The Christians is an outstanding 13-part documentary series whose DVD incarnation is hampered only by a lackluster transfer. Originally broadcast on Great Britain's ITV in 1977, The Christians takes the documentary form quite seriously. It does not try to create or focus on contrived historical drama. Instead, it utilizes cinematic techniques to present information enriched with deep context as only the best documentaries do. Instead of getting a "story," we see the vast reach of history brought to life in all its unpredictable ups and downs - these variable waves of progress and regress are a big part of what makes the broader topic of history so compelling in the first place.
Each 50-minute episode is dedicated
to a topic concerned with the development of Christianity as a human
institution - a force that has shaped cultures, societies, and people.
As series writer and presenter Bamber Gascoigne says in the newly-shot
video introduction to the series, the title is The Christians
for a reason. This is not a chronological history of Christianity
or of formal Christian institutions. The focus is always on how
the religion has manifested itself in the lives of individuals throughout
Each episode is a carefully
made, well-organized, and thematically coherent film that unfolds in
a leisurely but engaging manner. A typical episode begins with
Gascoigne narrating the background to that show's topic - discussing,
for example, the way that Europe's cities used Christianity as the
organizing force that allowed them to fend off invading barbarians (Episode
3: "The Birth of Europe"), or the use of "show business" techniques
used to rally public enthusiasm around the Church in the 18th
century (Episode 10: "Politeness and Enthusiasm"). A quick
survey of the historical landscape of each episode leads to long segments
in which Gascoigne's narration takes a backseat to images of Christian
art and architecture - and, most importantly, scenes of Christian
worship, practice, and life.
The Christians features
almost no interview footage; the only other voices captured here are
in readings from historical sources, and of people who appear in the
footage shot expressly for the series. (Archival footage is only
rarely present.) Gascoigne is interested in how Christianity has
affected people's lives over the centuries - and how ancient practices
have been adapted in contemporary societies. Therefore, the visual
emphasis is on the here and now. We are treated to long sequences
that show Ethiopian and Syrian monks. We spend some time looking
at church services in dozens of countries around the world. We
see how Christianity managed to survive in Cold War Soviet Union (an
issue very current at the time the documentary was produced).
The approach of the series is to emphasize the role that Christianity
continues to play in shaping the course of the world.
Gascoigne presents Christian
beliefs and institutions as being very human in origin, a point of view
that may annoy the faithful. As willing as he is to discuss the
many points throughout history when Christianity was an asset to cultural
and social development, Gascoigne does not soft-soap its transgressions
against human progress, such as the Crusades and the Inquisition.
Over its thirteen episodes,
The Christians presents a detailed learning experience, shot and
edited with great care. I've seen several long documentaries
that address the history of Christianity, but this one stays focused
on the people who built and practice the faith, rather than focusing
merely on the Apostles, Saints, Popes, and other authority figures.
This "people's history" of Christianity is down-to-earth, informative,
and probably the best documentary on the subject.