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Diarmaid MacCulloch opens his epic television series, A History of Christianity, with a confession. “When I was a small boy, my parents used to drive me around historic churches, searching out whatever looked interesting or odd. But soon they realized they had created a monster.”
MacCulloch came from three generations of Anglican priests. The “monster” his parents created is now Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford, and A History of Christianity is the sweeping, six-hour television companion to his new book called of the same name.
A History of Christianity is a collaboration between the BBC and the Open University, a British institution of distance learning. The series combines the energy of a documentary with the thoroughness of a history course.
It begins in the Holy Land, as MacCulloch retraces the paths of the early Christians. He and his producers luxuriate in the art and artifacts of Christendom, and treat the viewer to ravishing church architecture and obscure iconography. A walk through the Church of the Holy Sepulchre becomes a lesson in early varieties of Christian practice, including the Coptic, the Syriac Orthodox, and the Ethiopian Orthodox. He has a sharp eye for paradox, reminding us that had things gone only slightly differently, “the headquarters of the Christian church might have been Baghdad rather than Rome.”
MacCulloch makes no effort to hide his bias. He favors the Syriac Orthodox Church, for example, and takes us on a remarkable journey to rural China, where the Syriacs introduced Christianity in the 8th century, without a hint of conquest or bloodshed. The Crusades, on the other hand, are described with disapproval, with a resonance for modern times.
MacCulloch’s scholarship is impressive, yet not overpowering, and it’s a pleasure to watch him weave history into the visual and auditory tapestry. At times, though his producers go overboard. When he talks about the Inquisition, the camera distorts his watery gaze with a fish-eye lens, and adds screechy soundeffects better suited to an episode of “Lost.”
Sometimes his team strives for images to illustrate the material and comes up empty-handed. A segment about early Byzantium, relies on shot after shot of modern Muslim women in Istanbul. The Age of Voltaire is illustrated by Parisian taxicabs.
By the sixth and last episode of the series, MacCulloch abandons his professorial amble through history to adopt a more urgent tone. In earlier scenes, we have witnessed MacCulloch kneeling in prayer, but now he states that he is merely a “candid friend of Christianity.”
In the final episode, called “God in the Dock,” MacCulloch revisits the Enlightenment and its contests of faith, then extends the challenges to the calamities of the 20th century. Here he begins to mix politics, religion and social turmoil with abandon.
Both Voltaire’s Lisbon earthquake and Auschwitz, he tells us, were events that questioned the existence of a loving God.
MacCulloch talks about the gender revolution in modern Christianity, using his own homosexuality as a point of departure.
The last episode of the series lacks the clarity of earlier segments, but reminds us that MacCulloch is a passionate observer of Christianity, and on several levels, personally engaged. “A History of Christianity” has its frustrations, in some of its down-market visual and sound effects, and MacCulloch’s mannered presentation. On the other hand, it is an
illuminating and thought-provoking journey through a religion that has experienced extremes of both fervor and doubt.