A Religious Viewing Round Up
by Kristin Battestella
These movies, documentaries, series, and biographies tackle numerous famous names, spiritual places, and religious histories for some uplift or education near and far and for one and all.
David and Bathsheba –A written prologue sets the scene for this 1951 tale sourced from the Second Book of Samuel starring Gregory Peck (To Kill a Mockingbird) and Susan Hayward (I Want to Live!) as the Israel shaking titular couple. Yes, the cast is unfortunately white washed with stars of the day. The script also fails Peck by being too preachy, as if he has to repeat all of the Hebrew history onscreen to make the casting authentic after the fact. This waxing philosophical, however, and the wishy washy infatuations that come with it make for slow, non-interactive scenes – there's a lot of talking and not a lot of doing in what supposed to be such a passionate story. The scandalous for the time peaking at Susan Hayward bathing also isn’t much taboo today, and her somewhat flat delivery leads to more back talk then chemistry. What do you want? No, what do you want? Obligatory Ark of the Covenant appearances, tribal dancing for the court, stonings, Psalm 23 recitings, and Star of David emblems likewise lend more Hollywood stereotypical rather than historical accuracy. Though mid-century colorful, the small-scale designs can’t be compared to other Biblical epics like Samson and Delilah before or The Ten Commandments after thanks to modern hairstyles and obvious matte backgrounds. Fortunately, it’s nearly impossible to dislike Peck’s soft spoken and wise king in love. Although, audiences may find it difficult to believe such a traditional good guy would be so unscrupulous and shady. 3,000 year old spoiler alert – David sends his lover Bathsheba’s husband to the front lines so he'll die in battle. Intriguing thoughts on whether David is a fraud not living up to his predecessor Saul only provides background for a few scenes before Peck grows a beard and gets his crisis of faith burdens on in a final half hour of repentance accented by a lovely Oscar nominated score from Alfred Newman (The King and I). While this romance is again not on the same scope as other Old Testament yarns, fans of the cast can enjoy the performances here, and this fits in nicely for a religious marathon or classroom comparison and accuracy discussion.
The Great Works of Sacred Music – Everything from chanting and where we get the “amen” to Handel's Messiah and Christmas music is meticulously detailed in this 2015 sixteen episode series from the Great Courses Signature Collection. Professor of Musicology at Oberlin College Conservatory Charles Edward McGuire focuses on western Christian music from the Middle Ages to 1901, defining how originally sacred music used solely for worship has now become a mixture of concert and entertainment. Does it make the Latin chorales and canon hymns any less reverent if they are now heard in the concert hall? Ritual origins, strophic formats, melodies, and texts cross denominations or change to suit new religious needs, and our Professor sings with onscreen music measures while comparing and contrasting the syllabic, melismatic, and neumatic notes. Familiar tunes and memorable names such as William Henry Monk, Charles Wesley, and St. Augustine anchor debates on hymn structure, whether a trained choir or congregation is meant to sing, and what makes “hallelujah” such a special word. Twelfth and Thirteenth century chanting begets monophonic versus polyphonic mass music, Latin prayers sung, and innovative oratorios before Renaissance aesthetics pass into artifacts no longer heard in their original worship purpose. Despite a wealth of surviving medieval music, much of it is actually lost and unknown. What instruments were used? How many people sung this? How did this sound then? Differences between who could chant, such as those ordained or not, and Gregorian naming disputes fade as the Protestant Reformation brings new styles to the public and opera competes with sacred music for sponsors and patrons – forcing composers the likes of Monteverdi and Vivaldi to combine the minstrel with reverence at the turn of the seventeenth century. Mendelssohn details and Mozart Requiem samples highlight new accompaniments and arrangements alongside the increasing use of musical instruments, organs, and strings. Two episodes here are dedicated to Bach's Cantatas, moving his Mass in B minor pinnacle from sacred to concert repertoire complete with translations of Lutheran texts, Haydn's The Creation, and personal meets pious Christus am Olberge versus Missa solemnis Beethoven explorations. The nineteenth century somewhat anti-establishment music of Brahms and Verdi, however, gives way to a Victorian resurgence of longstanding carols – from the Latin origins of O Come All Ye Faithful and the Coventry Carol to the German Silent Night and surprisingly recent O Come, O Come Emmanuel – where anyone can lift up their voices. This is a very detailed breakdown of lyrics, notes, history, and composition not intended for a non-musical layman – this series is more for those already with a music background rather than an introduction piece. At forty-five minutes per episode, the sessions are somewhat long, padded with caveats explaining about what they are going to explain or even over-explain thanks to redundant melodies and repeated talk of one note differences that are indistinguishable to the common ear. One can easily zone out as the analysis goes deeper and deeper, however the pleasant music samples, familiar cues, and famous names call one back for more. These segments are superb for independent musical scholars or for a picking and choosing study honing in on specific composers.
John Wesley: The Faith that Sparked the Methodist Movement – On location English tours, period maps, and religious artwork accent this documentary on the eighteenth century founder as scholars detail Wesley's early life and family background as the son of an Epworth rector alongside his younger brother Charles – two of ten surviving from a whopping nineteen! Onscreen writings and voiceover quotes recount his mother's methodical routine, theology, and home tutoring, which helped shape Wesley's early education before surviving a childhood fire left him seeking out his special purpose in life. Sports at Christchurch College in Oxford are traded for pious prayer meetings with brother Charles – mocked by other students as “The Holy Club” despite the group's mission to help the poor, support families with loans, and establish schools. By 1735, however, Wesley's inexperience and lack of faith lead to failure in America before Moravian associates strengthen his personal religious commitment. Wesley's new heartfelt ministry anchored in methodical beliefs, unfortunately, wasn't welcome by the Anglican church. Though he himself was initially appalled at open air meetings, Wesley's teachings from the outdoor pulpit allowed common people who couldn't afford to attend bigger cathedrals or religious schools to hear and embrace his ideology on salvation and grace through spiritual discipline. Wesley promotes the then shocking notion that people of multiple classes and stations can worship together by organizing small groups and societies where the faithful can uplift each other thanks to the non-ordained or women ministers. Such preaching seemingly against the Church of England led to mob threats and physical attacks on the Wesleys – who nonetheless remained Anglican. Wesley continued to write sermons and publications challenging authority – standing at a desk even though he was only 5'3 – and welcomed the illiterate to attend his services, for they could sing what they could not read. When his hometown scoffed at the open air churches, Wesley took to Bristol to build the first Methodist church in 1739. This “New Room” became a school, shelter, and chapel featuring Charles Wesley's hymns, and although Wesley never intended to set up a new denomination, the Methodist numbers grew into the thousands as missionaries and followers sailed to America. This presentation is a little older and slightly juvenile thanks to dramatizations from a film with bad effects and a terrible wig called Wesley: A Heart Transformed that unnecessarily stray into abstracts when facts from the experts and notes from the man himself are more interesting. Many may know the subject by name but not much of the details, and this hour is good for a Sunday School accompaniment or jumping off point for further biographical study.
Dated Split Decision
Enigma of the Dead Sea Scrolls – This 2009 hour chronicling the 2,000 year old documents opens with Jerusalem celebrations and brief recaps on the coming together of the Christian Bible before the eponymous 1947 Qumran caves happenstance. Unfortunately, rather than letting the facts speak for themselves or expanding on a peek inside the museum basement where only a select few can see the unpublished texts firsthand; the flowery, anecdotal narration bounces back and forth. The rough VHS looking presentation also remains terribly dated thanks to constant complaints regarding the secretive releasing of the documents, creating controversy and spending more time on people who refused to talk on camera. Then contemporary footage fill ins and second hand accounts invoke a tabloid, unauthentic feeling that points fingers about the texts before tossing in wartime history instead of discussing the actual scrolls. This briefly mentions the content of the parchments themselves, who wrote them and why with details on early Jewish and Christian sects before again downplaying the academic excitement with war time delays and unscrupulous dealers trying to profit from the discovery. The uneven, confusing narrative compromising interesting nuggets on copper scrolls, carbon dating confirmations, and questions on why the documents were hidden. The purpose here seems more angry at the wrongs rather than having excitement for the historic and religious value of the scrolls – as if conspiracies to suppress the materials are more important than potential Essenes origins, Masada connections, surviving pottery, and new restorations using high resolution photography. Although the Dead Sea Scrolls Wikipedia page has a much more detailed, organized timeline, there is a certain historical value in seeing the older footage here and how digital access for all has changed some of the cloak and dagger secrecy from decades prior. Some segments are also useful for the classroom, however the old fashioned tone and lacking of current facts creates a frustrating shortsightedness, leaving one in search of a deeper independent study.
Didn't Finish It
The Cathedral – State University of New York at Geneseo History Professor William R. Cook uses videos, animations, and photography to capture the architectural scale and magnificent awe of the eponymous but not necessarily all ecclesiastic buildings of Western Europe in this 2010 Great Courses twenty-four episode series. Explanations on the bishop's throne as a cathedra help define a cathedral at its simplest as a building with a cathedra in it before detailing how that role as a seat of the religious authority has changed since the earliest fourth century large scale worship constructions thanks to centuries of encroaching urban development and adaptations for contemporary use – not to mention the destruction or survival of many churches amid medieval upheavals, rebellions, or more recent wartime damage. High definition zooms highlight facade statuary, inner sanctum iconography, stain glass windows, and their past repairs or modern updates. The focus here is largely on French buildings with Romanesque styles and the evolution of the vaulted ceiling before Saint-Denis and the emergence of Gothic design, Notre Dame glory, and the peculiar cathedral at Laon. However, there are also spotlights on Chartres, English Norman meets Gothic developments, and Italian architecture. There is a lot of fast talking information here and at first I skipped around, as there are numerous tangents that leave you wondering what this has to do with the topic of the half hour at hand. Instead of being a fresh course made available thanks to new streaming technology, our Professor reminds me of a stuffy Ross Perot – some segments are forced to be at school dry or sermon heavy handed since he stands at a podium when other presenters in the Great Courses lectures are more relaxed. It's easy to zone out unless there is a picture, because I think most viewers would ultimately tune in here for the history of the featured buildings and seeing all the pretty architectural details. However, those purple ties and green shirts are kind of fun, and I might try Cook's 2014 follow up The World's Greatest Churches, as it seems to feature much more international variety from which to pick and choose.