A Symphony Unheard

Go see The Nativity Story

by Craig Bernthal

Private Papers

Here is the plot and the theme: God creates the universe, not because he needs to, since he is complete in himself, but as an act of gratuitous love. Being omniscient as well as omnipotent, he knows before the initial instant of creation (if “before” even makes sense here) that his own crucifixion will be entailed as soon as he utters “Let there be light.” Creation will have to be recreated. God will have to submit himself to torture and death before resurrection can occur. Agony, it seems, is part of being, even for God.

The Christmas story, as told in Luke and Matthew, and echoed in the style of Greek philosophy in John, is first of all a story of creation. It begins with the conception of two infants and harks back to “the heavens and the earth” of Genesis as the wise men spot the star, which takes them to the exact spot where the new creation is beginning.

What does this new creation look like? What does the angel announce to the shepherds? The loving relationship of God to all of mankind has now been secured: peace on earth, good will toward men — all men. You don’t even have to be Jewish. Distinctions based on sex, class, nationality, ethnicity, and condition as slave or free are all abolished as love, justice, and mercy meet in perfect union.

These are the tidings of great joy, and it is the story that, more than any other, has shaped the West. Even the Enlightenment story of continuous progress or Marx’s story of the triumph of the proleterariat and the withering away of the state are all only parodies of the story that extends from Genesis to Revelation, and which the Christmas story gives us in brief. It is the story that more than any other we would like to believe.


The Nativity Story, directed by Catharine Hardwicke, is the best adaptation of any Bible story for the screen that I have seen. It succeeds because it refuses to do what most films of this genre do, that is, bank on spectacle as a substitute for eliciting a religious response.

This film aims to elicit that response and succeeds. The best special effect in the movie is the recreation of Jerusalem. Gabriel appears discretely as a vision that might even be taken for bird or wind. The inhabitants of Nazareth, though not without dignity, are impoverished; nothing is uplifting in their squalor, which captures the grinding routine of subsistence agriculture. For Mary and Joseph, the trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem is a harsh 100 mile trek.

The screenplay takes a few liberties with Luke’s story: for instance, the three wise men arrive in time for a Christmas-card manger scene with the shepherds. But this is inconsequential and part of a tradition that will be played out by children in thousands of churches this week. The bits of the movie which fill in Luke’s story are logical and dramatically appropriate extrapolation and commentary.

But I want to return to the movie’s greatest strength, which truly derives from its sources, and that is its subtlety. Starting with Zechariah’s visitation in the temple by “the angel of the Lord,” announcing that his wife Elizabeth is pregnant, each of the successive visitations: Gabriel to Mary, Joseph’s dreams, the angel to the shepherds, even the star itself, are phenomenon that one might doubt — that are, to some extent, doubted even by the characters in the movie. In one scene, somewhere on the road to Bethlehem, Joseph, in exhaustion and despair, prays to God to send him a sign so he will know he is doing the right thing. Behind him, unnoticed, three stars are coming together whose conjunction will be the star of Bethlehem.

The movie raises an important question. What counts for evidence in religion? Many opponents of theism, the heirs of David Hume, whose hard-covers are currently in the stores — Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris — discount religious experience because it does not show up on the only epistemological radar screen they hold valid, one that assumes an exclusively material universe that can only be known through the rigors of scientific study. But this, though a powerful bandwidth for knowing the world, is a very narrow one. We don’t know our spouses or children this way, or art, or music, and most of what we do in the world cannot be known this way.

The Nativity Story shows religious experience to be fleeting, subject to doubt, and this not least because we would like to believe it so much. But this is the nature of religious experience, which is personal, not reproducible, and in the Judeo-Christian tradition, captured only in stories. It’s a recording that the epistemology of scientific materialism cannot play, a symphony it cannot hear.

In Evelyn’s Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, the agnostic Charles Ryder has the following conversation with his close Catholic friend Sebastian Flyte. Charles begins:

“I suppose they try and make you believe an awful lot of nonsense?”

“Is it nonsense? I wish it were. It sometimes sounds terribly sensible to me.”

“But, my dear Sebastian, you can’t seriously believe it all.”

“Can’t I?”

“I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kids and the ox and the ass.”

“O yes, I believe that. It’s a lovely idea.”

“But you can’t believe things because they’re a lovely idea.”

“But I do. That’s how I believe.”

Sebastian’s church also produced Thomas Aquinas, who thought having a few more reasons would be good. But Sebastian is starting in the right place, with the impact of a story, and The Nativity Story gives us a very fine place to start.

Craig Bernthal is a professor of English at California State University, Fresno.

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