By Kurt Jensen | Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) — If you get the impression that the film “Why the Nativity?” is ubiquitous this holiday season, that’s no accident. Instead, it’s the conscious intent of the folks at Turning Point Productions, creators of this retelling of the New Testament’s infancy narratives.
The dramatization — based on a 2006 book by David Jeremiah, the Southern Baptist minister who heads Turning Point, a broadcast ministry in El Cajon, California — is available to view for free on its home website as well as on YouTube. It’s also being given live screenings, including at Washington’s Museum of the Bible, where it will be featured through the end of December.
As a Dec. 2 kickoff event at the museum revealed, the movie is not a typical Nativity drama. Jeremiah narrates throughout, giving the picture the feel of a pageant with an attached lecture. There’s little opportunity for audience interpretation since, for better or worse, Jeremiah tells viewers what to think from beginning to end.
Like many other movies in the genre, moreover, “Why the Nativity?” is forced to draw on imagination at certain moments in its story. The Gospel writers, after all, were seeking to inspire faith, not supply their readers with an exhaustive or even complete account of events. Unsurprisingly, some of the speculative details supplied by Jeremiah and screenwriter-director Paul Joiner work better than others.
While extra-biblical tradition has sometimes portrayed St. Joseph (Logan Polson) as older than Mary (Rose Anaya), here they’re shown to be youthful contemporaries (think high school sweethearts) who have known each other since childhood. Although the Scriptures give us few clues about St. Joseph’s personality, Jeremiah’s assertion that he was “probably a simple and practical man” seems reasonable.
The Gospel of Luke tells us that Mary, following the Annunciation, went to her cousin St. Elizabeth’s home and stayed there for three months, presumably assisting her elderly and miraculously pregnant relative as she bore St. John the Baptist. This interlude — known to Catholics as the Visitation and a rich source of Marian theology, including the prayer of praise called the Magnificat — is omitted from Jeremiah’s version.
Villainous King Herod I of Judea (Arick Salmea) is called suicidal. Though not a biblical detail, this idea does find support in the writings of the ancient Jewish historian Josephus. Assailed by agonizing physical illness — and, perhaps, wracked by guilt over his monstrous slaughter of the innocents — Herod, Josephus tells us, tried to stab himself before dying of an ailment later called Herod’s Evil.
As for the three Magi, Yu, Roshan and Kamari (Martin Chan, Peter D. Michael, Paul L. Davis), Jeremiah’s narrative says they sought out the youthful Jesus knowing that a new faith was about to overtake theirs — namely, Zoroastrianism, of which they may have been priests. That seems a bit of a leap since Matthew’s Gospel merely tells us that the trio came in search of “the newborn king of the Jews.”
Jeremiah may be hewing closer to Matthew’s version of events when he presents the visit of the Wise Men as taking place a full two years after Jesus’ birth. Since Herod ordered the massacre of “all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity 2 years old and under,” we are presented with a range of possibilities.
At this point, Joiner seems to run afoul of the difficulty of portraying Jesus as both a fully human child and a truly divine being. Thus toddler Jesus (Joaquin Hohman) emerges from the house in Bethlehem, smiles at his visitors, and executes a perfect wave of benediction such as the most stately pontiff in the history of the church might have dispensed from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica.
After the screening, Jeremiah addressed the audience, observing that he thought the film could gain even more platforms. “When you show this to people, you know you’re going to win, because the expectations are so low.”
While it doesn’t exactly soar over those expectations, “Why the Nativity?” makes for a serviceable addition to the stock of Christmas films. Movie fans can judge for themselves at: https://www.davidjeremiah.org/whythenativity.