Tuesday, May 19, 2009

fundamentalism and historical fiction

In the media and in public opinion there seems to be a perception that currently we are undergoing a rise of fundamental religion, with particular emphasis on the role of religion in politics and so on. In Christian circles, you will more likely hear that we are going through a rise in secularism (?) and militant atheism. For instance, see Richard Dawkins, and I guess the media portrayal of 'fundamentalists'. In a way I think maybe these could be flip-sides of the same coin, if you see atheists as also leaning towards fundamentalism maybe it all makes sense. Maybe one side is right and the other is wrong. Maybe it is the age old lament, 'society's not what it used to be'.

Whichever, I am coming from the Christian perspective and constantly provoked by media discussion of religion and its ills, particularly when I feel it is defending Reason in an irrational manner. But that is really for another day. Today I am mostly wanting to talk about an article in the Herald about an upcoming film, Agora. It's based on the story of Hypatia, a female philosopher and mathematician in Alexandria in the 4th century (or so) AD.

Alright, I don't know much about this character, so as contrast for the claims made in the review I'm going to use Wikipedia. Anyone who is more knowledgeable, feel free to comment, maybe I will check more later, the Wikipedia article does seem well referenced though. Anyway, let's contrast quotes from this article with some wikipedia:

- On her life

SMH: "Rachel Weisz and director Alejandro Amenabar travelled back to ancient times to tell a modern story about a progressive woman standing against religious dogma and persecution."

Wiki: "According to the Byzantine "Suda", she worked as teacher of philosophy, teaching the works of Plato and Aristotle.[14] It is believed that there were both Christians[15] and foreigners[10] among her students. Although Hypatia was herself a pagan, she was respected by a number of Christians, and later held up by Christian authors as a symbol of virtue."

-On her death

SMH: Forced to flee the city's library, a storehouse of ancient knowledge and manuscripts, Hypatia rescues a handful of irreplaceable texts from a Christian ransacking and continues her theorising on the nature of the universe. Christian leaders eventually label her a witch and make her a martyr to scientific reason.

Wiki: Believed to have been the reason for the strained relationship between the Imperial Prefect Orestes and the Bishop Cyril, Hypatia attracted the ire of a Christian population eager to see the two reconciled. Despite her actual background, authors Soldan and Heppe wrote a text in 1990 arguing that Hypatia may have been the first famous "witch" punished under Christian authority.

And we'll give the director the last word:
"We all can tell that we are going to somewhere else. We don't know exactly what. And since I am an optimist by nature, I don't think we'll go back to something like the Middle Ages, but we can feel that something is not quite fitting right now."

Typical, diss the Middle Ages. There's more on both sides of this debate, so read both articles, they are interesting. Maybe the most annoying thing for me is that when I read that article I feel they're going to do that most irritating of historical fiction things and make a historical situation and character utterly anachronistic in order to moralize at their audience. To be fair I haven't seen this movie yet. Maybe I am just biased, possibly my religious tendencies are handicapping my ability to reason.


You know, I would really like to write a light-hearted and whimsical post, but reading the newspaper everyday it's so easy to find things to rant about... Alright, ranting is kind of fun. But maybe this behaviour is bad for my health.


  1. Ugh! (Complete with a parting pot-shot at the middle ages, of course.)

    Now, as an agnostic I'm coming at this from more of an 'outraged medievalist' perspective, but something about that final quote really irritated me.

    It annoys me when people who have little knowledge of what really went on in medieval times hold the middle ages up as a symbol of ignorant fundamentalist barbarity. All this talk about reconciling Classical philosophy and Christianity - that was what theologians and scholars were trying to do for most of the middle ages! They could see the value of Classical works, they preserved them and copied them and taught them.

    Just because most people in those times couldn't write doesn't mean that they didn't think and dream and wonder.

  2. Yes! So annoying when people are so dissmissive of the Middle Ages, when 'Medieval' is used as a negative adjective, and I would hope for something better from someone making a historical film, maybe that's too much to ask though.

    A much maligned period. But personally I like medieval literature more than Classical or Renaissance as a general rule.

  3. Anonymous27/5/09 23:55

    Well, write to the paper, or to the journo in question, or do both. They need to ahve their faces rubbed in their own ignorance and bias.

    I think the point is that really we are in an era when there is an anti-Christian mood about. Pretending to rationalism, but actually anti-Christian. If you doubt, note that 10 or 20 years ago when we wanted an example of ignorant barbarity we were reminded of the Mohammedan burning of (you guessed it) the library of Alexandria. (Supposedly because no copy of the koran was found in it) I have now heard of any numbers of burnings of the library of Alexandria. They must have had some industrious librarians busy preparing fuel for centuries to provide for the serial conflagrations.

    Reading the paper is a way of getting serially depressed. That's why we only get it for the crossword. The current crop of journalists have been half educated on a diet of post modernists who really seem not to have known or cared about the objective or external truth of the things they write about. Under the influence of post modernist teaching, many don't believe that there is such a thing as objective truth. A belief system that has very serious consequences.

    I know that when I read about events of which I have specialist knowledge, the paper will often give a story that is badly awry. Residual effects of Marxist influence from the 60s? Maybe. Then the Marxists on campus and elsewhere were more interested in doing down the West by any means, and not too interested in the means themselves, which were , after all, justified by "the ends". So some pretty dodgy teaching, from which we are still suffering. (teaching a much more important profession than anything else.)

    Anyway, I digress, the point is that now we have the Christians cast as the book burners, and the Mohammedans as the preservers of knowledge (a very over-rated reputation in my view. The mediaeval Christian monks who copied and illuminated manuscripts from Byzantium to Ireland might have something to say about it. Ireland after all supplied teachers to the whole of Europe for a long period.

    Do I need to tell you this? No, of course not.)

    Speaking of things Mediaeval, you might be amused that I have now traced your ancestry all the way back through William the Conqueror. This is not a boast of how noble we are, but more a comment on how genetically advantageous it is to be a king. I was amused that the genealogist who provided the material had included some earlier lines back through an(I am sure fictitious) line of Irish kings to somewhere that must equate to about 500BC. What fun. I hope to have it all ready for you to read when I return in July.


  4. We are related to Irish kings? That's incredibly exciting :)

    I'm not sure I agree entirely, for instance I think Postmodernism gets a lot more flack than it deserves, it has good and bad points, but it is often made out to be responsible for all of society's flaws, often in a way that shows little knowledge of what postmodernism actually is. That said, it is a famously flexible and difficult to define term...

  5. Anonymous28/5/09 23:08

    Yes, I know. You realise with your conscious mind that half the people alive in Britain in the year 1000 must be your ancestor, (Actually I have just done the calculation: with no inbreeding, 30 generations back you have over a billion ancestors.) but it is still exciting to be able to trace a real live link with any of the people of that era, and especially with the big names. And anyway, how many people can actually trace their link with William the Conqueror, still more, how many can trace any connection to kings of Leinster etc?
    It was fun.

    and what's this - I see that you have overnight put up a new blog, allegedly written a week ago?

  6. It just happened to be sitting in my drafts for a week, and I didn't check the date. I might change that now..