“The Conversion of Constantine represented the beginning of a relationship between politics and religion.”
What a silly statement. It appears at the very beginning of the second episode of the series “Christianity: A History” from Channel 4 (an odd series that has a range of different “hosts” for each of the eight series, including Ann Widdecombe and Cherie Blair), currently showing here on ABC TV’s Compass. It is the sort of nonsense platitude that one expects of these TV “Histories of Christianity”. I mean, who could seriously claim to be able to point to any event in history in which politics and religion could first be said to be related? Was there ever a period when they (ie. any religion and all politics) was not?
For some reason, Christian history does not translate well into television. That goes for the excellent Dairmaid MacCulloch’s “A History of Christianity” too. The book is marvellous. Unfortunately, you won’t learn much from the TV series. I’ve just watched episode two of the DVD version, which focuses on the Latin/Roman Church from Peter through to the Crusades and the dawn of the Reformation. What in his book comes across as balanced and detailed and highly informative, is reduced to a vague overview, given from what can only be described as protestant-Whig-school-history-text-book terms. No deep insights.
(I have to interupt myself here: I have just watched a scene in Episode 2 of “Christianity: A History” which suggested that Constantine burned those “heretics” who disagreed with the Nicene Creed!!! Another statement in this program is exactly like it: the claim that Constantine gave Eusebius the task of deciding “what stories of Christ to leave in and what to leave out” of the gospel books he commissioned. This is utter Dan Brown nonsense – in fact, they actually say “this was made widely known later by the Da Vinci Code!!!)
The BBC/MacCulloch’s production is historically better than this Channel 4 production, but the second episodes of both series have a lot in common with one another. From the way they tell the story, Christianity after the conversion of Constantine was a completely (“180 degree turn”) different religion to that which went before it. It makes the “pre-Vatican-II/post-Vatican-II” argument look pale in comparison. Both are characterised by the frequent use of the word “power”. It appears that they cannot understand what the Church was about without using this word repeatedly. The story of the quest for “power” is the only narrative by which these TV commentaries seems to be able to comprehend the Church – and therefore they completely misunderstand it. The show ends with the host saying “I’m a lapsed Catholic, so I think that power is for politicians, not churchmen, so Constantine gets my thumbs down.” Que?
I am almost ready to give up ever finding a TV series that I can recommend for my students. I might suggest that they look at MacCulloch’s series. I could never recommend “Christianity: A History”. At least it’s second episode is utter rubbish.