A more accurate title for this DVD set might be Great Religions of Western Civilization That Originated in the Middle East as Offshoots of Early Judaism. Perhaps the creators thought it goes without saying that the “Great Religions” are Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, but one should not purchase this lengthy compilation of PBS’s Empire documentaries expecting to learn anything about Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, or that crazy guy handing out flyers at the bus station.
While you’d think these less familiar topics would be more challenging, at least Empires: Great Religions is focused. By watching the five documentaries in a certain order — Kingdom of David, Peter & Paul, Islam, Holy Warriors, Martin Luther — one can glean a fairly thorough history of religious thought and how it affected Western civilization from Abraham to the Protestant Reformation and is particularly strong on Jerusalem around the time of the Roman Empire.
The series adequately corrects popular misconceptions, approaching each religion’s history in a literal, but respectful way. Though each documentary is produced by a different company, all except Holy Warriors deal with thorny issues similarly, constructing flashbacks centered on the creation of a religious text. This is a clever way to address discrepancies among historical certainties, writings, and interpretations. Peter & Paul opens with Luke writing his Gospel on the founding of the Christian Church; he then steps out of his narrative to point out where Luke’s history is questionable or he may have been furthering his own views on the direction he thought the Church should take. (As the recent discovery of the “Gospel of Judas” shows, there were different ideas circulating at the time; what would become Christianity was considered a sect of Judaism, then undergoing a major identity crisis.)
The documentaries take great pains to place events within a political context. This is obvious enough in Martin Luther’s attacks on Vatican corruption, less so in earlier events, as the abstract Judaic god is set in opposition to the Greeks’ worship of the human body, Jesus is one of a number of “messiahs” against Roman suppression, and Mohammed not wanting his image to discourage the cults of personalities rampant among Middle Eastern rulers.
In this way, the series also chronicles an evolution of thought. Most theological breakthroughs came as responses to tyranny, literal and cultural. It’s no wonder that the three religions’ initially appealed to the vast numbers of downtrodden people at the mercy of empires and that empires then appropriated this appeal (Constantine becoming Christian) to keep the masses in check. Once again, the documentary illuminates specific developments in contexts. The Kingdom of David tells the story of Job, not as God punishing a follower, but a follower not being rewarded for his faith. In other words, a ruler couldn’t justify his wealth as being anointed by the gods, and a poor person could expect equal opportunities for salvation, a revolutionary thought at the time.
Unfortunately, these insights, spread over 13 hours, are too sparse, leaving the series an informative but bland teacher-didn’t-have-time-to-create-a-lesson-plan PBS experience. Each hour-long segment begins and ends with several minutes spent explaining how its subject is one of the most important and influential faiths/civilizations/cultures the world has ever known. Footage is reused ad nauseam, ideas repeated, stories retold. Sometimes, reenactments are bizarrely overstated: in Martin Luther, when the narrator says, “An empire that would be overturned by one man,” the camera quickly zooms in on the smirking face of the actor playing him.
It’s not always clear whether the focus is a history of religion as empire or the history of empires in the name of religion. The final hour of Islam rarely ties the Ottoman Turks to their Muslim foundations, instead offering a long explanation of the Shia/Sunni split. Richard the Lionheart & Saladin: Holy Warriors narrates their clash, each part opening with text recalling how Bush and bin Laden evoked the Crusades in 2001, over ominous moaning and a gray-skied desertscape. Does this mean to refute claims that Bush and bin Laden are modern-day Richards and Saladins or suggest they too can work as respectful adversaries? God only knows.
That three faiths came to fruition around the same time, from the same place, and from the same strains of thought, and became tangled in a long, often destructive relationship, goes unmentioned. Each history remains separate from the others. If their individual tales of persecution and pervasiveness offer any lessons for today, it is that religions might aspire to create spiritual rather than political legacies.