Smithsonian Channel // 2009 // 279 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // April 16th, 2009
Understanding the world's Christian imagery and symbolism.
From Smithsonian Networks, a six-part series taking a look at the beliefs, symbols and doctrines of the religions of Christianity. Hosted by Christy Kenneally, a former Roman Catholic priest who grew up in the Christian tradition, the series globe-trots in an effort to analyze -- i.e., "decode" -- just what all that crazy crap that those Christians buy into.
A believer myself, of the Protestant/Evangelical persuasion, I always find these "tell-all" documentaries interesting. Putting the Christian religion under the empirical microscope, a belief system and lifestyle that is highly personal and intimate and full of so many moving parts, often yields laughably obtuse results.
But Decoding Christianity isn't bad. It's well-done, beautiful to look at and fair to its content. I will admit my experience got off poorly with the first episode, "Flesh and Blood" a grisly little number that focused on the crucifixion and a few fringe denominations like the guys who are into self-flagellation and graphic reenactment of the Passion. There was a lot of spooky music and close-ups of gory medieval art of Christ's arterial spray. Initially I was thinking, "Great, the Smithsonian thinks we're all a bunch of blood-drunk cultists who celebrate Good Friday not with candle-light services or hymns but with Karo syrup and squibs." Thankfully, the series settled down after that and offered interesting factoids and history about the religion. It's entry-level stuff, and any seasoned believer worth his or her leather-bound NIV edition Bible with the optional concordance and the footprints bookmark would know this stuff, but someone approaching Christianity with an alien eye will get an earful of info.
Here are the episodes:
"Flesh and Blood"
"Damned and Saved"
"Secrecy, Symbols and Mystery"
"A Faith Divided"
As you can see, the Christian gamut is covered, and it's done so effectively. Experts are interviewed, as are passersby on the street, and the worldwide locations range from Lithuania to Russia to New York City. The production is eye-pleasing and exotic.
One observation: the series takes a Roman Catholic emphasis, with Protestantism mentioned fleetingly until "A Faith Divided." That's fine, considering this strain of Christianity is the most populous, but it would have been interesting to get some more expert feedback from movers and shakers in the Evangelical world. As far as I can tell, the only footage from an Evangelical Bible-based church was of some dude passing out during a Pentecostal service.
The video quality is sharp and attractive, though the fake widescreen earns big demerits. Sounds comes courtesy of a standard-issue 2.0 stereo track and no extras make the sheep at the Nativity cry.
Not guilty, though less Dante and more Western Evangelicalism would have been appreciated.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Smithsonian Channel
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 279 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Site