Christianity: The First Two Thousand Years

Christianity: The First Two Thousand Years is a mildly interesting though ultimately uninspiring recounting of the history of Christianity told over the course of 400-minutes. This is a reissue in smaller format of an A&E box set originally released in 2001; it does not appear to have been improved or upgraded in any way.

The documentary (actually, a pair of documentaries) hits upon most of the high points of Christian history, though it varies wildly in its historical accuracy and struggles in presenting a coherent timeline. For example, the sources for Peter being crucified upside down are tenuous at best, the main source being the apocryphal Acts of Peter, the contents of which are frequently iffy. The documentary does not report this as widely reported legend, however, but as fact.

The set consists of two discs; the first containing a 1998 documentary covering Christianity’s first millennium while the second disc containing the 2000 follow up covering the second millennium. There are some fairly significant differences between the two discs.

The first one was narrated by Ossie Davis, with his wife Ruby Dee reading the passages from Scripture, while the second half was narrated by Dorian Harewood. Also, the visual quality of the second disc is much better the first. A contributing factor to the poor visual quality of the first documentary was the frequent use of videotape, which is readily apparent on a high-def TV using an up-converting DVD player. The second half, however, almost always uses film and the results are far more satisfactory.

The difference in quality between the two halves is not limited to the visual. The content in the second half is far more interesting and informative, with more insight into the history of the Church and less of the generic blandness that characterizes the first disc. Both discs struggle in presenting a coherent timeline, the second half perhaps even more than the first.

Overall, the pair of documentaries is not especially impressive. One of the fundamental problems is that the documentary is blandly ecumenical, presenting a relatively generic, dispassionate vision of Christianity that does not resonate with any particular Christian tradition, a view from nowhere. Even so, the difficulty is less that the series lacks a sectarian focus than it lacks a personal vision.

Contrast these documentaries with the best that has been produced in television documentaries over the past 20 years. One need only compare the impersonality of these with the far more personal vision of documentarians like Ken Burns, Stephen Schama, and David Grubin, the latter the maker of multiple films for The American Experience on PBS. Neither Burns nor Grubin depend on reenactments (I will admit to a particular loathing for reenactments). Schama’s history of Britain is more similar to Christianity: The First Two Thousand Years, in that it covers a very long historical arc, but his history is compelling and immediate, whereas this documentary is not.

The relative weakness of the series comes also from the quality of the scholars used for commentary. Although Karen Armstrong is a successful popular writer and personality, she is not really an “A” List scholar. Martin Marty is, but not on the Reformation, a period for which he was interviewed. Some of the best known scholars on the show are associated with the Jesus Seminar, which is more highly esteemed by Time and Newsweek than the academic community, which has held the Seminary in disdain and which has provoked a good deal of scholarly criticism.

Although I was familiar with most of the scholars interviewed, as a group they were not as strong a group of scholars for whom you would for such a project. Not that there were not some very good people interviewed. For example, Elaine Pagels is interviewed very briefly at the beginning to talk about the early Christian era, while Justo L. González contributes a great deal in the second half of the series. Kallistos Ware (I own books published under his birth name of Timothy) speaks intelligently of some of the issues confronting the Eastern Church. Martin Marty contributes incisive comments on American religious history. All in all, though, the producers could have recruited a stronger group of scholars.

The documentary briefly becomes more interesting in the section between the rise of Charlemagne and the dawn of the Reformation. After that, however, the show loses focus, shifting back and forth from one subject to another with little regard to chronology. The European discovery of the manuscripts of Aristotle, for instance, appears to take place in the 16th century, whereas it had occurred in the 12th century. His work was already well-known before being employed by a number of important Christian theologians in the next century, including Bonaventure (1221-1274) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).

What happened in the Renaissance was, in fact, not the discovery of Aristotle, but the rediscovery of Plato, who prior to that time was known primarily through the works of Augustine. I’m uncertain whether this confusion is due to poor writing or to actual confusion over the timeline (I suspect the former, though neither speaks well for the series). A narrative that jumps from the Inquisition to the Protestant Reformation to the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the European rediscovery of Aristotle to the Counter Reformation (apparently, according to this documentary, entirely the work of Ignatius Loyola and the Jesuits) to the Spanish introduction of Christianity to the New World (all in that order) is unnecessarily polluting the timeline.

The discs include chronologies, but they only reinforce the way the series keeps jumping unnecessarily back and forth between centuries. Obviously in telling a story as complex as that of Christianity you have to take some liberties, but telling the story without explaining that you are persistently departing from the timeline is both misleading and irresponsible, and it certainly fails to educated and inform.

Chronological fuzziness plagues the series from beginning to end. John Wesley, for instance, shows up unexpectedly early in the series while the extermination of the Aztecs by the Spaniards occurs relatively late. Far more is left out than one would expect, especially in regards to theological developments. By any standard Aquinas is one of the titans of Christian theology, yet this series makes him appear like a mere blip.

The entire 17th century as a whole passes by with barely a mention. The first Great Awakening is mentioned, but not its central figure, Jonathan Edwards. More importantly, the contrast on the one hand between the rationalist Founding Fathers of the United States, almost all of whom were Deists who were products of the Enlightenment and who did not believe in the divinity of Jesus, and on the other hand the Second Great Awakening that occurred shortly after the creation of the new nation, and that set the spiritual tone for all subsequent American history, is scarcely mentioned at all. Americans’ embrace of evangelical Christianity upset Thomas Jefferson, who was distraught in his final years that Americans had embraced the emotionalism of the Baptists and Methodists rather than the rational faith of the Unitarians.

Much of the narrative is lacking in nuance. John Calvin is dealt with at length, but his connections to the Renaissance are not mentioned. Later on in the series, Dr. Livingstone is depicted in a manner that borders on travesty. He was passionately opposed to slavery and the exploitation of Africa for Western uses. His compassion for native peoples was extraordinary and his fundamental faith in the goodness of all people was unparalleled.

While Stanley had a huge number of armed guards traveling with him in his famous search for Livingstone (culminating in the famous words, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume”), the doctor traveled with only a tiny and lightly armed contingent, trusting that no one would wish him harm. Likewise, Livingstone worked hard for the good of the Africans he sought to help, while Stanley hired himself out to European leaders who wished to exploit the continent for capitalist expansion. Livingstone is one of the most admirable individuals in 19th century Christianity, but one could hardly tell this from the documentary.

Indeed, there are several lamentable mistakes. A painting of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson is shown while the narrator talks of crafting the constitution in 1791. There are three problems with this. First, Jefferson was in France during the crafting of the constitution. Second, the painting clearly represents the writing of the Declaration of Independence of 1776 (Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin comprised the committee to write the Declaration). Third, the constitutional convention took place in 1787.

Another example of a topic treated less ably than it should have been is the account of the creation of the doctrine of papal infallibility, where much of the intellectual context was missing. While the documentary discusses the lead up to the vote (there were two dissenting votes, one a cardinal from Ireland and the other from Little Rock, Arkansas), what is missing is the explanation of the crisis of authority that was generated by the challenges that science had created for religion in the 19th century.

While science in general had created a questioning of all forms of religious authority, the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species led to a crisis for both Protestants and Catholics. The Protestant response to Darwin was to reassert the authority of Scripture through the development of the doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy, a doctrine that played no role in Christian thought until the late 19th century). The Catholic Church responded by articulating the doctrine of Papal Infallibility.

This lack of nuance is unfortunately typical of the series. If you know much about Christian history, there are countless instances where you want to annotate or gloss the narrative, either adding things that they leave out or clarifying where they oversimplify, or correcting its writers when they take as uncontested fact something that is in fact contestable (such as the upside down crucifixion of Peter). Major figures in the history of Christianity, such as Thomas Aquinas and Jonathan Edwards are left completely out of the story while figures who play a relatively minor role in the history of Christianity, like Archbishop Romero of El Salvador (as enormously admirable as he was), are given a substantial segment.

I was especially disappointed that no mention was made at all of the relation of Christianity to the Second World War. This is a rich and complex story, involving the collusion of many Catholic and Lutheran churches with the Nazis on the one hand, and with the Confessing Church, led by Martin Niemöeller and Karl Barth, opposing the Nazis on the other. (Speaking of Barth, he was not mentioned in the series at all, despite being the most important theologian after John Calvin and extending to the present day.)

There is no mention of the martyr-like death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who left a teaching position at Union Theological Seminary in New York in order to return to Germany to struggle against Hitler. After working with a group that attempted (and nearly succeeded) to assassinate Hitler, he was imprisoned and executed shortly before allied armies liberated the prison in which he was kept.

Despite the inescapable simplicity attendant with condensing the enormously complex history of Christianity into six or seven hours and the distortions to the timeline, the documentary is not without some value. If someone has not studied any church history at all, it will provide a broad overview. If one has much of a background in history, however, it is likely to be a very frustrating, though occasionally diverting, viewing experience.

A viewer may bristle that no mention is made of the enormously important evangelical theologian Charles Finney, or of Evangelicalism’s central role in leading the abolition movement prior to the Civil War (on the campus of Finney’s Oberlin University, the first college to admit black or female students in the world, there is a memorial to the major role Oberlin students played in the Underground Railroad). However, they might delight in the brief but fascinating mention of early 20th century radio evangelist of Aimee Semple McPherson (the real life model of evangelist Sharon Falconer in Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry). Whatever its virtues or shortcomings, the documentary does successfully gesture at the enormous diversity in the Christian experience and can, on that basis, be worth viewing.

RATING 3 / 10