A daring version of the Christmas Nativity scene has raised a storm of controversy in London — and not surprisingly, British football star-turned celebrity David Beckham is at the center of the holy row.
He is among the figures unveiled at Madame Tussaud's wax museum in what critics see as a sacrilegious display.
Beckham and his pop star wife Victoria feature in the lead roles, as Joseph and Mary, while openly gay comedian Graham Norton plays a shepherd, and U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George W. Bush are among the wisemen. Hovering above the diamond-bejeweled Beckhams is an angelic, winged Kylie Minogue, the Australian pop singer.
Displayed in the “Divas” hall of the museum, the celebrity crèche sits in the VIP corner, looking out onto the likes of J-Lo and Beyonce. Instead of chamber music or Christmas carols playing softly in the background, professional dancers groove to the music of Britney Spears.
Already, senior church figures have expressed their dismay at the unconventional representation of Jesus’ birth.
But on Thursday, many tourists happily posed for pictures alongside acting shepherds, Samuel L. Jackson and Hugh Grant.
“It’s good, very original,” said Rosa Bonet, a visitor from Spain. “It’s not against religion; it’s comical,” she said.
The Vatican was not amused.
“This is worse than bad taste. It is cheap,” an official Vatican source told Reuters in Rome.
“You cannot use contemporary personalities as the central figures in the Nativity … And it becomes worse, if that were possible, if the people may be of questionable moral standing,” he said.
He said it was sometimes acceptable to use modern figures in the supporting roles because it can help make Christmas contemporary — but not as the central characters.
In Naples, for example, famous figures like Argentine soccer star Diego Maradona have been depicted as shepherds in crèche scenes.
Visitor Rosi Toston agreed with the Vatican’s condemnation of the celebrity crèche.
“I don’t like it, personally. I find it a bit disrespectful. … I mean, a Nativity with Beckham!”
“Posh and Becks,” as they are known here due to Victoria Beckham's role in the former pop band Spice Girls, are not known for their piety or modesty.
The sportsman spent months in the headlines accused of having extramarital affairs, and the couple are famous for their tactless publicity stunts: they wore crowns and were seated on thrones at their wedding, named their oldest son Brooklyn after the New York borough where he was allegedly conceived, and have his-and-hers matching wrist tattoos.
“I don’t find it funny; I just find it really stupid,” said Toston.
“Being respectful to these traditions is important,” he added.
Meantime, a spokesman for Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, spiritual leader of 70 million Anglicans worldwide, reacted with what could be characterized as weary resignation.
“There is a tradition of each generation trying to re-interpret the Nativity but, Oh dear … ,” he told Reuters.
“It’s a joke, but not everyone has a sense of humor," said Brazilian tourist Albert Bertii.
The 26-year-old saw the crèche as more of an offense to his political views than to Christianity. “I didn’t like George Bush as one of the three wisemen,” he said.
His English girlfriend, Jenny Birks, retorted, “It’s the British being ironic.”
An Englishman from Blackpool also joked about the American president's role. “Bush hasn’t got the IQ of a hamster,” said Barry Vowell.
The celebrities used in the crèche were decided by a poll of 300 visitors to the London attraction in October. Asked which stars they would like to see in which roles, they overwhelmingly chose the Beckhams for the top positions.
Only baby Jesus was sparred ridicule. A plastic doll, like those used in traditional church Nativity scenes represents the son of God.
The Beckhams were not aware of the museums's plans to depict them in the scene, according to a spokesman for the couple.
As her nieces commented on "Mary's" glitzy dress and shoes, Australian Lyn Minson said, "Everyone is entitled to be in (the crèche , but they could've dressed more holy."
Other tourists admired the crèche simply as a work of art. One commented on the “frightening” likenesses. Another complained that Blair did not look like himself because he wasn’t grinning. Hugh Grant appeared shorter than a visitor had imagined. And one woman mistook Samuel L. Jackson for U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.
As journalists descended on the display, Kannan Paramlingan, a Londoner originally from Sri Lanka, suggested that the museum wanted to create "a commotion so they could make money."