Here we go again. I just saw the new film “Agora,” which is a re-telling of the story of Hypatia, the brilliant woman philosopher from Alexandria, who was killed, supposedly by a mob of “Christians,” in the year 415. Along with the tales of Galileo and Giordano Bruno, the legend of Hypatia is a favorite of anti-religious ideologues. I first heard the story from Carl Sagan, the popular scientist whose multi-part program “Cosmos” was widely watched back in the 1970’s. “Cosmos” in fact comes to its climax with Sagan’s melodramatic rehearsal of the narrative. Hypatia, he explained, was a scientist and philosopher who ran afoul of Cyril, the wicked bishop of Alexandria, who then stirred up a mob of his superstitious followers who subsequently put Hypatia to death. Sagan commented: “the supreme tragedy was that when the Christians came to burn down the great library of Alexandria, there was no one to stop them.” And just to rub it in, he said, “and they made Cyril a saint.” Sagan’s account found its roots in Edward Gibbon’s version of the story in his deeply anti-Christian classic The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In fact, Gibbon was the first to link the murder of Hypatia with the burning down of the Alexandrian library. Alejandro Amenabar’s new film stands firmly in the Gibbon/Sagan tradition, presenting Hypatia as a saint of secular rationalism who desperately gathers scrolls from the library before it is invaded by hysterical Christians and who goes nobly to her death, defending reason and science against the avatars of religious superstition.
Once again we’re living in scandal times. The “Long Lent” that the American church endured in 2002 has now descended on the European church. A significant difference is that this time the Pope himself has come under scrutiny. Once again, the news media are in a frenzy—CNN has blanket coverage, the New York Times is running daily stories, and thousands of blogs are buzzing. In preparation for a television interview, I spent an entire day reading almost everything I could find in both the American and international press (I’m currently in Rome as a visiting professor) and found the process dismaying, depressing, and dispiriting. But what particularly struck me was this: though the scandal has been analyzed legally, institutionally, psychologically, and culturally, it has rarely been looked at biblically—even by church representatives themselves. And this is tragic, for the Bible, the Word of God, is the definitive lens through which the whole of reality is most rightly read, and church men and women above all should know this.
A few weeks ago, I came across an article in the Atlantic Monthly magazine, which bore the extraordinary title “Did Christianity Cause the Crash?” I realize that much of the mainstream media is ready to blame Christianity for almost every societal ill, but this seemed a bit much. As I read through the article, it became plain that the culprit, in the author’s mind, is the so-called “prosperity Gospel,” the view propagated by quite a few extremely popular evangelists that material prosperity flows from the depth and quality of one’s faith in God. His argument was that the willingness on the part of many Christians to risk their savings on questionable investments conduced toward the bursting of the housing bubble and the subsequent economic meltdown. Well, I’m not sure that that particular argument carries much weight, but I’ll confess that the article piqued my interest in this influential theology.
While tooling recently down the expressway, I noticed billboards advertising three separate television programs involving a judge: Judge Judy, Judge Mathis, and Judge Hatchett. As you know, these are only three of many more such shows that fill the airwaves of daytime TV. More to it, almost all of the “reality shows” that have sprung up in the last decade involve some sort of judgment. “Survivor” culminates with a gathering of the tribe and a solemn decision to vote someone off of the program. “Dancing With the Stars” is a fierce competition, presided over by three judges, who objectively assess the performances of celebrity dancer-wannabes. And the premier television show of the past ten years, “American Idol,” features one of the most ruthless and infamous judges ever to appear in the popular culture: Simon Cowell. Finally, even the most casual survey of TV talk shows reveals how central to their success is an act of judgment. Jerry Springer’s audience is presented with some deeply dysfunctional individual, and after sufficient prompting from the host, they erupt in shouts of vociferous disapproval. And Dr. Phil’s show reaches its highpoint when the good doctor bluntly tells some poor couple exactly what is wrong with their marriage and why they have to change their lives radically. There are almost invariably tears of shame and regret.
Perhaps you were startled to learn recently that Pope John Paul II regularly practiced the form of mortification called “taking the discipline,” that is to say, striking his body with a whip. Apparently he hung the disciplinary belt in his closet, along with his vestments, and never failed to take it with him, even when he went on vacation. He also, we learned, sometimes slept on the hardwood floor of his bedroom as an ascetic practice, purposely messing his sheets and blanket in the morning so as not to draw attention to what he had done. I realize that activities such as these can strike many contemporary people as bizarre, perhaps even as the fruit of psychological disorders, complexes, and repressions. Though the author who reported these things did so in order to convince us of John Paul’s sanctity, some today might, because of them, actually think less of the late Pope. I thought that these revelations might be a good occasion to reflect more deeply on the typically Lenten practices of mortification and asceticism.