I admit it. I’m a bit of a fan of Christmas movies. It doesn’t fall as low Hallmark, but put on a classic Christmas show I’ll make the popcorn. As a kid and now with children of my own I love sitting down and watching the snowfall and a Christmas tune and trying to take in the smell of pine and fir trees through the tv screen.
Home Alone, the Grinch, and A Christmas Carol are perennial favourites in our house. Even a Harry Potter Christmas scene is enough to take me in.
At this time of year, everyone is churning out new seasonal Christmas movies. Among the most anticipated Christmas movies for 2021 is ‘A boy called Christmas’. The movie features a lineup of British actors including Maggie Smith, Jim Broadbent and Toby Jones.
I haven’t seen the movie yet, but the trailer certainly caught my attention. First of all, ‘A boy called Christmas’ has all the hallmarks of another half-decent, fun viewing, film for families. It has the right amount of snow and pretty lights and elves and Christmas jargon to draw us into the story being told.
But if the movie is anything like the messaging that’s promoted in the trailer, ‘A boy called Christmas’ deserves an eye roll the size of Hollywood.
Covered with enough sugar dusted on top to make it all sweet, the story projects a couple of myths about Christmas.
Before I dare follow the well-trodden path of the Grinch and criticise anything connected with Christmas, let’s keep in mind that this new version of the origins of Christmas is fantasy and fiction; the producers and writers aren’t pretending otherwise. Nevertheless, ‘A boy called Christmas’, reinforces (as truth) two myths that are perpetually bouncing around our culture today.
First of all, Maggie Smith’s character makes a claim as she tells a group of children the story of Christmas,
“Long ago nobody knew about Christmas. It started with a boy called Nicholas.”
Ummm….no. There was once a man named Nicholas. He lived in the 4th Century AD and served as a Christian Bishop in the city of Myra (located in what is today, Turkey). But Christmas didn’t start with him, nor was it about him. In fact, one can pretty much guarantee that Nicholas would be appalled by any suggestion that he invented Christmas.
The event that we know as Christmas today certainly started with a boy, but his name wasn’t Nicholas; it was Jesus.
It’s worthwhile separating the day on the calendar called Christmas and the original event it is honouring. By Christmas, I’m not referring to the public holiday or to December 25th, but to the event that changed the world and which the world has sought fit to mark with a celebration every year in December. In fact, while Christians have always believed and held onto the birth of Jesus as a crucial step in God’s plan of redemption, no one celebrated a day called Christmas for hundreds of years.
I realise the name kind of gives it away, but in case we’re unsure, Christmas has something to do with Christ. Indeed, it has everything to do with the Christ. Christ of course is the Greek noun for the Hebrew name, Messiah. It’s a title that denotes ruler and anointed King. Christ is God’s promised ruler who will receive a Kingdom that will never end, fade, or perish.
“The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.” (John 4:25—26)
“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well.” (1 John 5:1)
This first faux pas from ‘A boy called Christmas’ is forgivable, in the same way, Narnia and Dr Seuss aren’t given to us as history or sacred writ, but please make sure our kids realise this is the case. It is this next line from the movie trailer (which presumably features as a motif) that is nothing short of inane. A young Nicholas is given this advice,
‘Things only exist if you really believe in them!’
What a stupid thing to say! Does gravity only work when we believe it exists? Is Mount Everest only real because it has been seen and climbed? Do I cease to exist because most people on the planet have never heard my name or seen my face?
The advice, as insipid as it is, is however true to form. The movie is mimicking the way we are now trained to think and make choices and choose beliefs today. In Western culture, truth is no longer truth. Truth is your truth. Truth is the set of ideas that you preference and want to hold onto for meaning and guidance in life. One of the startling consequences of this is that we now live in a post-science age. For example, biology no longer determines reality, what matters is how you feel inside. Whether the issue is vaccines or climate change or a host of important issues, the scientific task is often considered little more than an instrument used to promote various socio-political agendas.
In a similar fashion, history has succumbed to revisionist keyboards, where events are rewritten and retouched according to a priori commitments to identify politics and other prevalent social preferences.
Here’s my advice, don’t learn theology from Netflix. Don’t use Hollywood as a history book or as a manual for learning about God, or pretty much anything for that matter. I guess this advice is kind of obvious, and many of us not only agree but respond with a rather dull ‘duh’. However, perhaps we underestimate the extent to which movies and tv shows influence the way we think about issues and the way these mediums inform our understanding of history and world events.
Movies are successful, not only because of their entertainment value, but because of the ways they both mirror the culture and change the culture. Hollywood, Netflix and Stan each echo the clarion call from our academic institutions and leading social activists. They are today’s poets and preachers, both teaching and enticing us to adopt new ways of thinking and living. Movies are designed to recalibrate attitudes and even to normalise ideas that are not yet embraced by our neighbours.
The real story of Christmas exceeds Netflix’s best attempts. It is more powerful and stunning and dangerous and wonderful than the best of fantasy writers, except the Biblical story is true.
The birth of Jesus is not a fact of history because I choose to believe. I believe because the events are historical and because they speak of wonders that are too good to ignore.
The Bible (yes, that ancient book which is supposedly unreliable and bad for your health), says some pretty startling things about belief and what is true and the great existential dilemmas.
The Bible authors insist on recording history with accuracy. The Bible writers also provided an explanation for the meaning of these events. Historians do not doubt the birth of Jesus Christ, and historians do not deny that the Bible is the earliest and most reliable source for retelling the circumstances of His birth, and life, death, and resurrection. Of course, some of the details are astonishing, for example, the presence of angels and the virgin birth. But this is the point, amidst seemingly ordinary history, such as the birth of a child, there was something extraordinary taking place.
In 2014 (note: this was said before the pandemic), historian Dr John Dickson went on the front foot to expose the view that real historians doubt the historicity of Jesus’s birth. He said,
controversial enough to get media attention. They have just enough doctors, or doctors in training, among them to establish a kind of “plausible deniability.” But anyone who dips into the thousands of secular monographs and journal articles on the historical Jesus will quickly discover that mythicists are regarded by 99.9% of the scholarly community as complete “outliers,” the fringe of the fringe. And when mainstream scholars attempt to call their bluff, the mythicists, just like the anti-vaccinationists, cry “Conspiracy!”
Christianity isn’t true because we choose to believe. We believe in this Jesus Christ because he is proven true and we trust him with all life because he is demonstrably good and efficacious.
So yes, I’m looking forward to watching ‘A boy called Christmas’, but kids please don’t get your theology from Hollywood. Parents, it’s okay to let your children enjoy these Christmas movies, but take a moment and explain to them that these are fun but untrue stories, and the real story is better than any fiction.
I thank God that the advice given to Nicholas isn’t true. Think about it, what a burden to carry if truth and reality were dependent on my understanding and adherence. I thank God truth doesn’t come from within. Thank God truth doesn’t depend on me believing it to be so.
Christmas didn’t not with some boy named Nicholas, but with God sending his one and only son into the world. He didn’t hide away in a toy factory. He didn’t hand out bicycles, lego, dolls, X-boxes, and puppy dogs wrapped in colourful paper. He laid down his life for us. As the book of Romans testifies about the Christ,
“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
The incarnation (that is, God the Son becoming human) is inescapable. The imprint of Jesus coming not only remains at Christmas but is all around us today. As we follow this Jesus we gain the greatest gift that no Christmas tree can hold or no toy factory manufacture: Peace with God, the forgiveness of sin, and eternal life.