‘Journey to Bethlehem’: Affirm’s Nativity Musical Takes Liberties to Make the Bible Sing and Dance

‘Journey to Bethlehem’: Affirm’s Nativity Musical Takes Liberties to Make the Bible Sing and Dance November 4, 2023

A young man and woman in Biblical attire.
(L-R) Milo Manheim, Fiona Palomo in ‘Journey to Bethlehem’/Affirm Films

If you want a faithful retelling of the Biblical Nativity story, Journey to Bethlehem is not for you. But, director Adam Anders says that it may be for those believers willing to suspend disbelief, or even for unbelievers.

What Is Journey to Bethlehem?

Hitting theaters on Nov. 10, Journey to Bethlehem is the second swing at the Nativity from Affirm Films, the faith-based arm of Sony Pictures. The first was the animated feature The Star in 2017 (I wrote about it here). Directed by Catholic Tim Reckart, it told the story from the point of view of the animals, particularly Mary’s donkey.

Journey to Bethlehem is a live-action, full-on musical, with songs and dance numbers. The donkey is still there, but this time, we’re focusing on the flirty love story of Mary and Joseph.

The antagonists are King Herod (an eyeliner-wearing Antonio Banderas, chewing scenery for all he’s worth) and his conflicted eldest son, Herod Antipater (For King & Country band member Joel Smallbone) — who is NOT Herod Antipas, that guy who cut off John the Baptist’s head. That’s one of Herod’s younger sons.

Frankly, I didn’t quite get the distinction between Herod Antipater vs. Herod Antipas while watching.

Things That Puzzled Me About Journey to Bethlehem

Along with the Herod thing, I also missed a couple of major moments in Mary’s story — most notably her fiat.  So, when I sat down to talk to director Adam Anders — also a co-writer (with Peter Barsocchini), and co-composer (with wife Nikki Anders and Peer Astrom) — I asked about that.

He had explanations for both apparent omissions, which I suspect wouldn’t stand out much for non-Catholic Christians but will definitely catch with Catholics.

While we cleared up the issue regarding which son of Herod is which, there’s still quite a bit of liberty taken with Herod Antipater and any role he may (or may not) have played in the Nativity.

The depictions of Mary and Joseph, and the emphasis on the romance between them, will also give Catholics pause. But our separated brethren have different beliefs about their marriage — for example, that Mary and Joseph had other children after Jesus’ birth — so what might bother us is likely no big deal for them.

How Much Biblical Fidelity Do You Want in a Musical?

On the other hand, it’s a musical. People have been arguing since 1970 about the depiction of Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar, but it still remains a compelling version of one of the Gospels (and the songs were great).

The music in Journey to Bethlehem is catchy and pretty good, and the depiction of the Wise Men is genuinely funny. The theological issues will go over kids’ heads. But, if the screening audience I was with is any measure, youngsters will likely be engaged.

So, Catholics — especially parents — are going to have to decide whether they’re willing to sacrifice Biblical authenticity for Christmas-themed entertainment that doesn’t, for once, focus on Santa Claus, elves and presents (or merely use the holiday as backdrop for a rom-com).

Here’s my full interview with Anders, in which you can hear his reasons for the creative license he took:

Image: (L-R) Milo Manheim, Fiona Palomo in ‘Journey to Bethlehem’/Affirm Films

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About Kate O'Hare
Based in Los Angeles, Kate O'Hare is a veteran entertainment journalist, Social Media Content Manager for Family Theater Productions and a rookie screenwriter. You can read more about the author here.
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