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CHRISTIANITY: THE FIRST 2000 YEARS

Review by Mark Wiechman

Narrators:  Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee
Executive Producer:  Bram Roos
Audio:  Dolby Digital Stereo
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  A&E
Features:  Historical Timeline
Length:  400 Minutes
Release Date:  March 16, 2010

 

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon:
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope
where there is darkness, light
where there is sadness, joy
O divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

Prayer attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi, founder of the Order of Friars Minor, better known as the Franciscans
 
 
Film ***
 
Like the prayer above, recited in this excellent program, Christianity has been for twenty centuries a path to Divine love, a light in the darkness, a beacon of hope through the trials and tribulations of an unpredictable and ever-changing world.
 
This special is extremely well produced and educational, though not as exciting as many other A&E releases since it features few dramatizations and lacks an inspiring soundtrack.  Most of the video consists of interviews with historians and scans of art from the period being discussed.  Naturally the history of Christianity is a more sober subject than Greek gods or the American Civil War, but overall this documentary is well-paced and is not partial to any particular denomination which is very refreshing.   
 
Naturally most of the history is about the Roman Catholic Church, since it is the original church and the oldest institution in the world.  But many other strains of the faith, including ones destroyed or outlawed, are discussed in enough detail so as to allow any viewer to know how they varied from others.  There is no attempt at revisionist history here either.  Experts attempt to explain the mindset of people living in the eras when changes came, and we feel the fear of early Christians as well as the crises that Christians had to encounter through the centuries all the way through Protestantism, Mormonism, Orthodox and other variations on the gospel of Jesus of Nazareth. 
 
We learn the details of the lives of many of its most influential leaders. For instance, we learn about Saint Dominic, founder of the Order or Preachers, today called the Dominicans.  He was almost evangelical in his approach to converting people.  He was serious and austere but his preachers roamed Europe converting people with kindness rather than force, and they sold whatever they owned to buy the freedom of Christians held by the Muslims.  We also learn about Saint Francis of Assisi, a figure even protestant scholars admire greatly.  He not only ministered to the poor but reinvigorated the faith in a way that its "official" leaders could not do.   We also meet Martin Luther, King Henry VIII, and others who sought Christ away from Rome.
 
I would have liked more attention being given to famous thinkers who lived Christian lives and influenced far more than just theology such as Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas, although that could fill a whole program and would probably be difficult to depict in an effective dramatic fashion.  This almost seven hour special respectfully covers centuries of history interwoven with the dominant faith of the Western World, through revivals in the Civil War and modern evangelical Christianity.  We also learn about the struggles of Catholicism to stay relevant in the modern world.  We meet the Pentecostals and other modern phenomena such as the Mormonism and the enormous growth of faith among African Americans as well as the two men who are probably the best known Christian leaders of our time, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, and Pope John Paul II, both of whom had enormous influence on America and the world even though they were "only" clergymen.
 
The historians who speak here are very interesting, such as Karen Armstrong, author of A History of God.  I found the book to be unusually cold and dull, but she is very animated here, which is a justification for making the special to begin with since some topics are more entertaining on the screen than in print.  There are also frequent flashbacks to Old and New Testament times and how those events inspired modern believers, such as the meaning of Exodus to the Jews versus how it was viewed by slaves in the USA.  Spiritual codes were embedded in songs, such as "Steal Away to Jesus," that actually meant there would be a secret prayer meeting that night. 
 
We briefly meet the Ku Klux Klan, with their horrible burning crosses, but does not call them a "Christian" organization, or an organization at all really, which is apropos.  Their symbolism may be Christian, but nothing else about them was.  Too many critics of Christianity point to them as an example of Christian excess that somehow invalidates all the centuries of founding schools and hospitals and churches.  Instead more time is spent here on MLK's non-violent, Christian foundation of his civil rights fight.  A nice long chapter is also spent on Pope John XXIII and the beginnings of Vatican II. 
 
We learn about liberation theology, a controversial approach in Latin America that combined some Marxist elements with Catholicism.  On 3/24/80, Archbishop Oscar Romero was gunned down in the middle of mass, casting him as a modern day Thomas Becket in Latin America, home to one of the largest Catholic populations in the world. Fittingly the program concludes with John Paul II's final days, though strangely no mention is made of his attempted assassination. 
 
For the sake of time some points are made too briefly to be completely accurate.  We are reminded of the polygamist past of the Mormons, but they officially abandoned it long ago.  Vatican II is mentioned but we are told nothing about how the mass was changed, or that Latin was tossed. 
 
Video ***1/2
 
As with many similar specials, television footage, photos, and other sources are blended smoothly with few if any artifacts.  This is remarkable considering the age of much of the footage.
 
Audio ***
 
Only stereo, and the first disc suffers from narration that is muddy and difficult to follow, but overall serviceable.  The soundtrack is spotty and mostly forgettable which is odd considering the wealth of religious music that is in the public domain.
 
Features *
 
Features are scarce, but basically unnecessary.  The menus are easy to use overall, and the material is well organized.  There is a timeline that is excellent for research.
 
Summary:
 
Jesus of Nazareth proclaimed that the forces of darkness would not prevail against the church he founded, and for twenty centuries it has thrived and grown spectacularly, despite the rise and fall of empires, Islam, barbarians, materialism, and the human frailty of its leaders.  This special contains hours of accurate and detailed history of the single most influential movement in human history and will spiritually enrich any viewer.  Even atheists will be entertained.

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