Updating and expanding the 1969 BBC production Civilisation, an epic series based on Kenneth Clark’s view of Western European art and its reflection on the cultures it represents, the new Civilizations expands the focus to all six continents and further back in human history. In typical PBS and BBC grandeur, the viewers are taken on a visually engaging journey through time to sites that use art to describe the growth of culture and civilization.
The nine-part series begins with the episode titled “The Second Moment of Creation.” Even this title uses a biblical (or at least religious) allusion to an initial creation of the cosmos followed by a second moment when humanity realized its “power to create” representations of the world around them and eventually of themselves.
The dramatic opening lines of the first episode point immediately to another feature we have come to expect from PBS and BBC—an evolutionary explanation of all things human.
The dramatic opening lines of the first episode point immediately to another feature we have come to expect from PBS and BBC—an evolutionary explanation of all things human. “Tens of thousands of years ago, one of our distant ancestors traced his hand on a cave wall.” This line sets the tone for all that will follow as the first site in Africa, the supposed birthplace of humanity, holds the most ancient evidence. A shell found in a cave contains a blend of minerals apparently used for some form of artistic expression. Bringing the evolutionary assumptions to the evidence, this primitive art kit is assumed to document the first artistic expression of Homo sapiens about 200,000 years ago. This view of mankind emerging and advancing through the ages frames the opening episode’s scope.
Describing the relationship between animals, we hear that “art is one of the only ways that we can imagine humans to be distinctively different.” Equating humans to other animals lays the baseline for understanding how human art should be viewed. But this presupposition stands in stark contrast to the Bible’s description of humanity—a creature, but one created in the image of God. This false representation of man as a highly evolved animal will surely color the rest of the episodes.
As we have come to expect from PBS and BBC, the episode begins by looking back to the first creative acts of our species. As they evolved, Homo sapiens found they had the ability to create, stirring humanity to produce complex images that we now call art. Assuming that a brutish, grunting ape gradually transformed into modern man, the need for a leap forward in brain function and outward expressions of that are brought to the viewer with a wave of the hand. While a logical step in the evolutionary perspective, this idea obviously stands opposed to the biblical explanation for man’s existence.
The progression of events teaches the viewer that art developed before language as early man tried to express himself, eventually leading to written and spoken forms of communication. Each of these represent a step along the path to developing a culture which would eventually express itself in a full-fledged civilization. In this sense, the development of art, music, and writing are waypoints on the climb to civilized man.
At several points, there are mentions of religious activity in the development of culture. These are not accompanied by any significant commentary, but the gods and kings in the art give us a picture of the cult—the very root of the concept of culture—that dominated a civilization. I suspect that these ideas will be developed more fully, likely from an evolutionary perspective, in episode three, “God and Art.”
Along the normal secular lines of explanation, the narrator claims that the first cities arose in Iraq about 7,000 years ago as people came together and learned to live alongside one another. But is this really the cradle of civilization? The dating and assumptions again lead us away from a biblical understanding. Rather than 7,000 years, this cradle is the center from which the people dispersed after their judgment at Babel (Genesis 10–11).
The next stop is the island of Crete where we learn how Minoan culture dominated the early Mediterranean, spreading its influence to other regions. Interesting archaeological finds are displayed, drawing firm connections and a compelling explanation of cultural exchange. This discussion leads to China about 3,000 years ago where the cultural exchange in the art, especially its bronze statues, is evident.
Transitioning to the remains of Mayan culture, the architecture and art are described as a metaphor for both the life of the people and the life of civilizations. The temples were used as ways to demonstrate the power and authority of the kings and the place of worship of the gods. But even as the individuals and the cultures themselves set up these monuments as a form of immortalizing their culture and seeking eternal life for themselves, the civilizations ultimately crumbled. The bare remains are now enveloped by nature, showing the futility of man’s attempts to attain immortality. Narrator Liev Schreiber wistfully opines that “ultimately all civilizations want exactly what they can’t have: the conquest of time.” This is a great reminder for Christians of the futility of seeking to become immortal through religion and culture. The episode brings out this point in its secular explanation, but offers no hope of eternal life. As Schreiber again acknowledges, “Civilization just dies the death of deaths—invisibility.” How well Solomon expressed this:
There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after. (Ecclesiastes 1:11)
While the evolutionary worldview can provide an explanation of these ideas, it will ultimately be a faulty explanation because it is built on a false foundation. The view of the evolution of man, the dates represented (apart from the dates closer to modern day), and the secular assumptions ultimately lead people to a corrupted understanding of our history.
The Bible presents a humanity created with intelligence, language, and artistic expression from the beginning.
The Bible presents a humanity created with intelligence, language, and artistic expression from the beginning, countering the secular view of progression (Genesis 1–4). The various cultures we see today are the result of people spreading, but this occurred over a very short time period after God confused the languages, not over hundreds of thousands of years. As with any media we encounter, we must take every thought captive, comparing it to what God says on the topic in the pages of Scripture (2 Corinthians 10:5).
Though it presents an unbiblical worldview, the series offers general historical information, and the wealth of artifacts are helpful for understanding how mankind has sought to relate to one another and to God throughout time and cultures. This information can be a great point of contact for engaging others around us.
Whether in the classroom or around the coffee pot, we can use the new series to open discussions about what it means to be human. And as we discuss our shared humanity, we can use these ideas to connect to the history revealed in Scripture. Many may be shocked to know that the Bible records generations very close to Adam making musical instruments (Genesis 4:21), building cities (Genesis 4:17), and working with metals (Genesis 4:22). Others may not have considered that the events on the plain of Shinar can explain how civilizations spread.
But in all of this, we should not neglect to share the experience that is common to all of humanity—sin and its consequences. The God who created us in his image actually stepped into history to take on human flesh. As depicted in many artistic forms, the life, death, and resurrection of the Savior of mankind—Jesus Christ—offers us the opportunity to present the only hope for any civilization. All civilizations will ultimately fail except one—the kingdom of God will endure forever. Inviting people to be a part of that future civilization to worship God in perfection forever should be our goal as we engage with this new series.