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Reform Magazine | August 20, 2017

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Editorial: Hope and transformation

steve_tomkinsFor such well-loved stories, the nativities written by Matthew and Luke would have a very hard time at
a creative writing class.

Where’s the dialogue, for a start? Matthew: You don’t give a single word to Mary or Joseph. Luke: Only Mary says anything in yours, and most of that is a song of praise. And what are all these songs for anyway? Write a musical if you want songs in it; they don’t really work on the page.

And what have you been told about the importance of plot structure? You both seem to have gone for: Birth foretold, birth happens, baby receives visitors. Needs work. And Matthew, oh Matthew, the single central event of this story is Jesus̕ birth, but you jump straight from the prediction to: “After Jesus was born…” What’s your nativity story doing not having a nativity?

Your characterisation is a bit thin, both of you. Who are Mary and Joseph? What are their hopes and fears? There’s some real potential in this situation, but you need to give us a lot more. Is Mary excited about this baby, or terrified? Is she afraid of Joseph’s reaction, and everyone else’s? What even is Joseph’s reaction? How do they feel about giving birth without a roof over their head and nothing but a trough for a cot? Your characters need to let us in – at the moment they’ve got as much depth as stained glass.

Lastly, you don’t seem to get dramatic tension at all. Again there’s potential, but you miss it. How can Mary convince Joseph she’s telling the truth about the baby? Oh, an angel turns up and does it for her. A bad guy wants to kill the baby. Exciting! How are they going to escape? Oh, an angel turns up and sorts it out. Not enough tension, too many angels.

In which case, what is it that has made this writing course failure the best known of all Christian stories? Like all great myths, it has a power that is hard to put your finger on. But at the centre of it is a birth, the most universal and forgettable of all experiences – and yet miraculous.

A new life always comes with mind-boggling potential, and usually with hope. This particular new life is swaddled in the political hopes of an oppressed people, in the knowledge that he will become the extraordinary figure of the Gospel stories, and in the promise of a saviour for all the world. It brings our own hopes and fears together with the idea that humanity itself can be transformed. In flesh, in a trough, in homelessness, in hopelessness, in hope, in celebration, in candlelit songs, in giving well, God is with us.

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This article was published in the December 2013/January 2014 edition of  Reform.

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