Hazel McHaffie

The Gospels

Wishing you a thought-provoking and happy Christmas!

Christmas week! Looks like it’ll be a white one at that, too. (Funny how that prospect has rather lost its sparkle this year.)

But as I mess about with the usual preparations, thoughts keep turning to the reason for the season. So my blog ought to reflect that.

I guess it all dates back to October. Camels in MoroccoThen, visiting Morocco, I felt as if I was walking through a film-set during a Biblical epic. I even wrote notes at the time to accompany photos, so strongly evocative were they of familiar scenes from the New Testament.Moroccan woman in her home in the Atlas MountainsAnd recently, with Christmas very much in mind, I’ve been sharing reflections with friends about the sense I had that Moroccan cities, villages and landscapes, dress and customs, are so much closer to the kind of life Mary, Joseph and Jesus would have known, than anything we in the UK take as the norm today.

Well, it looks like someone else got the same feel. This week the BBC has been showing a four-part drama, The Nativity. And where has it been filmed? In Morocco! I’ve just finished watching the last in the series.

My interest was piqued originally by two articles in The Daily Telegraph on Saturday. The first was a rather touching piece by Olly Grant in the Review pages. As he says, the fact that the BBC is showing a Bible story on prime time feels ‘like something of a miracle,’ given the decline in religious programmes over the year, and all the talk of political correctness and discrimination, etc etc etc. And the second was an interview with the screenwriter, Tony Jordan, who didn’t believe the gospel story three years ago when he began working on the play, but now does.

Well, The Nativity wasn’t ever your average religious programme. And what’s more, the author set out quite deliberately to make a film that would ‘reach beyond the “God Channel” fringe’. So he framed the story in a way that would bypass the usual scepticism about angel visitations and virgin births, and instead unravel a young couple’s relationship in a meaningful way – a ‘marriage in meltdown’. As he says, we may know that Joseph and Mary were caught up in an incredible event, but they didn’t. How did these happenings affect them?

He has researched his subject thoroughly, and been remarkably faithful to the gospel accounts. Having said that, only two of the gospels mention the nativity at all, and those that do (Matthew and Luke) devote a mere 120 verses to the subject. So there’s not a lot of material to go on; lots of room for the imagination to manoeuvre then. But Jordan has created a narrative that challenges the viewer to look again at the impact of these events … on a young woman who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant at a time and in a place where adulteresses were stoned to death; on her devastated parents; on a man who feels betrayed by his promised wife; on his family; on a debt-ridden shepherd … I for one see no harm in a little speculative artistic licence if it provokes healthy challenge and helps us engage with the big questions, though others beg to differ.

Jordan’s aim was for those who have a faith, to have it reinforced; and for those who haven’t, to think: ‘Wow, I don’t know … maybe …’ I suspect that there are hundreds of clergy this week wanting exactly that. But they don’t all have Morocco as their backdrop, prime time TV as their conduit, or key figures being converted along the way.

For me personally, though, this approach has an extra allure. It’s trying to combine entertainment and authenticity with emotional and intellectual challenge. Much as I’m trying to do with medical ethics. Would that I had their publicity machine and audience ratings! Maybe a word in the ear of Tony Jordan …?

But in the meantime, Happy Christmas, everyone!

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