I love musicals. I like watching them live, on TV, or listening to their songs on my iPhone. I have performed in a few, and I even wrote one once (don’t ask). Musicals like The Sound of Music are some of the most beloved and enduring art forms in popular culture. But when Glorious Films’ Creative Director Todd Shaffer told me he wanted to make a Broadway-style animated movie about the birth of the Lord Jesus, I was concerned. For some reason I imagined a South-Pacific-esque mash-up of donkeys, sheep and oxen gathered around Mary, singing, “There is Nothin’ Like a (Notre) Dame.” Don’t get me wrong – I love South Pacific – but I didn’t want anything to do with a campy version of the nativity story. “Count me out,” I thought to myself.
Happy to be Miserables
To my great relief, that’s not at all what he had in mind. Todd explained that what he envisioned was a no-holds-barred recounting of Luke’s birth narrative set to powerful music in the tradition of dramatic works like Les Miserables. That got my attention, because frankly, that’s never really been done before. But I was still wondering to myself, “why a musical?” I asked him if it was because a musical would be a great match with the Christmas season and all its attendant music.
“That’s not the reason at all,” said Todd. “In a nutshell, when God sent His Son to earth, He put on a musical to proclaim it.”
Musical to my Ears
A musical? Despite a couple of decades in ministry, I couldn’t recall a musical in the New Testament. I asked Todd to refresh my memory.
“When you read the birth narrative in Luke, you realize that it’s filled with celebrative passages like Mary’s Magnificat that are essentially Hebrew poetry.1 They lend themselves to song — in fact, they are songs,” he told me.
Once he said Hebrew poetry, I knew exactly where he was going. Biblical scholars tell us that Luke 1-2 contains as many as eight passages that are in the mold of Old Testament poetry. Mary’s Magnificat, the angelic birth announcement of John the Baptist to Zechariah, Zechariah’s prophecy, Elizabeth’s prophesy, Gabriel’s announcement-encounters with Mary, with Joseph and with the shepherds, and Simeon’s prophecy.2 That’s a lot of music in two chapters!
God Turns Up the Volume
So, what’s with all the poetry stuffed into Jesus’ birth story? Think about this: for 400 years there was no prophet in Israel. Then, all of a sudden, in the first century we see an explosion of angelic visitation and men and women giving prophetic utterances in the advent of the Messiah. His servants – human and angelic – broke out in song. God was shining a big light on what was taking place.
“I can’t imagine Mary, Zechariah or Simeon expressing these things in straight voice — they are explosions of praise,” said Shaffer.
He also said he has major concerns with the omission of these passages in most re-tellings of the story today. “Why would those divinely inspired messages, recorded by Luke, be something that we would be comfortable to overlook and allow to remain in obscurity, especially given that this is one of the few celebrations that we return to year after year?”
The Empty Manger
Todd explained that the music is the story, and the story is the music. He said, “I’m not talking about the musical form, I’m talking about the content of the songs — they are the story. Which would lead me to say that, for the most part, the nativity story has historically been emptied of much of its drama and meaning.”
That was a pretty big statement, so I asked him to clarify what he meant. “The key themes of this story are given to us in Luke’s poetry, in the praise and prophecy of the songs. They are found in the words of Mary’s “Magnificat,” in Zechariah’s song of praise and prophecy, and in Simeon’s song at Jesus’ presentation of at the Temple. As much as we celebrate this story at Christmas, these songs remain in almost complete obscurity. And that’s a tragedy. To skip these prophecy-songs is to skip much of the significant gospel material.”
Todd said he saw in the musical nature of Luke an opportunity to bring to life the full story – the real story – of God’s Messiah coming to earth and fulfilling eons of prophecy. “Rather than glossing over these deep theological aspects of the story of Jesus’ birth, we seized the opportunity to include all of these details in a dramatic and artistically beautiful way through animation and song.”
A Difficult Posture
However, finding appropriate ways to turn poetic prophecy into lyrics proved to be a big challenge. “I studied these songs in depth, line by line, word for word. And when we were writing the lyrics, one of the challenges we found was that our Christian culture does not even have the language or imagery to access these songs. How do you easily explain, “He has raised up a horn of salvation for us?” So where the songs were very obscure, we thought long and hard about how we could pull them from obscurity and attempt to posture the meaning of those parts so that they would be understood immediately in the song. This was a difficult challenge in writing the music.”
Who Needs Jesus?
But the challenge was worth the effort. “I believe every person needs to contemplate and be changed by the deep words Luke recorded for us,” said Todd. “They tell us that people need God, but our sins separate us from Him. The coming of Jesus, the Messiah, and His life, death and resurrection was God’s way of saving His people from their sins, and from every enemy we face. I was personally challenged by digging into these themes in Luke’s nativity, and I can’t wait until others get a chance to engage in this story through The Promise.”
Glorious Films is excited that God has allowed us to produce The Promise: Birth of the Messiah. Watch for its release in fall 2013. And we promise — no singing sheep or crooning donkeys – only God’s glorious musical celebration of His Son’s birth, just as Luke recorded it.
1 F. E. Gaebelein, “Poetry in the New Testament,” Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible, Olive Tree Bible software electronic version, accessed June 17, 2013. Gaebelein defines poetry thusly: “…in accord with most literary criticism, poetry is defined as the expression of intense experience or thought in creative and connotative language (with or without rhyme or meter) …Much more of the NT is poetical than most readers realize.”
2. Ibid. Gaebelein comments, “The first two chapters of the Gospel of Luke contain eight passages that are akin to OT poetry: Lk. 1:14–17, 32–33, 35, 46–55, 68–79; 2:14, 29–32, 34–35. Four of these—the Magnificat (1:46–55), the Benedictus (1:68–79), the Gloria in Excelsis (2:14), and the Nunc Dimittis (2:29–32)—are widely known for their liturgical use.” See also The Literary Study Bible note on Luke 1:57-80, “Among the Gospels, Luke is unique for including lyrics in the Christmas story.”