ANOTHER VIEW: The blasphemy of a meaningless Nativity

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The Independent Online
Here is a story that many people once found blasphemous: a strange otherwordly creature visits a woman called Mary to tell her she is going to have God's baby and he will save the world.

Two millennia later, many people don't find this story blasphemous, they just find it dull. For many people the original story of Christmas has been told and retold so many times that its meaning has been completely obscured. A new meaning has been found - cards, television, alcohol, food and Santa.

A radio programme that I am presenting for Christmas Eve on Radio One has been attacked by members of both the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church as "offensive" and "disgusting". Notwithstanding the small fact that these outraged critics had only been reading draft samples of a leaked script, they were decided: the programme had to be stopped.

In fact, the "cartoon nativity" - as the 18-minute drama we are producing has been dubbed - is not quite as reported. True, Joseph - or Joey, as Mary calls him - is a bad carpenter, the angel Gabriel is a camp New Yorker, and the Innkeeper has got a problem with Mad Cow Disease. But in our version - whatever her reactions to these momentous events at the time - Mary does not swear at Joseph and is not "demeaned". She is portrayed as an ordinary human being with an unusually momentous calling, but then most theologians would concur with that.

Whenever the Nativity story has been taken from one medium into another, especially when it is laced with humour, the religious establishment has declared a state of emergency. As long ago as the late Middle Ages, with the Wakefield and York Mystery plays, humour has played an essential part in making the old story new.

While I have my doubt that God needs bodyguards, least of all in the form of blasphemy laws in a pluralistic, religiously diverse society like ours, it seems to me that the real blasphemy is to settle for a Christmas story that has lost all power to fire the imagination as it once did.

At about the same time as our programme goes out to listeners of Radio One, the Christmas story will also be told on Radio Two with carols by candlelight from York Minster; on Radio Three by Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610; on Radio Four with Midnight Mass from Bridlington Priory, on Classic FM with Carols from Greyfriars Church, Oxford and on BBC1 with a Songs of Praise special - "Christmas with Cliff".

Good for all those audiences. All we're trying to do is tell the same story to a different audience. It may be the greatest story ever told, but there's more than one way of telling a story.

The writer presents Radio One's morning show.