Family Lore Review: Back to Bethlehem (Adventures in Odyssey, Episodes 135, 136, and 137; Written by Paul McCusker and directed by Phil Lollar)


Family Lore Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Summary Review:

Written by Paul McCusker and directed by Phil Lollar, Back to Bethlehem delivers on the promise of its apt name, taking the listener back in time to the birth of Jesus the Messiah. A large cast of engaging characters, some historical (Joseph and Mary, the Shepherds), some fictional (the Roman general), and some based on historical characters (Judah the Zealot, Hezekiah), set together in a fast-paced, complex plot, combine to make this one of Adventures in Odyssey’s best Biblical adaptations. Five stars.

Full Review:

We’re big fans of Adventures in Odyssey around here. It’s great to find Odyssey episodes dramatizing stories from various Bible or History subjects my kids are studying. So when you’re going through the life of Jesus, you’ll be glad to know that the creative team down at Adventures in Odyssey has crafted several (around a dozen or so) episodes retelling stories from the life of our Lord.

Historian and theologian N.T. Wright (in his book How God Became King) has commented on the fact that the great creeds of the Christian church essentially pass over most of the life and ministry of Jesus, focusing instead on his incarnation and birth, and his death, resurrection, and ascension. The basic reason for this is that Jesus’ life and ministry were not in dispute in the days of the creeds: the incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension were.

The point here is that, like the creeds, Adventures in Odyssey tends to pass over most of the stories from the Gospels, focusing, again, on the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ. A few episodes do retell certain of Jesus’ parables (Scattered Seeds, The Marriage Feast), and there is a two-part story centered on John the Baptist (The Big Deal). Apart from that, Adventures in Odyssey has produced five episodes on the events surrounding the birth of Jesus (Back to Bethlehem I, II, and III; The Star I and II), two on the raising of Lazarus (Back to Bethany I and II), and four on the death and resurrection of Jesus (The Imagination Station I and II;   The Imagination Station Revisited I and II). I believe that’s all, though I welcome  Odyssey experts who can point to any omissions. (Note to Experts: I’m not counting the AIO Club episode Follow Me here, because, while it’s a fine episode, it’s a fictional story based on the Gospels, not an adaptation of an actual event from Christ’s life.)   

The years of Jesus’ life between his birth and death are thus prime subjects for future Odyssey Biblical adaptations, and I do hope to see more of these in the years to come.

Today, we’ll look briefly at the first of Odyssey’s life of Christ stories, in terms of the chronology of that Life: Back to Bethlehem, a three-part series first aired during the 1990 Christmas season.

Back in 2000, I had the privilege of directing, and acting in, a Christmas play at the church I attended then. The play was Dorothy L. Sayers’ He That Should Come, and it’s a Nativity play that centers on the events at the Bethlehem inn the night of Jesus’ birth. An excellent play, one I greatly enjoyed producing. Back to Bethlehem reminds me in some ways of He That Should Come: both are attempts at “stripping [the story of the Nativity] of [its] stained-glass and Sunday School associations” and making it “appear in [its] real potency” (as C.S. Lewis once wrote of his Narnia stories). Both center their stories on the Inn, both feature a Roman centurion in a key role, and both devote a good bit of time to the shepherds.

I don’t mean to suggest that Back to Bethlehem is merely a copycat version of He That Should Come: the versions are quite different, in terms of where they focus their storytelling light, and the characters are different as well: the shepherds, in particular, are portrayed quite differently in each story, and the Innkeeper is more of an important character in Back to Bethlehem.

The setup for the story is, as is so often the case, The Imagination Station, and Connie and Eugene (two of Odyssey’s main characters) journey Back to Bethlehem in this part-technology, part-magic virtual reality time machine.

There is an interesting sub-plot woven into Back to Bethlehem involving a couple of Roman soldiers and a young zealot named Judah. Judah is loosely based, I suspect, on Judas the Galilean, a zealot who was active around the time of Jesus’ birth, and who, according to first-century Jewish historian Josephus, founded a sect of Jewish zealots. Interestingly, Judas founded this sect along with a Pharisee named Zadok, and Zadok shows up as a character in Sayers’ He That Should Come (though Judas does not).

Odyssey writer Paul McCusker gives us a view of first century Jewish life, a glimpse of the impact of Caesar’s census, and a picture of the political and religious strife of those times. There is good humor, particularly with the character of the much bebothered Innkeeper, his wife, and the shepherds. And the story is delightfully complicated: Connie gets roped into unwilling employment at the inn, and is further bewildered as both Judah the zealot and a Roman general fall in love with her. The conflict between Judah and the Romans keeps things hot, and all the while Eugene is searching for Mary and Joseph, and of course, their soon-to-be-born child.

One of the best aspects of McCusker’s work here is the character Hezekiah, who is modeled on the Biblical character of Simeon, the old man who had waited all his life for the Messiah, and who, upon seeing the baby, exclaimed, in the words now known as the Nunc Dimittis, “Lord, lettest now thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation…” Hezekiah is like that, for he seems certain that God would not let him die before he had seen the Messiah; and his zeal for God is thoughtfully contrasted with young Judah’s zeal for political freedom. Veteran AIO (and Andy Griffith Show, among others) actor Parley Baer plays this part with wonderful range, from the fiery zeal of a true Israelite, to the trembling wonder of a man who has finally seen that for which he has waited all his life, the hope and consolation of Israel.

One negative note: Connie has the tendency to occasionally shift into feminist gears, and she does so briefly in this episode, talking about how “I’m just as smart as you, and I’m getting tired of Eugene and all you men talking about me like I’m some sort of work camel!” This is an unfortunate tendency in Odyssey, and I will be writing about it more at length in the future; Connie’s a good character in some respects, but she’s not a good role model for young ladies in this regard. I’ll take Shakespeare’s Portia, and her noble, yet submissive demeanor towards her husband, any day. As C.S. Lewis reminds us, “She may speak thus to Bassanio: but we had better remember that we are dealing with a great lady.” Such greatness, however, will always elude young women intent on proving themselves equal or superior to men. (I shouldn’t have to say this, but in this ridiculously politically correct age, I suppose I’d better: of course it’s also not good for young men to obsess over proving themselves better than girls; Paul’s admonition cuts across boundaries of sex: “but they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise” (II Cor. 10:12).)

The complex plot, diverse dramatis personae, and single setting give Back to Bethlehem a stage-play sort of feel to it: you could easily see this being developed for the theater. The immense impact of the birth of Immanuel, God With Us, on those who recognize it for what it is, is very poignantly portrayed in this excellent Odyssey rendering. An outstanding assemblage of actors (one of the best, even for Odyssey) make this a joy to experience, and it’s one our family listens to every Christmas, or anytime we happen to be studying the birth of Christ. Highly recommended by Family Lore Audio Adventures, Back to Bethlehem delivers on the promise of its apt name.