As a general rule, the earlier Jesus films used to include the nativity - although DeMille's The King of Kings is a notable exception, and this seems to run up as far as Monty Python's Life of Brian in 1979. Most of these films, however, would feel a little dated to most congregations. The one possible exception here is Jesus of Nazareth from 1977, but in fact the nativity scene for this production is almosy an hour and a half.
This leads me on to another grouping of potential nativity videos - those films that look solely at this story. In this category we, of course, have The Nativity Story. This is modern and reasonable enough to show - indeed when it was released we did a special screening with our church - but it too is an hour and a half - too long for a clip in a service. The same is also true of Godard's Hail Mary, though I suspect that the nudity in this film would put it beyond reach for most churches also. One useful option for summarising longer films is to show one of the trailers, although this works better when the story / film isn't so well known to begin with.
Modern films about Jesus have tended to avoid the events of the first Christmas. On the one hand as audiences get more secular there's a greater interest in the teaching and example of Jesus, but not so much in the incarnation, with it's sceptic unfriendly virgin birth. Interestingly on the other hand there is also less interest in the incarnation - the salvific impact of which tends to be underplayed in protestantism - in favour of a greater emphasis on Jesus' atoning sacrifice. Two notable exceptions here are the Miracle Maker and Jesus (1999). Both these films tell the story via a flashback which gets around the narrative awkwardness of starting a story with Jesus as a baby and then having to jump to his life as an adult. In theory these could work - and The Miracle Maker is leading the field for a clip for our Christingle service on Sunday - but because they are flashbacks they can only give a very limited angle of things, or at least they choose to.
Speaking of The Miracle Maker, a third area to look at it children's cartoons. There are a number of options here, but for British audiences there is a further problem - American accents. It may seem churlish to cite this, but it is a barrier for many congregations. I'm reassured by the fact that I know many North Americans find it equally unhelpful when Jesus iflms employ very British accents. But this and lower production values do for productions such as Charlton Heston's Greatest Heroes and Legends of the Bible. I've yet to make it all the way through The New Testament Stories: A King is Born, but my hopes aren't high.
A fourth area is what Barnes Tatum might call the alternative trajectory - those films which take a somewhat alternative take on the story. This could include films who look primarily at the life of one of Jesus' parents such as Mary the Mother of Jesus, or Joseph of Nazareth, or even a camel as in The Fourth King. But it also includes modernisations such as Jezile (Son of Man) and The King. Mary is too long, Joseph might be more suitable. I might have a closer look at that one today. Jezile would be a little tooabas a clip, though it is a very powerful retelling of the nativity, particuarly the slaughter of the innocents. The King, though, will suit some settings, and as it's three ten minute films which runs into one, it works well for a congregational setting. The whoel point of The Fourth King is that he never (knowingly) gets to Jesus, but serves him anyway, but this obviously discounts this from most church contexts. And whilst Liverpool Nativity works well enough as live TV, I'm not sure how well it works in other contexts.
All of which leaves us with YouTube. There are a couple of interesting takes, but there is so much poor quality material out there that wading through it all would take a lifetime. This five minute telling is well thought of, but I must admit I've never made it all the way through. I do like this 30 second take though which won a contest run last year by the Churches Advertising Network.
So all in all, there's not much to chose from, but a few possibilites. I hope this helps anyone trying to do a similar thing.
On a related note, last year I wrote a piece looking at 6 nativity films for The Reader magazine which is now available to view online (page 17). I looked at Hail Mary, The King, Jesus of Nazareth, Joseph of Nazareth, The Nativity Story and The Fourth King
Labels: Nativity - Mary Joseph