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The Nativity Story: Responses of an Interfaith Couple

The Nativity Story : Responses of an Interfaith Couple

By Tracy Hahn-Burkett and Paul Burkett

Tracy, writing from the Jewish perspective:

Keisha Castle-Hughes stars as Mary in The Nativity Story . Photo © 2006 Jaimie Trublood/New Line Productions

As my husband and I walked into the theater to see The Nativity Story , I wondered how different his understanding of the movie would be from my own. After all, he had been schooled as a child in the story and its subtleties, while I only knew scraps of the story I had picked up through casual conversations, television specials and public Christmas displays.

I also wondered how any non-Jew would react to my putting into print my disbelief of the nativity story and of the divinity of Jesus Christ.

Like any American Jew, I know the basic nativity story. As unlikely as it seems to me that two thousand years ago a virgin bore a baby sent by God to save mankind, I know that for many, if not most, Christians, this story is as irrefutable as the progression of day into night. Thus, I sought evidence that Jesus of Nazareth was more than a prominent Jew whose influence was feared by the Roman-backed king, Herod, and whose divinity was a corporeal creation of men with political agendas. Ultimately, the movie failed to shed light on this or any other substantial question.

The Nativity Story did touch on, however, one of the many compelling aspects of Jesus: his Jewishness. I have always wondered how some Christians could harbor such deep anti-Semitism in the name of their savior who, after all, was a Jew. Artistically, I found the recitation in accented English of common Hebrew prayers to be jarring; even subtitles under Hebrew or Aramaic spoken words would have been preferable. Yet, when Joseph said hamotzi (the prayer recited before eating bread) in Hebrew over the couple's last remaining scrap of food, I was jolted back to the link between the Jewish people and Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and I briefly felt tied to the story. But then the film moved to the next simple plot point, and the movie felt like a mere tale once more.

I did discover a spiritual moment in an unlikely place. The very last credit on the screen was a statement noting that the film's makers had planted trees to mitigate any environmental damage that might have been caused by the filming of the movie. Regardless of whether they believe in the nativity, both Jews and Christians place tremendous value on mankind's responsibility to care for God's creation. In one simple statement that wasn't really even part of the film, the teachings of Jesus and tikkun olam (the Jewish obligation to repair the world) came together to remind anyone who still remained in the theater that humanity still has much to do to fulfill the expectations of God.

Paul, writing from the non-Jewish perspective:

Oscar Issac stars as Joseph in The Nativity Story . Photo © 2006 Jaimie Trublood/New Line Productions

What I most looked forward to when I went to see The Nativity Story with my Jewish wife was the inevitable (and lively) conversation we would have afterwards debating and dissecting the historical and theological ideas raised by the movie. Sadly, the movie broke no new ground in these areas and did not give us much to talk about.

The Nativity Story takes us on a mostly familiar journey. The film focuses on the human and political realities that lie beneath the tale of Jesus's birth. Unfortunately, director Catherine Hardwicke's rigid devotion to her source material undermines the movie. Her desire to include every particular from the Gospels gives the film a patchwork feel with little emotional or thematic arc. Ultimately, The Nativity Story is art without a soul.

Any filmmaker telling this story is faced with a dilemma: how to be new or fresh without giving offense. Hardwicke solves the latter problem by reciting all the basic facts from the Gospels. The problem is that she incorporates all the reported facts whether or not they add to the story of Mary and Joseph's spiritual and physical journeys to Bethlehem. She does a better job bringing something new to the story by delving into the human elements that are left out of the Bible. How does Mary tell her family and Joseph of her unplanned pregnancy? How did Mary and Joseph get from Nazareth to Bethlehem and end up in a stable? Hardwicke explores these questions with heart and imagination, even though she limits her own storytelling by her desire to avoid controversy.

Thus, as an exercise in retelling the story of Mary and Joseph, humanizing it and filling in some of the gaps, The Nativity Story works pretty well. I enjoyed the movie on this level and found the characters--Joseph in particular--to be interesting and engaging. The movie is less appealing technically. The editing was rough in places, and the special effects were schlocky at best. The music was distracting at times. Having Mary and Joseph enter Bethlehem to the strains of "Carol of the Bells" was a low point.

These shortcomings could be forgiven if the movie otherwise had more life and spirit. Ultimately, though, The Nativity Story falls flat because the filmmaker could not trust herself to tell the human story without including every last detail from the Gospels. In addition, the fairly incessant use of post-nativity Christian symbology--such as Herod's crucifying his enemies or Mary's washing Joseph's feet--was off-putting (perhaps Hardwicke is foreshadowing a sequel).

As with the technical flaws in the movie, these editorial lapses could be forgiven if the film spoke to the audience more deeply, but it does not.

Hebrew for "repairing the world," a goal of the Jewish covenant with God. Hebrew for "brings forth" or "expels," the first unique or identifying word of the blessing over bread ("...brings forth bread from the earth"). Some say this blessing over bread, others recite it as a catch-all before a meal. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Tracy Hahn-Burkett

Tracy Hahn-Burkett is a writer who focuses often on family topics, including interfaith and multicultural family issues. She blogs at UnchartedParent.com.

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