Wednesday 24 Sep 2014
Thursday 12 November on BBC FOUR
World-renowned historian Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch explores the origins of Christianity and asks what it means to be a Christian in a thought-provoking new series for BBC Four.
Fans of Dan Brown's latest best-seller, The Lost Symbol, will be delighted to know that its fictional protagonist, Harvard "symbologist" Professor Robert Langdon, has a real-life counterpart in Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch.
The Professor of the History of the Church at St Cross College, Oxford, tells Catharine Davey why A History Of Christianity is a story he has long wished to tell.
"I come from a clergy background," says Professor MacCulloch. "I've grown up with the Church and my father was a huge enthusiast for history. We talked history – quite naturally – as other families might talk football. And, so, it is a part of my being and the thing which I've always loved doing."
When asked how he and the production team went about beginning to shape this epic series, Professor MacCulloch, who studied history at Cambridge and began his research under famed historian Sir Geoffrey Elton, has a simple answer.
"Well, the most difficult thing is to get the big shapes and the big structures," he says. "And the boring answer is that I've spent my life thinking about those shapes. The thing that any teacher has got to do is provide the big structure so that we don't get bewildered by detail. And you've got to do two things with a very big story. The first thing is that you've got to tell it in the right order. But history is not quite like that – it's not that simple. It's got to have shapes within in it. Right from my very first job, in my early twenties, I got a sense that history needs to be taught in a compelling way, to be taught as stories, to be entertaining. You've got to engage emotions. The past is about the clash of human beings – their emotions, their fears and their joys. And, if you can get that across, then you give people a sense of what the shapes are."
Whilst filming the series, Professor MacCulloch and a production team of five visited 21 countries over three years.
"It took 18 months to write the book and the last six months of that were while we were on location," he says. "So, I was travelling with my laptop. I would come back to the hotel or sit in the van and write – while it was still fresh in my mind. The amazing thing is that you see the great monuments of the world in a way that you don't as a tourist. Because of the intense nature of filming, you are there for hours. I'm an absolutely fanatical church-crawler but even I would not spend more than 45 minutes in a building. However, we were in locations for many hours and a place soaks into you in that time. You begin to see things that you wouldn't normally. The TV filming absolutely enriched the book and I am very grateful for that opportunity."
The team encountered much kindness on their travels around the globe and Professor MacCulloch is keen to highlight the positive light in which the BBC is internationally perceived.
"The name of the BBC, wherever we went, was met with smiles of recognition," he says. "The BBC is one of the greatest assets this country has and attempts to knock it are just so short sighted. The remotest tribesmen have heard the chimes of Big Ben. Our filming teams had an enormous amount of fun. You get to know people very well in these dashes around the world. You come up against unexpected disappointments and set-backs and you all have to cope. They were wonderful teams and I would love to work with all of them again."
The highlight of the Professor's trip was a visit to Syria, which fulfilled a boyhood dream, fuelled by the sight of a picture in a book many years ago, to visit the ruined Basilica of St Simeon.
"My runaway favourite was Syria," says Professor MacCulloch. "Filming there was a very happy experience. The people are lovely. Christians and Muslims flourish – side by side. And I just loved being able to wander round the Basilica in freedom and at leisure, far from the normal tourist routes. It is an experience I will never forget."
Tracing the history of the Christian church, not just in the West but also in the East, Professor MacCulloch admits to an urge to return to the Eastern fragments of ancient Christianity that he explored for the series.
"It was wonderful to travel in rural China – in the most unexpected place – a village where everything looked Chinese and yet there had been Christians there from about the seventh century," he says. "But it became clear to me just how unknown it was to European people that there is an ancient Eastern Christian religion and that there are still people practising it in conditions of immense danger. One thing which really saddened me was the way in which Christianity seemed to be in danger of being extinguished in the Middle East. I would like to be in touch with that more."
Professor MacCulloch hopes that A History Of Christianity will give viewers an unprecedented sense of "the law of unintended consequences".
"I think the message is that you must never read backwards from what there is now," he says. "There is an immense variety in the past – an apparently accidental or random quality. If people have faith, then they want to say that this is a pattern decided by God. I respect that point of view, but that is not how I see it. The message for me is diversity and the unexpected. Perhaps that hasn't been pushed in previous attempts to describe Christianity on a large scale."
Raised in Suffolk and descended from a line of Scottish Episcopalian priests, Professor MacCulloch is open about his own retreat from religious orthodoxy.
"I started down that road," he says. "I was ordained Deacon. But, being a gay man, it was just impossible to proceed further, within the conditions of the Anglican set-up, because I was determined that I would make no bones about who I was; I was brought up to be truthful, and truth has always mattered to me. The Church couldn't cope and so we parted company. It was a miserable experience."
Professor MaCulloch nevertheless lightly refers to this painful separation as "providential", because it was a parting which allowed him to wholly take up his lifelong passion for history.
"It allowed me to continue with the greatest enthusiasm in my life," he says. "I know the people and I know the institution. It's part of my being and I will never cease to be fond of it. And, so, the way events unfolded have been very good for me. I am not a Richard Dawkins in my approach to Christianity. But I want to show it – as it is – for good or ill. And there is much good and much ill…"
Today, Professor MacCulloch describes himself as a "candid friend" of Christianity.
"I have a strong appreciation of the importance of it all," he says. "I've struggled with statements of belief. I think it's hugely important. It's still very important to me. I play the organ and sing in a church choir and I can't imagine life without Christianity. But I cannot sign up to doctrinal statements."
And, with still further plans to explore elements of the faith and the Church which have fascinated him throughout his life, does Professor MacCulloch find too much knowledge to be a dangerous thing?
"If you use knowledge properly, it has the effect of giving you a sense of what the essentials are," he says. "I stick with the essentials. I stick with Christianity's affirmation of life; its affirmation of do-as-you-would-be-done-by; and its sense of wonder at the possibility – the mad idea, the paradox, that God could become human. A world which isn't shot through with wonder would be a very diminished world…"
And Professor MacCulloch's advice to any budding historians wishing to follow in his – or, indeed, fictional historian and adventurer Robert Langdon's – footsteps is shot through with enthusiasm.
"Experience as much variety as possible," he says. "Explore the fascinating byways of history. Experience it! Go and see it! And that can never be dull. The reality is much better than any fiction. It is an endless source of enjoyment and fascination…"
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