hold up secularism as the answer. It ignores the atrocities commited by secular governments like modern-day China and Soviet Russia to name a few. And yet, in light of those regimes, I don’t discount or dismiss your worldview. I merely request more respect for mine.

  5. bill holston
    May 28, 2010 at 8:40 am — Reply

    I only have time for a short response. Briefly, while you make your point in a thougtful way, I think it misses a key point. Evil has been merily done by every single philosophical idea, including atheism. That alone doesn’t prove or disprove any of the philosphies or religions.

    I think one of the things all oppressive systems have in common is a certainty in their own exclusive views that lead them to the persecution of others.

    Christianity at least, if it is true to its teaching should in my humble view lead to a loving tolerance of others. If Christians had stuck to the actual words of Jesus, none of the plaques the church has unleashed would have occurred.

  6. May 28, 2010 at 9:11 am — Reply

    I am an evangelical Christian (let’s put that on the table) and have no problem at all with Gaith’s reasoned perspective. It doesn’t insult me, it is engaged on facts, and unafraid. I wish more people would put it out there like that. Let’s face it: Gaith’s is a mainstream, even establishment, perspective.
    I have a different point of view, of course. But Gaith, I would enjoy a dinner conversation with you anytime. I just hope you wouldn’t mind my pulling out the trump card of illustrating your point by mentioning atheistic cultures. Yes, I would talk about studying in the Soviet Union during the late 70’s, life today in North Korea – you know, all the usual dirty tricks. I imagine you would want your constructs to remain aloof from actual human experience. But that’s okay, we can turn to literature instead – Bradbury, Orwell and all kinds of dystopian perspectives.

  7. vsurg
    May 28, 2010 at 9:25 am — Reply

    It is undeniable that atrocities have been committed in the name of Jesus Christ. What is ignored it that such acts are inconsistent with the person, work and teachings of Christ while being committed by so-called adherents to the faith.

    Such could not be said about the bloodiest century in history, the twentieth, where tens of millions were slaughtered in the name and with the blessing of atheist tyrants whose sole purpose was to annihilate opposition to their worldview. From a strictly materialist, neo-darwinian point of view, there is nothing to criticize here. The fittest and the strongest are the survivors. There is no such thing as “good” or “bad”, there just “is”.

    Gaith, be consistent. You can’t hijack moral categories and insert them into an atheist worldview. What is “good” and “bad” to an atheist? To whom are you accountable ultimately other than your own appetites?

    Lastly, you left out one logical possibility in your assertion about religions. While stating, correctly, that not all religions can be right and that all religions could be wrong, you forgot the only other possibility-that there is one right answer. Christianity has at its core a theoretical Achille’s Heel. Produce the body and “we are of all men most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:16-19).

    The testimony of Christ it what he has done in his life, death and resurrection, not what I have done with that fact. I testify to Christ’s faithfulness not my own or that of the those, who like me, have been confused as to how to carry out his imperatives. That said, there have been many that have done well with that task through the centuries that have been swept under the rug with your broad brush of reproach.

  8. Stuart B
    May 28, 2010 at 9:36 am — Reply

    I’m going to throw out that LAT op-ed because I haven’t read it, so obviously it can’t be true. If I haven’t directly personally experienced it, it’s not true. So all those thoughts and quotes mean nothing. I see no logical basis for accepting any of them. And I’m not seeing any support proofs for Greeks inventing government or for a Roman inventing the steam engine, so we can’t assume on either, but you are free to keep on believing that those things happened. As someone once said (which I have experienced, so I can claim it), “Feelings are feelings, and not subject to logical proofs.”

    Now I’m not seeing any backing for the idea that “monotheism is evil”…just a blatant assumption. Feelings are feelings, and not subject to logical proofs.

    No proof either for Christianity and the Roman Empire not getting along, although I’m sure I can provide some proof that they did. A better statement would be “Christianity and Roman Emperors” did not get along.

    A good rhetorician would also point out what he means by ‘contemporary secular humanitarianism’, and would allow debate on each of those words and points raised in order to lead his audience toward his goal. But as an aside, it’s interesting that to include the word ‘contemporary’ you have to allow for a foundation built almost solely on a Judeo-Christian heritage and worldview. Taking a step back farther, the Enlightenment and Renaissance were impossible without the Reformation. Again, I could provide proofs if pressed, but this isn’t a serious discussion…this is the Internet.

    You are correct in saying that marginally select groups of people claiming the name of Christ declare homosexuals as the villains. It happens, and sucks. But you will not find that in any teaching about Christ. The guy in the drive thru at McDonalds may have spit in your drink but you can’t blame Coke, McDonalds, or God for that.

    And yet many do.

  9. Stuart B
    May 28, 2010 at 9:43 am — Reply

    …I would have loved to see someone ask Socrates if he had any proof for anything he said.

  10. jeremy.landes
    May 28, 2010 at 9:50 am — Reply

    Forget about the Christians this film is accusing, what about all those innoicent bunnies the film will inspire the masses to skin and wear around their necks to keep warm this summer! Save those lapin agiles and watch Prince of Persia!

  11. May 28, 2010 at 10:26 am — Reply

    I think a distinction should be made between Christianity and the historical organization known as the church. There are so many examples of a locus of power abusing that power and manipulating things to extend its power. We see this in the history of the church as an organization. Jesus was an opponent of the same sort of thing occurring in the Jewish faith.

    God is not necessarily aligned with the power centers of Christianity. This should be our lesson. I agree that many of the actions of the organized church cannot and should not be defended by Christians, and that overall the organized church may have been a force more for evil than for good. But Christianity has been a force for good.

  12. Rick Ro.
    May 28, 2010 at 11:31 am — Reply

    It seems to me that the common element in what Gaith wrote and in all the responses is: the human race. To me this shows how screwed up the human race is. It seems to me that if evil can be done by people who don’t know God and Christ (there are plenty of examples, as has been pointed out), then it’s a bit unfair to say that the evil done by Christians is due to God and Christ. A communist or socialist could easily say that the things done under Stalin and North Korea aren’t what those social systems are about. Likewise, I’d say that the evil done in Christ’s name is not “of Christ,” but due to a human warping of what Christ preached. The problem with any system or belief is that ultimately humans are placed in positions of power and control over those systems and beliefs, and the history of humankind shows how power and control tends to corrupt even those with the best of intentions.

    Bottom line: don’t blame the evil done by humans on systems or beliefs, blame it on the human tendency to do evil.

  13. May 28, 2010 at 5:44 pm — Reply

    Firstly, thanks to Jeffrey for his endorsement of my article on “Agora”. As you can see from the 100+ comments it engendered, some people didn’t like having their cosy myths about Hypatia exposed to critical analysis and – inevitably – I’ve been accused of being some kind of closet Christian apologist rather than an atheist who likes to get his facts right and to look at history *objectively*, instead of clinging to myths, however cute and cosy.

    Speaking of myths:

    Gaith spake:

    “The Greeks invented a form, albeit limited, of self-government; a Roman invented the steam engine. It would a millennium of Christianity-dominated European history to resurrect those two ideas.”
    These two sentences are quite a muddle. Yes, the Greeks did manage to get a form of democracy going for a while (though bad luck if you were an Athenian woman or a slave). But it was not killed off by Christianity – it died long before Jesus was even born and its ashes were stamped on by successive generations of Macedonian, Ptolomaic, Selecid and Roman despots and monarchs. And we actually didn’t have to wait “a millennium” before similar forms of (limited) democracy arose again – we see it again in Icelandic society and in the city states of Italy and in the Parliaments of England – all of which flourished *during* that supposedly benighted millennium of the Middle Ages.

    Yes, Heron of Alexandria came up with a “steam engine”. Of sorts. It was little more than a toy and a novelty and it led to nothing much. But this was not because nasty Christians came along and made everyone stupid. It’s because Roman metallurgy was too primitive to take the simple principle Heron discovered any further. The more advanced metals technology required to create a *true* steam engine – blast furnaces, cast iron etc. – didn’t develop for several more centuries. And when did most of those advances appear? Surprise, surprise – during the much-maligned Middle Ages.

    This comic book-level view of history that paints Christianity as some kind of villain that suppressed technology and prevented the “advancement” of Europe is simply nonsense. I like to ask its shrill proponents to give me one example of a technology that the Medieval Church suppressed. Just one. They always come up with nothing. I can then give them multiple examples of technologies that not only arose when the Medieval Church was supposedly oppressing everyone, but were actively fostered in many cases by Church communities, especially monasteries – water-power technology, windmills, blast furnaces, trip hammers, the clock, eyeglasses etc.

    In much the same way I often ask them to give me the name of a single scientist who the Medieval Church oppressed. Just one. They usually come up with none (though some of them try, amusingly, to shoehorn Galileo back into the Middle Ages). But I can then give them a laundry list of Medieval natural philosophers who were part of the greatest flowering of scientific innovation since the Hellenistic Period and who did so unmolested by the Medieval Church: eg. Jean Buridan de Bethune, Nicole d’Oresme, Albrecht of Saxony, Albertus Magnus, Robert Grosseteste, Thomas Bradwardine, Theodoric of Fribourg, Roger Bacon, Thierry of Chartres, Gerbert of Aurillac, William of Conches, John Philoponus, John Peckham, Duns Scotus, Thomas Bradwardine, Walter Burley, William Heytesbury, Richard Swineshead, John Dumbleton and Nicholas of Cusa.

    “Myself, I can’t help but wonder what *might* have been had Jesus been forgotten and paganism endured. Could centuries of ignorance and comparative barbarism have been averted? ”

    This idea that pre-Christian paganism was somehow a shining beacon of rationality and openness is another cute modern myth and another one based on a combination of profound ignorance and selective evidence. The Romans, for example, could be brutally oppressive to rival systems of thought when they chose. Ask the Bacchanalian cults that were savagely exterminated by Republican Rome, for example. Or the druids, who were massacred to a man. Or, for that matter, the early Christians – ask them how “tolerant” the Romans were of ideas that didn’t fit the narrow Roman parameters of what the “right” kind of religion was supposed to look like.

    Ditto for the rationality of the pre-Christian world. We have a warped view of how rational the Greeks and Romans were because our ancient texts were preserved by *Christians*. So they preserved the works of logic, philosophy and science that a tiny fraction of Roman and Hellenic society read and didn’t bother to preserve the *masses* of material that made up the bulk of ancient literary culture: the pronouncements of sybils, books on divination and magic and manuals about how many times a castrated, rattle-shaking priest should walk around a statue of a given god chanting incantations. Whenever anyone starts telling me about how rational the Romans were I like to point them to the lengthy list of bizarre taboos imposed on one of their highest-ranking priests – the [i]Flamen Dialis[/i] – and to ask them if they think nonsense like his amazing magical hat, his inability to touch raw meat or beans or the proscription against him sleeping a bed whose legs have been smeared with clay sound very “rational” to them.

    Those centuries of “ignorance and relative barbarism” were the result of the total and catastrophic collapse of the Western Roman Empire, not Christianity. The Eastern Empire endured happily while Europe recovered from that collapse and over there the study of Greek philosophy and science continued as it always had. Where, I ask people who claim otherwise, do you think the Arabs got their copies of Aristotle and Ptolemy that (Medieval Christian) Europeans later rediscovered? Did they fall from the sky? No, they were preserved by Eastern Imperial and Nestorian scholars – all of them *Christians*.

    Gaith needs to take off those blinkers and learn some history.

  14. Gaith
    May 28, 2010 at 6:22 pm — Reply

    Hello everyone, and thank you for all your thoughts and replies. I’m leaving on a weekend trip this evening and won’t be able to write a decent response to the above posts until Sunday or possibly Monday, but I would certainly like to do so then. Until that time, have a splendid and peaceful Memorial Day Weekend! 🙂

  15. Julio
    May 29, 2010 at 5:22 am — Reply

    Gaith: You usually have something interesting to say, so I look forward to your response.

    Tim: I should probably post this over at your blog, but thank you for your article and your objectivity. While I understand you are not intending to be a defender of the Christian faith, it is still refreshing to find someone who is able to approach it and its history with such clarity. “The Church” has screwed up enough over the course of history having to fabricate (or in the case of Agora, co-opt) additional material. You’ve gained a new reader.

  16. May 29, 2010 at 10:30 am — Reply

    A few more thoughts for Gaith.

    A full accounting of the role of Christianity in history will certainly include many dark pages. But the other side of the ledger must also be taken into account.

    The early Christians made waves in the Roman world for several reasons. The organized almsgiving carried out by the Roman church was unprecedented in the ancient world. Christians were known for providing for widows and orphans, caring for the sick and victims of natural disasters, visiting prisoners and shut-ins. Concern for the exploitation and oppressive taxation of the lower classes was a characteristic concern of the Roman church, which frequently intervening with public authorities on their behalf.

    The early Christians condemned the popular blood sports of the day, eventually leading to the banning of gladiator fights. They condemned not only abortion but the infanticide that was common (particularly the infanticide of girls) in many places. Confident of salvation, they showed a fearlessness in the face of dreaded diseases and imperial power that astonished others.

    Human history is in significant part a history of war, and Christian history, alas, is no different. What is uniquely Christian in origin is an unprecedented moral scrutiny of both why and how war is waged. Just war theory is a development of Christian thought, and while Christian societies have often fallen woefully short in applying it, Christian societies have often considered themselves bound to moral considerations in warfare that few if any pre-Christian cultures would have bothered with. The Geneva Conventions are a product of Christian culture and moral principles.

    Throughout much of history, unfortunately including Christian history, slavery has been a cultural constant. Even the Athenian democracy you tout subsisted on the back of large-scale slavery. What is uniquely Christian in origin is principled opposition to slavery and the successful abolition of slavery, advanced by Christians within a Christian cultural context explicitly acting on and appealing to Christian principles. In some ways Christianity changed the equation from the outset, since in Christ both master and slave were brothers and fellow servants of one master. In the civil rights movement, likewise, there were Christians on both sides, but it was Christianity that produced the civil rights movement.

    Throughout much of history, unfortunately including Christian history, strong powers have subjugated and exploited other peoples, creating far-flung empires. What is unique in Christian imperial history is that Christian empires exported the very moral principles with which their subjects would eventually throw off their yoke. Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance defeated the British empire; it would not have defeated the Persian empire.

    Throughout much of history, unfortunately including Christian history, women have been second-class citizens, chattels or worse. This too applies to ancient Greece as well as ancient Rome. Like slavery, this was slow to change even in Christian culture, but here too change began almost immediately, rooted in Jesus’ own example of disregarding the inferior status of women. The present-day perspective on male and female equality is inseparable from the historic development of Christian thought and culture in this regard.

    Despite the popular Enlightenment myth of religion versus science — and the comparatively few and misrepresented historical incidents that stand behind the myth — there is a reason why, in the words of Dr. Thomas Woods, “For the last fifty years, virtually all historians of science — including A. C. Crombie, David Lindberg, Edward Grant, Stanley Jaki, Thomas Goldstein, and J. L. Heilbron — have concluded that the Scientific Revolution was indebted to the Catholic Church” (How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, p. 4).

    Finally, while it is impossible to know or even meaningfully speculate what sort of culture and art might have grown up in historically Christian cultures absent Christianity, walking through the Louvre or the Vatican museums, listening to Beethoven or Palestrina, reading Augustine or Dante or Shakespeare or Tolkien, standing in St. Peter’s Basilica or Notre Dame, I at least find it impossible to take seriously a ham-fisted assessment of Christianity as a net force of evil in the world. Cheers.

  17. Gaith
    May 31, 2010 at 11:17 pm — Reply

    Well, it took longer than expected, but I’m back, so I’ll dive right in…

    First, I’d like to point out that I *didn’t* call atheism humanity’s best idea OR my worldview. In fact, unlike several of the above posters, I didn’t use that word at all. I did, however, nominate “secular humanitarianism” for the honor, causing Julio, PScott Cummins (who I particularly thank for his kind words), vsurg, and Rick Ro. to bring up the atheistic dictatorships of the 20th century. But this is indeed a common canard, or “dirty trick”, as Mr. Cummins says. The Soviet Union, along with Nazism, gleefully embraced pseudoscience – deliberately nonscientific, false reasoning – and used the state to promulgate its beliefs. If that stops just short of endorsing a religious/afterlife-centric worldview, it certainly violates the spirit of secularism as a philosophical notion. North Korea was also mentioned twice. Given the extreme cult of patriarchal leadership there, can we really care it a significantly more secular country than Iran?

    But that’s only half of the term I used. “Humanitarianism” connotes civil liberties, especially the freedoms of speech and due process, as well as regular, secret and meaningful elections. So no, fascist dictatorships in no way argue for the virtues of religion as superior to secular humanitarianism, because they never even tried to be the latter.

    @ vsurg: You wrote: “what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ to an atheist? To whom are you accountable ultimately other than your own appetites?” I take no pleasure in saying that this question implies an appalling ignorance of millennia of historical/philosophical thought, to say nothing of behavioral psychology. I suggest you Google a Steven Pinker NYT article, which has a paragraph that begins: “Putting God in charge of morality is one way to solve the problem, of course, but Plato made short work of it 2,400 years ago.” I also urge you to read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

    @ Stuart B.: “ho, ho”, as the great Ebert likes to write.

    @ du Garbandier: I’m all for due humility, and don’t think I made any sweeping, definitive statements. I only responded in the first place to Jeffrey’s heavily suggestion that, should there indeed be any single “greatest historical villain at all”, Christianity was *not* it.

    @ Julio: yes, I have considered the logic-based arguments for Christianity. But the fact that it’s “centered on a historical figure and an event which has a date and eyewitness testimony” is not unique; Islam and Mormonism make the same claims, and historians unanimously attest that their prophets actually existed, whether the historicity of some form of Jesus is likelier than not, but not definitively proven either.

    Finally, I commend Tim O’Neill and SDG for their particularly thoughtful and learned comments. To be sure, I in no way deny that Christians and persons in Christian nations made huge and priceless contributions to human history, and the ancient paganisms were indeed barbaric and justly discredited. But to credit Christianity to all these advances is just as dubious as crediting paganism with all its societies’ travesties.

    Maybe I’m too blinded by my aesthetic preference for many gods, some of them female, over a single male deity to get a fair read on history and how ideas informed it. And yes, there are some philosophical benefits to the one god idea as opposed to anarchic (if more egalitarian) paganism, though I need hardly point out the obvious potential for undemocratic and unjust deeds in the name of a monarchic monotheism.

    As Douglas Adams wrote as a Hitchhiker’s Guide entry, (paraphrased) “Art: n. nothing. The purpose of art is to hold a mirror up to existence, and there isn’t a mirror big enough.” One could say the same of history, I suppose.

    I can only return, therefore, to the primacy of secular humanitarianism as the height of human reason.

  18. Julio
    June 1, 2010 at 9:57 am — Reply

    Gaith wrote: “But the fact that it’s “centered on a historical figure and an event which has a date and eyewitness testimony” is not unique; Islam and Mormonism make the same claims, and historians unanimously attest that their prophets actually existed, whether the historicity of some form of Jesus is likelier than not, but not definitively proven either.”

    Okay, so you haven’t objectively approached any research on this matter, then. The historicity of Jesus is not only set forth by the Gospels which pass some pretty strident tests of authenticity, but confirmed in external sources as well. That he existed is not a question. That he is who he says he was we can argue another time, but your original comparison was on of Christianity to pagan mythology on the reasoning that “feelings are feelings.” If he actually existed and his ministry was ANYTHING like has been described in the gospels than we have to move past your original claims about the equality of credibility between Christianity and ancient paganism which was the subject of my original response.

    As for your comparison to Islam and Mormonism, that too boils down to Jesus’ claims about himself and the historical event of the Resurrection which would set him apart from said prophets. Again, it’s an event with a historical timestamp that you can either prove or disprove. And if you disprove that one fact, you undo Christianity. Even the Apostle Paul says so in his own writings. I can’t do the arguments for it any justice here nor do I want this to become a “come to Jesus” sort of post, but I recommend you do some further research into the matter.

  19. Rick Ro.
    June 1, 2010 at 7:03 pm — Reply

    Gaith, one of my favorite passages in the Bible addresses your preference for many gods over a single male deity. From Joshua 24:14b-15: “Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”

    The simple fact is that no one can convince you which God you should serve. However, I can state, as Joshua does, “As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” And along with that statement, I can give reasons for that statement. For me, the primary reason I serve the God of the Bible is because He is the kind of God I want to serve. The God of the Bible is the only god from whom I get a sense of His overwhelming love for me, His deep desire to have a relationship with me, His desire to have me be reconcilled to Him. It is the God of the Bible who sent His one and only Son to die for me and who sent His Spirit to reside with me. I don’t believe any other religions offer a god like the one in the Bible, who are as loving, graceful, merciful, patient, forgiving, etc. For instance, the God of the Mormon bible, so closely patterned after the God of the Bible, is really a god of works. I want to worship a Lord who simply states, “Believe in me and you will have eternal life.” I want to serve a Lord who makes it easy to get into heaven, not hard; I don’t want to serve a god who demands I do works all my life, or that I kill infidels, or that I live a thousand lives until I get it right.

    As Joshua says, you choose for yourself which god you want to chase after. But as for me, I’ll continue to serve the God of the Bible and the Lord Jesus Christ, who loves me more than any of those other gods do, and who gives me peace and comfort as I live out my time on this earth.

  20. Martin
    June 1, 2010 at 10:07 pm — Reply

    Sorry, Gaith, that wasn’t worth staying up for.

    If you have an actual argument to make in support of “the idea of Christians (though I’d prefer to say ‘Christianity’) as ‘history’s villains,’” then make it.

    If you have a definition for “secular humanitarianism” (i.e., as practiced where and by whom), then let’s hear it. (You seem to be at least part of the way there on this question, at least.)

  21. Bryan Rust
    June 2, 2010 at 12:02 pm — Reply

    As usual, I’m mystified as to why my fellow Christians have their panties in a bunch. So defensive! As far as I can tell, the movie is not being marketed as a documentary. Malick’s New World can’t really be used to teach a history course, but the many historical inaccuracies don’t take away from it being one of the great movies of all time. The Buddy Holly Story is pretty much fiction from start to finish, but it’s always going to be near the top of my list for musical biographies. Think about cutting Amenabar whatever slack you cut Scorcese for Last Temptation or Gibson for Passion (or Attenborough for Ghandi, or Lee for Malcom X, etc, etc). It’s the movies, boys and girls.

  22. June 2, 2010 at 1:44 pm — Reply

    “To be sure, I in no way deny that Christians and persons in Christian nations made huge and priceless contributions to human history, and the ancient paganisms were indeed barbaric and justly discredited. But to credit Christianity to all these advances is just as dubious as crediting paganism with all its societies’ travesties.”

    Luckily for me I did neither of these things. You, however, made a very weak point about how the Greeks and Romans came up with a couple of advanced-seeming things but that then there was some “millennium of Christianity-dominated European history” when things were not as advanced (or something). I simply pointed out that this is total garbage. Christian institutions actually *did* support and develop some of the many advancements in technology in that “millennium of Christianity-dominated European history” – this is simply fact. But of course this doesn’t mean that anyone is “crediting” Christianity with all such advances. All I am doing is DISCREDITING your highly simplistic attempt at insinuating that “Christianity-dominated European history” somehow retarded advancement. This is abject nonsense.

  23. Martin
    June 2, 2010 at 6:08 pm — Reply

    I dunno, Bryan … maybe if Attenborough had presented Gandhi as a marauder on horseback who drove the British from India via a series of daring military raids, but was shot by a treacherous lover … or if The Buddy Holly Story ended with the Big Bopper strangling Holly with a guitar strap in a fit of jealousy over record sales … then you’d have something on the scale of what Amenabar is doing here.

  24. June 3, 2010 at 10:41 am — Reply

    @Gaith: “But to credit Christianity to all these advances is just as dubious as crediting paganism with all its societies’ travesties.”

    OTOH, when e.g. the movement to abolish slavery rises specifically in Christian society and is advanced by devout Christians specifically citing Christian principles as the basis for their advocacy, then it would seem to be prima facie dubious to suggest that Christianity and the abolition of slavery are not meaningfully interrelated.

    @Bryan Rust: “As usual, I’m mystified as to why my fellow Christians have their panties in a bunch. So defensive! As far as I can tell, the movie is not being marketed as a documentary. … It’s the movies, boys and girls.”

    That strikes me as a rather dismissive, demeaning response. Perhaps you are mystified because you caricature what you haven’t adequately sought to understand?

    On your brisk accounting, it would seem there are no rational grounds for objecting to any fiction film. (The Birth of a Nation?) Can we recognize that fiction often presents a worldview, and that worldviews may include objectionable elements?

    As should be clear by now, (a) Agora includes many untrue elements that have been claimed as true and believed to be so by many educated people (e.g., Carl Sagan), and (b) a good bit of the momentum behind these distortions lies in their congeniality to an Enlightenment master narrative that is also claimed and believed by many to be truth, the myth of religion’s war on reason.

    I think this sufficiently accounts for objections to the film without the need for speculation about the state of other people’s undergarments (or for Clintonesque disclosures to the contrary effect).

  25. June 3, 2010 at 11:03 am — Reply

    Bryan wrote:

    The Buddy Holly Story is pretty much fiction from start to finish, but it’s always going to be near the top of my list for musical biographies. Think about cutting Amenabar whatever slack you cut Scorcese for Last Temptation or Gibson for Passion (or Attenborough for Ghandi, or Lee for Malcom X, etc, etc). It’s the movies, boys and girls.

    If the alterations were being made in service of something good, that would be one thing. Last Temptation declares that it is a fiction, and not based on the Gospels, right up front in its introductory text. It announces itself as speculation in service of grappling with questions about how a man might be both divine and human. Thus, it makes no attempt to cloak its heretical suggestions in the guise of truth. Amenabar’s film presents itself as a relevant historical epic. But it’s full of slanderous implications that have no basis in history. That will have a harmful effect on viewers.

    If someone made a documentary about the rock-and-roll scene of the 70s, and portrayed, say, Neil Young as a child-molester engaged in graphic sexual crimes, would you shrug and say, “It’s the movies?” Or would you say, “Sheesh… that was a little uncalled for! That seemed like a movie made by somebody with a rather irrational compulsion to tarnish Neil Young’s reputation, with no evidence to support his claims.”

    I’m not saying there’s nothing of value in movies that fudge historical details for the sake of compelling stories. I’m not strict about “They must get everything exactly right.” But if the “fudging” encourages the perpetuation of prejudice and false history to the harm of a particular person or faith, that concerns me.

  26. Bryan Rust
    June 3, 2010 at 4:50 pm — Reply

    If someone made a documentary about 70s music, I would judge it as a documentary, not as a piece of fiction. Plus, I’d have to see “Don’t Let Neil Young Babysit Your Children” before I could form an opinion on whatever case is being made. Let’s have a show of hands: how many folks in this comment thread have actually SEEN Agora? I’ll go first. Haven’t had the chance yet!

    Does Amenabar think he’s telling the truth, a truth that needs to be told, nay, shouted from the rooftops? Probably. Is he wrong, mis-guided, misinformed or playing fast-and-loose with the facts? Probably. Does he have a right to make this movie? Absolutely, just like we have a right to disagree with his point of view. Thank God (literally) that we have moved beyond the place where the protagonists of Birth of a Nation are seen as heroic. People were actually able to work out for themselves that the sentiments expressed in the film were a tad repugnant. But regardless of content, that movie is still on the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry as a historically important film worthy of preservation.

    Let’s do a little word substitution. “As should be clear by now, (a) The Bible includes many untrue elements that have been claimed as true and believed to be so by many educated people (e.g. C. S. Lewis), and (b) a good bit of the momentum behind these distortions lies in their congeniality to a Christian and Catholic narrative that is also claimed and believed by many to be the truth, the myth of a Supreme Being.” There is virtually nothing in that statement that I agree with, but why should I find it offensive? If one of my atheist or agnostic friends got together enough financing to make a virulent anti-Christian film based on this premise? It’s STILL just their point of view.

    Christianity and the church have survived The Golden Compass, The DaVinci Code, the Harry Potter movies and the original release of Last Temptation (back when seeing it could actually result in eternal damnation). Agora will come and go and the Church will still be standing. Ultimately, yes, it’s just a movie. Have a little friggin’ faith!

  27. June 3, 2010 at 7:40 pm — Reply

    A few quick notes:

    A) I made a misstep in choosing to say “documentary.” I should have said “drama.” It would have made for a better example.

    B) I do not feel that Christianity is threatened by this movie. But I do wince every time another film is introduced that increases the pop-culture portrayals of Christianity as guilty of certain historic evils because I care about education, and because I know a lot of people will believe what they seen on the big screen, and lack the speculative impulse to question and find the truth for themselves. So no, the movie doesn’t shake my faith. It just inspires me to say, “Hey, if you’re going to get up on a platform and join the crowd that’s using the big screen to tar and feather Christianity for crimes it didn’t commit, I’m going to contribute to the available evidence that you’re full of crap.” Just as Amenabar has every right to present his version of history, I feel pretty justified in using my blog to say, “Hmm, let’s look at the facts, shall we?” If that causes just one moviegoer to think twice about the history presented in this film, I’d say that’s worthwhile.

    C) When Christians produce entertainment that paint skeptics or non-Christians as sinister villains, it’s bad art and everybody says so. It’s preachy and skewed and unfairly biased. If I’m going to encourage people to think twice about that kind of proselytizing, I think it’s only fair to encourage people to think twice about portrayals that give false impressions in the other direction.

    D) I have no doubt that the Church will survive all of the entertainment that uses it as a scapegoat. But the apostles didn’t just take abuse. They spoke out against popular cultural heresies. They did so with some grace, and I’m sure I could learn more about that.

  28. Rick Ro.
    June 4, 2010 at 10:50 am — Reply

    Jeffrey, I really like your point (c). I often think many Christian bloggers and posters are hyper-critical of Christian movies/books/music (for being shoddy, preachy, biased, etc.), sometimes to the point where it feels like we’re throwing bricks at our friends. I do believe it is only fair to be allowed to do the same to the secular world’s movies/books/music. And your point (d) raises the issue of doing so gracefully, which is indeed the trick, isn’t it…

    (And I commend you for your gracefulness at lookingcloser!)

  29. June 5, 2010 at 6:05 am — Reply

    Christianity and the church have survived The Golden Compass, The DaVinci Code, the Harry Potter movies and the original release of Last Temptation (back when seeing it could actually result in eternal damnation). Agora will come and go and the Church will still be standing. Ultimately, yes, it’s just a movie. Have a little friggin’ faith”

    Bryan. Why do you resort to this kind of dismissive, distorting rhetoric against other people’s faith? When did I or anyone else say “The sky is falling! The Church as we know it is about to end because of this terrible, terrible movie!”?

    Your argument seems to be that since Christians believe that the Church will endure till the end of history, nothing is objectionable. I don’t see the logic there.

    Let’s do a little word substitution. “As should be clear by now, (a) The Bible includes many untrue elements that have been claimed as true and believed to be so by many educated people (e.g. C. S. Lewis), and (b) a good bit of the momentum behind these distortions lies in their congeniality to a Christian and Catholic narrative that is also claimed and believed by many to be the truth, the myth of a Supreme Being.” There is virtually nothing in that statement that I agree with, but why should I find it offensive? If one of my atheist or agnostic friends got together enough financing to make a virulent anti-Christian film based on this premise? It’s STILL just their point of view.

    I wonder if you aren’t losing the train of thought here. Mutatis mutandis, the person making the statement you propose would be an atheist objecting to a hypothetical Christian film. My original paragraph is not the thesis of a film (there’s no anti-Agora in the offing here, as far as I can tell), so proposing an alternate version of my graph as the thesis of a hypothetical film would seem to be a non sequitur.

    Having said that, the thesis “God does not exist” is non-parallel to the statement “Religion is at war with reason” in several respects. The first is more grievously and disastrously wrong. OTOH, where the first is merely a thesis about the nature of reality, the latter includes an indictment of a particular worldview as an agent of crimes or violence against the true and the good. In that sense, the latter is more inflammatory than the former. “God does not exist” may be compatible with tolerant coexistence with believers in God; “Religion is at war with reason” is a call to arms against religion. If you can’t see why some Christians are concerned about the latter (without losing faith or believing that the Church is about to end), I’m not sure I can make it any clearer.

  30. June 5, 2010 at 1:03 pm — Reply

    A fascinating discussion! I felt the movie was an indictment of all fanaticism, not just this age; but Amenabar does distort a lot of history in service to his art which Mr. O’Neill did a brilliant job of illuminating in his blog posts. Anyone who wants to know more about Hypatia should pick up “Hypatia of Alexandria” a very readable biography by Maria Dzielska (Harvard University Press, 1995.) I’ve also posted a series of essays on the “reel” vs. “real” historical events and characters depicted in the film at my blog (http://faithljustice.wordpress.com/)

  31. Bryan Rust
    June 5, 2010 at 1:11 pm — Reply

    Ah, I think I see where the disconnect might be. I don’t accept that religion and reason are diametrically opposed positions. Naive or not, for good or ill, if someone tries drawing a line in the sand, I see it as a sign that people with divisive viewpoints need to engage with each other directly to discuss differences and find common ground (kinda like what’s going on here). It would be lovely (if unrealistic) to be able to drag Amenabar into such a discussion (although if anyone could set that up, it would be Jeff O).

    Never meant to be dismissive, sorry if any of this came off that way. Thanks to everyone for being patient with me. Your passion, compassion and thoughtfulness are a true blessing.

    By the way, Agora played at the SIFF last night. If someone had chance to see it, it would be great to get a first-hand impression.

  32. martin
    June 14, 2010 at 12:10 pm — Reply

    [quote]I don’t accept that religion and reason are diametrically opposed positions.[/quote]
    Most Christians don’t either, and neither would adherents of most other religions AFAIK. Yet that is precisely the premise of Amenabar’s film.
    [quote]Naive or not, for good or ill, if someone tries drawing a line in the sand, I see it as a sign that people with divisive viewpoints need to engage with each other directly to discuss differences and find common ground (kinda like what’s going on here).[/quote]
    That is infinitely better than dismissing all the controversy because it’s “just a movie.”

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Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet

Novelist and critic Jeffrey Overstreet teaches writing (Seattle Pacific University) and film studies (Northwest University and Houston Baptist University). He's written a memoir of moviegoing and faith (Through a Screen Darkly, Baker, 2007) and a fantasy series that begins with Auralia's Colors (The Auralia Thread, Random House, 2007-11). He's worked since 2001 as a film critic and columnist at Christianity Today, and he's been a regular contributor to Image, Paste, and Christ & Pop Culture. His writing has been recognized by The New Yorker and The Seattle Times. He regularly speaks at universities, conferences, and churches in the U.S. and abroad. Want to invite him to teach or speak? Email joverstreet@gmail.com.