Sunday, 20 June 2010

Stone Them

There's wonderful Shirley Jackson short story, called The Lottery, where an American village draws straws to be the sacrifical victim of a stoning. The shock when you realise! Such a homely scene, such respectable citizens... turned into murderers.

A new film achieves something similar:

Is this the last days of Christianity? In a new film, a sort of mini-blockbuster, Agora, our ancient Christians are turned into thugs and murderers. They’re on the rampage, stoning and burning their opponents, whilst their Patriarch uses the sacred book to achieve power, destroy his opponents, and to oppress women. The saints and martyrs of Alexandria turned into hoodlums. Would this be possible if Christianity were not a ruin? 

I know, I know: the United States. But how much of American Christianity is simply a form of American nationalism, the state turned into a god?

In the United States the flag has the status of a religious icon, a totem. It cannot be carried horizontally or flat, but must always be ‘aloft and free’. There is a protocol for folding it, it can’t touch the ground, it can’t be burned except when it is worn out or irreparably damaged and then only as part of a special ritual. Military men and women salute it, civilians hold their right hands over their left breasts when singing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, and schoolchildren pledge allegiance to it. It is also a ubiquitous presence in the American landscape. The Red, White and Blue waves from people’s porches, flies over car dealerships and gas stations and adorns flower-pots; cars are festooned with it in the form of bumper stickers, window decals and antenna pennants. The flag decorates the altars of churches of every denomination except those of a few dissenting sects. And it has become a necessary accessory for political candidates. (Thomas Sugrue)

According to the film the other religions are not so pure either – Jews and Pagans do not sheath their swords or drop their stones. No, this is an equal opportunities film, where all the religions are thoroughly bad; though Christianity, perhaps, is the worst of the lot. Lucky for Islam it had yet to be born…

It’s a curious thrill to have one’s expectations overturned. But then the thinking begins: why are these religions caricatured in this way, and their opponents impossibly idealised – Hypatia, the women philosopher and astronomer, who, even when she is dying, is so detached as to see the solution to the profoundest of heavenly questions. She is pure mind; a saint of thought.

Of course, this is the Clash of Civilisations played out as cartoon. Of Religion against the Enlightenment. It represents the western liberal position, as it now stands in much of respectable circles – that religion is the source of evil and irrationality. And it shares with that position a curious trickery: the real target is Islam (and proclaimed as such by the Neo-conservatives and others on the right), but the criticisms are directed against Religion. This technique assuages the guilt, by hiding the prejudice, after all when we attack Christianity it appears we are attacking ourselves, and hides the real motivation – a hatred of Islam, and its resistance to the West’s imperial ambitions. We, of course, are the Enlightenment thinkers, the Aristotles and Hypatias of the modern world; along with George Bush, Tony Blair, Nicolas Sarkozy….

How does ideology operate, and why is it so successful? This film provides some clues. It probably thinks itself radical, and the surprise of Christian Mafiosi, is truly shocking. Yet it merely reflects the fashionable thought of “enlightened opinion”; the liberal intelligentsia that occupies the cultural establishment. So while the film is critical of “us” it actually reinforces the prejudices of our time, prejudices which buttress the militaristic and power politics of the West. For while the “us” in the film are our Christian ancestors they bear little resemblance to ourselves – this is North Africa in the 5th century, where the Christians look like Jews and Arabs. And theirs is a “hot” intolerant faith, supported by clubs and stones. A good fight is what they want, they are Christ’s warriors. Thus, we cannot identity with them, they are too strange and uncharitable, unlike the Roman Prefect, and so the criticism is no criticism at all.

The real enemy is never mentioned in the film! Although their attitudes and emotions, the primitiveness, their obvious thuggery, are all on display. We see them on the TV, we read about them in the press – the barbarism of the terrorist against the liberal empire.

It is the images, not the ideas, that affect us. And this film reinforces those images. For once outside the cinema, we will forget that it was the Christians cutting off the heads of Jews, if we see an Iraqi beheading an Englishman. The film has done its job – its created the emotions and their negative associations, and the film’s ideas, always the weakest part of our experience, will be forgotten.

And yet… a lot of people, including the director, will think this is a critical commentary on western values. How strange! Though accurately reflecting the curiousness of much left-liberal thought – it appears critical of the West, attacking its past prejudices, its claims for universality etc, but at the same time supports it’s current political ambitions. The support for humanitarian intervention is perhaps the most obvious example.

The ideas seep into the culture, become part of everyday life, which then trickle into our films, our books; even our poems? Yes, it must be so… and then they return to reinforce our leaders’ opinions. In the film Hypatia is obsessed by the idea of the circle, that idea all planetary motion must be circular. The circle? It may not explain the heavens, but we can use it as a symbol - for the formation and reinforcement of cultural attitudes, of ideology.

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