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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Jesus & Josephine: A 12-year-old Danish Girl meets Jesus


Every night in December 2003, Danish children and childish persons gathered in front of the television set to watch the daily episode of Jesus &Josephine.[1] Doing this, they witnessed the old Danish TV tradition of watching a Christmas TV series. It is called a TV Christmas Calendar.

TV Christmas Calendars
Every year for about forty years, Danish national TV has produced a so-called TV Christmas Calendar. It is a TV series with twenty-four episodes broadcast every night in prime time from the 1st until the 24th of December. Every year, the story is completely new. One year it was a puppet show, another year the main characters were dwarfs, yet another year it was about a search for Santa Claus. The point is that the TV Christmas Calendar counts down to Christmas Eve when we finally celebrate Christmas. All the different series have the same plot structure: in the beginning something goes wrong and it looks like it will not be Christmas at all. Through the following episodes the characters try to restore whatever is lacking. In the end, they are successful and we can all celebrate Christmas once again.

It is very characteristic that until 2003, the TV Christmas Calendars never referred directly to anything biblical or even religious. Santa Claus, his helpers, dwarfs, goblins, and the like inhabited the world of TV Christmas Calendars, but they never mentioned God, Jesus, or Christianity.

This changed in 2003, when a very bold producer from a commercial Danish TV channel decided to make a TV Christmas Calendar that actually had something to with Christmas. The result was Jesus & Josephine.

Summary of Jesus & Josephine
Jesus & Josephine is about a 12-year-old Danish girl, Josephine, who hates Christmas because she was born on December 24th and does not want to share her birthday with Jesus. Nevertheless, she is a very pious girl, and every night she says her prayer. In the beginning of the series she even asks God to move Christmas to another date.

She is not successful, though. Not until she meets another person who also dislikes Christmas: Thorsen, a mysterious antiquities trader, who tells Josephine that he was once cast out from home by his father on Christmas Eve and has not returned ever since. Josephine visits Thorsen frequently. In the back of his shop, she discovers an old Christmas crèche. It turns out that it has magical powers. The crèche is a time travelling device that makes Josephine go back and forth between Denmark 2003 and Nazareth year 12.

In Nazareth year 12 Josephine meets Jesus and visits him almost daily. They become friends, and she teaches him to walk on water and heal handicaps.

Before long, Josephine realizes that her influence on Jesus is a powerful weapon in her fight against Christmas. Testing her feminine power of persuasion, she makes Jesus forbid boiling rice and milk in a pot; i.e., he promises to make this prohibition if he one day becomes a great prophet. Instead, Josephine tells Jesus about pizza. When she returns to Denmark, she finds that the traditional Danish Christmas dish, rice pudding, has been replaced by Christmas pizza.

As the relation between Jesus and Josephine grow closer, more things in Denmark change. Josephine soon finds herself appearing in the Bible as "The Girl from the North."

At this point, the two 12-year-olds are attracted to one another, and Josephine starts wondering what would have happened if Jesus had led a normal life and had not founded Christianity. She gets two answers. Her mother, who is a theologian and minister in the Danish Church, answers that, if we were lucky, we would have another religion to make sense in our lives; otherwise, life would be meaningless. Josephine's female teacher, on the other hand, answers that we would be in Hell, not having hope, without Christianity.

Josephine does not get any further in her inquiry; she is interrupted because Jesus comes to Denmark. He has found the other end of the time travelling device and would like to see where Josephine lives.

It is not easy being Jesus in Denmark 2003. He is sent to a psychiatric hospital; but Josephine rescues him and he returns to Galilee. Before he goes back, he visits a Danish church and sees something that he at first does not understand: a cross with a dead man on it! When he comes home, he has a vision and mystical experience that explains it to him: He is the Son of God and it is his Father's will to let him die on the cross.

But Jesus refuses. He does not want to die a disgraceful death at a young age and does not care about being the Son of God. He runs away to Caesarea and joins a school for gladiators. That is what he wants to do: be a famous gladiator and fight in the Coliseum in Rome. Even Josephine cannot make him change his mind.

Now things literally go to hell. Denmark is change into Hell. And if we did not know already, we now discover the true identity of Thorsen, whose name derives from the old Nordic heathen god Thor. He is Satan, and now he rules over a world where there is no God and therefore everybody is a god (although they are not as much god as Thorsen is), and there is no telling right from wrong. Nobody has names, but only a number, and everybody must work in Thorsen's boiler rooms. In this world, neither hope nor compassion has a place.

At this point, Josephine realizes that she must try to convince Jesus to take on his identity as Son of God. She travels back to Galilee; but the turning point happens when Jesus has a revelatory dream and sees the present state in Denmark. In his dream, he meets Christ, and the following dialogue takes place:

XXXX Jesus: Who are you?
Christ: I'm nothing! Because the one I should be, I will never be!
Jesus: Why not?
Christ: Why do you ask such a stupid question? I'm you as an adult! I'm Jesus! The Jesus who is Son of God. But I will never exist.
Jesus: Are you me?
Christ: Yes! You had the whole world in your hand, but look what happens. The world looks like this just because you want to be gladiator.
Jesus: I don't want to die on a cross!
Christ: And then humans have to live without hope for salvation in a world that looks like this! . . . Take care, little Jesus. Sometimes you have to make a sacrifice.
Jesus: What shall I do?
Christ: You know the answer.


After this, Jesus accepts his identity and travels back to Nazareth with his friends Simon, Judas, and Josephine.

When Josephine returns to Denmark everything is back to normal. "The Girl from the North" is not in the Bible; the Danes eat rice pudding and have not heard of Christmas pizza. Finally, on Christmas Eve everybody celebrates Christmas in the traditional Danish manner, and Josephine does not mind sharing her birthday with Jesus. In the end, Jesus himself comes one last time to visit her and congratulate her on her birthday. During this final encounter, Josephine asks him if he will be okay, now that he knows what he is going to go through. Jesus answers yes because now he knows for whom he must die!

In this way we end where a Christmas Calendar must end: in the good old traditional Danish Christmas. Denmark went to Hell, but was saved and restored to its original state. That is a real Christmas carol!

The Narrative Structure of Jesus & Josephine
Jesus & Josephine has a more complicated plot structure than ordinary TV Christmas Calendars. We may call the normal story simple because it has only one level; namely, the pragmatic changes in the narrated world. It begins in or presupposes a state of harmony, followed by a crisis (e.g., Christmas is engendered because Santa Claus is ill). But when the protagonists have overcome the crisis (e.g., found a cure for Santa), the state of harmony is restored and we all celebrate Christmas once again.

The story of Jesus & Josephine is complex because it has two levels. The initial state of harmony is not engendered by a crisis, but by a pseudo-crisis: Josephine must share her birthday with Jesus. However, in her endeavour to overcome the pseudo-crisis, a real crisis occurs: Christianity disappears. But when she attempts to solve that crisis and bring back Christianity, she actually solves the pseudo-crisis, too. In the end, the state of harmony is restored and even confirmed because Josephine's critique of Jesus' stealing her birthday has ceased.

This story has two levels, a cognitive and a pragmatic one. Josephine's development from hating to loving Christmas is the cognitive level, whereas Denmark's course — from harmony with Christianity to disharmony without Christianity back to harmony with Christianity — constitutes the pragmatic level.

For the evaluation of Jesus & Josephine, it is very important that the two levels are not of equal narrative importance. The cognitive level is dependent on the pragmatic level, not the other way around. It is easy to imagine a narrative with the pragmatic level only; in fact, that is exactly the structure of a normal TV Christmas Calendar. But a cognitive level without any kind of connection to a pragmatic level is impossible. The cognitive development must relate to some kind of pragmatic change in order to establish a narrative structure. So, what makes Josephine change her mind? The fact that Denmark goes to Hell without Christianity! When she realizes the difference between Denmark with and without Christianity, she cannot hate Christmas.

But there is parallel story on the cognitive level: Jesus' acknowledgment of his role as the Son of God. It is significant that Jesus' cognitive development is dependent on the same pragmatic course; i.e., Denmark's change to Hell without Christianity. When he understands that Denmark will be Hell if he refuses to be the Son of God and die on the cross, he comes to terms with his duty. Both stories on the cognitive level show that the pragmatic story has priority in the narrative construction.

Through this narrative analysis, the overall message of the story is apparent. Jesus takes on his divine role in order to save Denmark from Hell and make it what it is today. Consequently, Josephine cannot hate Christmas or dispute Christianity because it is the reason that Denmark is what it is today. In short, Jesus dies voluntarily on the cross to establish the state of harmony in Denmark 2003; because the state of harmony in Denmark 2003 is the result of Christianity, its position should not be challenged.[2]

The Role of Christianity in Jesus and Josephine
Jesus & Josephine is in many ways revolutionary in Danish TV history. The Bible has never before been presented as foundational to Danish culture without any kind of critical edge; on the contrary, it has always been presented as an oppressive ideological instrument. For someone raised on politically correct TV of the seventies and eighties, it is obvious that Jesus & Josephine belongs to a new epoch of Danish cultural history.

But it is also evident that the objective of Jesus & Josephine is conservative. It depicts Christianity and the Bible as the foundation of Danish culture in a very positive manner. According to Jesus & Josephine, Christianity was meant to constituted Danish culture and the biblical story leads directly to Danish society. For that reason, the Bible cannot be changed unless Denmark goes to Hell. The provocative and revolutionary force of the Bible has been removed. We are left with Denmark 2003 as the end of biblical history and Danish Culture as the summit of Christianity: The Heavenly Jerusalem!

Of course, it is theologically and exegetically problematic to connect the Bible and a certain culture — as is done in Jesus & Josephine. It is even more problematic when it is seen within the cultural milieu in Denmark, where it is a political trend to defend traditional Danish values against the challenge of Islam. We note that the first step towards Hell is when Josephine makes Jesus prohibit a certain dish! Even though Josephine's theological mother opens the possibility that another religion could replace Christianity, the narrative contradicts her. Without Christianity, we would be in Hell. Only the Devil challenges our good old Danish Christmas.

Conclusion
The question must be raised: Does this have general value or is it a specific Danish understanding of Christianity and the Bible?

I think that at least the structural point — that the Bible is used for conserving, confirming, and protecting traditional cultural values — goes for a lot of the uses of the Bible in contemporary European and North American culture. The more the Bible is promoted as the foundation of Western culture, the more it is being colonized by this culture.

If it is right that the majority of the probably increasing number of biblical references in popular culture have a conservative objective, the time may have come for biblical scholars to stop uncritically enjoying the growing interest in the Bible and start asking critical questions about the popular use of the Bible. It should be an endeavor of all biblical scholars to critique any close connection between a certain culture and the biblical story. Even though the Bible has had a central position in the formation of Western culture, it can never be presented as the biblical telos. Regardless of their political views, biblical scholars have an obligation to undermine every attempt to colonize the Bible and reserve it for one culture.

Jesper Tang Nielsen, University of Copenhagen

Notes
[1] Jesus & Josefine. TV 2 - Cosmo Film 2003. Manuscript: Bo Hr. Hansen, Nikolaj Scherfig; Director: Carsten Myllerup. The series has been sold to several countries and the TV channel SAT-7.

[2] I presented my interpretation of Jesus & Josephine in a newspaper article in December 2004. In a response, the scriptwriters claimed that the main message of the series is Josephine's development from hating to loving Christmas and in the same process accepting that she is human and not God. Bo hr. Hansen, Nikolaj Scherfig: "Jesus og Josefine er tænkt som dramatik," Kristeligt Dagblad 12.22.2004. Above I have shown that this cognitive development is narratologically secondary to Denmark's course from harmony to Hell and back to harmony. For that reason, I do not find the authors' interpretation convincing.

[3] This paper was presented in the seminar Whence and Whither? Methodology and the Future of Biblical Studies at the SBL International Meeting, Vienna 2007. I am very grateful to stud.theol. Michael Perlt for indispensable technical support.

Comments on this article? email: forum@sbl-site.org
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Citation: Jesper Tang Nielsen, " Jesus & Josephine: A 12-year-old Danish Girl meets Jesus," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Aug 2007]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=724

 
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