If anyone asks Judge Mike Pinsky if he's a god, he knows the correct answer is "yes."
"This kind of religious image has never been overly worried about logic."—Elaine Pagels
They say God is elusive.
Case in point: I unwrapped the DVD for A History of God, puzzled by generic packaging that betrayed nothing of the contents. I placed the disc into the player in my bedroom. I sat down and prepared my laptop. But the disc continued to meander, as if lost in Dante's wood. Then I looked at the case again. In tiny words at the bottom, an announcement revealed that the disc had been burned as in DVD+R format. So I went into the family room to try our other DVD player. The disc spun, then displayed a confusing series of numbers beside a tiny window. Not a disc menu, but the player's effort to make sense of what it found.
Led primarily by theologian Karen Armstrong (author of the book, surprise surprise, A History of God, this documentary, produced for the History Channel, tries to encapsulate the entire history of monotheism into 93 minutes. Ambitious, certainly. But is A History of God worth the trouble I had playing it?
My job as a film critic is to take any given film at face value. Does this film accomplish what it set out to do? If it is a comedy, does it make my laugh? If it is a history documentary, does it provide credible evidence and produce a convincing argument? I knew I was in trouble here from the first few minutes of A History of God, when the Canaanites are credited with inventing monotheism, with no mention of Akhenaton's failed experiment in Egypt (which some scholars argue inspired the early Hebrews). Instead, Abraham is treated as a straightforward historical figure who invented monotheism whole cloth.
According to A History of God, monotheism was a smooth evolution from Judaism to Christianity to Islam, as if each typologically prefigured its successor. And it takes as its primary historical sources the Bible and the Koran. For instance, take its history of Judaism. Abraham chats with God. Moses frees the people. Prophets keep the people in line. And so forth. But no Akhenaton. No stress on the Babylonian Captivity as the time during which most of the varying clan traditions of the Israelite tribes were consolidated into a single religion. Or how that Judaism (which did not exist as a coherent or unified practice until then) looked back toward the Israelite empire, particularly the reign of King David, as a golden age. Or how the Persian occupation following the fall of Babylon transformed Judaism by adding messianism and other new ideas (all of which you can read about in my Deep Focus column on the history of the Apocalypse—and in many other books).
Whether you believe Genesis is inspired by God or invented by humans, historical evidence suggests that the stories in it were assembled by a variety of editors over the course of several generations many centuries after the events depicted therein. There is no corroborating historical evidence for the existence of Abraham or Jacob or Moses. But A History of God never tells you that.
And this is supposed to be a product of the History Channel.
This is not a history documentary. This is a summary of Bible stories with a little bit of critical gloss. And I mean critical in the loosest sense of the term. I do not begrudge those who want reinforcement of their beliefs through their television sets. A History of God will do that for you, by quoting from the Bible, showing lots of pretty Renaissance art to illustrate, and sticking in the occasional priest or rabbi to remind you of the lesson. Occasionally a slightly more critical voice (a couple of cultural historians) might offer an interpretation of what certain Bible stories might have meant to their audiences. There are interesting digressions from time to time, as when an African American pastor explains why the exodus story was so appealing to blacks in the 19th century. But most of the analysis, what little there is, gets lost in a wash of reverence. Sunday school lessons dressed up as history.
I sense that the creators of this documentary are either historians who are afraid to scare off religious people under the assumption that such an audience cannot be objective (which woefully underestimates the History Channel's viewers). Or they are devout believers trying to sell religious texts as unquestioned history. A History of God cowers, afraid to be honest about its agenda, and thus it fails to convincingly accomplish anything beyond recapitulating what you already know from your childhood Bible lessons. Only in the last few minutes does the documentary get to its real point, that the search for God in its various forms is a search for meanings that continue to evolve with human history. Now this is what the documentary should have been doing all along. But most viewers will have thrown their hands up an hour before in fear that this would never say something so reasonable. This last act should have been put at the beginning.
Of course, it might be something short of a miracle if you can even watch A History of God. A&E burning this onto DVD+R makes the disc inaccessible to potential viewers using older DVD technology. But this is apparently their new policy with all broadcast productions you purchase from them. Consider yourself warned.
Weak program, poor packaging: on all counts, this documentary falls flat. The real history of western religion is rich and complex and full of fascinating details. We have always searched for some higher truth, and our quest has yielded some of the best stories—both glorious and terrifying—in human history. A History of God is not the place to start if you really want to know the history of God.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
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