I recently viewed an excellent six-part video series titled: “A History of Christianity” presented by Professor Dairmaid MacCulloch, a professor of church history at University of Oxford (since 1997) and Fellow (formerly Senior Tutor) of St Cross College, Oxford (since 1995). MacCulloch is the highly esteemed author of several important volumes that have won numerous literary awards.
His published works include the eminently useful work Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700 (2003). This volume won the 2004 National Book Critics Circle Award and 2004 British Academy Book Prize, adding to his earlier success in carrying off the 1996 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his marvelous and most important work Thomas Cranmer: A Life. (The link here will allow you to purchase the Cranmer volume at a great price too.) The Cranmer book is simply the best work we have on this important English Protestant Reformer. His most recent book is a massive one-volume work (again the link gives you the best price I found), A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, published in September 2009.
As readers well know Christianity is the world’s biggest religion, yet few in the secular West seem to care a great deal with this fact, preferring to marginalize Christians and faith and build up Islam and other faiths as more important to our culture and future. Following an appeal by Archbishop Rowan Williams the BBC produced a major documentary series on Christianity that aired on British television in 2009. That British television series is now available as a six-episode boxed set distributed by Ambrose DVD.
MacCulloch’s presentation is engaging and fits the warm rhetorical style of an Oxford don with a wry sense of humor and a careful eye for the unusual. The son of an English vicar who grew up in “one of those great Georgian rectories where Agatha Christie murders took place” MacCulloch has clearly grasped the medium well as these videos will quickly reveal. I found them hard to stop watching once I began. (I think I saw them all in three days time.) But behind the cool exterior and warm style there is a scholar who is a real person, not simply a teacher of history. MacCulloch is opinionated if he is anything at all. In fact, part of what makes this series so effective is the viewer will again and again say, even aloud, “Why on earth did he say that?” And as one British journalist put it, “Judging by the first episode of A History of Christianity, there is some vigorous axe-grinding going on.” That is a modest understatement.
But what makes this series so valuable is its panoramic flyover of two thousand years. Scholars will debate conclusions but ordinary viewers will learn so much and learn it with a keen eye for detail. Disagree with McCullouch you should but ignore him you must not. This series would be well worth showing to serious adult discussion groups and in classes for college and seminary students. It is also worth owning and using in a personal way. I will watch it again, perhaps several times.
Why did it take nearly 35 years for the BBC to actually tackle the subject of Christianity so openly? There are a variety of reasons but the most obvious is the tone-deafness of the West to its own origins and the role that religion has played in that history and development. Dairmaid MacCulloch says: “It took a long time for the West to wake up to the fact that religion was back with a vengeance in almost literal terms, and that Europe’s move towards serene indifference to faith was the exception, not the rule.”
One of the great values of this series is that MacCulloch deals with early varieties of Christianity that moved east rather than west. He visits communities in Syria that still worship in Aramaic, the language of Christ, and the first episode ends up in China where he visits a pagoda that displays traces of a Christianity that died out. MacCulloch insists that this is because this Christianity lacked the support of Western imperial power. Like religion scholar Philip Jenkins, who also has a lot of good to teach us, MacCulloch has a decided bias against the West. When asked about this he said: “I wanted to show that there is a whole set of ancient Christianities which the West has forgotten because they were crushed by events,” he explains. The experts he employs in the series are often individuals with a decided bias against the West.
The problem here is actually quite simple: MacCulloch’s worldview is decidedly liberal both religiously and politically. He views Western Christianity as male-dominated, triumphalistic and too powerful. He has a special scorn for Roman Catholicism that cannot be missed by even the casual viewer with any background at all.
So how valuable is A History of Christianity given MacCulloch’s prejudices? His take is clearly slanted toward the liberal left. As a Christian who believes very, very differently I found myself arguing with MacCulloch while at the same time I learned a great deal that was informative and exciting to me. One British reviewer of the series added: “‘Dogmatism’ is one of his pet hates, but press him on his own contentious opinions and what does he say? ‘People don’t like hearing it told as it is.’”
In the final episode the viewer learns rather abruptly that MacCulloch really does have a decided opinion about his subject matter. He says, “I describe myself not so much as a Christian as a candid friend of Christianity.” Fair enough but what is the reason for this disclaimer or confession?
Though ordained as a deacon in the Church of England, MacCulloch declined ordination to the priesthood for political reasons related to his openness about his practice of a homosexual lifestyle. He joined the Gay Christian Movement in 1976, serving twice on its committee and briefly as honorary secretary. Regarding the clash between his sexuality and the Church and his own retreat from religious orthodoxy he said:
I was ordained Deacon. But, being a gay man, it was just impossible to proceed further, within the conditions of the Anglican set-up, because I was determined that I would make no bones about who I was; I was brought up to be truthful, and truth has always mattered to me. The Church couldn't cope and so we parted company.
So why should a mainstream Christian, who is put off by such an admission of lifestyle and opinion, watch this series? Because there is so much here to learn. MacCulloch treats the rise of charismatic Christianity, to use but one good example, with quite a bit of detached and fair-minded historical accuracy. He introduces Western viewers to the East and to parts of the church that we neither know nor understand. And he does it, generally speaking, in an intelligent and thought provoking way. With these reservations I recommend that you watch this series and use them to teach others the broad strokes of Christian history. But be sure to inform those who see them that this is one historian’s view and that there are many other ways to understand the spin MacCulloch puts on people and events. But use them for what they do so well. Here you can see a bigger and broader Christianity than that which is understood by most Christians who have ever encountered the multi-faceted history of the whole Christian church. As a proponent of missional-ecumenism I can use these videos to teach, even (one could say especially) where I so disagree with the historian himself.
NOTE: Your purchase of any of the books, or the video series, through the links provided above will take you to Amazon.com where I found the best prices and where the link takes you to our ACT 3 online Amazon store account. A purchase through this means benefits ACT 3.