In recent years, faith-based films have seen a revival in both commercial success and artistic quality, as seen with box-office hits like “I Can Only Imagine” and “Jesus Revolution.” In general, the standard for these films remains modest, as the historically underserved Christian community is eager to support films that respectfully represent their faith and can be enjoyed by the whole family.
The Christmas film “Journey to Bethlehem,” from Sony's Affirm Films, the company behind “War Room” and “Big George Foreman,” was one of the most hotly-anticipated faith-based films of 2023. With a stellar cast that included Antonio Banderas and a slew of CCM stars, it promised to be a Nativity film like no other — a crossover of biblical narrative and modern musical elements.
However, despite its flashy imagery and catchy tunes, “Journey to Bethlehem” makes a crucial mistake: It prioritizes entertainment value over theological accuracy and struggles to balance its contemporary take with the essence of the greatest biblical story ever told.
Released in November, the film is directed and co-written by Adam Anders, the executive music producer for Glee and co-written by Peter Barsocchini, who wrote the scripts for the High School Musical movies.
It includes romance, family drama, and elaborate song and dance sequences, aiming to be a family-friendly Christmas musical. The film's cast features Lecrae as the angel Gabriel and Joel Smallbone from for King & Country and his wife, singer Moriah.
The film notably departs from the biblical narrative in the opening minutes: Mary, played by Fiona Palomo, is angry at her father because he’s insisting she marry an unknown man — when all she wants to do is become a teacher.
Though upset about her arranged marriage, she makes it clear to a young man who attempts to flirt with her at the market that she’s betrothed. The man continues to flirt with her, and he even buys her a fig, which she throws in his face.
As it turns out, the flirt is Joseph, something Mary finds out upon meeting him at their wedding. Angry that her betrothed flirted with a female stranger, Mary runs away from the wedding ceremony, pursued by Joseph. What follows is a rousing song-and-dance duet, “Can We Make This Work.”
Other examples of concerning deviations from Scripture include the overall silliness of the three Wise Men — they are used as comic relief throughout the film — and the flippant treatment the Angel Gabriel is given.
After hitting his head on the doorway, Gabriel goofily agonizes over how to give Mary the news of her unborn child, rehearsing his announcement before waking her up (something that also is played for laughs). Yet, angels are shown respect and reverence in the Bible due to their role as messengers of God. When Gabriel appears to Mary and Zechariah in the Gospels, they respond with awe and respect.
"Journey to Bethlehem" also opts for a lighter overall narrative, notably omitting the harsher aspects of the Nativity story, such as Herod's massacre of the innocents. Herod is depicted as a cartoonish villain, with one of the catchiest song-and-dance numbers in the movie: “Mine is the kingdom! Mine is the power! Mine is the glory forever more!” he sings.
In a particularly unfortunate deviation from Scripture, in the end, it’s Herod’s son, Antipater (Smallbone), who lets Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus go after discovering them in the stable, despite his father’s orders.
Anders, a professing Christian, said he sought divine guidance on when to stay true to Scripture and when to fill in the gaps with imagination.
“I wanted people to know the filmmaker believes this is true,” he said. “So watching it from that point of view is really important for me. But I look at all the great paintings that the great artists have done throughout the history of the Nativity scene that are not biblically accurate, but we've accepted it as beautiful, and it's their artistic interpretation, it's symbolism. And I felt like, if they could have that creative license, then at times I could as well.”
“Journey to Bethlehem” does make a valiant effort to drive home the beauty of the Nativity story: Jesus Christ came to Earth to save broken and lost souls in need of a Savior.
But that profoundly hopeful message is largely overshadowed by concerning liberties with Scripture and modern notions of self-actualization that reflect current cultural values rather than biblical truths. Christian audiences, even those eager to support "faith-based films," deserve better.