This week, my husband and I saw Journey to Bethlehem. My sole purpose was to write a review from my perspective of what I saw. I had heard pre-release rumors of troubling scenes that disturbed the sensibilities of some Christian (Catholic) viewers. Not willing to take someone else’s opinion as gospel (pun intended), I decided to make my own ‘journey’ to the local theater.
I will begin by stating that if you are a person who will suspend reality and objective biblical truth in order to enjoy a thoroughly delightful movie from a cinematic and musical perspective, this article is likely not the article you are looking for. I found from the earliest moments in the film that biblically objective truth was either lacking or modified so as to no longer represent Sacred Scripture. I tried to keep in mind that the film was produced by non-Catholics. Even so, it puzzled me that there would be such straying from the Bible that Evangelicals typically embrace. That said, here are some of my observations.
In the first part of the film, we see Mary in opposition to her father, Joachim. Joachim is depicted as forcing his daughter into marriage, and Mary is upset about being promised in marriage to a man she does not know. [NOTE: arranged marriages were common at that point in history.] She also states that she wants to choose her own husband because of love, not duty. In the process, she is made to appear verbally defiant and not honoring her father, breaking one of the Ten Commandments; she would have been fully aware it was a sin. That attitude is definitely not in keeping with one who in Catholic discernment was preserved without sin.
Mary also expresses her desire to be a teacher instead of just a wife, which is a nod to the current generation’s ideology of ‘finding oneself’ as a woman via a career path. In the first production number, Mary sings to her sisters and friends her dismay at being forced into marriage with all its drudgery, chores and children. Meanwhile, the other women sing of the merits of finding a man. By the end of the song, Mary seems to be somewhat, though not completely, convinced that it may not be all that bad.
This whole portrayal of what a woman should desire is less in keeping with that era and more in line with the 21st Century notion that a woman who is dedicated to home and family is not living up to her potential. It reflects today’s woman, rather than one in Christ’s time and in Jewish culture. So, it gives a skewed historical perspective of womanhood, the marriage vocation, and motherhood during that time. And keep in mind: there is no evidence of Mary’s defiance toward her parents in Sacred Scripture or Sacred Tradition.
One support of Mary accepting her vocation comes from an outside, but well-regarded, writing: “The Protoevangelium of St. James.” This sacred writing was likely in existence as early as 150 AD and gives more information on the upbringing of Mary, her marriage to Joseph, the meaning of her virginity, and the birth of Jesus. Although not canonized in Sacred Scripture, the Protoevangelium is highly regarded as part of Catholic Tradition, and over 130 copies have been discovered. According to this sacred writing, Mary was raised from the early age of three in the Temple. At her twelfth year, the priests decide she should return home to prepare for marriage. It seems that Mary would have been well-aware of her path and vocation. This is another reason the defiance she exhibits in Journey to Bethlehem is not likely to have happened.
Another minor point is that Mary, again in song, states that there is nothing in her blood of royalty. Strange, since both Mary and Joseph had blood lines via King David.
Sidebar: all of the music, particularly the production pieces, are reminiscent of a Disney musical, complete with Mary and the cast rollicking about in typical choreography---a real disconnect for me. But of course, if connection with an audience desiring ‘entertainment’ was the goal, the movie succeeded.
The next bothersome portrayal was that of Joseph. We find Joseph in the marketplace at the same time as Mary, neither of whom being aware that the other was their intended betrothed. Joseph begins to flirt, even stalk, as he pursues Mary at the market. There are clever exchanges between the two. However, it is clear that Joseph, one who is promised to another, is eyeing Mary in a less than platonic way. Even after Mary states that she is betrothed, Joseph continues his pursuit to gain her attention.
To what end, who knows? We cannot see into the mind of anyone, and even less that of a fictionally portrayed character in a movie. What is disturbing about this portrayal is Joseph’s lack of faithfulness and self-control. Do we really believe that Joseph, a man hand-picked by God to be the foster-father of Jesus and guardian of Mary, would behave in this manner while he was betrothed to her? Again, this is pure speculation with no basis in Sacred Scripture, and portrays more of a modernist ‘boys will be boys’ idea. Once Joseph and Mary meet at their betrothal party, they both voice in song their doubts for this union. Keep in mind, Joseph’s doubt was supposed to have happened after the Annunciation. The pregnancy isn’t even an issue yet.
The next problematic depiction is of the Angel Gabriel and the Annunciation. He is shown pining and rehearsing over and over just how to break it to Mary that she is to be the mother of the Son of God. He appears to think it is too incredulous a story to tell her. This is an Archangel of God, empowered to announce God’s will to men, and the film has just made him uneasy with God’s providence. C’mon! And, here I thought all of THOSE angels were cast out of Heaven with Satan. Silly me. Of course, the message from the Angel is well documented in Scripture. Still, the writers found it necessary to paraphrase his Annunciation, thus watering it down.
But even more problematic is that Mary never gave her fiat in the film. No Magnificat. No statement, ‘Be it done unto me according to thy word.’ In other words, the audience is never clued in that this was a DECISION of acceptance, not a task foisted upon her without her consent. If that were the case, the message of Christ’s birth just became diminished. It would mean that a dictatorial God forced the pregnancy upon Mary without her consent. So, here is the film-Mary, having not given her consent, trying to convince her parents of this situation. Keep in mind, these are the parents who throughout her life believed God had set her apart for something of significance. Hence her childhood upbringing in the Temple. Here is that big event staring Joachim and Anne right in the face, and they completely forget about their belief in God's plan for Mary’s life. Hmmm…
Another strange scene: Joseph, in the dream that is supposed to disclose to him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, has an argument with himself over the dilemma. Literally, there are two Joseph’s arguing for and against the union. Then a fully veiled Mary sitting on the floor in the dream suddenly has the veil removed and she mouths the words of the angel in voice-over style in the middle of Joseph’s dream. The angel’s voice, Mary mouthing the words. Truly odd.
Another false depiction in Journey to Bethlehem is Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth. First, when Mary and Elizabeth see each other, there is no account of John the Baptist leaping in his mother’s womb. And Elizabeth makes no statement to Mary asking why the mother of her Lord would come to her. I can see why a Protestant endeavor might wish to avoid this portion of Scripture. After all, it is part of the basis for the Dogma of Mary as the Mother of God. I wonder if the writers pondered this important exclamation from Elizabeth and thought, “Nope. Can’t go there.” But omitting it made the Visitation account quite hollow. It is the in utero recognition by John the Baptist of the in utero Jesus, and the recognition of Mary as the Mother of God by Elizabeth that begin to herald the Son of God’s entry into the world. This is of great importance to the story of the birth of Christ, and the omission created a huge void in the movie.
Now for Herod. We are falsely shown that Herod sends his son to find this pregnant woman whose child will be King. If he can’t, the movie-Herod instructs his son, he is to kill every pregnant woman and baby he can find. This allusion to the murdering of the Holy Innocents is way out of context and placement in the movie’s timeline of Sacred Scripture. Then the film gives a foreshadowing of the writer’s intent to feature Herod’s son as a compassionate soul who would play a prominent role at the birth of Jesus. More on this later. But in this scene, he talks Herod into complying with the census sought by Caesar Augustus in order to find the woman, instead of killing all the pregnant women. Compassionate Son reining in Crazy King. Yeah, that happened…not!
Then we are witness to a fabricated scenario of a pregnant Mary as a fugitive from the authorities. Yes, you read that correctly. Apparently, the writers believe that Herod knew about the Prophecy in advance of the Wise Men and sought to kill Mary. We see Joseph traveling the long distance to the home of Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, and coming to Mary’s rescue. He says the authorities are looking for an unmarried woman with child. Mary states that Herod must know the Prophecy and wants the child. This is inconsistent with what we read in the Bible; Herod did not know there was a significant occurrence until well after the birth of Jesus, as you will see further into this article.
The soldiers arrive at Zechariah and Elizabeth’s home, but are led to believe Mary isn’t there by Elizabeth. Hostile attack on Mary thwarted. Joseph thinks the way to protect Mary is to escape with her. Joseph tells Mary that he had a dream and Herod’s soldiers were in it. Mary’s solution is to get married because the soldiers are looking for a single pregnant woman. And so, Mary proposes to Joseph…UGH! Another insertion of a 21st Century notion on how a modern woman might take the initiative. Subsequently, Mary and Joseph are married by a then-mute Zechariah, who conducts the ceremony with hand motions. Would that even suffice in an ancient Jewish wedding ceremony? A bit later, the couple is off to Bethlehem to begrudgingly comply with the census.
In the Bethlehem scene, we see Joseph frantically going door to door to find a place for Mary, who is about to deliver. This is an interesting way to handle that there was no room at the inn, especially since we do not see Joseph approach an inn for that knowledge. Yet somehow, they are then in an outdoor area that must have represented a stable. One comical scene reminiscent of Balaam was that the donkey Mary rode upon saved her from being found while Joseph looked for a room. He literally charged then knocked over a soldier. Good donkey. Shrek would be proud.
The next point has to do with the various components of the shepherds, the choir of angels, the Magi, and all the surrounding area near Bethlehem. The movie shows Herod seeing the star prior to the birth of Jesus, and prior to the Magi disclosing their quest. The Magi in their wisdom saw the sign of the star, and began to follow it; Herod is not mentioned with any reference to seeing and reacting to the star in the biblical account. The Magi did not appear before Herod until after the birth. In fact, the Bible states that they came to visit the Holy Family in a home (Matthew 2:11), not a stable manger. Some scholars place the Magi in Bethlehem when Christ was a toddler. Matthew 2:1-12 gives us an indication that the Magi were not at the birth. For Herod to have foreknowledge prior to the Magi is not plausible.
The craziest notion in the Magi scene at Herod’s palace is that in another Disneyesque production number, the Magi offer the gifts meant for the child (Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh) to Herod. And in describing the gifts in this and another scene, Myrrh is not disclosed as a burial oil but instead as an all-purpose spice that can be used for many things. Apparently, not for burial.
Getting back to the movie depiction of the birth, not only is Herod affected by the brightness of the star, but all of Jerusalem as well. It is shown to be an event of great magnitude to the whole of the region, with the blinding brightness affecting everyone. I guess just not enough to venture to the birth to see what all the hubbub was about. In reality, no one saw the star in Jerusalem according to Matthew 2:3, where we read that both Herod and all of Jerusalem was troubled by this previously unknown news brought by the Magi…after the birth. In fact, in Matthew 2:7 Herod had to ask the Magi the time of the Star’s appearance. He obviously had not seen it. And yet, there it is in the film…Herod knew! Way too much creative license.
Then, there are the angels who appear to the shepherds. In the biblical account, the shepherds alone are visited by the angels. We do not see in the biblical passage that they saw the star. In fact, the purpose of the angels was to announce the birth of the Savior to the humble shepherds, the very type of people for whom Christ came. However, at the time of the birth, the movie shows an incredible flash of light that all saw, including Herod. Again, this is difficult to square with the Scriptures.
Finally, at the manger we see Herod’s son and soldiers burst upon the Holy Family in the stable. He somehow seems to intuitively know Joseph is not the father of Jesus. How convenient. Here, the film gives Herod’s son a huge role in protecting Mary from his father’s plan of killing her and the child. He instructs the soldiers to give them safe passage out of Bethlehem. Herod’s son then proceeds to tell them to leave for the safety of the boy. Gee, I thought it was Joseph’s dream that warned him of pending doom. But, wait. Suddenly, Joseph discloses to Mary that he had a dream. O.K., at least they squeezed it in there.
There are scenes of the family leaving for Egypt, kisses exchanged between Mary and Joseph as newlyweds, and an adorable toddler Jesus with his family in Egypt. All’s well that ends well. Jesus is born. The family makes it to Egypt. Yet this Journey to Bethlehem was an intellectually dishonest one.
I am certain I may have missed other finer points. Let’s face it, sitting in a theater scribbling notes in the dark (much of the cinematography was dark) which even for me were difficult to decipher later is not the optimum way to prepare a movie review. However, it is safe to say that with what I saw, the film bears little resemblance to what we know to be true from Sacred Scriptures. In the end, it appears that the makers of Journey to Bethlehem fail to correctly share any verses or passages. And the worst of it is how Mary is disrespected and misrepresented. Again, non-Catholic film maker; not surprising. Complete understanding of Mary, Mother of God escapes the non-Catholic world. Still, once again I will state my confusion that such a film which lacks clarity of Sacred Scripture would be written and produced by non-Catholics, who have always valued the importance of the Bible.
We need to be careful as Catholic believers not to give too much leeway for poetic and artistic license with regards to sacred things surrounding our Lord, Jesus Christ and His mother. Our Faith ultimately is about the objective Truth found in Sacred Scriptures and Sacred Tradition. This film throws all of that out the window, with a song and a dance and (symbolically) a wink and a nod.