Judge Dylan Charles' creed is an oath to find only the best historical material about Christianity's early days.
Journey to the Holy Land with the History Channel?
The history of Christianity—that is, the very early history of Christianity—has recently become something of an infatuation with me. As a result of this, I glom immediately onto any DVD that has the slightest connection to a historical look at The Bible, such as The Exodus Decoded and The Lost Tomb of Jesus.
I was sure that the History Channel's The First Days of Christianity would satiate me, but sadly, this was not to be.
Facts of the Case
The First Days of Christianity is actually made up of two separate documentaries. The first one, In the Footsteps of the Holy Family follows Mary, Joseph, and Jesus as they flee Bethlehem to and through Egypt and is narrated by former James Bond Roger Moore. The second one, The Apostles Collection looks at the apostles in general and Paul in particular; Martin Sheen is master of ceremonies this time around.
In the Footsteps of the Holy Family is not what I expected it to be. Rather than a close historical or even theological look at the exploits of the little baby Jesus, it's actually an extremely broad look at the Holy Family's flight from Herod's murderous thugs. But then it looks at how these places are treated in modern times and various miraculous occurrences that happened at each one. This is less a historical documentary and more a celebration of the Christian faith.
This would have been fine, if it had been done well. Each miracle is re-enacted with shoddy production values and actors of questionable ability. The cheesiness factor has been upped to eleven for these segments; depending on how sentimental you are, these segments will either make you weep with joy or gag. Considering I have a cold black heart that would remain stony in the presence of Hans Christian Anderson's matchstick girl, I had to put a firm clamp on my eye-rolling muscles whenever these re-enactments hove into view.
The actors are a big problem, mainly because they're so miscast. All of these miracles took place in Egypt, a region that is, mostly, populated with Arab folk. So when they have a middle-aged white couple who would look more at home in Branson, Missouri, dressed up like they're trying out for roles in a nativity play, it kind of takes away from the whole experience.
There's also a disturbing lack of grounding for any of the miracles. I'm not even talking about evidence to support that these miracles took place. I'm talking about a general lack of information about what the devil is going on. For example, when they say there were several miracles that took place on the battlefield, they never say what war they're talking about and they never say who the participants are. There are a very diverse group of people speaking English and wearing an odd jumble of uniforms in the re-enactment, so there's no help there. It is an extremely disjointing experience.
In the Footsteps of the Holy Family is too broad in scope and too vague in execution to really get anything out of it. They'll bring up the Gnostic gospels of Nag Hammadi and the Dead Sea Scrolls, but only discuss them in a cursory fashion. The Gnostic gospels are fascinating and display a form of Christianity that went extinct centuries ago. Their theology couldn't be explained in a feature-length documentary or even a Ken Burns style mini-series. But In the Footsteps of the Holy Family just brings them up as an example of a miracle. "Look how miraculous it is that these documents were found!" they seem to say, and then they move on.
The Apostles Collection is more up my alley. It pumps the New Testament for every bit of information pertaining to the fourteen Apostles (the original twelve, plus Judas' replacement and Paul). The first half is just about all of them, what little information they have. Judas and his betrayal, Peter and his ministry, Paul and his ministry, all are covered in depth. They even go outside the New Testament and examine non-canonical gospels such as the aforementioned Gnostic gospels.
The second half of the documentary focuses on the most controversial of the Apostles (next to Judas that is): Paul. From the very beginning when he was just Saul and a persecutor of Christian Jews to when he basically made Christianity what it is today, The Apostles Collection is a good introduction to the neophyte about the man of Tarsus.
In all respects, The Apostles Collection is a better documentary than In the Footsteps of the Holy Family. Gone is the vague sentimentality and instead there is a strong focus on facts, theory, and evidence.
There are no features to speak of here and the presentation is decent enough. You'll at least get to see what these documentaries looked like when they first aired.
If you're interested in the history of biblical figures, then The Apostles Collection will not steer you wrong. You'll get a good overview of the Apostles and their works. But In the Footsteps of the Holy Family will leave you wanting. It functions as a mediocre praise of faith and nothing more.
The First Days of Christianity is guilty of both religious zealotry and rational discourse. The court recommends psychiatric treatment for schizophrenia.
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