The Nativity Story
It's not easy to make a movie about the birth of Christ. If you're too literal, it feels like an awkward bathrobe play, and even the Gospels themselves contain commentary. Besides, what to do about the different ways the bible itself presents the story, and how about the prophecies leading up to the birth of the Messiah? Which to utilize? And how about the background music? Is it going to be authentic indigenous, or Gregorian chant, or traditional hymnody, or contemporary soft rock? And how about the biblical characters themselves? Are they going to be stentorian; stiff and awkward, and perhaps somewhat filled with a sense of self-importance? Or are they just going to be ordinary people, and how do you manage that with a Hollywood cast?
Well, that last issue is probably the easiest. The closest they come to Hollywood casting is Keisha Castle-Hughes, who was nominated for an Oscar several years ago for her role as a New Zealand girl in The Whale Rider. The rest are relative unknowns; people who would have a distinctive Mediterranean/Near Eastern look to them, as you would expect in the context. As for the course of the narrative, the Gospels accounts are simply conflated, Matthew's story alongside Luke's, so that Gabriel's appearance to Mary and Joseph's dream are side by side, just as at the manger scene, the shepherds and the wise men all huddle in together, just as in all our nativity sets. They depict the slaughter of the innocents without actually showing any bloodshed. For that matter, they show a couple of live births without either nudity or bloodshed, either, which is not nearly as tricky as a virgin birth. Yes, they quote prophecies, sometimes attesting the place in Hebrew scripture, sometimes not. And they show Herod as someone quite interested in all the religious issues, not because he was religious himself, but his approach is more cynical, like Karl Marx referring to religion as the opiate of the people. Oh, and the background music is a mix of angelic-sounding choirs, traditional hymnody, and what might be termed reverential, but it doesn't really interfere with the viewing. The cloaked characters are sometimes awkward-appearing, but for the most part, the 1st-century culture is depicted with a good degree of believability. Of course nobody knows precisely what it was like, but this felt real.
What's so impressive about this film is not how realistic it seems, but what an extraordinary straight treatment of The Nativity it is, in a secular and cynical age, where it's politically incorrect to even mention faith, much less openly profess it. This Mary, this Joseph, this Elizabeth, this Zechariah, are truly figures to be admired, for their steadfastness of faith, particularly when their external circumstances were difficult. These are not the prosperous successful people of their age. They are working folks, people who are struggling to get by, people who seek to live with integrity given the difficult circumstances in which they find themselves. They are role models not for their physical prowess or financial wherewithal or political influence, but for their spiritual depth. Imagine that.
Catherine Hardwicke has brought to us a work of not only imagination, but also intelligence, energy, and hope. Bless her efforts, and her courage, in bringing this offering to the big screen. And who knows? If the Christians go support this, there may even be a sequel, which in this reviewers' opinion would be most welcome.
Questions For Discussion:
1) Do you think the star which guided the three wise men may have been the confluence of three planets? Do you think of bright light from the star shining directly upon the manger?
2) Are you bothered by a computer-generated image of Old Jerusalem, including the magnificent Temple, or would you rather have a gleaming prototype rather than no physical representation at all?
3) Keisha Castle-Hughes is still a teenager. Do you think of Mary as that young?
4) Do you think of the angels appearance as more literal or figurative?
5) Does this kind of movie enhance belief through reinforcement, or undermine it by providing images that don't conform to your mental pictures?
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Terrell, Texas