Our buddy, Scot McKnight put a good review of the movie, The Nativity, on the Relevant Mag’s website. I thought I would include it on this blog as well…worth reading and worth seeing. Hey, it’s between Borat and The Nativity, isn’t it? As has been said in the past, "choose wisely!".
I love dramatic presentations of biblical
narratives, and I confess as well that each one provides the
opportunity to compare my view with the views of others. The Nativity Story
lived up to my expectations and beyond—not only was it faithful to the
biblical text, it added material—such as the scene of the woman
teaching the little Jewish children about Elijah and the coming
Messiah—it was realistic, historically reasonable and illustrative of
the themes inherent to the Bible’s own storyline.
The First Magnificat Christmas by Scot McKnight
I have a claim I ask you to consider. Here it is: I claim the first
Christmas, the one experienced by Mary and Joseph, was a Magnificat
Christmas. The Magnificat, Mary’s famous song that begins, “My soul
glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke
1:46-47, TNIV), expresses the yearning of the pious poor for God’s
redemptive justice and for the day when the world will be put to
rights. The themes of the Magnificat, which express what Mary thinks
God is doing in her son, are ending injustice and establishing justice,
bringing peace and ending poverty. Those are the themes of a Magnificat
In some ways The Nativity Story offers to us the hope of a Magnificat Christmas. Only the Magnificat explains The Nativity Story’s
obsession with messianic hope as dramatized in the woman who teaches
little children about the return of Elijah, in Herod’s maniacal phobia
with Jewish hopes for the Messiah and in the interwoven hopes of the
Magi as they travel from afar. The movie opens with a
Messianic-focusing citation of Jeremiah 23:5-6: “‘The days are coming,’
declares the Lord, ‘when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch
How odd, then, that the director chose not to give us one word of
Mary’s rich and evocative Magnificat until the end of the movie. As
Mary and Joseph travel to Egypt we get snippets, well-chosen to be
sure, of lines from the Magnificat—not the opening lines of
heart-opened praise and not the closing lines about God’s faithfulness
to Abraham—but still well-chosen lines about the messianic hope of the
poor for God to bring justice. But they serve as a capstone of the
themes of the people and Herod but not lines that derive integrally
from the characters of Joseph and Mary.
Joseph and Mary
Because I have spent time researching the parents of Jesus and how
Jesus’ own ministry and teachings were formed by them, I have developed
more fixed views of them than most. The Nativity Story’s
presentation of Joseph was fulsome—he was a man of steady Torah
observance and a man of mercy. When he discovers that Mary is pregnant,
his commitment to Torah convinces him that he must not continue the
covenanted relationship and decides to divorce. Only after being
convinced in a dream does Joseph surrender—his own “may it be”—to the
plan of God, and he marries Mary.
Alongside his commitment to Torah, Joseph is a merciful man. The
biblical text tells us only that Joseph chose not to expose Mary to
public humiliation through public accusation of adultery but chose
instead to divorce her privately—from which biblical scholars have
often inferred (accurately I believe) that Joseph was a man of mercy.
Mike Rich, the screenwriter, beautifully attends to this theme of mercy
in Joseph. Joseph is moved to mercy by fellow travelers when their
donkey falters, by bloodying his feet as he walks so Mary can ride atop
their donkey, by constant attentiveness to Mary and then by scrambling
to find a place for Mary when they arrive in Bethlehem.
We fall in love with Joseph. But not with Mary—at least I did not. I liked their relationship, but I wanted more from Mary.
Mary’s character moves through two phases: she is confused and
bewildered and pondering what all this might mean when she discovers
she is to be prematurely pregnant as the Messiah’s mother. That
confusion on her face lifts either as a result of her time with
Elizabeth or, and it was not clear to me, as a result of Joseph’s
acceptance of her condition as the Lord’s plan. The character moves
from confusion to security.
Had the movie given attention to the Magnificat up front, as Luke’s
first chapter does, we might have been given three dimensions that
would have reshaped Mary’s character: first, because the Magnificat is
so dramatically hopeful and messianic, we would have seen a Mary more
in touch with her own people—who are clearly depicted in the movie as
longing for the Messianic days; second, we would have been given a more
robust character because we’d have a Mary who was more than pious; and
third, if we had the Magnificat up front we would have watched a Mary
more in line with the Bible and less in line with the history of
Christian art. Art reveals—in statues, icons and paintings—a pious,
pensive, pondering, passive Mary.
But, the Magnificat reveals a woman who is alert, active and even (if I
may be so bold to suggest so) a bit aggressive. She longs for the
kingdom; she is ready to say, “May it be!” And she is willing to go
toe-to-toe with Herod and Caesar by announcing that God is about to
strip rulers from their thrones and enthrone her very son. By delaying
lines from the Magnificat until the end, the movie permits a pensive
Mary to overtake an activist Mary.
There is nothing controversial and nothing exaggerated in this attempt
to make the 1st Century come alive—in fact, at times I felt I was there.