Reflections on “Unholy Night”

Maybe some of you have seen previews for the upcoming movie, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” It is based on a book by Seth Grahame-Smith who also wrote the novel, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” As you can tell from those titles, Grahame-Smith likes to take a familiar topic and add crazy mayhem to it.

So I was interested when I heard about his latest book, “Unholy Night.” It’s the story of the three wise men… or maybe I should way it’s the untold story. In Grahame-Smith’s book, they weren’t “wise men” at all. They were thieves who unwittingly found themselves in Mary and Joseph’s stable as they hid from Roman soldiers. One thing led to another and they decided to accompany the Holy Family to Egypt, protecting them from Judean soldiers, Roman armies, and even the undead.

To state the obvious, it’s not very Biblically accurate.

Grahame-Smith takes a lot of liberty filling in the gaps of what is not discussed in the Bible and a few liberties with what is. But more significant than what he got wrong was what he got right. Mary and Joseph are portrayed as people of extreme faith who truly believe that their child is the Son of God. I thought he treated them reverently and respectfully. It is clear that there was something special about their child. Since I don’t have a high expectation of Christian themes being accurately portrayed in a secular book, I was quite pleased by the general direction of that storyline.

And then there was the violence. Lots of violence. These kind of depictions seem to be part of Grahame-Smith’s “signature” as an author. I thought of giving some examples… but they’re just too gross. Speaking of gross, one notably disgusting and creepy character is King Herod. He’s about as vile and despicable as a person could be—and probably a pretty accurate account of who he was in real life.

But aside from the violence (which might be hard for many to put aside) the novel also takes a look at what it means to have faith. The protagonist of the book is Balthazar, also known as the “Antioch Ghost” because of his clever thievery. He had long since given up his “childish” belief that God existed. He thought Joseph was a fool for believing Mary’s “virgin birth” story and that the two of them were fools to think there was anything miraculous about their child. But then things start to happen that make him question his belief…

I don’t want to spoil what happens for those of you who might be interested in reading the book, but don’t expect a tidy “Christian” ending where everyone accepts this baby as their personal Lord and Savior. Different characters in the story react differently, just as they do in real life. That’s one of the things I liked about it.

This book sits right at the intersection between faith and culture, but it does so more from a cultural perspective than a faith one. But here’s my question to you, dear reader: Is it ever appropriate to use the Holy Family in a work such as this?

Yes, the author portrayed Jesus, Mary, and Joseph with reverence… for a novel that was focused more on “kill your enemies” than “love your enemies.” I’m glad that Grahame-Smith didn’t have the Holy Family partake in the violence they were surrounded with. And though his story created a lot of violence, you could argue that much of the violence was already there. The Bible is filled with it. Innocent babies were slaughtered in Bethlehem when Herod heard about the newborn King.

As a Christian, I’m concerned that the book uses a sacred story as a vehicle for a novel filled with graphic violence. But if I wasn’t Christian, I might think that, amid the other violent books I hypothetically read, this one had a really cool faith element. So is this an example of inculturation of the Gospel message or manipulation of a sacred event?

I’m inclined to think it’s more the latter than the former but I can’t blame the book for that. It’s clearly not the author’s intention to bring us deeper into the mysteries of the Christian faith so it would be unfair to judge it by missing a mark it never aimed for.

So that’s my “reflection” on the book. Here’s a brief review.

Without going into all the caveats about the subject matter that may or may not offend a Christian reader, I thought that as a story it was pretty good. Good but not great. Unfortunately, it lets down a bit at the end. Though the idea of using Biblical characters in this kind of story was clever, the book gets bogged down by trying to make too many connections to the New Testament. I’d give it a three out of five.