Channel 4 doesn't do straight religious documentaries, so it's probably not fair to expect 'Christianity, A History' to be objective. It clearly isn't meant to be: Howard Jacobsen's polemic on the Jewishness of Jesus and how Christians have obscured it, and Michael Portillo's meditation on Constantine the politician, each presenter so far brings such a strong lens of their own to the subject. It's hard to know whether you're being presented with history, or a sermon.
In fact, though historically rooted, both programmes have been highly selective in the historical events they highlight, and the significance given to them. For instance, Jacobsen paints Paul as a lone voice for the Jesus movement embracing Gentiles, when several of the other apostles (Peter, Philip, John) are involved in evangelism of Gentiles too. Portillo claims that the final version of the New Testament was put together by Eusebius, Constantine's spin-doctor, which is a claim you're unlikely to find in any history book. Even more peculiar was one scholar arguing that there couldn't have been a Roman census at the time of Jesus birth because Judea wasn't in the Roman empire. Hello?
Notable by their absence in either programme was anyone who took issue with the presenters point of view. So what we got was a selective and partial presentation of the facts (or 'facts') as though they were the whole truth. Meanwhile, for events from the life of Jesus, the Jacobsen programme gave us some kitsch images from old black and white movies on the life of Jesus - deliberately chosen for how silly they looked? Surely not.
There was plenty to learn from watching both programmes, but there was also such a clear agenda from the presenters that it became a major job sorting out fact from interpretation, which spoils the programmes.
Other views: Ekklesia in conversation with Jeremy Dear, producer of the series
Ruth Gledhill has some sizeable quotes from the Jacobsen programme. The comments are well worth a read, with several people surprised that Jacobsen was presenting Jesus Jewishness as some kind of new revelation to Christians.
Kings Evangelical Divinity School blog The overall effect of the programme was to leave the general viewer with the impression that the blame for the treatment of the Jewish people over the past 2000 years should be laid squarely on the shoulders of Christians.
the Independent has 2 reviews, this one thought it was 'great TV', and Tom Sutcliffe recognises that the series isn't quite what the title suggests. This isn't a part-work history, through-composed by someone with a seat in divinity. It's a collection of pointedly personal essays, loosely arranged around the evolving chronology of the Church.
Meanwhile over on BBC2, Peter Owen Jones made it to Africa (he looks increasingly knackered with each programme) on part 3 of Around the World in 80 Faiths. Avoiding the frontlines of religious life in places like Nigeria and Sudan, he took in 3 variants of voodoo, an ancient tribal hunting dance in Botswana, witch doctors in Africa, and finally Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. You learn a bit more about the faiths because POJ is willing to throw himself into the project, walking out only when the voodoo gathering started to dismember animals. (Worth remembering, though, that this is basic to Old Testament religion too).
He was clearly most moved by the Ethiopians, though whilst they had their 18 hour prayer vigil up the mountain, Jones retired to his camp to get a full nights sleep!
It's still all very much about people's personal connections to 'the divine' or 'the spirits' - no faith yet has been shown in practical action (apart from his comments about the hospitality of the Ethiopians in the midst of dire poverty), and there's been nothing much about faiths active in mission: they are all pretty self-contained, set within their culture. The Middle East is the next one, which will be fascinating.