Saturday, June 12, 2010

A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years DVD

A candid friend tells the story of the Church

A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years DVD
Presenter: Diarmaid MacCulloch
Distributor: Ambrose Video (
Running Time: Approximately 6 hours

Among other things, A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years shows that seeds planted in youth flower in adulthood. This six-part series, co-produced by the BBC, the Open University and Jerusalem Productions, is hosted and narrated by Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of the History of the Church at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of St. John Cross College in Oxford.

When MacCulloch’s father, an Anglican minister, and his mother took their young son Diarmaid on their explorations of historic churches, they probably never realized they were sowing the seeds of his future. Diarmaid became fascinated with church history and so began his life work, of which this series is a part.

Now, instead of his parents leading the way, it is MacCulloch taking viewers through ancient structures and landmarks around the world. Ever the explorer, he searches for meaning in places that hold clues to the past, interviewing local experts and people who provide a diversity of thought.

MacCulloch is not only a well-respected historian, but an excellent narrator and a likeable guide. He unashamedly professes his fondness for the Anglican faith, he being the last of three generations of Anglican clergy. If he has a bias, it may be against the western form of Christianity as practiced by the Roman Catholic Church. He seems more charitable toward the eastern wing, exhibited in the Orthodox Church. The good news is that over the course of the six episodes shown below, he gives equal coverage to each of the major branches of the church.

1. The First Christianity
2. Catholicism: The Unpredictable Rise of Rome
3. Orthodoxy: From Empire to Empire
4. Reformation: The Individual Before God
5. Protestantism: The Evangelical Explosion
6. God in the Dock

One of the highlights is that MacCulloch tells more than just the same old story. He is not afraid to correct conventional wisdom and to bring out what might be overlooked. For example, he believes that Christianity stayed closer to its Middle-Eastern roots than many people realize. To illustrate that point, rather than initially tracing the spread of the faith to Rome, he takes the eastern road, which goes from Jerusalem to Asia, including parts of China.

In another segment, he takes us to Skellig Michael, a place that might be overlooked by many historians, but significant because this remote island was a center for the monastic life of Irish Christian monks for 600 years. Equally interesting is his account of Russian history and orthodoxy.

Filmed in HD, everything about the production is first-rate. This is no surprise given that the series is licensed by the BBC.

For all its merits, it falters somewhat in the last episode. Calling himself a “candid friend” rather than a Christian, MacCulloch asserts that the church failed to resist the Nazis. He reasons that since the Jews were considered killers of Christ and enemies of the church, the church is “implicated in the murder of Jews.”

It gets even more controversial in his interview with Rev. Nicholas Holtam of St. Martin Church-in-the-Fields, London. MacCulloch believes that questions about gender and sexuality present significant challenges to the church. He identifies himself as a gay man, and in response to an inquiry from MacCulloch, Rev. Holtam states, “The Scriptures don’t say anything about faithful, same-sex relationships and therefore, what’s condemned in Scripture isn’t what we are dealing with now.… I think the Bible’s answer is that what matters between human beings is loving, faithful, honest relationships.”

It should be noted that MacCulloch does not accept the authority of the Scriptures. He alludes to being unconvinced that the Bible is different from all other books.

Throughout the series, MacCulloch continually emphasizes that the Church has survived by its ability to adapt. He may wonder if the Church will successfully adjust to changing gender and sexual norms. Conservative Christians must be prepared to discuss these concluding ideas if they want to use this in a group setting. Unfortunately, this last segment detracts from the overall excellence of the series. Even so, this production provides a thought-provoking overview of Church history, and I give MacCulloch credit for telling it like he sees it.
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