Good News to the Poor?: A Review of The Nativity Story

by Vic Thiessen

When New Line Cinema presents a film depicting the story of the birth of Jesus, one has the right to be at least slightly hopeful that the result will be a fresh look at this well-known and oft-filmed narrative. And in the opening scenes, which accurately reveal how the Jewish people were suffering under Roman occupation at the time of Jesus’ birth, one’s hopes are momentarily satisfied. Unfortunately, those hopes are dashed moments later when an angel speaks to Zechariah (the father of John the Baptist) and one sees the first traces of the utterly unimaginative and uninspired retelling which is about to unfold. Carefully interweaving the accounts in the early chapters of Matthew and Luke, The Nativity Story sets forth all the elements in the familiar story in a dutiful pedantic way. If it was intended to interest non-Christians, I fear it will fail miserably. And it certainly won’t help people think of the birth of Jesus as anything more than a fairy tale.

The film does have its strong points. From a technical standpoint, it is well-made. The choice of locations and the beautiful (if colourless) cinematography provide a real sense of place often missing in Biblical films. The acting could be described as adequate though it is almost devoid of emotion. One guesses that Catherine Hardwicke’s direction is to blame for this. Keisha Castle-Hughes and Oscar Isaac at least look good playing Mary and Joseph and Ciaran Hinds makes a commendable Herod. But the acting, like the film as a whole, is far too restrained, reminding me of the worst Biblical epics of the past century.

What disturbed me most, however, was the confusing theology of the film. The film begins by revealing how Herod the Great’s desire for glory and favour with Rome led him to initiate some of the most incredible building projects in the history of the world – projects that required astronomical sums of money. Much of that money came from the sweat of the Jewish people, who were taxed well beyond what they could afford, keeping them in poverty. The film accurately shows these people crying to God for a Messiah to save them. It seems obvious what kind of salvation these people wanted and I certainly didn’t hear them crying out for a Messiah to save them from their sins. But apparently that’s what God heard and responded to on that particular evening in Bethlehem in 4 B.C.E. While the film shows us the plight of the poor in Palestine who cried out for a Messiah, it also shows that the coming of the Messiah apparently had nothing to do with politics or the physical suffering of his people; rather he was coming to save his people from their sins. The film seems to suggest (with some Biblical support) that when Jesus grew up and started his ministry, he would say: ‘Listen folks, I know you’re poor and oppressed, but that’s life – what’s really important is the good news that God offers you forgiveness for your sins’. And the people would hear this good news and say: ‘Alright! We’re forgiven! We’re going to heaven! Who cares about our sufferings in this life? Poverty doesn’t matter as long as we’re going to heaven.’

I find it hard to believe that this is the way it happened. The people wanting salvation wanted salvation from the Romans – they wanted a Messiah to free them from Roman oppression and the yoke of Herod. That’s why they expected the Messiah to be a violent liberator and failed to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. That Jesus was not a violent liberator should not, however, be seen as evidence that his salvation was only spiritual. I believe that the nativity story, at least as it is told by Luke, is about good news for the physically poor as well as the spiritually poor. Luke introduces his account of Jesus’ birth with, among other things, the Magnificat, in which Mary proclaims that the lowly will be lifted up, the powerful will be brought down, the hungry will be filled and the rich will be sent away empty (Luke 1:52-53). Luke then begins the heart of his nativity story with the requirement to be registered and the forced and difficult trip of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. From the beginning we are reminded of the oppression of the Jewish people. This is followed by the very humble conditions of the birth of Jesus, who was laid in a manger, which in turn is followed by the story of the shepherds, who were among the lowliest of men, usually treated as despised outcasts; the kind of marginalised outcasts that Jesus would befriend during his ministry. It is to these outcasts that the angel of the lord (and later the whole angelic host) came and proclaimed the advent message of hope, joy and peace – the good news of great joy for ALL people; first and foremost, for the lowliest of all people.

The gospels do not suggest that the theme of the plight of the poor crying out for a Messiah, with which The Nativity Story begins, is simply spiritualised when the Messiah finally arrives. On the contrary, we hear this theme again in the words of Jesus at the beginning of his ministry (in Luke 4) when he says that he has been anointed to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free. That Jesus means more than just the spiritually poor is made clear in his words at the end of his ministry, recorded by Matthew, when he says: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was a prisoner and you visited me… for just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” In his befriending of the poor and the outcasts and in his exposing and challenging of the oppressive structures of the domination system, including racism, sexism, classism, and the exploitation of the poor, Jesus’ story and his Kingdom is a story of good news to the poor!

Unfortunately, The Nativity Story suggests the good news is only related to our spiritual lives. The spiritual component is, of course, a vital part of the good news, but if it becomes the whole story, it may contribute to the need to ask the following disturbing questions: How can it be that 2000 years after Jesus brought his message of good news to the Jews living in Palestine that the people of Bethlehem are once again crying out to be freed from unjust taxes, poverty and oppression, oppression from the very people who were themselves the victims of oppression 2000 years ago? How can it be that the tiny country which received the good news of great joy, and peace, for all people, lies at the heart of the world’s conflict 2000 years later? How can it be that the countless millions of people who claim to follow Jesus have been at least partly responsible for developing and maintaining an economic system that continues to oppress the world’s poor and that the day in which we celebrate Jesus’ birth has become a central symbol of that unjust economic system?

The Nativity Story is not a complete waste of time. Christians who want a beautiful and meditative film that is faithful to the report in the gospels of Matthew and Luke will enjoy it. I just wish it had made better use of its opportunities to tell a story that would connect Jesus to the plight of the poor and oppressed in the 21st century, including those suffering in the land of his birth.

The Nativitiy story was released by New Line Cinemas in the UK on Dec 8, 2006