Journey to Bethlehem Takes Liberties With Timeless Nativity Story, for the Sake of Modern Themes

Jon Croft profile image
by Jon Croft
Journey to Bethlehem Takes Liberties With Timeless Nativity Story, for the Sake of Modern Themes

There is a certain level of grace we can extend to fellow believers when they express their ideas through their art, and then there is an unnecessary insertion of our political and social virtue signal that will end up turning a Bible story into a mockery.

So, what is that line, for you?

Like The Chosen, Journey to Bethlehem takes some liberties with characters, scenes, and background for the settings in Bible stories. As it comes to The Chosen, I believe that this is because they believe that people like Jesus lived in reality, and so this means that every other character in the Bible ISN'T just a character, but they were very real people. If Jesus was real and these other people also existed in reality, then logically other things, things that were never mentioned in the Bible, also really happened. The Chosen is speculative on what these other things may be, but it never contradicts the true Biblical account. It gives a proper biblical exegesis. And so, it is actually there to support and undergird the inerrancy of the Bible, not as story but as reality.

But unlike The Chosen, Journey to Bethlehem is depicting things that couldn't have happened. It's a story. Clearly there was not a bunch of people singing and dancing in the biblical account of the nativity story, right? Right. Unless you count the angelic host giving glory to God at the birth of Christ, that is. So, there has to be a level of understanding and nuance for what art is that needs to take place in order to better understand why this film exists. And this needs to happen more in the church. Because we need to know that it's okay that we are depicting singing and dancing in this story, but not if there is twerking. Why? What's the difference? That's what we have to discuss.

We need to know, this is going to be happening a lot more in the future, and we need to understand why, and how we can continue to uphold biblical values while watching a film that is potentially inaccurate in many ways. So, not only can it help us to interpret and understand these things theologically, but also it can help us to discuss and think about what art is, its "purpose," and therefore, how to make better art, moving forward, understanding that inaccurate isn't always the flex we think it is, but maybe it's more about a certain kind of inaccurate.

Part 1: Why to Refrain From Seeing This Film
There is a very important aspect to this that I want to focus on, and many of the reviews I share here go into this in some detail, because there is "a line." An artist may seek to communicate their own struggles as a Christian with their faith, and may even bend some of the interpretive work as necessary, as this film does, in order to make a point. This is what Martin Scorcese did with The Last Temptation of Christ. But I think this film Journey goes too far in "inserting your own perspective into a story" without doing the requisite research to prevent from being completely incorrect in telling a story. This, to me, is crossing that line.

Films cost millions, and take years to write and research. The least you can do is hire a Jewish or Christian scholar to help you get certain facts right. Even watching other films that are more correct (because they at least bothered to hire these people) in order to gain a more accurate historical, cultural, and anthropological understanding of that society in history, could assist you in making a better film. Undoubtedly it will.

But, to me it feels like, listening to these reviewers, that the filmmakers wanted to make something anachronistic, and then sought to point the finger at the fact that this is "a fun musical" as the reason they got things wrong culturally, as though both couldn't exist in the same package.

So, let's delve into this a bit. Let me give you an example.

Personally, I think that, as a Christian, but also as an unashamed artist, I do not feel that you need sex scenes AT ALL in your films. It's not that they are prohibited, as a Christian. It's that they are actually not profitable to telling a good story. I'm sure maybe there is an exception to this "rule" and a Christian filmmaker will find it, one day. But I'm saying that I don't see how including a gratuitous sex scene can be profitable to making a film better, personally. On the contrary, a scene like that will likely just feel artificially inserted for the ignoble purpose of drawing the eye of the voyeur in the audience. So, it's for clicks, which is for money. And money for sex is not a Christian value because it cheapens an act meant for the private marital relationship.

No, there is not a sex scene in this film, but this same rule applies to this kind of inaccuracy present in this film. It is purely unprofitable to the gospel to do what they did. I say this is someone who hasn't seen the film, but I can't imagine a reason to "Disnify" (as they call it) the depictions of Mary & Joseph in a film. If anything we need some more "based" depictions of these two in films, not weak ones. Mary who radically gives of herself, and Joseph who radically protects her from public scrutiny, taking the cue from the angelic messenger of God. They lived in a radical faith to God, not in self-grandiosity.

Please don't misunderstand. I do understand that characters need arcs and this this may have been an attempt to give Mary and Joseph arcs to show their transformation and growth into the kinds of people we know them as, at least to some presumptive amount. But, if someone from this culture would not have done this, because this kind of career-girl desire wasn't "in the water" in this culture, we are again, only fooling ourselves. She may have had far more challenging difficulties, such as how to navigate a life of controversy and untraditional and anti-social prospects when she may have been the most traditional, uncontroversial, and socially dependent person ever. The career-girl boss narrative is, to me, far less interesting than being an early unplanned mother in a socially untraditional way, while following a God who maybe you thought was the most traditional deity, ever. Then having to tell your traditional fiancé knowing he could reject you for the rest of your life. If you're a filmmaker who thinks there's nothing to work with there, well I don't know what to tell you.

There's a lot to play with, but it gives the wrong idea to girls to make Mary a girl boss, and it gives the wrong idea to boys that Joseph was weak in this way. This is because it gives the wrong idea about giving of oneself sacrificially. It goes for the political power play, instead, to which so much art today feels that it must bow. This is a mistake.

Stop making men always look weak and woman look like career girls...

Artists ought to be boldly counter-culture, instead.

You discover this by understanding the purpose of art. This purpose is to challenge, inform, build awareness, communicate passion, and express beauty. But what this movie does, instead, is to "affirm" the popular culture, which is to (like a coward) tell the culture that "it is good" and "does not need to change" or learn from the real story of Mary and Joseph.

Then, why even make this film, if that's how you feel?

I think Marian Jacobs from Lorehaven agrees with me here.

As an artist your job is to beautify by enlightening. This actually means to challenge the failures (often the norms) of society today. And I don't know what you guys may believe, but the failure in popular culture today IS the girl boss, and the historical whitewashing of Christianity, which has been happening for decades.

Part 2: Why to See This Film
On the other hand, what I am seeing is that many who are sensitive to the arts and are very knowledgeable about the Bible have still managed to enjoy this film.

The YouTuber Now Let's Be Honest is one of these people.

I definitely respect his opinion, but I guess you could say that I am a bit more concerned about or aware of the political baggage of so much happening in media, where I think that many do not think that this is necessarily a problem in the arts currently. But what I do think is allowed is personal interpretation as an artist, including allowing new formulas, styles, and genres of art to take place, while not necessarily being that flexible with political opinions or relativistic philosophies getting artificially inserted into something labelled as Christian art. The girl boss trope is simply based in bad philosophy, period, and I can say now that I am well-enough informed on the subject to be able to say that definitively. There is nothing redeeming or beautifying about it. Inserting modern politics into a Bible story is, in my view, even worse. Not only can you expect it to be outdated in five years, as a tone deaf statement, but it will be inaccurate historically, philosophically, and theologically, with almost 100% chance of not being recoverable.

As it comes to politics and philosophy, I can see putting these modern ideas into a modern story, however, as helpful. In fact, I even think not including modern ideas into a modern story can be a hopeless effort in futility. This is exactly why I think that not including the philosophies and thinking of that time in history that you seek to depict (in a historical work) is likewise, futile. But by having modern ideas in a 1st century story, it eliminates these other more relevant ideas from the past, which removes all meaning of these 1st century situations and people. It is a literal exercise in erasing history. We ought to seek to understand the past instead, and this is not a futile endeavor. It is actually incredibly rewarding but it is not the fashion of the day, because appreciating history has become an exercise in conservatism, which has now become counter-culture.

Understand, that this is literally a statement about how Hollywood needs to be more conservative. But if you engage in a pure endeavor to understand history as it truly was, it is actually far, far more interesting and engaging than remaining unstained by your knowledge of the history. The more I study it the more interesting it becomes, frankly.

If you've ever seen David Helling's His Only Son, you can see a film that is far more accurate and sensitive to what the middle east is actually like than most Hollywood films today, and it shows. But even an American film from fifty years ago could be more accurate because our society was just more scholarly, studied, educated, and conservative than it is today. This means the character motivations will make more sense. I'm not saying that Journey makes no sense in this effort, but maybe just not as much.

We need more of this, though because this difference can change lives.

I think this is The Chosen Sleuth's opinion on this as well. This channel is run by Brandon Snipe of The Snipe Life, and he's a big defender of The Chosen, like me, as you may know, but he also takes issue with this film.

Fun is good. Entertainment is fine. But to embrace ignorance because you say it is funner, or more relevant politically is a big mistake. Not just for you as a filmmaker and artist, but as a person, and as a viewer. Think of the cumulative effects on society too, though. You might consciously realize that this is not accurate (and that's okay) but the 6-18 year olds that see it may have no idea whatsoever. They may literally think that Mary was a girl boss because of this film. Do not assume that this has no negative impact. Then you might realize that if it does have an impact, that impact could be enormous, and it could be because of you.

As a filmmaker, I take this very seriously.

What I want to see instead is a faithful depiction that may even be counter-culture to our time. Show the anti-bigotry message of Joseph. Show the anti-slavery message of Moses. Show the anti-sexist message of Esther. Show the anti-tyranny message of the Judges, the Exile, and the Kings. Show the anti-idolatry and anti-witchcraft message of Jezebel, of the Prophets, and the Kings. Show a lady who finds redemption in following the rules, instead of breaking them, in Ruth. These are often ignored themes in Bible stories, yet they are very clearly stated in the scriptures.

I think Dallas Jenkins from The Chosen is also trying to illuminate many of these themes that need to be discussed in more modern faith-based work, even while using a modern style, and I think he does this quite well in his show.

But in my view, we have no excuse to be ignorant of such important Biblical themes. My theory is that we are doing this, not because people don't care, but because the people who ought to be sharing these themes and caring about these themes (including pastors themselves) do not dig into them themselves and instead focus on what they think are modern philosophies in order to be more "relatable" to modern people. They have got it entirely backwards. As a result they are unremarkable, like everyone else in our modern time, and ought to be digging into the themes that remain eternally relevant. The ones God himself desires to teach us. If you're an artist, why (oh why) would you not want your film to be a modern classic, and relevant for the next 100 years? You need to dig into evergreen themes, then. Themes which never die, never grow old.

But if what these reviewers are saying is true, in my view this film will be forgotten in less than a few years. I could be wrong and I will be glad to be, but as it looks to me a fun song isn't enough to make a film like this enduring.

Did you enjoy this article? It's not a review, but it is a recommendation on how to analyze films for yourself, and we hope these kinds of talks elevate our movie watching! Let us know if we're wrong on our socials, or down below (with subscription).

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by Jon Croft

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