An Unexpected Nativity Story

DECEMBER 2008: AS WE SEE IT

by Anthony B. Robinson

My nominee for a Christmas movie probably won’t make any lists. It doesn’t reprise the biblical account like Nativity Story. It isn’t a sentimental favorite like It’s a Wonderful Life. Nor does it provide seasonal guffaws like Home Alone.

Still, I don’t recall ever seeing a more powerful depiction of awed adoration of a newborn child than in director Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men.

Cuaron’s film is based on the novel of the same title by English writer P.D. James. The year is 2027. The place is a grim, gray Britain. The world is a chaos of terror, violence and social collapse. Early in the film a newscaster reports, “The siege of Seattle is in its 1,000th day.” Against this backdrop, the plot is set by a single terrible fact: No child has been born on Earth since 2009. For 18 years, human beings have been infertile.

The central character, Theo, played by Clive Owen, is kidnapped by a terrorist immigrant rights group who wants him to help a young African woman named Kee. Only after he’s involved does Theo learn what’s extraordinary about Kee: she is pregnant. Theo’s task is to get Kee to a group called The Human Project, whose members are trying to figure out why human beings are no longer able to conceive children. Kee and her baby may hold the answer.

There’s nothing Christmassy about Children of Men. No snow or carols, no happy homes or gifts under the tree. And yet it is perhaps the most powerful contemporary retelling of the Nativity story I recall.

Was Children of Men intended to be a version of the Nativity story? There’s nothing overt to say so. And yet the film opened on Christmas Day 2006. It doesn’t take too much imagination to see Kee as a terrified Mary and Theo as Joseph, pressed into service against his better judgment in a situation he did not chose.

Miriam, Kee’s companion and nurse, is reminiscent of Mary’s older cousin, Elizabeth. Two old people, Jasper (Michael Caine) and his wheelchair-bound wife, might be Simeon and Anna, elderly prophet and prophetess in Luke’s account of Christ’s birth.

Still, allegory-like parallels between the biblical story and movie are not really the point. Nor are they what spoke so powerfully to me. Rather, it was the terrible contrast between a violent, brutal world and the innocence and promise of a child. That mankind has grown accustomed to life without children, to death, makes a baby’s cry a kind of revelation.

The scene of adoration unfolds in the midst of a gunbattle between terrorists and state security forces. As Theo tries to get Kee and her baby out of a building under siege, the baby begins to wail. Everyone stops. Soldiers and terrorists alike lower their guns. Some fall to their knees. Others reach out to touch the child as if touching pure light. At the same time we are reminded of the miracle that is the birth of every child and of what the birth of a savior might really look and feel like in a world so deeply shattered by violence and marked by fear.

For those who imagine such a world to be far from the original, I suggest reading the rest of the story, particularly Matthew 2:12-23. There King Herod sends his men to kill all the Hebrew boys less than two-years old in hopes of getting Jesus. Warned in a dream to flee, Joseph gathers his tiny family and runs for Egypt.

Children of Men raises many issues: the fear of immigrants, who are shown everywhere in open-air cages; the impact of terrorism as a cafe where Theo has just gotten coffee is bombed; and the vast chasm between rich and poor. Most of all it shows us a world dead to the spiritual dimension as symbolized by the child.

Shortly after the child is born, a policeman intrudes roughly upon Kee and Theo. He demands to see what Kee shelters beneath her blanket on a soiled mattress. When he sees the child’s face, the stunned man swears, “Jesus Christ… Jesus Christ.” Still, you can’t help but think that a deeper truth is spoken.

If you tire of Christmas sentimentality, drummer boys and singing chipmunks, I recommend Children of Men. I suspect it may be closer to the original Christmas story than our more predictable and saccharine fare.

This essay originally appeared on December 21, 2007, in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Used by permission.

Anthony B. Robinson’s most recent book is Changing the Conversation: A Third Way for Congregations(Eerdmans, 2008). He is now teaching at Emmanuel College in the University of Toronto.