If you’ve ever been fascinated by the “star of Bethlehem,” then a new documentary from producer Stephen McEveety (“The Passion of the Christ”) on the celestial event won’t disappoint.
The hour-long documentary is structured almost like “An Inconvenient Truth,” for the spine of the piece is a PowerPoint presentation. In this case, the guide isn’t Al Gore but rather Rick Larson. Larson is a lawyer by trade, a Christian by choice and an astronomer by night – and by his computer, on which he began running Starry Night software to search the skies in an effort to learn more about the star of Bethlehem.
In “Star,” Larson argues – as others have done for decades, even centuries before – that a particular celestial event was what magi from the east were tracking. For Larson, that event turns out to be a conjunction involving Jupiter and a planetary path known as “retrograde motion.”
That’s nothing new. Astronomer Michael Molnar wrote “The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi” in 1999, in which he made a similar argument, but Molnar pegged an event in April of 6 B.C. Larson takes a cue from astronomer Craig Chester, who in 1992 gave a presentation about the star at Hillsdale College. Chester’s article about it appeared in Imprimis in 1993. In it, Chester argued for a noteworthy celestial pattern that began about September of 3 B.C. and continued into June of 2 B.C.
Larson adopts Chester’s claims. While the presentation to a handful of people in a warmly lit library is effective, Larson also argues for a more extensive “celestial poem.” That is, he’s not only concerned with what happened in the skies while Jesus was in the womb and as a toddler, but Larson continues his earnest investigation through Jesus’ life to the crucifixion, pulling in biblical references that include Peter, quoting the prophet Joel, at Pentecost.
So Larson’s “celestial poem” argument is more far-reaching than earlier claims about the star of Bethlehem. It involves more constellations, more planets, more stars, more heavenly bodies. Like previous claims about what the magi were seeing, it necessarily involves an interest in and understanding of constellations – like the ones we call Virgo (the virgin), Leo (the lion) and Aries (the ram). Those familiar with Christian theology – the Virgin Mary, the Lion of Judah, the sacrifice of the ram – will recognize the relevance of those constellations to Larson’s argument.
Larson and the producers don’t get bogged down in astro-speak, nor do they go into too much detail about the history of the search for the star (though Larson understandably discusses Johannes Kepler, his “laws of planetary motion” and Kepler’s own interest in puzzling together the real star).
What is perhaps most interesting about the documentary (and its presentation of this “celestial poem”) is the degree to which it must rely on astrological meanings. That is, none of what Larson has to say matters a whit unless you accept and ascribe meaning to arrangements of stars.
Larson devotes a couple of minutes to the role of “astrology” in his quest. He says he got “cold feet” when his interest in deciphering the star of Bethlehem led into constellations and the study of stars. He had grown up thinking astrology was either a cult or poor entertainment. Before he could indulge further his interest in the star of Bethlehem, he undertook a study of stars in the Bible.
Larson says he found that God took credit for constellations. Larson cites texts from Job (9:9 and 38:31), Isaiah (40:26), Psalms (19:1-4), Romans (10:17-18) and Luke (21:25). Larson concluded it was OK to see the stars as signs, but it’s not OK to think the stars control your life.
So there you have it. If you’re willing to see the stars as signs, Larson makes, at the very least, an effectual presentation that marries Jesus’ life to portents of heavenly bodies. Jupiter, Venus, Regulus, triple conjunctions, a lunar eclipse and much more – Larson argues that a complex choreography of the heavens heralded Jesus’ life and death.
Not only that, but because the heavens tick through their motions like clockwork, God had thus marked his appearance in human form in the stars before time, when he flung them into existence. Who can say if it is or isn’t fact? It’s an interpretation. And it’s a beautiful, exquisite idea.
“This is poetry of terrible beauty that showed me a side of God that I had not seen,” says Larson. “Our Messiah was announced in the sky.”
If you see “The Star of Bethlehem,” a world of possibilities will lie behind the simple phrase in Matthew’s gospel about the magi seeing a star. On the one hand, we should be wary about treating the Bible as a code to unlock. Enough of that already.
On the other hand, the heavens are majestic, and whatever the magi saw held great significance for them. As Kepler wrote, “I do not doubt but that God would have condescended to cater to the credulity of the Chaldeans” – by which he implied that God spoke to the Chaldeans, or magi, in a symbol system that held meaning for them.
“The Star of Bethlehem” tries to recover those meanings for us: moderns who mostly miss God’s handiwork that spins evermore.
Cliff Vaughn is managing editor and media producer for EthicsDaily.com.
The DVD, which sells for $11.85, has Spanish subtitles, scene selection, a brief feature on the soundtrack and an extra on the relationship between Jesus’ death and the Aries constellation.
The movie’s Web site is here.