The History of Christianity on TV

“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.

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11 Responses to The History of Christianity on TV

  1. matthias says:

    Must be a Fairfax news influence on this. yes right at easter the media decide to do a story about the Christian faith. Interestingly they also do them on the DEAD SEA SCROLLS thinking that it is about Christianity when in fact it is about Judaism and the Essenes and their community @ Quamran-because of the belief that John the Baptist -and perhaps Jesus- were secretly Essenes.
    by the way Schutz the book THE REFORMERS ABD THEIR STEPCHILDREN written by a Presbyterian analysing the Radical arm of the Reformation ie the anaBaptists ,noted that this group saw the main church as being tied politically to the state as a result of Constantines’ conversion.Hence this would account for why they were treated as rebels and not as heretics in Lutheran and Reformed principalities and their deaths were as hideous as that inflicted by the Inquisition.

  2. Louise says:

    Oh dear God.

    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 so sick to death of the whole Constantine thing. The Church has always had a relationship with the state (as it does now) by virtue of the fact that its members – or at least some of them – are citizens of the state. Mark Henderson wanted to know if the Catholic Church is above the law, for instance. Well, if it comes to that, in general, aren’t all Christians sometimes above the law? If the law of the land prohibited worship of God, would we not all be compelled to disobey such a “law” (in fact, a violation)? The state, IOW, is not the ultimate authority and there begins the whole tension between church and state; right from the word go, not just after Constantine.

    “Separation of Church and state” for example now seems to mean that Christians cannot have a say in the public sphere at all. All believers know that this is crap and impinges upon our rights as citizens.

    In short, the relationship between the Church and the state has always been one of tension and always will be. Regardless of whether or not there is a Pope in Rome and a Vatican State.

  3. Louise says:

    Besides, people often say that things went down hill for the Church after Constantine (and b/c of Constantine). How can we know? How can we be sure it wasn’t actually a good thing overall for the Church? Do not believers everywhere wish the state to legislate as much as possible in accord with God’s laws? What do people mean when they make such assertions?

    Have there been bishops, who care more for earthly power than feeding their sheep? Of course. What does this prove? Original Sin, perhaps? There have equally been many bishops who were Good Shepherds and did not care much for earthly power.

    Why do people insist on making remarks that cannot be proved?

    Finally, why is power in the hands of laymen (governing the state) inherently better than power in the hands of bishops? Surely it depends upon the laws enacted and the justice or otherwise of the ruler/s. Peasants under the just rule of an Abbot as their Lord would be better off than under an unjust layman as their Lord. And vice versa.

    • Schütz says:

      can we be sure it wasn’t actually a good thing overall for the Church?

      Ironically, in his book “A History of Christianity”, MacCulloch points out that the reason that Far Eastern Christianity never made it big, despite a really evangelical missionary outlook, is that they never found a “friend in high places”. On his blog, Mark Henderson speaks about being “contrary”. I think in fact that it would have been “contrary” to look such a gift horse in the mouth and say “No, we’d rather you continued persecuting us, really. It makes black and white so much clearer, and that way we can go on being other-worldly and not have to mess about in real day to day life politics.” Sure.

  4. Paul says:

    Speaking of ABC TV programmes, I’m waiting for the Geraldine Doogue Compass special on the Atheist Convention. It can’t be far off.

    I suppose it would at least have the justification that they did mention the PWR, but I’m still waiting for a Christian (who is not hostile to Christianity) to talk about the history of Christianity on Compass.

  5. What I always wonder is, well what did they expect once Christianity was legalised in 313?

    I can only imagine that it is what Christians were waiting for, much like the situation in many parts of the world today.

    Of course things would change once legal recognition was given. Thanks for the tip, I won’t bother watching the series.

  6. PM says:

    As an history graduate, I never cease to be amazed at how much the media version of history resembles the priceless ‘1066 and All That’ – whicch after all is a reductio ad absurdum of schoolboy Whig history. It takes Dawkins and Dan Brown, however, to make it look like a subtle work of high scholarship.

  7. Christine says:

    Not to mention long before the arrival of Constantine, the church already was speaking of the threefold office of bishop, presbyter and deacon. Yes, when Christianity became legal many hopped on board because it was socially prudent to do so (sound familiar? Happens in our day as well).

    The so-called “History Channel” here in the U.S. is downright laughable sometimes.

    Every age of the church has produced wheat and tares.


  8. Terry Maher (Past Elder) says:

    State religions always justify their power this way.

    It’s just kind of pathetic when that state is no longer around.

    If you want to justify The Catholic Church The Catholic Church The Catholic Church in such a preconciliar manner, I suggest you apply it to the preconciliar Catholic Church, and not the postconciliar one, whose architects acknowledged the facts of history and attempted a massive correction — unnecessary as the Holy Spirit passed them by about a half a millennium ago.

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