The last few years has seen a considerable amount of debate over the meaning of Jesus' death, but even so it was surprising to see the BBC exploring the issue, let alone in such a fashion that was (largely) content to discuss the subject within a Christian framework.
The programme was presented by Bettany Hughes, who recently starred in an episode of Channel 4's The Bible: A History. Hughes was clear about the influence Christianity has had on her and was joined by 4 of the most important figures in the British church - Rowan Williams, John Sentamu, Tom Wright and Vincent Nichols. Each only appeared once, but as part of quite a lengthy interview exploring a single aspect / interpretation of the work of the cross. This gave the documentary a good structure held together with the narrative of how these differing interpretations emerged through history.
The opening section of the film, however, relied on scholars outside the church - Jewish expert Dr. Ed Kessler and Muslim cleric Dr. Musharraf Hussain. Kessler and Hussain explained how their faiths view the crofss as shameful rather than something to be celebrated. Having recently become aware of just how frequently the motif of "the shame of the cross" occurs not only in Paul, but in other New Testament writers, it would have been nice to see this angle explored, but that is very much a minor quibble. As it is Kessler and Hussain's comments raise a key question, given that the cross was considered so shameful, why did it become so central to Christian Faith.
And so Hughes takes us through the explanations of Pope Gregory and Gregory of Nyssa, of Anselm and Abelard, the reformation and the modern era, ending with a discussion of Moltmann's suffering God. This section was perhaps the film's strongest section: the use of John Sentamu, who suffered under Idi Amin in Uganda, adding poignancy to Moltmann's already moving story. It's also rare to such the work of such a scholar explored in this way.
As with all documentaries these days there are a few stylistic quibbles (must the usually learnéd presenters of these programmes always act as if they themselves are on a journey of discovery?), but overall it was well presented, clearly argued, and nicely illustrated (although I did note some footage reused from other programmes such as The Miracles of Jesus). I've only recently become aware of Hughes' work, but on the basis of the two programmes I've seen and an interview with the BBC on Loose Ends, I have to admit I'm becoming a bit of a fan.
There are a couple of other reviews of the programme at Peripatetic Learning and The Convo Blog.