A&E // 1998 // 400 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // March 31st, 2010
The First Two Thousand Years.
Hey, remember the time when A&E actually used to air documentary programming, not reality television? I know I had forgotten. Christianity: The First Two Thousand Years is a bit dated by modern television documentary standards, but maybe that's a good thing. The six-plus hour feature covers in exhaustive, even tedious detail with little in the way of frill, fanfare or CGI-generated explosions. On the plus side, you might -- gasp! -- actually learn something watching it.
Narrated by (the late) Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, Christianity: The First Two Thousand Years is presented in a two-disc DVD set. From the crucifixion to the Crusades, the Reformation to the sweeping changes of Vatican II, this covers the history of Christianity -- not the religion itself, but the events that shaped its formation. We visit important sites, ancient texts, and key players and incidents that lead to the development of the religion as we know it today.
Trying to distill two millennium of social, political, and religious events into a two-disc DVD set is going to result in some truncation, but Christianity: The First Two Thousand Years handles the load with competence. With a running time of over six hours, this is an impressively well-researched and exhaustive feature. We delve right in to the earliest moments of Christianity, a Jewish cult whose leader has just been executed by the ruling state, and finish up in the modern era, examining the state of the modern Church. Each disc roughly encapsulates a thousand years of the Church history -- the first from the death of Jesus to the Investiture Controversy between Pope Gregory VII and Roman Emperor Henry IV, the second disc from the Dark Ages and Reformation to modern Christianity.
A religious scholar I am not, but for your money, you would be hard-pressed to find a more comprehensive cable network treatment of the historical roots of Christianity than in this feature. We get a point-by-point breakdown of the salient issues and events that shaped Christianity in a brisk and detailed pace, never shying away from dates and factoids or the lives and impressions of key players in the history of the religion, like the Apostles, Charlemagne, Otto the Great, and Henry VIII. Since it has the air and unforgiving pace of a university lecture, those weaned on stylish, modern features with an emphasis on CGI and action-packed recreations may find Christianity: The First Two Thousand Years a bit academic for their tastes. For this reviewer, the emphasis on substance over style is refreshing, like a thirsty man in the desert stumbling upon an informational oasis.
A small disclaimer: audiences approaching the feature from a devout perspective may find the film irritatingly free from, well, religion. This is a historical account of key persons, events, and incidents that shaped the development of the Church from a small persecuted sect of Judaism into the modern Church as we know it today -- it is an academic treatment, not a religious one. There is little in the way of agenda to besmirch the religion, but neither are there many compliments. Free from dogma, this is not a pro or anti-Christian film any more than a history textbook. Any good Christian should be more than comfortable (and familiar) discussing the historical roots of their faith, but for those who find the idea distasteful, save yourself the irritation and skip this one in favor of something more faith-based.
It becomes immediately apparent how far production values on documentary television have come in a decade. Like all A&E documentaries, the feature is a combination of archival material, stock footage, artwork, on-location footage, and interview material with religious scholars and experts. The interview footage looks the weakest of the bunch, recorded on analog video -- it certainly makes you appreciate the merits of a solid HDTV camera. The full frame and stereo presentation is entirely satisfactory, with no major issues or drawbacks and should satisfy. Subtitles would have been nice, but are missing here. The only extra included is a historical timeline of key events in the history of Christianity, which is hardly worth getting excited about.
How much you like Christianity: The First Two Thousand Years will depend on how appreciative you are of the unique merits of this feature and its vintage charms. By modern documentary television, this feature lacks the excitement and dramatic flair of newer features. On the other hand, people are going to appreciate this feature for exactly that reason -- this reviewer included. How nice to find a documentary that values educating audiences over simply entertaining them, especially on a subject as detailed and complex as the history of Christianity.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 400 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Not Rated