Judge Clark Douglas hopes that someone will one day devote a television miniseries to the writing of this review.
The history of Christianity and its global impact.
One of the most ambitious documentary projects of the 1970s, The Christians attempts nothing less than documenting the complete history of the world's most dominant religion. The series was originally aired on British television in 1977, and was shown to American viewers via PBS during the 1980s. Over the course of 13 51-minute episodes, noted British television personality Bamber Gascoigne gently guides viewers through the lives of Christian believers from the life of Christ some 2000 years ago all the way up to the mid-20th Century. The episodes are spread across five discs:
• Episode 2—The Christian Empire: Between the 3rd and 6th centuries CE, Christianity evinced two contrasting impulses that persist to this day: worldliness and asceticism.
• Episode 3—The Birth of Europe: After waves of barbarians swept through the Roman Empire, Charlemagne struck a deal with Pope Leo III to establish both religious and political stability.
• Episode 5—People of the Book: Jews, Christians and Muslims hold sacred not only some of the same scriptures, but also some of the same sites, which they've fought over for centuries.
• Episode 6—Princes and Prelates: Leading up to the Renaissance, as many as three popes simultaneously claimed spiritual and political authority—while dissidents decried their corruption.
• Episode 8—The Conquest of Souls: In the 16th Century, as Spain expanded Christianity into the New World, the Catholic Church countered the Reformation with its elite "shock troops," the Jesuits.
• Episode 9—In Search of Tolerance: Many Protestants persecuted breakaway sects as vigorously as the Catholic Church had attacked heretics. But when some victims sought refuge in America, they too turned tyrannical.
• Episode 11—Missions Abroad: By the 19th Century, Europe had begun to export its own brand of commerce and Christianity to Africa, while industrialized urban poverty choked religion at home.
• Episode 13—The Godless State?: Ironically, Christianity survived—even thrived—in Communist Russia and Poland, while Communism exerted itself in nominally Catholic Italy.
In his newly recorded introduction to this series, Bamber Gascoigne informs us that the title of The Christians is particularly important: it's about Christians, not quite so much about Christianity. He is not interested in examining specific doctrines or in attempting to make a case for or against the validity of Christianity. At the beginning of the documentary, he flatly informs us that the existence of God and the idea that Christ was/is God's holy son are not things that can be definitively proven or disproved. It's a matter of faith. He's far more interested in seeing the manner in which Christians have carried out their beliefs, and examining the remarkable way in which Christianity has played a role in society over the course of the past 2000 years in different parts of the world.
The structure of the documentary is simple and predictable, as Gascoigne takes us chronologically through the centuries. He stays true to his promise of objectivity throughout, taking an objective look at the definitive, proven facts of Christianity's history. The religion is presented at its very best and very worst, presented simultaneously as a force for tremendous good and tremendous oppression. Though there may be fervent believers (or non-believers, for that matter) out who will wish the documentary had taken a more opinionated approach, I think most viewers (no matter what their religious beliefs) will appreciate the fair, level-headed, sensible, fact-driven approach to the material. It's rare that a production on the subject of religion will prove equally satisfying to deeply religious individuals and atheists alike, but I suspect that may very well be the case with The Christians.
One of the slightly unusual things about the documentary is how much it relies on the hosting skills of Mr. Gascoigne. You will not hear additional commentary from assorted experts on various related subjects, you will not see interviews with Christians from various parts of the world, and you will not hear any heated arguments between people with different viewpoints on any of the subjects discussed in this documentary. Gascoigne is the documentary's only voice of note, offering a combination of historical facts, insightful commentary and accessible analysis. He's an excellent host, giving the series a very personal feel without ever making it about his own opinions (which remain appropriately impossible to gauge throughout in most cases—obviously no one will fault Gascoigne for sharply criticizing something like the Spanish Inquisition).
My only real issue with the documentary (other than the transfer, which I'll get to in a moment) is the pacing, which is inconsistent and sometimes rather agonizingly slow. For the vast majority of each episode, the presentation moves along in a snappy and engaging manner, but every now and then it will simply slow down for startlingly lengthy periods of time to examine montages of relevant footage. There are a couple of instances when such attention is deserved, but mostly these moments only serve to disrupt the pacing and allow our interest to slip. It's not a huge problem, but it's worth noting.
The DVD transfer is unfortunately rather miserable, which is a shame considering the vast array of stunning visuals the documentary has to offer. The grand artwork and architecture that Christianity has inspired deserves to be seen in vivid detail, but the documentary is flat, muddy, scuffed-up and severely lacking in detail. Likewise, the music (by a composer no less esteemed than Sir Richard Rodney Bennett) sounds rather warped and distorted, which is a shame considering that it's rather good writing. The narration is thankfully fairly clean and clear. The only extra included is the Gascoigne introduction. Well, you also get a 16-page booklet with "food for thought" questions that might come in handy if the series is being viewed by high school students, a discussion group or a Sunday School class.
Though falling just short of being a truly great documentary series, The Christians in nonetheless an ambitious and rewarding endeavor that is well worth the time of those that have an interest in the subject of religion. The $100 price tag is a pretty steep (particularly considering the rough transfer), so perhaps a rental would be more advisable than a purchase for viewers without loads of spending money sitting around.
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