Easter fare that doesn't star Charlton Heston

With Easter around the corner, it's the time of year when TV airs a flurry of shows with religious themes, which range from the traditional "Ten Commandments" to more innovative topics, such as the endangered animals of the Holy Land.

Many of the new shows are taking a livelier approach to ancient history, complete with reenactments and eager historians trying to breathe new life into some of Christianity's most familiar figures.

First, there's the latest in the ongoing PBS Empires series, Peter and Paul and the Christian Revolution (airing April 9 at 9 p.m.). Just as politics and religion are deeply and often tragically intertwined in the Middle East, politics also had a huge impact on the early days of Christianity.

The two-hour series is less about the theology of the early disciples and more about the political struggles around which Christianity was formed.

"The Emperor Augustus was calling himself the son of god because his father Julius Caesar was deified," says writer/director Margaret Koval. "If you [said] that the kingdom of god is coming, you understand that the Romans would take that politically."

The historic clashes of politics and religion may have even more poignancy now, given the current Gulf war, Koval says. She is quick to point out that there are no direct comparisons, only issues that bear consideration.

"We are accustomed to thinking of the Roman Empire as being intolerant of religious diversity," says Ms. Koval, but that's not accurate. "They were very welcoming of all kinds of gods, but when the Jews who were following Jesus began to say, 'You can't worship all those gods, you have to worship our God,' the Romans couldn't handle that exclusivity. This was, of course, in a time when religion and politics were one, so the language was incendiary on the surface."

The animals of the Holy Land are the subject of another PBS show, Lost World of the Holy Land, part of the WNET "Nature" series (airing April 13 at 8 p.m.). How can you resist a program that shows a religious military veteran, who also happens to be a staunch conservationist, soaring in an airplane near a flock of migrating birds to show the Israeli army how to stop killing them on flight routes?

Interspersed with biblical quotations, the hour also takes viewers into the nature preserves, dubbed the Noah's Ark of today, where ancient animal breeds are sheltered and cultivated. There's the Arabian oryx, whose silhouette some believe inspired the unicorn myth, and the griffin vulture, among others.

Another show, Reluctant Saint: The Life of Francis of Assisi (airing on the Hallmark Channel April 13 at 7 p.m.) is a fairly straightforward look at the familiar Catholic figure. But the reenactments and the emphasis on the human life of the man who was sainted within two years of his death are compelling and fast-moving.

We see that, as a young man, he was handsome, impetuous, and every bit the playboy of his time. But a war and subsequent captivity forced him into a harsh solitude at a young age. This experience gave birth to an entirely new perspective in a man whose privileged life had been fairly predictable in its early years.

The man who became known as St. Francis of Assisi formed his views in part through his own religious search, never intending to become a saint, or even a priest.

He was a determined layman who just wanted a simple life and complete communion with a higher power. Again, a sequence that depicts his trip to join the crusades of the 13th century has an added poignancy today. He was determined to aid the Western knights in their quest to expel what they saw as infidels from the Holy Land.

Instead, he met with the sultan and found what he described as a man of peace. He returned to his native Italy, determined to preach and pursue a life of simplicity and peace. In the process, he founded a religious order.

One detail that's particularly interesting: He welcomed women into his spiritual path on equal terms, something that the Catholic church, which was responsible for his sainthood, has not yet done.

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