A Snake in the Manger

By Steve Beard

One of the memorable scenes in the quirky British comedy Love Actually is where Daisy (Lulu Popplewell) proudly tells her mother Karen (Emma Thompson) about her role in the Christmas play at school.

Daisy: I’m the lobster.

Karen: The lobster?

Daisy: Yeah.

Karen: In the nativity play?

Daisy: Yeah, “first” lobster.

Karen: There was more than one lobster present at the birth of Jesus?

Daisy: Duh!

The nativity play ends up being the climactic conclusion to the film. Not only is the lobster on stage, but she is joined by an octopus, a few penguins, Spiderman, and an assortment of other peculiar creatures.

That scene came to mind several years ago while I was visiting the set of The Nativity Story — a charming film about the birth of Christ. As we were checking out the cave-like location in Matera, Italy, for the manger scene, a five-foot black snake slithered through as though he owned the place.

As alarming as it seemed, it should not have been terribly shocking. Matera is an ancient city known for its neighborhoods that are literally carved out of rock. It is an ideal home for slinky, slithering, and creepy animals of all varieties — perhaps a little like Bethlehem.

Like a lobster (or Spiderman), a snake is an unlikely character for a nativity scene. Nevertheless, its appearance seemed strangely fitting to the incarnational reality of Christmas. After all, at the precipice of hope and redemption, evil lingers and looks for a way to corrupt. Sometimes we lose sight of that reality when we watch our cute Christmas pageants with shepherds wearing bathrobes, the Three Wisemen draped in silk kimonos, and the Virgin Mary lugging around a Cabbage Patch doll.

In reality, it is difficult to downplay the seemingly raw scandal involved with the birth of Christ; but somehow we have managed. Perhaps we have anesthetized the story’s sting, since it took place long ago and far away.

At Christmas, we properly celebrate the birth of Jesus. What we don’t dwell on is the horror that surrounds it. No matter how elaborate our nativity scenes may be, they seem to have the antiseptic cleanliness of the crosses that we wear as necklaces. Just like you don’t see blood stains on sterling silver jewelry, you don’t really get a sense of how Christmas may have been anxiety-ridden, unsanitized, and vile — a little like real life.

We don’t think about Herod ordering the infanticide of all little boys 2 years old and under after the Magi asked him about Jesus. With the slaughter of the innocents, Christmas ends up as gruesome as Good Friday.

We don’t think about Joseph’s dilemma in discovering that his fiancée was pregnant. Would she be stoned, as was the common practice? Would he divorce her? According to the law of that day, he would have been within his rights.

We don’t think about a frightened, unmarried teenage girl who has been told she will carry the son of God in her belly. How could she explain that to her family and friends—let alone to the man to whom she pledged her faithfulness?

We don’t think about an elderly religious man telling the teenage Mary, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul, too” (Luke 2:34—35). That’s a pretty heavy gothic trip for a young girl.

Christmas this year carried the dark shadow of the unspeakable horrors that took place in Newtown, Connecticut. Sad, terrifying, evil, tragic. They all seem like such understatements. Words seem to fail even the most eloquent when we look back on that day.

As Christians, we are not without hope. We rely upon the truth that God is with us. While that provides consolation, our hearts are devastated for the moms and dads that were never able to pick up their children from school. It is at desperate times such as these that words fail and tears flow.

The commentators are aplenty on TV, in the pages of the newspapers, posting up on FaceBook, and trending on Twitter. All of those words, and yet I’m not sure we come any closer to comprehending how something like this can occur. No one can be faulted for asking, “Why?” We have gone over the same philosophical and theological quandaries in the aftermath of too many of these tragedies. Those who wear the collar of the clergy are on hand, but there is very little that can be said that can bring comfort. Holding someone who weeps is perhaps the quintessential means of grace.

At the same time, we are reminded of the very finest of hearts in Newtown who were portraits of care and compassion. Teachers were the first responders, protecting and barricading children – one remarkable teacher held the face of each of her students and told them that she loved them in the event that those would be the last words they heard on this side of eternity. One recalls the words of Jesus, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). In those harrowing moments as gunshots bellowed through the halls, there were also loving hands of mercy and voices of grace and protection that spoke peace to terrified hearts.

As Christians, we follow the one who said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” At church on the Sunday following the tragedy, I was reminded of the power of that simple statement from Jesus as the little kids ran around underfoot in between services. And I thought of the Christmas musicals that would be taking place to reenact the coming of the Messiah. And I thought about the lobster and octopus and penguins and Spiderman from Love Actually. And then I thought about the manger scene on the movie set in Italy.

Even though a snake may slither through the manger, I was reminded that Christmas remains the only light sparked in a cave that can illuminate the human soul and bring peace in the midst of chaos.

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.

Reviving Demille: Bible on Screen

She captured America’s heart every week as the divine messenger with the lilting and soothing Irish accent on Touched by an Angel. He is the creative genius behind Survivor, The Apprentice, and The Voice. Together, Roma Downey and Mark Burnett are one of Hollywood’s most uniquely equipped married power couples.

Beginning March 3, you will be able to catch their latest ambitious venture on the History Channel. The Bible is a fabulously scripted five-part docudrama produced by Downey and Burnett after a 4 month location shoot in Morocco.

The 10-hour version of this Biblical epic was conceived after the husband and wife team watched the spectacular Ten Commandments by legendary filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille (1881-1959) for the first time since childhood. “Give me two pages of the Bible and I’ll give you a picture,” DeMille once said. With this new venture, Downey and Burnett have produced an entire photo album.

Steve Beard spoke with Roma Downey and Mark Burnett about their new project.


How did this become a project that you both wanted to do? 

Roma Downey: Well, that was a God thing. I believe we were called to do this, for such a time as this. We are at the fortunate place in our careers where we can choose projects that honor and are pleasing to God. And we joined forces, bringing our talents together and our faith and our love and it has been the most exciting and thrilling and humbling few years of our lives as we’ve brought this to light. And we are so excited because it’s within inches of being finally finished, Steve.

How do you go to the History Channel and make this pitch in a way that they’ve not heard it before?

Roma Downey: Well, if you were me, you would go and knock politely on the door and wait until you’re invited in. But if you were my husband, you would arrive and you would kick the door down. And you would just somehow go in there and present it in such a way that they absolutely knew they had to be part of it.

I love that. And Mark, how did you go about doing that? 

Mark Burnett: We heard of a documentary someone was going to make about the Bible that was asking why God is so mean to everybody and why would God flood the earth and kill everybody, why would God tell Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, et cetera, et cetera. Roma was so offended and she said to me, “You know, we should just do a Bible project on…” I said, “What, the whole Bible?” She said, “Yes, we should do that.” I said, “Roma, you’re crazy. There’s no way. Who do you think we are? Cecil B. DeMille?” She said, “Maybe. We should do this.” I said, “Roma, this is impossible, you know.” And she said, “Well, so was Survivor, so was The Voice. Why don’t we do this. We love the Bible, we love these stories, we believe.” And I said, “No, no, no, this is crazy.” And then a couple of days later I decided, you know, maybe she’s right, maybe I should listen to my wife.

We took a year and a half to think exactly how to present it in a way that would be impossible to say no to. There is an art form to how to present an idea in our business, to get someone to say yes.

Mark, you certainly know how to do that.

Mark Burnett: Yes, I’m probably the most experienced person in television at doing exactly that.

This obviously is much more serious than anything else we’ve ever done. But you have to decide upon what’s the entry point and what’s the three-line message? What is the story of God’s love for all of us? And realize that the worst thing you can present is like a rule book: Don’t do this, don’t do that — and in a dry kind of way. If you do it in a dry kind of way, why would someone want to see it on television?

If you want to do it on television, it better be a fresh visual, emotionally connecting way of presenting the sacred text. And I think that’s what we did. Rather than telling you the rules from the Bible, we tell stories and the moral underpinning and rules are evident in the stories of the interaction with the characters. And that’s what we’ve done. And it just took a while to figure out exactly how to do it.

Ten hours of television is nearly the equivalent of half a season. That is a gift-wrapped blessing in Hollywood. What stories did you tackle? 

Mark Burnett: They are not going to give us 100 hours, you know, which is what you’d need. So obviously, if you were approaching this as almost a Sunday school greatest hits, there’s certain things you’ve got to do, right?

What we outlined was Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Samson, Samuel, Saul, David. Then on to Zedekiah, which led nicely into Daniel and Cyrus and the releasing of the Jews from Babylon and Daniel’s dream about the coming of the Son of Man which was the entry point, naturally, into the New Testament. The New Testament is through the Gospels and then dealing with Stephen, his martyrdom, and dealing with Saul/Paul and on to Revelation.

As we were filming, we realized something had to give. Eventually the story we didn’t film was Joseph. It was Moses or Joseph and we had to do Moses. You just have to because of the parting of the Red Sea, the Ten Commandments and leading into Joshua, because otherwise, that’s the entry point of how you meet Joshua at Jericho. Obviously we wanted to do more, but that’s how we did it.

Roma, how much praying did you have to do through all of this because everything didn’t go as planned? I’ve got to assume there was all kinds of headaches. What was it like going through this process with your husband? 

Roma Downey: The fact that we have gotten through the project and we haven’t killed each other yet, I think, is a testimony to our faith. [laughter]

And our God is a good God. We had a few moments where the challenges were great. There were logistical challenges on the set. We filmed in Morocco. We were there from the beginning of February to the beginning of July. We crossed all seasons and all kinds of terrain and there were snakes and scorpions and there were casts of hundreds and herds of sheep and chariots and horses. You can imagine the endless things that might go wrong and they did go wrong, but ultimately I think the hand of God has been on the project from the beginning. We have great teams of people who have been praying with us and for us and in the way that the sea parted for Moses, unbelievably things just kept turning up for us and the right people kept arriving for us and things that we did not know how to do, suddenly somebody was there who did know how to do it. And even in terms of casting, we were challenged right up to the last minute with finding the actor who would play the role of Jesus for us, which was our singular most important cast member.

Very understandable. That’s one casting decision you want to have serious faith in. [laughter] 

Roma Downey:  We were just a month away from filming and we hadn’t found him yet. We were praying, we were looking for Jesus everywhere. And we had everyone we know praying for him. And then, he just remarkably showed up and he was the perfect actor and he brought all of the qualities that we were hoping this actor would have for this most important part. We cast a Portuguese actor called Diogo Morgado and he is simply sensational. He brings the qualities of the lion and the lamb to this role. And his natural charisma and his natural humility and his natural strength all come off the screen in this beautiful and authentic way. No one has ever played Jesus like this before and I think that his performance is going to touch the hearts of millions of people around the world.

That was a very key piece of casting for us. And there were other moments, too, where God just kept showing up.

One night we were filming a scene where Nicodemus asks Jesus about the kingdom of God and Jesus tells him that he, too, can see the kingdom of God – that he has to be born again of the Spirit. Nicodemus doesn’t fully understand what that means and Jesus describes to him how the Spirit can blow like the wind and it goes where it wishes. And suddenly, as if on cue, the most amazing wind on this very still night blew in through the camp as if God was saying, “Here I am, I’m right here.”

Everybody had hairs stand up on their arms and we all looked at each other in awe. And thankfully, the actors never broke concentration for a moment. And even though the trees were blowing behind them and the hair of the actor playing Jesus was blowing, they both held the moment and it’s just a fantastic moment on camera where it really felt like the Holy Spirit showed up. And there were numerous moments like that for us throughout the experience.

You filmed in Morocco. You’ve mentioned a Portuguese actor and a British actor. What was the international flavor of the rest of the cast? 

Roma Downey:  The cast is mostly made up of UK actors – English, Scottish, Welsh, and a good healthy sprinkling of Irish.

I love it. I’m a seventh generation Irishman in the United States so that warms my heart. [Laughter.] 

Roma Downey:  Oh, you are, really? So I have to tell you that King Saul is Irish. Our Moses is Irish. And I stepped myself into the role of Mother Mary. And as you know, I am Irish.

Splendid. I was going to ask if you crossed lines from co-producer to actress. 

Roma Downey: I hadn’t planned to play the part, but we had cast the younger Mary through the annunciation and through the Nativity – a beautiful young English actress. And we knew that we would have to find someone that would bear some resemblance 30 years later to the actress picking up that role through the mission of Jesus and then through the Passion of Jesus and so on.

Sounds like a perfect fit. 

Roma Downey:  Mark said to me, you know, of all these actors that we’re considering for the Mother Mary role, you actually look more like the young actress than any of them. Would you not consider playing it yourself? And I hadn’t really considered playing any part at that time. I had my producer’s hat firmly on my head, but I thought, well, I’ll pray on it. It was the right thing to do and I’m so glad that I did. It was just such a fantastic experience for me. I have loved Mary my whole life.

Oh, believe me, I’m a big fan of her’s as well. I’m glad you took the role. 

Roma Downey:  It was maybe through loving Mary that I really came to love Jesus. My own mother had died when I was a little girl and the role of Mary in my life became very much like a nurturing mother figure that I didn’t have.

I simply love that. Let me shift gears here. I think a lot of people would be surprised to discover that there is a very vibrant faith within the Hollywood zip code and in the creative world. 

Mark Burnett: Let me say that what we’ve done on this project is the best collective work of our entire careers. And that means everything from Roma’s incredible portrayal early in her career of “A Woman Named Jackie,” playing Jackie Onassis, as well as “Touched by an Angel,” “Survivor,” “The Apprentice,” “The Voice,” “Shark Tank,” the Emmys, all the things we’ve done. I don’t lightly say this, the Bible project is the best work we have ever been involved with or made.

That is quite a statement. Are people surprised to discover that the guy who created “Survivor” and “The Voice” is a Christian?

Mark Burnett: My answer is, why not? Why would you assume that because someone was really good at making commercial television they wouldn’t be a Christian? Why would that matter? You’d be pleasantly, happily surprised at the enormity of people of Christian faith within the creative community. That is not the challenge. The challenge is to actually get something about faith on television.

People are very quick to want to put shows on which call faith into question or shows that might say was Jesus married, was the parting of the Red Sea a phenomenon of nature, all these sort of shows are on TV that you’ve seen. Why would they do those? Because, I guess, they think it’s sensational and shocking. But when you want to make the story of God’s love for all of us, people are a little slower for whatever reason to buy into it. Well, we were called because we’ve got great credibility and people think we’re really good at our jobs and we got the opportunity and we’ve made it and we are really grateful to History Channel to seeing that and stepping up for us and with us. No one in our zip code in Hollywood will be surprised that Roma and I are Christians and have made this.

But I wanted to let you know how deep the community is and that many of us who choose to walk in the creative arts also have deep faith. And every now and then you get an opportunity to live that out in the project.

How do you hope the viewers who usually turn to the History Channel for “American Pickers” will experience your project on the Bible? 

Roma Downey: Well, the over arching embrace is of God’s love for us, it’s woven through every segment of the show, leading through, of course, to the New Testament, that He loved us so much that He sent His only Son to redeem us. So it’s a beautiful story of love and redemption. And it is our hope that the series goes out and that it touches people’s lives and that it is a great reminder that God loves them, and that it draws people back to the book itself, that they are reminded of how amazing our story is because it is our story, you know, we are those characters.

It’s as current today as it was when it was written. We all go through the same journey. The situations have changed but the feelings are the same, the challenges are the same, the hopes and dreams are the same. So it’s our story. They mirror us. There is such an opportunity here for the faithful, yes, but for people maybe who have never opened a book or who have never stepped inside of a church, but who will get to turn their television set on and see something like this. It’s just a very exciting prospect for the Kingdom.

I should say it is. Thank you both so very much for your time. 

Roma Downey: Good. We appreciate you. Thank you for your partnership on this, in helping us to spread the Good News.

Faith on the Chopping Block

I’m addicted to “Chopped,” the Food Network cooking competition where chefs battle with culinary wits and creativity. Contestants are given a scandalously brief amount of time to concoct a three course gourmet meal with mystery ingredients such as Swiss chard, red snapper, bubble gum, and Provolone cheese. Somehow, incongruity has to end up being tasty. After each course, dishes are evaluated by celebrity chefs and one contestant is chopped.

Aside from the $10,000 prize, contestants want to become Chopped Champion for the bragging rights or simply to garner the approval of their parents. The competition is fierce and cutthroat. Trash talking is encouraged and bloated egos are on display.

My favorite episode ended up being a cook-off between Lance Nitahara, the chef at Camp of the Woods Resort in the Adirondacks, and Yoanne Magris, a lovely French woman who wanted to win in order to visit her dying grandmother in France.

During one of the interviews, Lance winsomely talked about his faith. “Before God, I was a jerk. I was okay with stepping over people if I wanted,” he revealed. “But now, I’m able to do things with grace.” It was the first time I had heard someone mention their faith on the show.

During the second round, Yoanne slipped and fell carrying a pot of boiling water, scalding her legs. Amazingly, she completed her dish and went to the final round – against Lance. Afterwards, Nitahara asked her if she was alright and inquired about her ailing grandmother, displaying a rare moment of pastoral compassion on Chopped. “I’m so glad you made it to the last round,” Nitahara told his competitor as they awaited the final verdict. “I think you deserve to win. I really do.” “That’s not fair,” said Yoanne. “We both won, no matter the results.”

As they stood before the judges, Lance had edged out Yoanne by a whisker. As she began to walk away, Lance said, “Wait, I didn’t expect to win and so I wasn’t expecting to get the money. So, you know what? You deserve to see your grandmother. I am going to give you the ticket.”

Everyone on the set was flabbergasted. Never before had a victor shared the prize money. “Wow, what an experience,” Yoanne said after the show. “This was the most beautiful gift that someone can get and I will never forget it.”

Lance’s authentic testimony of grace found itself beautifully lived out on Chopped. “What I have discovered from my faith is that it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey,” Lance observed. “And today, the journey was great.”

Amen, brother. Amen.

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.