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Cruising through 1,000 years of Christianity

By M.S. Mason Television critic of The Christian Science Monitor / December 15, 2000



In the search for the meaning of humankind's purpose on earth, documentaries have investigated the first Christian millennium, considered the history of Jesus and other biblical figures, and explored the early Christian church.

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Now, a fascinating new documentary called "Christianity: The Second Millennium" (A&E, Dec. 17 and 18, 8-10 p.m.) cruises through the second thousand years since Jesus' time in an all-too-brief four hours.

So eventful was the past 1,000 years of Christendom that only the most politically and socially influential movements can be described in the film.

From the "reforms" of Pope Gregory VII (which included insistence on the celibacy of priests) to the Inquisition to the Protestant Reformation to liberation theology, it's been a busy millennium.

Many important movements and breakout theological visions were left out entirely because of time constraints. And it's a shame that almost all of the great female religious figures were excluded. True, most political and religious structures are predominantly male, but women have had a powerful influence, as so much new scholarship details.

Subject for a future film, perhaps?

Still, the ambitious two-part series includes plenty of information to assimilate. The significant changes in theology take a back seat to the sweep of historical movements here - but there's enough of theological evolution to encourage viewers to seek out more information.

In a recent interview with series director Bram Roos, he explained the thinking behind his absorbing new effort.

"A couple of years ago we did the rise of Christianity, the first 1,000 years," says Mr. Roos, whose production company, FilmRoos Inc., has made dozens of documentaries about the Bible and other religious topics.

"That project was generated internally at A&E. After doing the first film, we felt very strongly we should complete it and do the second thousand years - and A&E OK'd it."

Among his films are a 50-hour series called "Mysteries of the Bible," and history stories for A&E including "Ancient Mysteries," with Leonard Nimoy.

"We have a general interest in historical programming, but we're particularly interested in historical programming about the human journey," Roos says. "That is our underlying reason for making films about religion - it is mankind's search for meaning and transcendence....

"Why are you here? Is there a purpose to life? What is there beyond the material world that gives meaning to our lives?

"It's those questions that concern each and every one of us," he says. "And we find different ways of expressing it - some in organized religions, others in different civilizations, in different ways. But it comes down to a human quest for some kind of meaning to human life...."

Roos repeats a story he liked so much from one of his previous films, which was a reflection on human suffering. One of the experts tells an ancient tale about a man who walks out of his abode and looks up at the heavens and says, "God, there's so much suffering, why don't you send somebody down to help us?" And God replies, "I did send somebody down. I sent you." Life is about who we are and what we're doing here, Roos explains.

Roos consulted religious scholars such as Martin Marty and Karen Armstrong. As the film examines each historical era, he says, respected experts in that area of history lend their comments.

While the film does not mince words about subjects like the Inquisition, Roos strove for an even hand.

"We will let all the voices be heard, and let the audience decide about the controversial themes," he says.

Extraordinary care, he says, was taken to avoid judging the past by the values of the 20th century. Roos explains that when church and state were intertwined in Europe it was because there was no infrastructure for civil law in a feudal society dominated by a few aristocrats and their arbitrary judgments. The church had a hierarchy and a structure that it used to provide civil authority.

Yet there is no question about how the filmmaker feels about the American Revolution and the separation of church and state.

"One of the things that really disturbs me when I look around the world at trouble spots like Bosnia or the Middle East: There is no separation of church and state," Roos says. "It seems clear that when the United States made that separation, deciding to leave God to the individual, religion actually flourished.... We've evolved to a much better place. But it happened over a long period of time."

Director Bram Roos is currently shooting a film based on Karen Armstrong's bestselling book, 'A History of God.' Look for it on A&E in May 2001.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society