Here’s a list of inconvenient truths about the history of Christianity. Most German Christians didn’t resist the genocidal madness of Adolf Hitler. Western Christians slaughtered men, women and children in the name of God during the Medieval Crusades. Many Australian Christians supported land grabs and massacres that led to the annihilation of entire Aboriginal communities in the 19th century.
Yet there’s another side to the story. The early Christians took seriously Christ’s mandate for non-violence, preferring to be gruesomely martyred than to take up arms against their enemies. Martin Luther King’s philosophy of non-violence was directly inspired by the example of Christ. And the biblical view that every person is created in the image of God led to treasured Western values such as human rights, charity and humility.
After a decade of presenting a measured, respectful picture of the Christian, the Centre for Public Christianity (CPX) presents a clear-eyed assessment of the good, the bad and the unexpected impact of Christianity in a new documentary: For the Love of God: How the church is better and worse than you ever imagined.
After successful screenings of the 90-minute documentary in cinemas across the country, CPX has now launched a website, offering more resources than you ever imagined on the themes explored in the film.
The wealth of content includes four one-hour episodes expanding on the topics covered in the film, available for rent or purchase; for each episode there is a free guided tour, with quotes from interviewees and video sections, that leads viewers through the material. In addition, there are 34 video segments of five to ten minutes available for free, on topics such as the Crusades, slavery in “Christian” America, Christianity and women and the leper priest: Father Damien of Molokai.
As well, there are classroom resources based on the short video segments with accompanying suggested activities, which have been created in consultation with teachers. These are aimed at high school students, both Christian and sceptical, and encourage them to see the difference between the failures of the church in history and the teachings of its founder, Jesus.
There is also a course – four 90-minute videos with accompanying questions – aimed primarily at non-believers in the style of the Alpha Course, which could be held in churches, in homes or Bible study groups.
“The good, the bad and the ugly are all covered and it’s a credit to this team that they haven’t shied away from anything.” – Simon Storey
Since its May release, the cinema version of the documentary has sold more than 12,000 tickets and been screened in more than 100 cinemas, largely to positive reviews from the secular as well as Christian media.
For example, film blogger Simon Storey, who describes himself as an atheist, wrote:
“A team of presenters have travelled the world over to give a thoroughly global history of the church. The good, the bad and the ugly are all covered and it’s a credit to this team that they haven’t shied away from anything. From the site of Calvary in Jerusalem to the island of Molokai in Hawaii, this journey to the ends of the earth reveals a complicated and contradictory study of the Christian world. History, culture and the development of thought are covered in detail, everyone will learn something here, for the sheer scope of content is staggering. The amount of information stacked into 90 minutes is a considerable achievement.
“For a film that comes to us from the Centre of Public Christianity, there seems to be little to no confirmation bias from the presenters. This team has gone in with an open mind and they haven’t cherry picked their information. The history of the Western world with all its failings and horrors isn’t something that can be summed up in a single film, but this team has certainly tried, and their observations are not those of fundamentalists but of educated minds who are seeking truth and beneficial ideas.
“If there’s a lasting summary or metaphor offered up it’s that Christianity i.e the teachings of that Galilean carpenter 2000 years ago, is a bit like a beautiful symphony that a masterful composer wrote down. When played well and as intended it’s a beautiful song of peace and fulfilment, just like when the basic teachings of Christianity are applied wholeheartedly they can accomplish wonders. When adapted by the wrong people it has been used to justify some of the worst horrors the world has known like the Crusades or the Holocaust.”
The critic concluded that while he didn’t leave the cinema feeling more religious, he did feel less anti-religious, and he urged anyone interested in religion, history or society to track the film down.
“We wanted to buy into the conversation that society is having that religion poisons everything, injecting intellectual rigour and historical accuracy into it but also with humility and not defensiveness.” – Natasha Moore
CPX says it created the documentary in response to the common objections it faced that religion has caused so much suffering in the world.
“We wanted to have a candid conversation about the history of Christianity. It’s important to be honest because people should understand that it’s not possible to have a conversation about all the good stuff that Christianity has brought unless we own up to all the terrible things people have done in its name,” comments CPX research fellow Natasha Moore.
“So we admit to the bad and present the good stories that people don’t often know about or have forgotten. We’re not weighing up the good against the bad, they don’t cancel each other out, but we’re pointing people back to Jesus and offering him as a model for judging what the church has done and as a way of gauging how authentic it has been in practising Christianity.
“We wanted to buy into the conversation that society is having that religion poisons everything, injecting intellectual rigour and historical accuracy into it but also with humility and not defensiveness.”
CPX director Simon Smart said the cinema cut contained only a third of the material that had been gathered from 56 interviews with experts in Europe, the US, Asia, the Middle East and Australia.
“One of the things about this whole project that I’m most excited about is the way this is going to be able to be used in so many different places and different contexts and schools and small groups at universities or wherever,” he says.
“We think the ten-minute segments are usable and sharable on social media if you think there’s something of interest to someone you know.”
One topic you will not find dealt with is the issue of child sexual abuse. Smart says that CPX decided not to cover a current issue in the context of much historical material.
“But more than that we didn’t feel like we could do it justice in an 80-minute segment that we needed to do – that might end up looking a bit flippant and a bit disrespectful, so we just felt we almost needed a whole documentary on it rather than a quick treatment.”
For more information: betterandworse.film