Culture at Christmas
2 min read

Making a song and dance about the nativity

A pedigree musical producer’s passion project casts a Hollywood prince in the role of Holy Land rock star regent. Krish Kandiah reviews the results.

Krish is a social entrepreneur partnering across civil society, faith communities, government and philanthropy, He founded The Sanctuary Foundation.

An angry monarch in a red breastplate and crown seethes towards the camera.
Antonio Banderas as King Herod.

It’s a teen drama. It’s a musical. It’s a classic good vs evil conflict. It’s a comedy. It’s a film. It’s a Christmas movie.  

All six are rolled into one in the brilliant film, recently released, called Journey to Bethlehem

Faith Palomo and Milo Mannheim star as teenagers Mary and Joseph, whose worlds collide with a turn of events that don’t at all match the plans they had for life and love and relationships.  

In comes Lecrae, the American rapper, playing the Angel Gabriel – an unexpected visitor with some unexpected news given in a most unexpected way.  

Meanwhile King Herod, played as a rock star regent by Antonio Banderas, can’t sleep. He is plagued by nightmares, and his biggest nightmare is about to come true when he receives news that his throne is under threat.  

Three Persian Kings, a prince, a donkey, a star and a baby are about to make matters a whole lot worse for him – but better for everyone else. Unless, that is, King Herod’s soldiers can get to Bethlehem first.  

In the middle of a global refugee crisis we are reminded that Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus have to pack all their belongings and flee Israel and head to the safety of Egypt. 

The ancient storyline is pitch perfect for a musical makeover and who better to produce it than the director behind Glee, High School Musical 3, and Camp Rock and who has written songs for Miley Cyrus, The Back Street Boys and The Jonas Brothers and Pink. Adam Anders is a lifelong committed Christian and has been planning this movie with his wife for 17 years, hoping that they could make it a hit with people of all faiths and none.  

Having watched the movie, I am pretty sure he has been successful. This week I hosted a special online schools’ event with Adam Anders, inspiring thousands of children across the UK to explore their musical gifts. He explained to them why he made the film:  

“There are so many amazing movies that are colourful celebration musicals for the whole family at Christmas, but they don’t tell the story of Christmas. Santa is not why we celebrate Christmas.  We got to make this family movie that everyone is going to love with great music, song and dance. I have children and I made it for them.” 

The film doesn’t hold back from looking at some of the tough issues: in the middle of a global refugee crisis we are reminded that Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus have to pack all their belongings and flee Israel and head to the safety of Egypt. We are drawn into the challenges of being brought up in a patriarchal society and the societal expectations on young Mary to get married whatever her own ambitions and hopes might have been. We meet a megalomaniac dictator willing to kill children in order to have his way.  
But at the heart of the film is the love story, “Mary and Joseph are the original Romeo and Juliet.” says Anders. “And that makes for a brilliant story with opportunities for some brilliant songs.”  

I wholeheartedly recommend “Journey to Bethlehem”. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll jump. You’ll gasp. You’ll wonder. You’ll want to watch it over and over.  

Culture at Christmas
4 min read

It really is a wonderful life

Jon Kuhrt gives his three reasons why everyone should watch It’s a Wonderful Life this Christmas.

Jon Kuhrt is CEO of Hope into Action, a homelessness charity. He is a former government adviser on how faith groups address rough sleeping.

A man stands one side of a bank counter while others, on the other side, look hopefully at him.

In my view,  It’s a Wonderful Life is not the best Christmas film ever. It is simply the best film ever, full stop. 

Released in 1946, the film focuses on the life of a man called George Bailey who lives in the small town of Bedford Falls. As a young man, George intends to “shake off the dust of this crumby little town” and get away to see the world and achieve great things. Yet through tragedy and his own sense of responsibility, he ends up spending his entire life in Bedford Falls running the building cooperative that his late father established. 

He sacrifices a lot. He ends up giving the college money he has saved to his younger brother so he can go to university instead of him. During the depression he and his new wife give their honeymoon funds to keep the Building & Loan bank going. All the time he battles against the richest and most ruthless businessman in town, Henry Potter, who is determined to build his business empire at everyone else’s expense. 

The film focuses on a Christmas Eve where George stands accused of fraud and faces scandal and jail. It’s all too much for him – the lost dreams, the feeling of insignificance and the heavy burdens he has carried for so long – crash in on him. Drunk and alone, he finds himself on a bridge, wishing he had never been born and preparing to commit suicide. 

Yet at this lowest ebb, salvation comes. Through the visit of an angel, George is enabled to see what would have happened if he had never lived. He sees the impact that his life has had on so many people and on the whole town. He realises what a wonderful life he has had. 

The film has a basic, raw message about living right. Our cynical age tells us that there is no point in trying to change things. But this is not true.

So why is it such a great film? 

I love this film so much that, rather embarrassingly, I bought the DVD of it for my best friend two Christmases in a row. The main reason is because it has given me inspiration in my life and work. 

Why? I think it’s for the following three reasons. 

It’s realistic about the hardship of life. Mainly due to the final scene many now perceive it as quite a sentimental film, but when it was released, it was not popular because it was considered too dark. It’s because the film depicts the struggles that many ordinary people face – such as debt, low self-esteem and feelings of insignificance. 

Also, in the character of Henry Potter, it sharply criticises the greed and self-interest of money-makers who don’t care about people. Henry Potter acts within the law but does not care about how people are affected by his money making. Profit overrides everything else. 

In standing up to Potter, George Bailey is ‘sticking it to the Man’ and this is costly and tough. The renewal of community does not come without resistance against the powerful forces of greed and self-interest. 

It shows that how we live does make a difference to the world. George Bailey’s life makes a massive difference to his town. Through unglamorous dedication he helps hundreds of people escape Potter’s slum housing and own their own homes. His bravery and leadership builds up his community and offers dignity and hope to others. 

The film has a basic, raw message about living right. Our cynical age tells us that there is no point in trying to change things. But this is not true – we can make a difference if we have courage and commitment. George Bailey’s life shows the importance of how we live and the choices we make – we will invest simply in profits or will we invest in people? 

But the key thing is that we will never really know the difference we are making. It’s a mystery beyond what we can grasp. We cannot avoid the need to have faith. 

It’s about the love and grace of God. The opening scenes of It’s a Wonderful Life commences with George’s friends and family saying prayers for him because they know he is in trouble. And at the end of the film, with their prayers answered, together all of George’s friends sing ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’. 

People who want to make a positive difference in our broken world don’t need lofty idealism or utopian dreams of naive optimism.

It’s significant that the film starts with prayers and then ends with a hymn – because essentially, it’s all about grace, redemption and salvation. 

Too often words like this simply sound like religious jargon – as if they just refer to ‘getting into heaven when we die.’ But this is a damaging misunderstanding. Salvation is needed now – people are desperate in the face of meaninglessness, low self-esteem and suicidal thoughts. Also, people need redeeming from lives of greed and selfishness. Jesus meets people in these needs – he both comforts those who are disturbed – and also disturbs those who are comfortable. 

God’s love and grace comes to us in the midst of real issues. This is the core message of Christmas: that God became human, in history. He came to earth to share the real struggles that humanity faces and to conquer them with his redeeming love. 

People who want to make a positive difference in our broken world don’t need lofty idealism or utopian dreams of naive optimism. We know how damaged the world and its people are. But whether you are Christian or not, we all need inspiration, encouragement and hope to make a difference. And this is where It’s a Wonderful Life works a treat.