I went to the press preview screening of the BBC/Red Planet series The Nativity at the end of October. The good news is that it is wonderful television. And it opens up an astonishing evangelistic opportunity for us.
My main message is that we can commend it to every church as something they can recommend with total confidence to their congregations and (even more importantly) those with whom they are in touch beyond their churches.
It's in four episodes that will be broadcast on BBC1 in middle of the evening in the week leading up to Christmas Eve. And it is going to do more to promote Christian faith in this country than all the sermons of the year put together. It is that good!
Churches need to be geared up to the fact that their major opportunity to present the gospel this year may not be at a carol service held on Sunday 19 December (which will be before the series has been broadcast) but on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day (when I anticipate that people who have watched the series may want to come to church looking to find out what it all means for them).
Basically the serial tells the stories as they have been handed down to us with straightforward acceptance of them as true. It fills out the back-story with motivations and emotions in order to make it entirely credible. Admittedly, it does incorporate two thousand years of tradition that has gathered around the story (for example, there is a donkey, Mary ends up in blue, all the characters end up squashed in a stable, and so on). But the fact that it declares that this baby is going to save humankind from its sins is so overpowering that all the embellishments become part of the credibility, not distracting.
It is not just moving, it is funny (very), believable (totally), sexy (yes!), tense and profoundly full of the grace of God. And the awe of God too - the writer Tony Jordan has worked a miracle. Half way through each episode the camera pans back way out into the cosmos, and you hear deep groans, as if something tremendously significant is happening in both heaven and earth. And it ends with a declaration that because of this birth, the salvation of humankind is on its way. Then you hear the voice of the adult Jesus reciting the Beatitudes.
I started crying half way through the third episode (when Mary's father, who doesn't even exist in the Bible version, stands by his daughter even though she is in disgrace). And by the end of episode four (when ... actually, I don't want to spoil it) I was drowning. Fact! So was everyone.
At the preview they interviewed Tony Jordan (creator of Life on Mars and writer of Eastenders). He said: ‘I’ve always had a faith. I’m not a God-botherer … But I do believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God. I do believe he came here to take away our sins. I absolutely believe that. But there’s loads of little bits around it that bug me. So what I’ve done with the story of the nativity is written a version that I can believe.
‘And I believe that the people who watch it who aren’t already sold, who would ridicule another version with square beards, [will find that] I’ve made it accessible. So they can watch it and see it’s truthful, and say, “You know what! That’s really cool. I never realised it could be like that. I thought it was all beyond me.” … Watch it, believe it, invest in it, and sob like a child.’
I did. You will.