On DVD: Christianity: The First Two Thousand Years

Christianity: The First Two-Thousand Years is a documentary originally broadcast on A&E in 1998 and 2000. This DVD release does not add anything new, but it's a decent presentation of a solid documentary worth checking out if you haven't already. It's a substantial, weighty treatment of its subject, an approach that is increasingly out of step with the cheesy, overripe "documentary" programs currently seen on The History Channel and other places.

Divided into two parts (each treating a millennium) and narrated by Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, the 6 hour and 40 minute documentary compiles contemporary video footage, still images of art and architecture, and interviews with scholars and ecclesiasts. The whole is expertly edited into a seamless narrative that maintains its complex story while incorporating divergent viewpoints and a relevance to contemporaneous time periods. This ambitious survey tells of Jesus and the Apostles; the fathers of the early Church; medieval Catholic philosophers; the Protestant Reformation; the Inquisition; and much more, up to and including Mormons and modern day American evangelicals.

Despite the sweeping scope, we are afforded intimate, detailed portraits of important figures such as St. Paul, Constantine, St. Augustine, Empress Theodora, Charlemagne, Otto the Great (and Otto II), St. Dominic, Martin Luther, and Henry VIII. These mini-biographies are helped by the input of Professors Paul Maier of Western Michigan University, Elaine Pagels of Princeton, Karen Jo Torjeson of Claremont Graduate University, John Dominic Crossan of DePaul University, Jeffrey Burton Russell of Loyola Marymount, and many others. The commentators are generally engaging; their vast command of the subject renders their participation enthusiastic and energetic. Never do they come off as aloof or condescending. Pagels and Crossan are particularly good storytellers, as their many best-selling books would suggest. Close editorial attention results in seamless transitions between narration and interviewee comments.

The whole program is cohesive and visually appealing, although occasionally marred by unfortunate editorial choices such as weird color filters. Still, a major strong suit of this documentary is the consistent relevance of its imagery. Lesser productions rely on repetition of images and film footage, which, after a while, render such visuals meaningless as the viewer's eyes glaze over. This one maintains a constant flow of new images that effortlessly complement the narration or commentary, avoiding repetition and hence staleness.

Christianity: The First Two Thousand Years avoids value judgments, although it certainly treats its subject with reverence. It does not include interviews with anyone who disputes Christianity's core tenets, which is unsurprising. Nonetheless, it comes off as philosophically even-handed, presenting the storied history of Christianity's development and spread with a view to well-established facts, avoiding controversy and interpretive commentary. 

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