This is the sixth part of a 13-part German documentary mini-series covering the history of Christianity from its beginnings to the modern-day. Although it’s a German production, the narration is in English. It was filmed at many different holy and historic sites. In this episode, the locations used are mostly throughout Europe, which gives a good frame of reference for those of us who haven’t been able to visit this part of the world.
This Side of Heaven begins in Constantinople in the 1500s. There is conflict in Constantinople between Muslims and Christians, followed by shock as Christians were defeated and this city with its long Christian history became ruled by Muslims. This marked the end of the rule by the Byzantine church. The traditions of that church living into modern times are briefly touched on by showing the Russian Orthodox Church and how it managed to survive by being both pious and close to the people without modernizing. This is the one example of the traditional church which had been present in Constantinople.
The fall of Constantinople solidified Rome’s place as the center of Christianity. At the same time, there was political upheaval as the plague raged on, France and England were embroiled in the 100 Years’ War, Spain was still at war with the Arabs, and Germany had become fractured.
Then… the Renaissance – rediscovery of ancient knowledge, opening up to all the world offered, and something of an alienation from the Christian message. The Medicis were powerful and rich and placed themselves in every office during the time, even going as far as to have themselves painted as receiving their orders directly from God on frescoes inside their grand home.
People themselves began to develop self-confidence enough to question the Pope and the kings who seemed to rule with them. The Popes also had a lot to do with this due to the corruption which was present in that office. They gave public wedding feasts for their children and grandchildren, bestowed principalities upon those who were their favorites, married off offspring into royalty, and at times lived only for pleasure and art.
Artistic style changed too, and out of this change came Donatello’s David, as well as the depiction of princes by themselves more in the style of a Roman Emperor; as an individual and not with his people. The restoration of these works in modern times is also shown.
Out of all of this came the Reformation as many who saw themselves as devout also spurned the corruption they saw, such as offices being given to the highest bidder, and the sale of indulgences.
In Florence, Savonarola, a monk railed against the rulers of the church and their deviation from what traditionally had been considered “moral”, even going as far as to create a “moral police”. He ultimately failed and was burned at the stake. However, he was just the first of many critics. Just a few years later, Luther himself would rail against the sale of indulgences to build St. Peter’s Basilica after a visit to Rome.
All of this is told primarily through the use of re-enactments. More than any other episode I‘ve seen yet in this series, they are used to illustrate what was going on at the time. This really serves to bring the story to life as the actions are shown as the history is narrated. It’s very well-done as there’s no heavy acting needed by those depicting the various roles, and they have dressed the part and placed in the correct setting.
This is the other way the history is told. The original churches and palaces have been filmed in, as well as showing the artwork from the time. Particularly during the period of the Renaissance, there is a tremendous amount of artwork to illustrate Christian history as well as what was going on at the time. I liked seeing the places talked about; the churches and castles. It’s fascinating to see how many of these places survive to the current time, even with all of the wars which have raged across the European continent.
The scientific discoveries of the time are also addressed, especially when they contradicted the church’s teachings as was the case with Copernicus and Galileo. Their experiments and theories are re-enacted and depicted here. Although it doesn’t seem revolutionary now, it was for its time. Stating that the Earth was not the center of the universe and revolved around the sun like the other planets was as big of a controversy as the Theory of Evolution is to some now.
Since the Roman Catholic Church has acknowledged that most of the controversy of the time was valid, there should be no problems with their depiction here. Some Catholics might not appreciate hearing how corrupt the Church was during this time, but since more modern Popes have agreed that Luther was correct about the sale of Indulgences and no one seems to be arguing the Earth revolves around the sun, I don’t see why it would be considered biased against the Catholic faith – just check the history.
Any one of these subjects could be the subject of a much longer documentary. The fact that all of this is only briefly touched on during This Side of Heaven. It becomes apparent that the series is just touching on the place Christianity has had in the history of the world, hopefully encouraging the viewer to delve into points that interest them more on their own. There’s a Book List included on the DVD to help with that. The length of the DVD – just about 40 minutes – would make it good for Bible Classes, allowing for discussion afterward. There’s no real questioning of the faith involved, just history unless you still believe that the universe revolves around Earth.
I highly recommend this series to get an overview of the place of Christianity in history. It’s by no means comprehensive, but it’s something people should know about and possibly learn from.
Previous episode in the series (link): 2000 Years of Christianity Episode V: Saints and Demons
Next episode in the series (link): 2000 Years of Christianity Episode VII – By Faith Alone