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I had high hopes for “The Nativity Story.” While there were a few moments worthy of praise, I have to say that this film was disappointing.

I won’t waste time quibbling over historical discrepancies in this adaptation. After all, the best moments of this movie are the awkward conversations between Mary and Joseph as they undertake the arduous journey to Bethlehem We have no idea if any such moments happened, and yet there is still a ring of authenticity to these scenes.

And I don’t even want to rant about the cheesy special effects and the heavily sentimental soundtrack that only detract from the story instead of enhancing it. And the intended comic relief of the three wise men–I don’t think the story of the nativity is one that benefits from a little levity.

But the biggest flaws in this “Nativity” stems from a desire to to be so reverential in its depiction of Christ’s birth that the humanity of the story is often lost in translation. When Jesus’ birth is backlit like something out of a Broadway musical, it seems to only distance the audience from this miracle.

The realness of this story comes in moments like when Joseph is struggling with the news that his new bride is pregnant, and he then asks God for a sign that this pregnancy is of supernatural means but gets no response. In that moment the audience is brought closer to the genuine drama of this historical event.

As Hollywood continues to try to understand the success of “The Passion” and attempts to reach the faithful moviegoers of America, I think they are overlooking the obvious. Part of “The Passion’s” success was because Gibson realized that the gospel is on one level, full of mystery; and on another level, it is a story that is meant to be found offensive by some.

“The Nativity” manages to challenge no one’s thinking and offers very little in the way of spiritual mystery. So maybe it is not such a mystery after all why so many Christians failed to show up at the theater last weekend.

If you care about spirituality, go see “The Nativity Story.” Much of the film is more understated and muted than the typical church Christmas celebration and may challenge some of the holier-than-thou notions we have of some of the Biblical characters. It film also lacks Santa Clause, reindeer and any remnant of snow. But it’s the most accurate cultural telling of the story we’ve had since “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” and stays true to the Biblical record for the most part.

I also liked it because it’s a rare, meaningful film that will be highly valuable for families and teens. As Mary is told of her betrothal to Joseph, she is confronted by the fact that she doesn’t have a hand in choosing. “You are to consider him your husband in all ways,” her father says, but she must wait on the issue of “that which leads to family.” Mary storms off, in a way that seems natural for a teenager but unnatural for the icon we know as Mary, The Mother of Jesus.

She’s not only a frustrated teen but also an anxious one when she miraculously becomes pregnant. “Are you frightened?” asks her cousin Elizabeth. “Yes,” she says with candor and clarity. “Elizabeth, why is it me God has asked? I am nothing,” Mary says.

Pastors and priests have sermonized and homilied for years, trying to emphasize how embarrassing it must have been for Mary and Joseph when she was found to be pregnant. But I think the visual image of the bashful Mary and the humiliation and disappointment of Joseph will get through even to the current ( and somewhat permissive) American audience.

She gains courage, of course, from both the angel and the promise of a sign from Elizabeth. Her parents are unimpressed. “Elizabeth has a baby,” Mary offers, “even in her old age.”

“Elizabeth has a husband,” replies her dad. Mary’s mother says, “They could stone you in the streets.”

“Father,” Mary says as respectfully as she can, “I have broken no vow … I have told the truth. Whether you believe is your choice, not mine.”

Such it is for all of us, regarding the Christ child. And such it is that “The Nativity Story” is a must for all who desire to learn about the role of Christ in their own spiritual journey.

First, there is the news that religious groups are feeling pressure about not pulling their support for “The Nativity Story” based on lead actress Keisha Castle-Hughes being pregnant out of wedlock. Then comes the news that Rick Warren, author of “The Purpose-Driven Life” and pastor of Saddleback Community Church, is receiving complaints from evangelicals for inviting Sen. Barack Obama to speak at his church.

There used to be a time when the spiritual journey and politics weren’t inexorably linked. And there was a time when acting was just acting, and actors had their own personal lives separate from their work.

I miss the clarity.

If a young woman gets the high honor of playing the part of Mary–and if the movie tells the wonderful story of “The Birth”–I don’t see why a church or religious groups should need to boycott the story of Jesus because of activities in the personal life of Castle-Hughes. Christian groups didn’t support the movie or pick the cast, but they sure should be allowed to support the story!

As for Rick Warren’s issue, I think evangelicals and others in the Christian Church should be careful: When they start criticizing the author of the best-selling religious book (aside from the Bible) in all of history for inviting a probable presidential candidate to discuss solutions to AIDS, they run the risk of becoming the very pharisees that missed the story of Jesus the first time around.

“Our goal has been to put people together who normally won’t even speak to each other,” said Saddleback in a statement, according to the Associated Press. “We do not expect all participants in the summit discussion to agree with all of our evangelical beliefs … the HIV/AIDS pandemic cannot be fought by evangelicals alone [and] will take the cooperation of all–government, business, NGOs and the church.”

I’m going to order tapes of Obama, and I’m going to take my kids to see “The Nativity Story,” and hope that doesn’t get me in trouble with my church friends!

“The Nativity Story,” director Catherine Hardwicke’s film version of the Gospel stories of Jesus’ birth, had its world premiere on Sunday at the Vatican. (It opens in the U.S. this week.) Some 7,000 people, including Hardwicke and several high-ranking cardinals, attended the showing–but not Pope Benedict XVI or Keisha Castle-Hughes, the 16-year-old Australian actress who plays Jesus’ mother, Mary.

As it turns out, Keisha, like Mary in the Gospels, is pregnant out of wedlock. But unlike Jesus, who was conceived by divine power while Mary remained a virgin, Keisha’s unborn baby has an all-too-human father, her 19-year-old boyfriend, Bradley Hull. So the reports started flying that the spectacle of a high-school-age, obviously non-virgin Mary had proved too much for the pope.

The U.K. Guardian reported that a disapproving Benedict had boycotted the Vatican premiere. The Detroit Free Press reported rumors that Keisha had been dropped from the invitation list by offended Vatican officials. There were even suggestions that scandalized Catholics and evangelical Christians planned to stay home from the movie after the news of Keisha’s pregnancy broke in October.

At this point, Bill Donohue, the never-word-mincing president of the Catholic League for Religious, jumped into the fray, accusing the media of cooking up the stories that Benedict had refused to see the movie and Keisha had been shunned. “Despite what some think, Christians do not turn their backs on unwed mothers: They provide services for them,” an inflamed Donohue wrote in a press release.

Donohue was undoubtedly right about the pope’s reasons for his no-show. The Nov. 26 premier of “The Nativity Story” took place less than 48 hours before Benedict’s highly publicized trip to Turkey, which was fraught with uncertainty until the last minute because of security concerns. As for whether Keisha Castle-Hughes was dropped from the Vatican’s invitation list on account of her pregnancy (or told it would be a good idea not to appear), we’ll probably never know what really happened.

The New York Times, however, reported a statement by Keisha’s publicist that she was busy working on another movie–and who doesn’t trust the New York Times? Furthermore, both the Catholic and the evangelical media remain positive about the movie, as does the secular press. Consider this Nov. 29 headline in Australia’s Herald Sun: “Pregnant Actor ‘Great Virgin.”

— Charlotte Allen