Faith-based movies have been enjoying something of a renaissance lately—gaining ground not only in commercial viability but also in artistic credibility. To be sure, the bar has been low. Most of these movies are still not great; they’re just better than what we’ve come to expect.
Sadly, the faith-based genre’s latest holiday movie sets the genre back—considerably. Journey to Bethlehem might still find an audience, in part because of thin competition due to the ongoing actors’ strike. But even for audiences looking for feel-good family fare at the multiplex, Journey will likely be disappointing. And for critics like me who have long advocated for more faith-based entertainment that doesn’t leave audiences cringing, Journey isn’t just disappointing; it’s demoralizing.
‘High School Musical’ Meets the Manger
It’s easy to imagine the pitch meeting for Journey to Bethlehem (distributed by Sony’s Affirm Films):
Picture the nativity story done in the teen musical style of Glee or High School Musical. There’s romance, family tension, a flashy villain, supernatural angel visitations, comic relief (a sort of three-stooges rendering of the Magi), and spectacularly choreographed song and dance numbers! It’s a “Christmas musical adventure for the entire family.”
With the Christmas story already so tied in our cultural imagination to music and theatrical performance (concerts of carols, extravagantly produced church cantatas), the green-lighting of a fresh musical take on Jesus’s birth isn’t hard to understand.
Journey has other marketing distinctives going for it too. The film’s cast includes CCM stars in lead roles (rapper Lecrae plays the angel Gabriel, and For King & Country’s Joel Smallbone plays Antipater, Herod’s firstborn son). An Oscar nominee plays Herod (Antonio Banderas). The film is directed and cowritten by Adam Anders, a Grammy-nominated music producer who most famously worked as executive music producer for Glee. His cowriter is Peter Barsocchini, who wrote the scripts for the High School Musical movies.
The narrative and musical masterminds of High School Musical and Glee plus a few CCM big names plus the greatest source material of all time (the Bible). With a recipe like this, what could go wrong?
Jesus and Jazz Hands
Journey’s problem is the same one that plagues the over-the-top church Christmas pageants abounding in megachurches during December.
Often, the addition of dramatic green and red lighting, ornate choreography, theatrical maximalism, and Bob Fosse razzle-dazzle doesn’t enhance the marvelous mystery of Christ’s incarnation; it diminishes it. This well-intentioned outreach to invite people into the biblical story by means of showy entertainment often has the adverse effect of reducing an expansive, world-altering, mind-blowing, magnum mysterium to just another piece of amusing “content” to cozily consume (and perhaps vaguely be inspired by) during the holiday season, in between eggnog lattes and The Great British Baking Show.
A truly meaningful “journey” to Bethlehem would need to jarringly transport us out of the holiday hustle in all its loud consumerism and overscheduled reverie—taking us to a more contemplative place outside of time, far from the familiar, and above the plane of everyday clutter and kitsch.
Cinema has the power to do this, and faith-based filmmakers are right to pursue this transcendent potential. But Journey doesn’t offer audiences an escape from the noise of contemporary culture into an encounter with sacred truth. Rather, it adds to the noise—and at great decibels.
Anachronisms and Muted Darkness
Aside from period costumes and sets, and vague audience awareness that the story unfolding on-screen is supposedly set 2,000 years ago, much in Journey reverberates with 21st-century Western values.
I doubt there were female soldiers in Herod’s royal palace guard, for example, but there are in this movie. Because representation matters! And I doubt Jewish girls in first-century Palestine said things like “Faith is believing what you know in your heart to be true,” but they say things like that in this movie. Because follow your heart!
Journey doesn’t offer audiences an escape from the noise of contemporary culture into an encounter with sacred truth. Rather, it adds to the noise—and at great decibels.
In the same way that anachronistic pop music in Baz Luhrmann films (Elvis, Moulin Rouge) reflexively reinforces the movie’s artifice—essentially excusing the film (and the audience) from a commitment to historical verisimilitude—the anachronistic feel of Journey distances us from the real biblical events it ostensibly depicts.
From their first “meet-cute” scene in a street market to their requisite “falling in love” ballad (“Can We Make This Work”) to their together-into-the-sunset departure, Mary and Joseph (played by Fiona Palomo and Milo Manheim) are essentially following a Hallmark holiday rom-com script. Their personal dreams and aspirations (Mary dreams of becoming a teacher, for example) are at odds with the realities pushing them together into a history-altering union they didn’t seek out. Still, they find love and embrace an unforeseen future together, in a sweet, crowd-pleasing way.
Speaking of crowd-pleasing, the movie omits a key part of the nativity story that’s decidedly not family friendly: Herod’s massacre of the innocents (Matt. 2:16–18). We do see Mary, Joseph, and Jesus take off in a wagon at the end, but they’re bathed in golden-hour light with smiles on their faces. We’re left with the catchy, pulsating lyrics of a feel-good finale song, “Brand New Life,” as the movie ends. It’s a far cry from the “refugee king” drama and “great mourning” that characterizes the account in Matthew’s Gospel (2:13–18).
Yes, the nativity story is hopeful, joyful, and uplifting. But it’s a hope and joy that lifts us up because the starting place is so bleak. The hope is more thrilling because the world is weary. The light illuminates so strikingly because it shines in the darkness (John 1:5).
Light Shining in Deep Darkness
The darkness is fairly muted in Journey to Bethlehem. The film is merry and bright from start to finish (even Herod’s villain power anthem, “Good to Be King,” is a fun, flamboyant romp), such that the arrival of Christ feels less like like a shocking intrusion of light into the terrible darkness and more like a dimmer switch turning up the brightness a bit in an already lit room.
Glittering Christmas spectacles like Journey remind me why one of my regular December disappointments is a church’s Christmas Eve candlelight service that happens with the house lights still on, only dimmed. The point of a candlelight moment is that the starting point is complete, frightening darkness, such that the lighting of the first candle—and then from there, every candle in the room—visually enacts the light overcoming the darkness. The potency of the imagery is lost when the starting point is an already lit room.
The same is true of Christian art—whether music, movies, novels, or visual works. If the goal is to give audiences a glimpse of the all-surpassing hope of Christ and the overflowing abundance of God’s love, it’s hard to do this in a limited register of warm tones, major chords, and good vibes only.
If the goal is to give audiences a glimpse of the all-surpassing hope of Christ and the overflowing abundance of God’s love, it’s hard to do this in a limited register of warm tones, major chords, and good vibes only.
The torrent of abundance is more glorious when we’ve felt the scourge of scarcity. If we’re trying to communicate the message of a vivid, jolting intrusion of a great light into the darkness (Isa. 9:2), it’s hard to do this in a medium where darkness is downplayed or contained within the safety of a Disney-style cartoonish villain.
Is the movie musical a genre like this? Not necessarily. There are plenty of examples that grapple honestly with real darkness and gritty human suffering, yet still entertain and inspire audiences to hope (e.g., Les Misérables). But it’s tricky to pull off, and a Christian artist adapting the Bible to the form of a theatrical movie musical should tread carefully.
Medium and Message
Beyond movies like Journey to Bethlehem, it’s always valuable for Christians to remember how vital medium is in the effective communication of a message. We see this in the various “messages” given to characters within Scripture’s nativity account. God’s message for Mary in Luke 1:26–38 would have landed differently had he chosen to communicate it through a human messenger rather than a supernatural angel messenger (Gabriel). The medium mattered.
Same with the shepherds in Luke 2:8–20. Had God simply sent another shepherd along with the message of “good news of great joy,” it might not have been taken seriously. The medium God chose—a fearsome angel and “a multitude of the heavenly host”—mattered. And of course, the incarnation itself proves the point. God didn’t take the form of a ghostly apparition or some sort of alien creature. He took the form of a human man—the Word made flesh (John 1:14). The medium mattered.
In the same way, let’s consider the medium as we go about ministry and Christian storytelling. Is a smartphone app an acceptable medium for a church service? Is Twitter a fruitful medium for theological discourse? Is a movie musical an effective genre for communicating biblical truth? While it might be a stretch to say the answer is a definitive no in each of these examples, it’s not a stretch to say we should at least be asking the questions.