Discover the Surprising History of the First Christians
New DVD series examines Christianity’s global roots.
by Audra Jennings Thursday, April 29, 2010
A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years is a six-part series co-produced by the BBC, the Open University, and Jerusalem Productions and presented by Diarmaid MacCulloch, one of the world’s leading historians and Professor of History of the Church and Fellow at St. Cross College, Oxford. As MacCulloch reveals the true history of Christianity, he explores the question, “What does it really mean to be a Christian?”
MacCulloch is one of the most widely traveled Christian historians, and A History of Christianity is the first retelling of the Christian story that is truly global in scope. Filmed in high definition, A History of Christianity takes viewers on a 2,000-year odyssey that reaches the farthest corners of the world, from Palestine in the first century to India in the third, from Damascus to China in the seventh century, and from San Francisco to Korea in the twentieth.
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Q & A with Diarmaid MacCulloch,
Host of A History of Christianity
(Part 2 of 2)
Q: In the series, you point out that the big theme that distinguishes Roman Catholicism from other denominations is the centralization of power, both in the church as an institution in the lives of its followers and within the church itself. When did this transfer of power take place?
A: The crucial steps toward centralized power were taken 30 years after Constantine’s death in 337, during the time of Pope Damasus I, when the Bishop of Rome was established as bishop in unbroken succession from St. Peter. I’ll stick my neck out and say that I don’t believe that Peter was Bishop of Rome. And you’d be hard put to find anyone before the time of Pope Damasus who would make that claim. But as the successor to Peter, the Bishop of Rome became the Holy Father, the pope of all Christians in the West. The Catholic church was no longer an upstart. It had friends in high places now, a religion fit for gentlemen. The centrality of church power increased further during the time of Pope Gregory, around the fifth and sixth centuries. Gregory wanted to micromanage the fate of every soul in Europe. And to drive through this change, the papacy first targeted the clergy. Gregory made a change that was to redefine the popular image of the catholic cleric. Before that, most clergy who were not monks were expected to marry, but Gregory started a campaign to make all clergy to be automatically celibate. That’s because he wanted the best, the most disciplined, and the most loyal clergy possible. With its foot-soldiers in place, the Catholic church now had a presence in every village, town, and parish doing its best to control every aspect of people’s lives. What emerged was a single Latin Western society, unified by the Latin language and underpinned by a complex religious bureaucracy
Q: What really happened in the time commonly known as the Dark Ages?
A: In the 5th century, Barbarian invaders overran the western half of the empire. And in 1410, they took Rome itself. At that moment, the Latin church could easily have crumbled and become a footnote in European history. The centuries while the church stood alone after the fall of Rome are often referred to as the Dark Ages, as if civilization collapsed. Actually, that’s not true. The Church was not about to die with the Empire, but it was at a crossroads. How did the Latin Church survive on its own? Well, the decisions made by the wily politician Pope Damasus began to pay off. The church still had influential friends, and it survived because of the great choice made by the people still holding to the last shreds of imperial power—the Roman aristocracy. Once they’d ruled the Roman Empire, and now they decided to rule the Church. Roman nobleman became bishops to preserve the world they loved. When the empire collapsed, the church stepped into the power vacuum. The Western church had survived. It had adapted. 400 years earlier, Christianity was against the establishment. Now it was the establishment.
Q: What has been the prevailing religious feeling in the “Christian West” for the past fifty years?
A: I come from three generations of Anglican clergy. My father was a good and faithful priest, much loved by his congregation. His was still the church of Christendom, which had endured since the time of Constantine the Great. But even as a boy, I could see that the sort of church and society he served was dying. My own life story makes me a symbol of something distinctive to Western Christianity—a skepticism, a tendency to doubt which has transformed Western culture and transformed Christianity. In the years after WWII, I was a little boy growing up in Suffolk. I knew of the challenges facing Christianity. In the 1950s, church attendance actually increased in a chastened, frightened Europe. But that mood passed. The horrors of the first half of the 20th century had raised the old question Voltaire had posed about the goodness of God: In Auschwitz, where was a loving God? Europe was sickened by any system which made absolute claims to truth: Communism, Fascism, Christianity. So it was hardly surprising that in the second half of the 20th century an unprecedented, almost frivolous mood confronted European Christianity: religious indifference and apathy. Social changes brought a more relaxed attitude toward sex and marriage, movement between social classes, and more individual choice. In the face of that, fewer people chose to spend Sunday in church. For 2,000 years, the Christian answer to the big questions of existence was faith in God, as revealed in Jesus Christ. That made sense of life and death. It taught right from wrong. But the recent history of Christianity has been described as a sea of faith ebbing away before the relentless advance of science and reason and progress. It’s actually a much more surprising story. The tide of faith, perversely, flows back in, for Christianity has a remarkable resilience. And in crisis, it has rediscovered deep and enduring truths about itself.
Q: So where is Christianity going in the twenty-first century? Should God be worried?
A: It depends where you look. In my journeys around Asia, Africa, and Latin America, I’ve been struck by the exuberance of Christian life. Pentecostals, in particular…I think they surprise us. In fact, they may surprise themselves by what they find on their own Christian adventure. Outside Europe, numbers of Christians are rising at a phenomenal pace, but in the West they are falling. So what of the church here, in the Christian continent which first discovered doubt? If the history of the church teaches us anything, it’s that it has an exceptional knack for reinventing itself in the face of fresh dangers. The modern world has plenty to throw at the church—skepticism, freedom, choice, but modernity can’t escape the oldest questions at the heart of the messy business of being human, questions of right and wrong, purpose and meaning. A wise old Dominican friar once reminded me of the words of St. Thomas Aquinas: “God is not the answer. He is the question.” And as long as the church goes on trying to ask the question, it will never die. Remember that Christianity is a very young religion. It spans a mere 2,000 years out of 150,000 years of human history. It would be very surprising if it had already revealed all of its secrets. We’ll wait and see. That’s just what Christians have been doing ever since they gathered as the sky turned black in Jerusalem at the foot of the cross on Golgotha.
The DVD set is available at retailers, including Sam’s Club. The series is also available on Amazon.com and www.ambrosevideo.com.
A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years 6 DVD Set presented by Diarmaid MacCulloch
Audra Jennings is Senior Media Specialist at The B & B Media Group. Since 1987, The B & B Media Group, Inc. has used its broadcasting, marketing and advertising experience to provide the specialized and strategic publicity necessary to achieve the public relations goals of each client. The Barnabas Agency, a division of The B & B Media Group, Inc., is a proven provider of exceptional public relations and personal management services for authors, speakers, ministries and organizations.
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