No Vacancies: Is there still no room for Jesus at the inn? – Stephanie O’Connor

No Vacancies: Is there still no room for Jesus at the inn?

OpEd Guest post by Stephanie O’Connor

Image of Stephanie O'Connor
Stephanie O’Connor

Popular culture is simply a way of saying the culture of, ‘the average Joe’ in a more politically correct form, rather than culture that is defined by a more educated élite. So does the Bible actually still have influence in mainstream society? This question alone arguably creates even more questions; is that influence positive or negative? Why, after so long, is it still an influential text? How has its influence changed in the last two thousand years or so?

We see Biblical stories everywhere in our daily lives, whether we are conscious of them or otherwise. For example, we listen to songs on the radio that have, at least in part, been inspired by biblical tales. Leonard Cohen’s, Hallelujah, has impressively been covered by other artists a whopping sixty times to date, and he wasn’t alone in his use of religious lyrics; Coldplay also make undeniable biblical references in their number one single, Viva la Vida; just one example of many. Books are also a commonplace for an exploration of biblical themes, The Narnia Chronicles, The Life of Pi and Harry Potter, to name but a few.

Spiderman standing in for Joseph

In this particular blog, however, I will briefly be examining the portrayal of the nativity scenes in contemporary society. With the recent uproar regarding ‘Henry Hoover does Christmas’, this aspect of the Bible in today’s culture isn’t too difficult to spot. I recently read a blog by someone who, even as a Christian who claims to be progressive, finds alternative and secular versions of the nativity quite offensive. There are so many angles on the nativity, and far too many to list here. For example, you don’t have to look too far to find a Marvel nativity, with Spiderman standing in for Joseph and the Hulk depicting a meek and mild shepherd boy. This particular blogger feels that in replacing the Biblical characters for their ‘geeky’ counterparts, it is in effect saying that the nativity story is nothing more than another child’s fairy story.

Action figure nativity (2012)
Action figure nativity (2012)

I, and many of you, will undoubtedly see her point. The secularisation of Christmas is something that every year, grates on Christians and religious folk alike. Christmas trees and decorations that are going on sale in October truly highlight the fact that Christmas has become a huge commercial festival; yet, unlike Easter, still seems to be respected and understood as a religious festival. The capitalist society in which we live and work often tries to play this religious aspect to their advantage as much as possible, which also means making the nativity ‘sell’. If this means that they make a Marvel nativity scene to entice children, who will then raise their little voices and demand their parents spend the exorbitant number on the price tag, then so be it. And although I in no way want my religion to be mocked, I do want it to be accessible to all; something which may become very controversial.

Arguably, many have been brought up on the traditional nativity story and have had no problem with accessing, understanding and believing. There are countless children’s books out there that aim to do exactly what they say; appeal to children. However, in an age where instant gratification and entertainment is standard, and where these traditional religious stories are battling the likes of games consoles, the internet and many other mediums for attention, it may be time to ensure that religious stories are relevant and significant for those born into such a culture.

A Nativity with personalised Coke cans

How this is achieved, however, is another matter, and one which readers may dwell on and discuss themselves. Nevertheless, I think it may be time for religious folk to take back what is theirs, even if it means encroaching on territory that they find distasteful. An example of exactly this can be found in the blog, ‘Faith Goes Pop, where an article applauds the cultural creativity of Heather Choate Davis, author and cultural commentator, for creating the nativity scene with the personalised Coke cans. She has very simply bought cans bearing the names, ‘José’, Maria and Jesus into a cardboard box, and placed ‘Angel’ on the top. Simple. Effective. Offensive? Whatever your opinion, it is certainly keeping the religious narrative alive in an ever increasing secular society.

Image of Coke Can Nativirt
Coke Can Nativity by Heather Choate Davis

Yet there is another side to the coin; believers shouldn’t have to ‘give in’ to the demands of consumerism. That the story that they hold dear is too important to be portrayed in any other way than in its original, raw format. In 2010, the BBC produced a four part series, ‘The Nativity ’ that tells the story of Jesus’ birth in a way never seen before. The key message remains at its core, whilst maintaining focus on the human characteristics of the story; the reality of what this event really meant for the people involved shines through. The series is quite simply, inspired. No pun intended. There was no need for coke cans, comic characters or quirky attributes. The story alone carried it and it was a huge success, not to mention the fact that it gives me shivers every time I roll it out on Christmas Eve.

Is the birth of Jesus as poignant as it ever was?

So the bottom line is this: should Christians really have to accept that their story is simply out of date and needs to be modernised to maintain its status? That the era of superheroes and technology must be imposed upon the nativity for it to be relevant? Or is the birth of Jesus as poignant now as it ever has been but society simply doesn’t want to hear it? For so many, Christmas simply isn’t fun unless it is crammed to the brim with presents, trees and nauseating snowmen that repeatedly sing ‘Frosty’ every time some poor unsuspecting soul walks past. For me, the BBC got it right. They made the nativity story accessible to a modern audience in a truly inspiring way, without altering the characters, themes or messages of the story. For others, this isn’t enough. The message of Christ’s birth needs to be revamped, reinvigorated and rejuvenated; the more creative the better.

Stephanie will be exploring this question further in ‘No Vacancies: Is there still no room at the Inn?’  on 15th December as part of our Advent Seminars 2015 


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