The streaming series The Chosen has taken the internet–at least the Christian corners of the internet– by storm, though it has remained largely unnoticed by the non-Christian media audience. It raised the funding for its first and now second seasons entirely through crowdfunding and overwhelmingly online. The results produced from that funding have been extraordinarily good. The director and co-writer, Dallas Jenkins, has created the world’s first work of serial filmed entertainment that draws its material directly from the Gospels (with excurses from the Tanakh). The series has enjoyed, if that is the word, some controversy since the very beginning. Some people object to the idea of presenting such “unbiblical” elements as -surprise- the presentation of real, believable biographies and “backstories” for characters from the New Testament. In the first season, there were multiple online dust-ups about the series’ presentation of Peter’s reasons for saying “I am a sinful man” when he first meets Jesus, the depiction of Jesus’ mortality, and the treatment of Mary, mother of Jesus. When the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints offered to and did provide land and materials for building some of the sets for the second season? News that this was happening set off a vociferous and sometimes invidious exchange of opinions about Mormon involvement in the series. None of these controversies, though, were quite as loud or elicited as much a response online as a single plot thread which began in the fifth episode of the second season.
Those who watch the series likely know about and may have even participated in the social media furor. For those who don’t and didn’t, here is a brief summary of the casus belli: After a frightening encounter with a Roman soldier and an even more frightening encounter with a demon-possessed man who addresses her as ‘Lilith’, using the false name she had used when living her previous life of debauchery, Mary Magdalene leaves Jesus and the disciples in shame and doubt. She returns to her former life briefly, getting stone drunk and gambling with money she stole from the group treasury (at least that is the apparent origin of the bag of coins she takes with her to the bar in Caesarea Philippi). For some tender if inexperienced souls, this development proved to be far too awful to watch. The comments and responses on the social media pages for The Chosen quickly escalated into proper flame wars, to a degree that Jenkins decided to respond to the controversy in a video which he posted on YouTube. The focus of his own anger was the inability of some vocal members of his audience to cope with the dramatic representation of a believer who had recently come to faith falling back into sin. In his reaction, he put his finger directly on one of the most wretched and lamentable failings among Christians in this generation: We eagerly and gleefully shoot our wounded, spiritually or morally speaking. We are very quick to decide which of the wounded most rightly ought to get the final shot that spells expulsion from the Christian community. Or at least from our own personal Christian bubble.
What I am speaking about here- and what was dramatized in Episode 5 of Season 2 of The Chosen– is not cases of clear, unequivocal deviance from orthodox Christian doctrine and ethical teaching, but instead how Christians themselves deal with each other when they fail morally. The issue raised by the dramatic situation in Episodes 5 and into Episode 6 this season was precisely that: How Christians deal with their siblings in Christ when those siblings are on the verge of despairing of God’s mercy, and have definitely despaired of the mercy of fellow Christians.
Now, of the latter the struggling believer is well-justified in despairing, unfortunately. There is a strain of spiritual perfectionism at work among Christians in the States in particular that is ready not to help the brother who stumbles get back on his feet, but to condemn at him for falling in the first place. The Mary Magdalene sub-plot this season exposed that strain for all so see in real time on social media. The explosion of criticism and vituperation directed at Dallas Jenkins and his writing team was breathtaking in its harshness. Some Christian viewers of the series were appalled by the moral stumbling of Mary Magdalene, and ready to pillory both the writers and directors who originated this depiction and those fellow viewers who thought it psychologically and spiritually realistic.
The fact is, though, that the only unrealistic note in The Chosen’s depiction of Mary Magdalene’s backsliding and return to the fold of Jesus followers was the speed with which it was resolved. Of course, this quick resolution is driven mainly by the limitations of the filmed entertainment format- that Shakespearian compression of time so eloquently explained in the prologue to Henry V. The landscape of para-church ministries is full of organizations devoted to helping those struggling with temptations of pornography, heavy drinking, gambling, and drug abuse. These ministries– such as Free!ndeed (a ministry aimed at porn users), XXXChurch, Alcoholics Anonymous, CADAM(Christ Against Drug Addiction Ministries), and numerous others–all offer programs lead believers or seekers for last weeks, months, or years into lives no longer dominated by a particular moral and behavioral failing. And yet, to judge by social media discussion groups (and not just those following The Chosen), the very existence of the struggling believer seems to be a topic that too many Christians are unwilling the deal with honestly. Hang out with sinners who aren’t yet believers? Sure, we’ll do that. Admit that said sinner might be one of us? That is less palatable, apparently. Better to avoid it. Better to shoot the wounded brother, so to speak, before he draws too much attention to the fact that believing in Jesus does automatically make you perfect.
The controversy followed the series through most of this summer, finding an echo in the conversation between Jesus and Matthew in the final episode of the season. That episode focuses on the Sermon on the Mount, and as Jesus (played by Jonathan Roumie) reads through the Beatitudes with Matthew (played by Paresh Patel), the camera takes to flashbacks matching specific characters with specific Beatitudes. “Blessed are the meek” is matched with a quick flashback to Thaddeus and James the Lesser in conversation; “Blessed are the merciful” pairs the women in the group, Mother Mary (Vanessa Benavente), Ramah (Yasmin Al-Bustami), welcoming Mary Magdalene (Elizabeth Tabish) back to the camp after her relapse. “Blessed are you when men revile you and say all kinds of false things against you because of the Son of Man”? That Beatitude is spoken directly to Matthew, and the astute viewer cannot help but realize exactly who it has been who has been reviling Matthew all season: It has been his fellow disciples, not outsiders. This is a regrettable case of art mirroring life, though it is quite unlikely that the summer controversy following Episode 5 was anticipated during the writing, filming, and editing of that scene. Nevertheless, it could not have been a better message to the series’ viewing public: Believers should be ready to deal with the past and current failings of their fellows in the spirit of Jesus’ mercy and patience.
If you have not watched The Chosen yet, do. The spoilers here leave much untouched. It’s easily the best Biblical drama in over a decade and maybe the best in the last half-century.
Thanks for reading!
If you enjoyed this entry, please contribut to help us keep the lights on the and our ministry involvement in Germany going.