The Naivete

Hard on the heals of Ruth Gledhill’s solid endorsement
of the BBC series ‘The Nativity’, it became required viewing in the
Ellis household. And, I have to say, it was good: lots of little
side stories about the shepherds, who we would encounter later, and
also some humour which made a pleasant change, for Biblical epics
are usually stolid, serious affairs with a whey-faced Jesus staring
piously from the television screen at us miserable sinners. So all
seemed to bode well, and I wondered whether this series would leave
us strangely and paradoxically proud of
our Faith as did ‘Rev’ when
it was shown. Sad to relate, as good as it was, like all other such
attempts to portray theological truths through the media the last
episode left me strangely unsatisfied. It was time to examine
myself! Why is it that, from the ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’
through ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ to ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ ( who can
ever see Robert Powell as other than Jesus?) these big screen
dalliances with the Christian Faith seem to always miss the mark?
Why couldn’t I just sit back and enjoy the secular media trying to
be nice about us for once? After my in-depth examination of myself,
I concluded that it was simple: the Bible just wasn’t meant to be
televised or filmed, it wasn’t written as a script, it is a far
more subtle set of documents than that and, in truth, any attempts
to capture the great mysteries and truths by actors in a
cinematic way renders the resulting portrayals prosaic, lacking in
depth and mystery. Let me take just one, very common, example which
was repeated in The Nativity: the story about Mary being ‘a virgin’
was told straight, with no interpretation or nuance. Now, as we all
know, great theologians throughout the centuries have argued to and
fro as to whether the Bible is suggesting that Mary was a physical
virgin or whether she was ‘a young woman of marriageable age’,
which is one of many other, quite legitimate, takes on the matter
(I don’t want to go into it all in great detail and get all Bishop
David Jenkins about it but one salient question is: if Joseph had
nothing to do with the conception of Jesus why is Jesus’s family
line traced through Joseph at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel,
for instance?). Similar difficulties accompany any attempts to
portray the mystery and meaning of the Resurrection. The
reality is that the Gospel writer wasn’t trying to express
historical truths in a purely mechanical way, more he was exploring
a divine mystery to do with Christ expressing divine perfection
indwelling humanity and the co-existence in him of the fullness of
what God is and the fullness of what humanity is. Now the question
is: how do you express that on prime time television through the
medium of film? Answer: you can’t, or, indeed, it’s very difficult.
Amazingly, the times when a Producer seems to have pulled it off
are those times when we have seen fit to ban their efforts. ‘The
Last Temptation of Christ’ for me was superb in depicting a
believable Jesus and something of the inner struggles he underwent.
‘The Life of Brian’, although not about Jesus at all, is unequalled
in challenging our rather superficial beliefs about Christ and our
low-level promotion of him to a world hungry for reality and
meaning rather than fantasy and truisms. But there was one success:
in the early 1970s, I went to see Godspell at the Roundhouse in London: all the
characters were clowns, and David Essex as Jesus was the chief
clown. The production did what the Gospels themselves do: it opened
up the stories without interpretation, and then left us to inhabit
the spaces left…to bring to the stories our own understandings,
needs, strugglings and insights. In short, it didn’t fix the
stories of Jesus in aspic but made them living, organically growing
and forever evolving revelations of the powerful mystery that lies
in, behind and beyond human existence. The Nativity story is not a
piece of long dead history that is nice to remember at emotional
times like Christmas, it is a dynamic, living myth which informs
and supports our lives today and into the future and assures us
that our existence is purposeful and hopeful. Now that, for me, is
truly a merry Christmas wish.

Have a wonderful yuletide, with lots
of fun and laughter and enjoy the mystery that cannot be described
but can only be seen in the fresh born child of


~ by Tim Ellis on December 23, 2010.

3 Responses to “The Naivete”

  1. Absolutely agree regarding dramatisation of the Bible, it has never worked well. It’s a living document of course, but I’m not sure that Godspell did Christianity any favours in the way that you suggest.

    Happy Christmas to all!

    Mark Jeffs

  2. Tim

    A great post. I agree with your take on the media and faith. it’s impossible for media to communicate the mystical element within religious or spiritual experience. Having said that I loved the BBC’s The Passion with James Nesbitt as a Northern Irish Pontious Pilate. Brilliant.

    I am an irish spiritual author exiled to the town of Lincoln, just down the road from you. I’m also a great Dylan and Van Morrison fan so we may have something in common. We could meet up for a drink someday in 2011 if you ever get a day off.

    I blog on christian mysticism at and my soon to be published autobiography ‘The Prodigal Prophet’ can be presently read for free at

    Keep up the good work and If the Divine wills it may our paths cross on the way back to Abba.

  3. I loved the Nativity right up until the stable… suddenly all the dialogue and drama vanished, as if when the great moment came, once again it was impossible to televise. I can’t help wondering whether it seemed a lot more ordinary on the day, and the significance that was loaded onto it later is impossible to capture in a moment in time.

    good post, thank you!

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