Christianity: A History


Episode One: Jesus the Jew (Written and presented by Howard Jacobson); Episode Two: Rome (Written and presented by Michael Portillo); Episode Three: Dark Ages (Written and presented by Robert Beckford); Episode Four: Crusades (Written and presented by Rageh Omaar; Epiosde Five: Reformation (Written and presented by Anne Widdecombe); Episode Six: Dark Continents (Written and presented by Kwame Kwei Armah; Episode Seven: God and the Scientists (Written and presented by Colin Blakemore; Episode Eight: The Future of Christianity (Written and presented by Cherie Blair)

‘Christianity: A History’ is a series of eight programmes broadcast in a one hour Sunday evening timeslot with advertisement breaks on Channel 4 between January and March 2009. Each programme was written and presented by a different person and explored a particular aspect of what still remains the world’s largest religion.

At the outset I will state for the record that I am not an atheist, but equally I am not an overtly religious person. I have never belonged to a church or to one particular religious belief. My father was a lapsed Catholic, who lost his faith as a result of the horrendous things he saw during World War Two, and my mother, as far as I am aware, was an atheist. Other than mandatory religious education when I was at school more than thirty years ago, I have never read the Bible in any depth and I have never owned a copy of the Bible. I have serious qualms about many aspects of organised religion. However, my overall stance is certainly ambivalent. A part of me is open to the possibility of the existence of God and a part of me wants to believe in the existence of God. At the same time, I generally suspect that in all likelihood God does not exist. Annoyingly, I refuse to make my mind up one way or the other.

Religion is a very emotive subject, both amongst conflicting religious groups and with secular groups, who are often very critical of the role that organised religion plays in all aspects of our lives, whether we accept it or not. The seventh programme in the series, ‘God and the Scientists’, saw Colin Blakemore, a leading neurobiologist and a controversial figure in the past because of the role he has played in animal experimentation, argue that science will eventually make religion obsolete. It is basically the argument put forward by Richard Dawkins, who is very briefly featured in the programme, although Blakemore presents a stance that one assumes is intended to suggest he is not quite so aggressively dogmatic in his approach.

I identified some problems with Blakemore’s argument. First of all, he is too ready to go for easy targets, such as believers in creationism and intelligent design. He is not wrong to include a visit to the Creation Museum in Kentucky as part of the programme, but the subtext that this is what all religious belief is about is, to say the least, biased and a little dishonest. When he does come across someone with strong religious beliefs who is happy to concede that God did not create the world in six days and Genesis is not to be interpreted literally as a history of creation, he simply doesn’t listen, or after the fact questions that person’s true beliefs. His stance would seem to be that science is always right and can be relied upon to provide us with facts and, therefore, trustworthy knowledge. That is only true up to a point, although science is pliable and able to adapt to increased knowledge, something that organised religion in hierarchical terms would seem to work to resist with all its might.

Blakemore puts his faith, if I might use that word, in science. It is now widely accepted by many scientists that the Big Bang theory explains the moment in which the universe came into being. It may well be the case, but there is a reason why it is called a theory. In pursuit of knowledge about the universe, science tells us that dark matter and dark energy makes up most of the mass in the universe, even though we cannot see it and there is no conclusive proof of its existence. God, on the other hand, does not exist. Blakemore would have us believe that is an irrefutable fact – because we cannot see God and there is no conclusive proof of God’s existence.

Ultimately, what Blakemore does that largely kills the argument he puts forward for me is fail to acknowledge and explore the reason why belief or faith exists. His ultimate message seems to be that if you believe in God you must be a moron. Belief in God is not simply an attempt to explain something in the absence of scientific knowledge. It doesn’t actually matter that science looks for evidence or that our knowledge about evolution makes nonsense of creationism. God is, as much as anything, a concept used by people to try to give meaning to their lives as more than simply what we can know and what we can see. Science will never do that.

As the priest and one-time professor of psychics John Polkinghorne said, talking about Richard Dawkins, “Debating with Dawkins is hopeless, because there’s no give and take. He doesn’t give an inch. He just says no when you say yes.” Colin Blakemore would seem to conform to this trend. I came away from his programme feeling very sceptical about his proposition that science is all-knowing.

In earlier programmes, the writer Howard Jacobson reminds us that Jesus was a Jew and that Christianity has its roots in Judaism. He proposes that Jesus never intended to start a new religion and questions the anti-Semitism that can be traced through the history of Christianity, leading ultimately to the Holocaust. The former Conservative politician Michael Portillo looks at the role of the Roman Emperor Constantine and how this transformed Christianity into the most powerful religion on Earth. Another Conservative politician, Anne Widdecombe, who was brought up a Protestant but converted late in life to Catholicism, looks at the Reformation. She proved to be a spirited and informative persenter and she does make some pertinent points, although I am not sure what her overall message was intended to be. She seems to suggest that if Christianity had not engaged in hundreds of years of fighting amongst itself, it could have devoted that time to stamping out other religions. I hope I am wrong, because that is a horrendous idea. Colin Blakemore’s programme made me veer towards God, in reaction to a very biased stance, even though I agree with a lot of what he says. Anne Widdecombe’s programme, on the other hand, just reminded me that religion often gives us an excuse to do evil things. I was particularly disturbed by the moment when Ian Paisley confirms that he believes the Pope is, literally, the Anti-Christ.

The journalist and war correspondent Rageh Omaar, a Muslim, wrote and presented a programme about the Islamic world’s attitudes towards the Crusades and how these differ from the West. He makes some pertinent points about the actions of George W Bush and Tony Blair and how we might interpret the reason why Bush used the word “crusade” when talking about the “War on Terror” and Blair argued that the invasion of Iraq was a “Just War”, an argument traditionally used to justify Holy Wars. Which leads me to the final programme, written and presented by Cherie Blair.

I approached this programme with a degree of trepidation. I have an extremely negative view of Tony Blair and the motivation for his actions in involving this country in an illegal and immoral war, based on entirely bogus “intelligence”, against the wishes of the majority of the people. Things didn’t start well. Cherie Blair, looking at the decline of Christianity, specifically Catholicism, in Europe, points to the horrors of the two World Wars that occurred in the Twentieth Century. It seemed somewhat hypocritical, given her husband’s record and the suspicion that his own religious beliefs were not entirely separated from his actions. Tellingly, later on in the programme there is a brief snippet of an interview with Laura Bush, which seems to have been inserted for no other reason than to argue that George W Bush and Tony Blair are not religious zealots and were not influenced in any way by their religious beliefs when it came to making decisions in the aftermath of the horrific attack on and destruction of the Twin Towers in New York. This might be true. I have my doubts.

Primarily, Cherie Blair’s programme dealt with the marginalisation of women by the Catholic Church. That is a big issue and a shameful one for Catholicism. Nothing in the programme suggests to me that the hierarchy of the Catholic Church intends to do anything other than continue to perpetrate and attempt to strengthen that stance. Cherie Blair looks to Christianity in the USA and proposes this where we must look to learn lessons how to drive the region forward successfully into the 21st Century. In an earlier programme entitled ‘Dark Continents’, the writer and playwright Kwame Kwei Armah proposes that Britain and America need to look to Africa for the way forward.

On a side note, should we read anything into the fact that only two of the eight epiosdes were written and presented by females, even though the population of the world is very nearly split equally 50/50 between male and female?

I found the eight programmes were, to varying degrees, interesting. I learned something from them, although not a huge amount I did not already know, in truth. ‘Jesus the Jew’ and ‘Crusades’ worked for me because they looked outside of Christianity at its relationship with other religions, invariably a hostile one. Other programmes in the series dealt specifically with Christianity, almost as if it is the only religion, understandably given the the remit of the series. Oddly enough, that was particularly true of Colin Blackmore’s programme, which gave the impression that he is anti-Christian, whereas, I assume, he is anti-Religion, which is not quite the same thing.

Channel 4 has frequently been accused of dumbing down in recent years, with very good reason. ‘Christianity: A History’ shows that it can still make interesting and thought-provoking television when it wants to. It’s not a series of programmes that would change many opinions and I am sure it would have angered more than a few, but it was a worthwhile venture.

Review posted 3 March 2009


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