FOR AS LONG as mankind has existed, we have been fascinated by the spectacle of the starry night sky above our heads. It’s a sight that’s bound to elicit wonder and awe, a panorama of startling beauty that speaks to us of an immense span of time and space. But the artificial illumination of modern cities has blinded us to the stars, substituting dark emptiness for the infinite abundance that once shone as nightly testimony of God’s handiwork. Perhaps there’s a metaphor there for the way we’ve allowed material concerns to obscure the spiritual and separate us from the divine?
One man’s fascination for the stars became “almost an obsession,” as he set out to uncover the truth behind the star that proclaimed Christ’s birth. Rick Larson’s quest is the subject of the hour-long DVD The Star of Bethlehem. Larson concedes from the get-go that he is not a scientist (he is a lawyer); but, as a lay-astronomer, he compares the biblical account with external historical evidence and then employs astronomical computer software to chart the night skies. The result is a faith-based pseudo-documentary that is interesting rather than conclusive: Since it embraces scientific tools, it ought to have put its conclusions to actual scientists for comment.
[pullquote]Larson’s central question is whether the star over Bethlehem at the time of Christ’s birth corresponds with a demonstrable celestial event. He concludes that the star of Bethlehem may have been a rare close conjunction of the planet Jupiter (regarded by the ancients as the “king-planet”) and the star Regulus (which Larson says was regarded by both Babylonians and Romans as the “king-star”). Larson’s computer reconstruction of the skies in the years 3 and 2 B.C. yields more besides, like the proximity of the constellation Leo (the Lion), which he associates with the tribe of Judah-the prophesied source of the Messiah. For Larson, it’s all part of “the Starry Dance,” a clockwork design of stars, celestial conjunctions, and constellations that constitutes a divine “poetry of terrible beauty.” (“He telleth the number of the stars: and calleth them all by their names,” as we’re told in Psalm 147:4.) He may be right. But some of his conclusions are pretty esoteric. Is a “sign” still a “sign,” if it requires specialized computer software to uncover it? And, does it matter if the star of Bethlehem can be attributed to something measurable, predictable and scientific? The story of the Saviour’s birth, life, death and resurrection is infused with the supernatural and the miraculous-that which defies conventional explanation. Maybe the same can be said for the star that announced His birth.
John Arkelian is a film critic, professor of media law, and editor-in-chief of Artsforum Magazine.
Copyright © 2009 by John Arkelian.