A History of Christianity - Episode One: The First Christianity
American television has produced similar overviews of Christianity, but none I have seen can compare with the lush visuals and clear language of this BBC production. It’s as much a travelogue as it is a history lesson, one whose images remind you of how visually beautiful Christianity is at its best. Oxford professor Diarmaid MacCulloch visits the locations of important historical events, sometimes to ironic effect. The palace where the Council of Nicea was held is now underwater, so MacCulloch sits beside a calm shore while discussing this first attempt to unify Christianity. Later he travels to China to interview a historian who deduced that an ancient Taoist temple was originally a Christian church based on the feng shui of its design – an impressive piece of detective work. However, irate villagers resentful of interest in Christianity overshadowing Buddhism prevent them from entering the temple.
Perhaps my favorite moment occurs when Professor MacCulloch approaches the site in Syria where St. Simeon stood atop a pillar for almost 40 years. Clutching his little digital camera, MacCulloch tells us how excited he is, having first heard about St. Simeon when he was eight. “I never thought I’d get to come here, and now here I am.” Anyone who has traveled knows that giddy enthusiasm.
Much of this first episode is structured around the church’s divisions (or diversity, if you want to be more positive about it). Leaving Jerusalem, some Christians headed west, a branch eventually adopted by the Emperor Constantine and made into the state religion of the Roman Empire. This is the story of Christianity I know well. However, other Christians headed east to Turkey, Syria and ultimately Asia. The stereotypes: western churches are more theological, eastern churches more mystical. The Council of Nicea was Constantine’s attempt to unify the faith and quell the endless theological arguments threatening to split his empire. The decision that Christ is “of one substance with the father” i.e. divine, worked for about 100 years, until some bishops began asking the damaging question “How?”
Nestorias, the Bishop of Constantinople, argued that Christ’s human and divine natures were like oil and water in the same glass. Even though they were in the same container, they were quite separate. Cyrill, the Bishop of Alexandria, on the other hand, argued that Christ’s human and divine natures were like water and wine in the same glass, mixed together.
There’s something I find both funny and deeply sad about this situation. The phrase “number of angels dancing on the head of a pin” comes to mind. The fact that people spent so much time arguing about something that either doesn’t exist or can never be proven astonishes me. This isn’t like a zen koan, something to be contemplated as way of spiritually training the mind. These were arguments as an attempt to “prove” something supernatural or transcendent. MacCulloch puts it in a historical context, saying “Understanding exactly how Jesus was God explained how He was powerful enough to save you from Hell,” but they might as well have been arguing over exactly how Santa Claus makes all those deliveries in one night.