You don't need to be a Christian or even religious to find this BBC series absolutely fascinating and extremely informative. Over six episodes it explains how what started as a small Jewish sect that preached humility became the biggest religion in the world. So much of our modern world, its societies, conflicts and customs are intertwined with the development of Christianity that I found each programme to be extremely interesting and of direct relevance to modern life, regardless of any individual's religious opinions.
The series is hosted by Diarmaid MacCulloch who is one of the world's leading historians, Professor of History of the Church and Fellow at St Cross College Oxford. Yet he doesn't hog the limelight or make the programme about himself; MacCulloch is undoubtedly expressing his interpretation of the historical facts and the current situation but he argues his points as an expert and not as a fanatic or a celebrity presenter. MacCulloch is obviously passionate and well informed about the subject matter but as he travels across the world to illustrate his arguments you don't feel bullied or hectored by his lectures. Instead he is quietly compelling, the kind of guy you'd like to chat to over dinner.
The series is massive in scope, and starts with Christianity's forgotten origins, then its expansion in the East, detailing the Eastern Orthodox church which has over 150 million members worldwide. Episodes touch upon the importance of icons, the great Byzantine expansion, what happened to Christianity in Russia under Ivan the Terrible and then the Soviet state, and so on. Christianity in Britain comes under the spotlight too, along with the Amish and Protestant offshoots from Catholicism; how the Reformation affected the development of British society, and how Evangelical Protestantism has evolved and changed all around the world.
So much of the background to our society is interlinked with the history of Christianity that this series provides many moment of little revelations, where the background to a current situation suddenly becomes clear. It was startling to be reminded how many pillars of British culture, politics and society have their roots in the Christian faith, too.
Prof MacCulloch draws on the expertise of other speakers to illustrate certain points; he involves experts, preachers, vicars and church-goers to demonstrate his arguments. At the end of the series I was left with the impression that it felt like a collection of very well presented essays: I'm not convinced that it is THE definitive history of Christianity. But it is a very accessible and very carefully produced one; well balanced and delicately nuanced.
Intelligent viewing, then, offering plenty of perceptive observation.
If you are looking for an introduction to 2,000 years of Christian history or to learn more about some particular strand of the church, then you should find this series well worth the time and money expended. The story is divided into six themes: The Eastern Church, Orthodoxy, Catholicism, The Protestant Reformation, The Evangelical Revival and The Age of Scepticism. This division allows Maculloch to offer a clear, informative narrative shot through with a lightness of touch which makes for very watchable television. The programmes are filmed on all 5 continents from South Korea to North America to Russia and Central Asia affording many memorable shots to illustrate the points being made. Clearly with only 6 hours at his disposal, Macculloch has to leave a lot out with little said about monasticism, The Spanish Inquisition, relations with Islam or the work of Charles Darwin and its impact on the Church. Furthermore, I found his style a little soft on some of the darker aspects of Christian History-it is only with the footage from Auschwitz that Maculloch starts to take a more critical view of the Church's moral credibility. The end of the series is also rather flat when having told such an absorbing story, the Professor concludes that we 'must wait and see where Christianity goes next' which is hardly a very illuminating conclusion. Nonetheless, I want to give this series a strong recommendation to believers and non-believers alike-it is intelligent, well made and highly enjoyable history which will stimulate discussion and further reading.
on 17 March 2010
Living abroad I had to wait for the DVD to come out earlier this year and I was not disappointed.
The six-part series covers six phases of the Christian church in broadly chronological order: the early Church in the Middle East, the Catholic church with its centre in Rome, Byzantine Orthodoxy, the Reformations of the 16th Century, the Evangelical revival and Christianity's encounter with questioning since the Enlightenment.
On the whole a great series. The story-telling style combined with footage of key places in Christian history makes it compelling watching. MacCulloch gives a comprehensive overview of all aspects of the Christian story. I appreciated the focus on the East (the early church, Byzantium and Nestorianism) and also on the evangelical churches (eg Herrnhut).
In terms of constructive criticism, I would make three points.
Firstly, the series feels the need to follow the marketing of imperative of "What you never knew about the Christian church." The series makes some really interesting connections, but there are no major revelations (with the possible exception of his hypothesis that various post-Crusade churches are modelled on the Dome of the Rock).
A second criticism is the non-scholarly use of the term 'West' - why not say, "Western Europe and North America", "the affluent English-speaking world" or something similar. In the same vein, the term East can mean various different things (Orthodoxy, Nestorianism, China, India) and more precise terms would be better.
Thirdly, the conclusion of the series (the end of part six), which while focusing on a major issue (the church's interaction with issues of human sexuality) doesn't really capture the challenge for the world church in the light of all that has gone before. At this juncture the testimonial-confessional angle (expressed earlier in terms of MacCulloch's father and trips to old churches) takes centre stage rather too much. The more accusational tone of the sixth episode (also in relation to the Holocaust) introduces an element of alienation from the church somewhat out of sync with what had gone before.
on 4 March 2010
The first five parts are enthralling; they give a fascinating insight in to the history and spread of the, to us in the West, lesser known, ancient forms of Christianity which pre-date ours and still endure to this day, before going on to the history of the Church in the West. The Professor has drawn the different strands of Christianity together, to show how they have both interacted and also developed separately. The early spread of the "Religion of Light" to China, and its subsequent survival "underground" was astonishing, and the tale of how the Eastern Orthodox Church survived the fall of Byzantium and is now thriving was intriguing.
I was not so happy about part six. Personally, I would not call the Nazis Christian. They may have introduced a perverted form of religion designed to replace Christianity and to fool less discerning Christians in to following it, but to call it Christianity is like comparing the antichrist to Christ. It is the other side of the mirror, and perhaps the sort of thing that we are warned against in the book of Revelation. Professor MacCulloch should think of such German Christians as the pastor Dietrich Boenhoeffer, who opposed the Nazis, tried to overthrow Hitler, and was hanged for it (with wire). When talking about the concentration camps, the Professor should mention such people as Maximillian Kolbe, the Polish Catholic priest who volunteered to die in place of a Jewish man in Auschwitz in 1941. I haven't even mentioned all the Christians from all over the world who fought and died to defeat Hitler.
Despite what I have said about part 6, I think that the rest of the series is excellent, and I recommend the DVD on the strength of the first five parts.
The series recounts the history of the Christian Church. It is not about theology, and it does not try to convert anybody. Indeed, Professor MacCulloch says that he is not a Christian.
on 18 April 2014
This really acts as an introduction or companion piece to the excellent book of the same name. It vividly illustrates some of the main themes of the book, giving some extra detail. However, as a standalone history it lacks depth and excludes much, being far too short. Like many others, I found the final episode to be very biased and judgemental in comparison to the rest of the series. I would certainly recommend watching this series as it is interesting and informative and gives a better flavour of (for example) the Eastern Church and Saint Basil's Cathedral than a book ever could. However, I also hope that it leads people on to read the book.
Diarmaid MacCulloch's does not hide his Anglican background, as the only child of a country parson. He is now a deacon and regularly attends a High-Church service; although he comes across as more atheistic back when this documentary was made. His fondness for the recent Archbishops of Canterbury Rowan Williams and Justin Welby is matched by an equal dislike of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. On the other hand, he denies being anti-Catholic and seems to see much to admire in the more ancient Catholic traditions as well as in Vatican II. He also acknowledges the desirability of dismantling the pervasive Protestant myth of reformation.
on 7 April 2010
BBC(like Independent TV) has lots of splendid, spectcular documentaries. Years ago Bamber Gascoigne did a great docu on Christianity - why buy this new series,parts of which I had already seen live ?
First, those first glimpses fascinated me as they are full of places and events almost unknown to me, though I have quite good knowledge of the subject generally - and the whole atmosphere also has the allure of the mysterious and strange, while D.M.is clearly an expert who does not talk down to his audience. Beware !if you are caught up by the events as I was, you will need, and want, to watch scenes or whole episodes again,and perhaps again !! And I enjoy that, whereas the book would put undue demands on eyesight, concentration,temper...and shelf space; in a bitter contest against easier reading.
It depends on your interest in the history of human culture...but not on any particular allegiance. Good Luck, ENJOY the series.
on 27 January 2010
The TV series is being shown now on BBC2 but i saw it a couple of months back on BBC4. This is an excellent series: well put together, informative and extremely watchable. Sometimes these documentaries seem quite a chore to get through but i thoroughly enjoyed this one. Highly recommended!
on 11 September 2010
The great strength of this BBC TV presentation is to illustrate the huge divergence which has arisen between modern-day, mainstream Christianity in its many forms and the faith which was preached by Jesus Christ and his immediate followers nearly two thousand years ago. No reader of the New Testament can fail to spot that first-century Christianity has been altered almost out of all recognition, by a number of influences, and for this realisation alone Diarmaid MacCulloch's series deserves a four-star rating.
Six programmes is a tight schedule into which to squeeze an overview of the Christian church, in all its geographic, cultural and doctrinal diversity, but "A History of Christianity" does a reasonable job of it. There are useful insights into the spread of Christian belief into the far east far earlier than is often appreciated, and the emergence of Africa as something of a powerhouse of the faith in the last 150 years or so. The programme covering the Reformation is a candid and very worthwhile summary of the period which has relevance even in the 21st century.
What the series does not do, however, is to take the viewer back to the roots of Christianity in its earliest stages. Thus Professor MacCulloch speaks of "the original Christians" when he is in fact referring to believers of the third and fourth centuries. These were clearly not the original Christians, and the issues which sometimes split Christian from Christian during that time had no part of the Gospel preached by Christ and the apostles - we will search the Bible for them in vain. There are other sloppy references to the New Testament, such as the description of speaking in tongues as unknown sacred languages. A glance at Acts ch. 2 v. 11 indicates something very different, and careless reading of Christianity's source document should have been avoided in a series like this.
Generally speaking, Professor MacCulloch's approach strikes one as somewhat idiosyncratic. Is it really true, for instance, that the whole Christian church is complicit in the Nazi holocaust of the Jews during World War 2? Too often one man's personal opinions come across as more authoritative than is probably warranted, and the BBC's choice of a "candid friend of Christianity" - rather than a committed Christian believer - as presenter of this series feels like a mistake. Throughout, one is left with the feeling that Professor MacCulloch is rather too conscious of himself, leaving us with a view of Christianity which is not only inaccurate at times but which also tells us more about him than the faith. Visually, the trademark Panama hat and silk scarf are affected, and draw attention away from the message and toward the messenger.
Perhaps most disappointing is the final programme in the series, which is more to do with Professor MacCulloch justifying his own departure from fuller commitment to the Christian faith than with issues which actually challenge the majority of Christians today. There is a reluctance, in both the presenter and his interviewees, to face up to a fundamental characteristic of biblical Christianity, namely that it requires an acknowledgement of human imperfections and a willingness to make sacrifices in this life, in hope of something infinitely better in the life to come. Herein is the greatest failing of this series, because that is - after all's said and done - kind of the point of Christianity.
Modern-day Christianity's greatest challenge is one of authority. Does it come from the pope of a power-seeking church in Rome (Professor MacCulloch's thinly-veiled assessment), liberal humanism posing as religion (his own preference, but in fact little more than public opinion), or Scripture? If we as Christian believers accept that God sent his Son into our world 2,000 years ago, and that the Bible contains an accurate record of what he and his immediate followers said and did, then the logical response is to face up to that and do our level best to get our own lives in order. Mainstream Christianity's failure in countless ways to rise to that challenge is well illustrated in this interesting release, to which we owe a debt of gratitude as a result.
on 4 March 2010
Diarmaid MacCulloch is not the most obviously charismatic television presenter but by the end of the series I had rather warmed to him and his dry charm. The main problem with this series is that the attempt to cover the history of the Christian Church in only 6 episodes means the program as a whole is patchy and extremely shallow. Twenty years ago, A History of Christianity on the BBC would have been a 13-part TV series - as it is, it unfortunately stands as another example of the dumbing down of the BBC. Not everything can be squeezed into 4-6 episodes, which seems to be the default setting of BBC commissioning editors these days. Remember, the Christian Church is the most significant institution in Western civilization and is not something you can just skip through with snappy editing and exotic images - which is what has happened here. In short, what you get is quite good - thanks in large to the skill and knowledge of the presenter - but, aside from a rather interesting section about Christianity in China in part one, I didn't, in all honesty, come across anything particularly new or interesting in any of the other episodes. And in a program by such an esteemed historian as Diarmaid MacCulloch on such an interesting and important subject - that is just not good enough really.
on 9 February 2015
Very stimulating series which compliments well the Bamber Gascoigne dvds. Like Bamber, he seems to have been taken in by the PC idea of Islam as a religion of peace. I could have done without having to hear that he is 'gay' and not a Christian.