“The Christians” (1977)

| November 12, 2009

As improbably named writer-presenter Bamber Gascoigne (“University Challenge”) points out in a new introduction to his 1977 documentary The Christians, it is somewhat a product of its time, so the point to which the whole enterprise builds is not the current difficulties between the Christian and Muslim world, but rather the battle between believers and those Godless Communists in Russia. After all, this was years before St. Reagan descended from heaven and personally knocked over the Berlin Wall while Pope John Paul Jr. joined Lech Wałęsa in battle to kick Papa Joe Stalin’s ass (cough cough). Okay, that last sentence is highly inaccurate. But The Christians is a product of its era, which makes it almost as much a time capsule of the attitudes and insecurities (and bad fashions) of over thirty years ago as it is a history of one third of the so-called “People of the Book” over the course of almost two thousand years.
Gascoigne makes it clear from the beginning that this thirteen hour documentary is not the history of Christianity, but rather the people who follow that religion, and the premiere episode does a good job of showing a wide range of modern Christians, all presumably believing in the same deity but showing that belief in very different ways – from Chanting Ethiopians to an ancient patriarch in Jerusalem waving flaming torches; via a spirited gospel-singing congregation in the US to a drier-than-dust British sermon; through the Byzantine grandeur of a service in the USSR to modern Africa, which feels very much like the US; to a joyous dancing procession in Luxembourg to a morbid Spanish parade featuring the grim-reaper leading a cast of skeleton-clad dancers whipping a Jesus stand-in down the Villa Dolorosa.
With the modern stage set, Gascoigne takes us on a more-or-less chronological journey documenting how an obscure, not well-liked minor cult within Judaism went on to become a dominant world religion and, at various periods, the chief persecutor of its own mother religion. What distinguished it at the beginning was the idea – unheard of at the time – that people could have a personal connection with an unseen god via a dead and resurrected messiah called Jesus. Rejected by orthodox Jews of the time (although the Romans did the dirty deed), what became Christianity survived underground – frequently literally – until a faltering Roman Empire looking for a unified religion cobbled together bits and pieces of at least three, held a contentious conference in which Jesus was not the only contender for new figurehead of the state religion and, voila – hated cult became one with Emperor and Empire and the western world was changed forever.
If you know your History of the Western World, there’s not a lot new here. But if you’re like most Americans and snoozed through those classes, then The Christians is worth a look as a reminder that a religion that close to 80% of Americans in 2009 claim to follow did not drop magically out of the sky (or St. Paul’s pen) in one piece, all the rules intact, all parties in agreement. In fact, the saga is as much about in-fighting between adherents of various tenets – and creators of new ones – as it is the story of Christianity’s struggle against its opponents and oppression of non-believers.
Where The Christians shows its age is in the pacing. The world of 1977 moved much more slowly, after all, and Gascoigne does not hesitate to stop the narrative in order to observe. Sometimes it works, as in a stunning montage of Renaissance art, influenced by religion but embracing a very physical and sensual world. More often than not it doesn’t, as when watching the minutiae of daily life among Christians in an African village, or a group of monks in Asia minor. It sometimes feels as if Gascoigne has had to pad episodes in order to fill the full time alloted.
Still, it’s well worth the educational value and, as always, Athena presents the series in a beautiful package, complete with supplemental booklet summarizing each episode, offering further information and asking thought-provoking questions. It’s ideal for the classroom, or for parents who want to challenge their kids and offer them something better to watch on DVD than the latest Transformers movie or the latest season of One Tree Hill.
The Christians is available on DVD now.

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