We lead fairly schizophrenic lives during the Christmas season in America. Our popular holiday rituals are bifurcated between the sacred and the secular; between the very worldly commercial extravaganza of Christmas as offered by our department stores - when they have the guts to employ the word "Christmas" - and Christianity celebrating the birth of Our Lord.
Hollywood hasn't been so split on this question. It is firmly ensconced, and comfortable, in the secular world. Year after year, it offers commercial Christmas movies this time of year, with Grinches and Rudolphs, good Santas and Bad Santas, the Kranks and the Muppets. We've been Scrooged, been on Christmas Vacation, and taken rides on the Polar Express. We've seen the Christmas-as-a-backdrop movies like "Home Alone," which, like so many others, might offer something about the Christmas "spirit" but wouldn't dare to touch the Birth of Christ itself.
No, what we haven't seen in decades from Hollywood is a reverent recounting of the birth of Jesus in a stable in Bethlehem. But the void is now filled. The New Line studio is set to release a movie to retell that tale. It's simply called "The Nativity Story."
The pre-publicity story line is easily written: Hollywood saw the box-office receipts of "The Passion," looked around for another story line to attract that long-forgotten audience, and is going back to the Christian audience for some very profitable seconds. It's clear that New Line hopes for that response, since all the graphics and colors, and even the soundtrack of the film and its promotions make it look like Mel Gibson prepared a pre-quel.
Unlike other movies that the some in the media comically have claimed might rub off some "Passion" magic as they trashed and satirized Christians, "The Nativity Story" is reverent, generally true to the Gospel, and a moving experience for the Christian faithful. It reminds the audience that these distant figures in the stained glass window were real humans with real struggles and real suffering, and responded to their calling with timeless devotion to their creator.
Those looking for the standard Hollywood fare will be disappointed. The story of Our Lord's passion is packed with drama and violence, and similarly though to a far lesser extent are these elements present in the story of the birth of Christ. But whereas "The Passion" is replete with conflict - the essential ingredient in the Tinseltown soup - the story of the birth of Jesus has none of it. Mary obediently accepted God's will, as did Joseph. The Magi, the shepherds, the peasants - all who beheld the Child Jesus, believed. Thus in the movie we see Joseph take Mary on a donkey to Bethlehem. She has a baby. Shepherds and kings arrive with awe. Without a religious background, it might seem too saccharine to excite the taste buds of your average popcorn-chomping cineplex citizen.
The makers of "The Nativity Story" have included action, and (sanitized) violence in the story because they were present, too. Thus we watch the armored goons of Herod on horseback executing the terrible command to slaughter of first-born sons in Bethlehem under the age of two in the futile attempt to foil the plans of God, while the Herod character chews the scenery with dead-eyed menace. Still, it seems a bit forced, the resignation to the reality that today's moviemaker must find some way to "entertain" today's moviegoer in this age of bombastic sound effects and computerized whiz-bangery.
But at its heart, this is a gentle, serene, beautiful story about the creation of the Holy Family; how Mary quietly accepted that which logically could not be understand; how facing a life as outcasts once their community in Nazareth learned Mary was pregnant before marriage, Joseph took Mary on the long, arduous trip to Bethlehem; and how, contrary to all human expectation, the King of Kings chose birth in the most humble of settings, the animal's manger.
"The Nativity Story" is part of a promising trend in Hollywood: pleasing the religious segment of the marketplace. Fox has created a new FoxFaith line. Small films made by Christian hands, from the football film "Facing the Giants" to "One Night with the King," about the biblical story of Esther, are making noticeable profits in limited release.
Time and Newsweek go a little overboard with cute headlines like "Hurray for Holy-wood," but that's fine. Nor can we expect that Tinseltown will forego the appeal of sleaze at Christmas or any other season. More stupid "Christmas" movies that have nothing to do either with the Christmas story or the Christmas spirit will appear. It's all the more reason to savor "The Nativity Story" now, while you can. New Line deserves a cheer for making this movie, just as the public needs to be reminded of that which the ACLU would rather it forget.