The Real Christmas - Getting the Story Straight
For the traditionalists at Christmas - not amused by films like Billy Bob Thornton as Bad Santa a few years ago, and the subsequent comedies with dissolute elves or feuding neighbors or magic trains - this year brought them their gift, the earnest and lavishly photographed The Nativity Story. It didn't do that well. Catherine Hardwicke is no Mel Gibson - no blood and guts and unremitting torture. How were you supposed to market this thing? Still, out here in Hollywood there's no end of talk about how to tap an overlooked goldmine - the folks who hate Hollywood, the evangelicals and the religious right, and all the folks who faithfully attend the many giant mega-churches with their soft-rock "Contemporary Christian" services. Look south - Orange and San Diego counties are full of them, and their professional congregations with heaps of disposable income. The parking lots are filled with the newest and largest SUV's, their kids look well-fed and have all the cool new toys and snazzy clothes, and that must mean something. That must mean a new, rich audience to be drained of some of their dollars.
But this year's attempt to tap that market didn't work out. The film in question did just okay for a week and the faded fast. Perhaps the target audience wasn't that large, or perhaps not all that dissatisfied with the secular junk Hollywood produces year in and year out. I could be that they separate entertainment from matters of faith and this is not what they expected from a movie. They may all think the separation of church and state is something that should, after two hundred thirty odd years, be revisited, but apparently they think you don't go to the movies for a God fix. The movies are to provide a secular fix. Or it may be something else entirely. New Line Cinema hasn't yet figured out what went wrong.
The film did generate some comment in the UK when it opened there in early December. Michael White in the Telegraph has an item where he seems to be saying the film may have been just too earnest - "Was there really a stable? Three kings? Any shepherds? Even the gospels can't agree, so maybe it doesn't matter if the kitsch angels and snow globes are all wrong too. It's the way we like it."
New Line Cinema seems to have got the Christmas thing all wrong. Everyone likes the muddled mess of secular and religious, and it was always so, from medieval art to now, especially regarding the nativity -
In the history of art it comes in every form, from intimate, stable scenes to teeming Busby Berkeley spectacles with squadrons of formation-flying angels. "There is a marked difference between Protestant introspection and Catholic display," says Charles Saumarez Smith, the National Gallery's director.
In less elevated terms, it comes conveniently packaged for the modern home, with winking lights and nodding donkeys: singing, dancing, ethnic, edible, inflatable, not to say theologically confused.
On the internet you can buy cribs at which Mary welcomes Father Christmas and a penguin to the manger; the Holy Family look worryingly like the Flintstones; or the baby Jesus is a sort of Eucharistic truffle, robed in chocolate with a vin santo filling.
The film went the other way, as it was "produced in consultation with learned theologians." It was supposed "to cut through centuries of fantasy, embellishment and kitsch, and tells the story as the Gospels do" Anne Graham Lotz, the daughter of Billy Graham, said it was "Biblically accurate" and the Catholic News Service rejoiced - "'Hollywood finally gets it right." But getting it right doesn't make for great box office. Getting it right is rather irrelevant in Hollywood - ask any author who has sold the rights to his book and doesn't even recognize the film version, passed through a series of screenwriters' changes and preproduction casting negotiations, then suggestions from the marketing people. Oxford becomes Malibu and the protagonist is not a don but now a woman who runs a catering firm - that sort of thing.
But Michael White is really concerned with something else. What if there is no "right" to be getting right in the case of the nativity? New Line Cinema may have had a bigger problem. Bethlehem may not have been as the Victorians imagined it, "some snowy hamlet in the deep and dreamless sleep of the Home Counties, more Reigate than Ramallah." They changed things for marketing purposes themselves, of course
But here are the problems -
To begin with, it's odd that just two of the four Gospels have anything to say about the Nativity. Mark and John offer no comment at all.
Only Matthew and Luke, both written 60-70 years after Jesus's death, give the story.
And, according to Geza Vermes, Emeritus Professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford and author of a recently published study, The Nativity, it isn't even the same story.
"In our traditional understanding Matthew and Luke are nicely fitted together and their contradictions ignored," says Vermes. "But what they say is totally different. And what's more, it appears nowhere else in the New Testament. No repetition. No reference. From which I conclude that it's a secondary addition: a splendid prologue to the life of Jesus supplied by men who had a reason to supply it."
The whole things was a marketing effort, part of the multinational "Jesus was the son of God" PR campaign -
For Matthew, a Jew writing for Jews, the objective was to show how Jesus's birth fulfilled the prophesies of the Torah. For Luke, a gentile writing for gentiles, the objective was to explain Jesus in terms that a pagan audience reared on myths of gods impregnating mortals would understand.
… The Virgin Mary is actually called Miriam - she was Jewish, after all - and her virginal status is important to Luke because it fits the Classical image of maidens begetting divine children.
Whereas Matthew has the details of the birth revealed to Joseph in a dream, Luke has an Annunciation made to Mary by an angel. Western painters stress her detachment from the mess of birth by showing her in seated composure.
Painters of Eastern icons let her lie down. And nowhere does The Bible tell us she wears blue. Her wardrobe largely derives from medieval meditations and visionary experiences, such as those of St Bridget, who had a keen eye for detail.
Joseph is usually depicted as a bit-part actor in the drama and as old, although The Bible does not indicate his age. Some pictorial traditions make him a comic figure and certain cathedrals had a vested interest in adding homely details - notably Aachen, which became the proud possessor of St Joseph's stockings, which had been cut up to make clothes for the infant Jesus. Jesus In paintings, he is usually depicted naked with what would these days be thought an unseemly attention to his penis.
… The Three Kings - only Matthew mentions them. He doesn't call them kings. And he doesn't say how many there are. The earliest nativity scenes show just two, and their number and status were upgraded later, on the grounds that there were three gifts, one of which was frankincense, associated with royalty.
More practically, though, the upgrading of the kings was also connected with the church's desire to allot a role in Christian life to rich potentates (who would otherwise be struggling through the eyes of needles) and get their money.
The kings also symbolized the universal outreach of the Church, to Europe, Africa and Asia. And again, certain cathedrals had a special interest in them: Cologne claimed their bodies and declared them to have died at the respective ages of 109, 112 and 116.
The Ox and Ass There is no mention of them in the Gospels. But if Jesus was born in a stable it would be reasonable to assume their presence. And the first person to make a point of it was St Francis, who is said to have begun the tradition of cribs and nativity re-enactments in the 13th century.
The Shepherds are found only in Luke. Important as a statement of the access ordinary people have to Jesus.
The Star in Matthew but not Luke, and the subject of endless debate as to what, if anything, it might have been. There is no unchallengeable recorded evidence of starry phenomena around this time.
And so it goes. Click on the link for more. But you see the problem New Line Cinema faced. They did eighty percent Matthew, ten percent Luke, and ten percent what's been added on through the centuries. This is what passes for getting it right. Well, both Matthew and Luke agree that the birthplace is Bethlehem, but even that may have been marketing - "important as the fulfillment of prophesy: it establishes Jesus as successor to King David, who was also born there." On the other hand, "Luke has Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem as temporary residents, for the census - which is why they ended up in a stable when there was no room at the inn. Matthew says nothing about a census, stable or inn, and gives the impression that Mary and Joseph are permanent residents in that 'house'."
So what are clerics to do? White chats with them -
Few clerics I approached - including the Archbishops of Canterbury and Westminster - were prepared to risk a comment. Of those who were, the most forthright was the director of the Catholic Agency for the Support of Evangelism, Mgr Keith Barltrop, who agreed that "Matthew and Luke put their Gospels together in a certain way to make certain points, but a Catholic would believe them to be based on history and essentially true. At the end of the day, it's a matter of faith."
Almost as forthright was the Rt Rev Richard Chartres, Bishop of London, who complains that 'our modern minds want photographic evidence: someone at the cribside with a Polaroid to show us what we see on Christmas cards … Well, nobody was there with a Polaroid, and the gospel narratives don't work like that. They don't inform us. They initiate us into an awareness, a way of seeing and being, and that's the way the early church would have understood them."
The film folks should have asked. Getting it right doesn't matter. The target audience my have implicitly realized that - they were bored with the carefulness.
People want the non-boring version, as Alastair Smart in the same issue of the Telegraph explains here -
The most apposite demonstration of our celebrity-obsessed times must surely be Madame Tussauds' Nativity scene of 2004.
The waxwork depicted Victoria and David Beckham as Mary and Joseph with Kylie Minogue as a pert-buttocked Angel of the Annunciation, and - contentiously - President Bush, the Duke of Edinburgh and Tony Blair as the Three Wise Men.
The scene was criticized as both a new low in the cult of celebrity worship and preposterous blasphemy. The display was open for only a few days before James Anstice, a religious protester, decapitated Posh and knocked over Becks on the grounds of 'waging a war against crap'.
Anstice appears to be fighting an unwinnable war. For instance, the Our Lady of the Snows church in Belleville, Illinois, last year displayed a life-size Nativity scene made from Lego.
Kitsch abounds even in Naples, the world capital of Nativity scenes since the 18th century, when the Bourbon king Charles III ordered them to be made there. Today, countless artisans in the city's Old District work all year to construct presepi. For every exquisite, hand-carved Madonna and Joseph, there's a 25-piece scene made entirely out of dried pasta.
Yeah, well, Alastair Smart says the we here on the other side of the pond have them all beat -
The Radio City Christmas Spectacular, which has played annually at New York's Rockefeller Center since 1933, is a fine example. More than a million visitors witness this gaudy extravaganza of high-kick dance numbers and skating routines, culminating in the 'Living Nativity' play, for which the vast stage becomes a desert that Mary and Joseph - with live camels, sheep and donkeys for company - cross in search of an inn.
But wait! There's more -
For instance, www.stpatricksguild.com offers a Nativity Bake Set, which allows you to recreate the manger scene out of gingerbread and cookies; an Outdoor Inflatable Nativity, a 9ft tall display with self-inflating, biblical figures; and, most interestingly of all, a Kneeling Santa, a wooden figurine of Father Christmas humbly, if incongruously, kneeling at Baby Jesus's crib.
And you thought Santa didn't visit Bethlehem more than two thousand years ago, didn't you? Read your Bible - but not too carefully.
But surely someone respects Jesus and wants to get this all right? Karen Armstrong, Saturday, December 23, in the Guardian (UK), says that someone really does -
In 632, after five years of fearful warfare, the city of Mecca in the Arabian Hijaz voluntarily opened its gates to the Muslim army. No blood was shed and nobody was forced to convert to Islam, but the Prophet Muhammad ordered the destruction of all idols and icons of the Divine. There were a number of frescoes painted on the inner walls of the Kabah, the ancient granite shrine in the centre of Mecca, and one of them, it is said, depicted Mary and the infant Jesus. Immediately Muhammad covered it reverently with his cloak, ordering all the other pictures to be destroyed except that one.
This story may surprise people in the west, who have regarded Islam as the implacable enemy of Christianity ever since the crusades, but it is salutary to recall it during the Christmas season when we are surrounded by similar images of the Virgin and Child. It reminds us that the so-called clash of civilizations was by no means inevitable. For centuries Muslims cherished the figure of Jesus, who is honored in the Qur'an as one of the greatest of the prophets and, in the formative years of Islam, became a constituent part of the emergent Muslim identity.
… The Qur'an is horrified by Christian claims that Jesus was the "son of God", and depicts Jesus ardently denying his divinity in an attempt to "cleanse" himself of these blasphemous projections. Time and again the Qur'an insists that, like Muhammad himself, Jesus was a perfectly ordinary human being and that the Christians have entirely misunderstood their own scriptures. But it concedes that the most learned and faithful Christians - especially monks and priests - did not believe that Jesus was divine; of all God's worshippers, they were closest to the Muslims (5:85-86).
… The Qur'an insists that all rightly guided religions come from God, and Muslims are required to believe in the revelations of every single one of God's messengers: "Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob ... and all the other prophets: we make no distinction between any of them" (3:84). But Jesus - also called the Messiah, the Word and the Spirit - had special status.
Jesus, it was felt, had an affinity with Muhammad, and had predicted his coming (61:6), just as the Hebrew prophets were believed by Christians to have foretold the coming of Christ. The Qur'an, possibly influenced by Docetic Christianity, denied that Jesus had been crucified, but saw his ascension into heaven as the triumphant affirmation of his prophethood. In a similar way, Muhammad had once mystically ascended to the Throne of God. Jesus would also play a prominent role beside Muhammad in the eschatological drama of the last days.
Someone call New Line Cinema - there's a film here if they want to "get it right." But then that hypothetical film would have no audience. Who wants to watch ninety-four minutes of well-filmed mutual respect? There's no market for that now.