Friday, September 04, 2020

Too Hot to Handle: The Chosen

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

The Chosen is a largely-crowdfunded, independent, ongoing video series which debuted on YouTube in April 2019 with the goal of retelling the gospel stories mainly from the perspective of their minor characters and emphasizing the life-changing nature of their interactions with the Lord Jesus. In the words of Josh Shepherd at Christianity Today, its creators aimed for it to be “faithful to the biblical text while gritty in tone”.

Tom: Hmm. In my opinion, the grit is definitely visible, but not necessarily off-putting.

Late to the Party

Obviously we’re more than a little late to this particular party: CT was writing about the show well before it debuted. But you and I are just average Christians looking on, IC, and we probably represent this project’s target demographic better than the Christian media. I have only viewed five episodes thus far, so you will be a little ahead of me in that department, and can let me know if what I’ve seen accurately represents the approach taken in the later episodes.

Immanuel Can: Somewhat. The show definitely develops as the series goes along. We start to get a more definite idea of the characters. And that was apparently one of the goals of telling the story from a disciple’s perspective in the first place. The director says he always hated the depictions in which there were only three disciples: Peter, John and Judas, and the rest were a kind of blank-placeholder “disciple”. He wanted to flesh out all the characters in more depth, making them distinct from one another, and putting them each in a unique relationship with the Jesus character.

We Caught Them Taking Liberties

The writers take some creative liberties in doing this. So, for example, we see in the early episodes that Matthew, the tax collector, has Asperger’s ...

Tom: Uh, okay.

IC: Asperger syndrome was undiagnosed in those days, of course. Matthew manifests all the tics, obsessions, strengths of detail-orientation and diminished ability to read emotions from others that is typical of that type.

Tom: And does it pretty convincingly, actually, now that you point out that’s what they were after.

IC: It’s a way of explaining why a Jewish man would be okay with colluding with the Romans, though his society would hate him for it, without resorting to simply suggesting that he was greedy. It’s a different take. And though we have no biblical evidence that Matthew had such a syndrome, neither do we know why he was a tax collector prior to his calling. What we do know is that his response to Christ was instantaneous, untroubled, and complete. Would that we were all so quick to respond.

Going Beyond the Word

Tom: Right. If you’re looking for a faithful verse-by-verse retelling of one of the gospels, you need to watch 2003’s The Gospel of John. This is NOT that. This is very modern, non-linear, and full of character moments, dialogue and imaginary interpersonal connections we don’t find in scripture, like the first episode’s scene where the Pharisee Nicodemus fails at exorcising the demons from Mary Magdalene. Some of the older characters speak in the mannered way you normally expect in semi-historical films, but Peter’s dialogue is completely 21st century English-idiomatic. He says “okay” all the time, which I find a little jarring, and uses Western figures of speech. He is also portrayed as a reluctant Roman collaborator. So if you are uncomfortable with going “beyond the Word”, this is probably not a project you will enjoy.

That said, it seems to me that what the director and writers are attempting here is to portray realistically and humanly the biblical interactions that led to changed lives; to treat them as absolutely real, and to try to reimagine how those interactions sketched out or hinted at in our Bibles might have played out in real time if you had been a fly on the wall. From that angle, provided the Christian viewer is okay with the fact that a lot of this is pure fiction, one or two of the scenes I’ve seen so far work powerfully — like when Jesus delivers Mary in an entirely understated and empathetic way. But this sort of approach necessitates creativity, and “padding” the story. I can understand why it was necessary given what the creators are trying to accomplish, but I recognize some older Christians may find it difficult to hear extra-biblical words coming from the mouth of our Lord and Savior.

IC: Yes, I find that the most difficult thing to take as well. Adding to the Lord’s words … not okay with me, under any circumstances, even just for dramatic effect.

Sentimental Slop

Tom: I know what you mean. There is a long series of scenes in Season 1, Episode 3 where Jesus interacts with a group of children. It is probably the writers’ idea to give us some insight into his character. Sadly, 90% of what Jesus says in those scenes is extra-scriptural fluff: phrases like “You are very special” that echo the modern, sentimental slop you get in primary school. We have well over 1,000 words that came from the mouth of Jesus recorded in scripture. He never told a single soul they were “special”. The scenes humanize him, sure, but also walk pretty close to the line of trivializing him. (The episode also makes him out to be very liturgical, which is not completely wrong, but perhaps not completely helpful either.) But then when the children ask him why he has come to Capernaum, he quotes from Isaiah. The change is electric. Any Christian would feel it instantly. Suddenly he’s telling us something that matters in words we recognize. We can feel their authority.

IC: I feel a little torn about some aspects of the series. The acting is really pretty good … much better than one ordinarily expects from a Christian production, and especially a period piece.

Tom: Mary is terrific. Nicodemus is a Hollywood character actor I’ve seen before, very solid. Andrew is played by a nobody, but absolutely convincingly.

IC: And occasionally I find myself catching an insight about a particular scriptural incident that I had not considered before, but that actually seems more harmonious or plausible than what I had previously thought. So there are some insights in the drama.

Between Two Horses

Tom: Any time you take a Bible scene and try to act it out, you are caught between two horses. On the good side, because it is a visual medium, you may inject something that brings out an essential truth in the text. There are moments this works, and really chokes me up, and not all of them are verbal. It’s a nod, or a physical gesture, that just impresses me as authentic, and is certainly one very plausible way these things might have actually occurred. And that’s the point, really: they did occur. They are not a “story”. To take them this seriously is something I believe the Lord would approve.

On the other hand, there is the danger of adding something that violates the spirit of the text and takes the viewer away from the truth. That’s a moral danger I’d be reluctant to play around with too much, and it probably explains the extremely literal approach of The Gospel of John.

IC: The creators are trying to come to grips with the text of the Bible, as well as make something new, and I can sense their earnestness to get both right. If they don’t always succeed, they are at least trying for that.

Customs, Habits and Language

One aspect I quite like is the Jewishness of the thing.

Tom: I could not help but notice the actor who plays the Lord has an appropriately Eastern profile, as does the actress playing his mother. I like that.

IC: This is a production that makes absolutely no apologies for saying that Christ was a Jew, living among Jews, with Jewish faces, customs, habits, language and artifacts on every side. This isn’t just some awful Westernized version of things; the creators are really trying to immerse us in a Jewish way of understanding these situations and teachings. I believe churches would benefit from thinking more carefully about the Jewish context of things, and this production kind of compels that.

Tom: Absolutely agreed about that. There is also a good deal of attention given to the political situation between Jews and Romans, which is very much there in the gospels, but of necessity becomes more overt here since it drives much of the onscreen conflict. I think they do that very well. The dynamics between those two nations and between the mixed bag of characters in this version of first century Capernaum are carefully thought through, and they serve to explain a character’s actions in many cases. Peter is portrayed with the urgency of authentic fear, and his plight reminds us of the genuine thirst for freedom that must have existed among Jews of that era, and which would have provided a ready analogy for the much more crucial need for spiritual deliverance.

Real People

IC: That takes us to another interesting aspect: the Romans in this drama. One, Gaius, has a very human sort of ambivalence. In general, he manifests the cynical weariness of a veteran cop. He’s unkind, contemptuous, and vaguely disapproving of everything; and yet he’s somehow tractable and likable as well, his very resistance to all that is going on lending a strange charm to his weary capitulation to it. You get a real sense of a tired-soul-still-searching out of him. That’s interesting. The other Roman of note is Quintus, played as the kind of simmering psychopath who would have been likely to find the Roman army really attractive, and whose enjoyment of violence would surely have expedited him to top ranks. He’s really disturbingly malevolent.

Tom: I like the way they’ve treated each characterization as an exercise in individuality. There are no ciphers and no robotic ranks of identical, predictable people.

IC: We often think as the Romans as sort of blank spaces in the narrative, as placeholders for tyranny, or stereotype thugs. (The exceptions might be Herod and Pilate, about whose nature and propensities we know somewhat more from the Bible account.) But it’s novel to see the Roman soldiers played as human beings caught in their own dilemmas too. In scripture, Gentiles really get what we might call short notice until the book of Acts. We don’t often think of how they were involved, but at times they really were.

Tom: And when we think that in a few short years, Paul would be writing one of his most theologically important epistles to a Roman church, we are reminded that the Lord’s mission may have revolved around Jewish history and sprung from it, but God had a far vaster plan in view. That’s not a bad thing to bring out.

IC: Indeed not.

Things That Could Go Wrong

Well, where do we go from here? We have a thing that could go badly wrong, because it’s tampering with scripture. But it doesn’t seem awful, except in that business of adding a little too freely to the words of Christ. Purely as a drama, it’s effective and pretty nicely done. It does entertain: it’s not the usual mess of wretched production values and weak acting for which Christian films are rightly famous. And it does seem to have some theological merits, at least in that it offers some fresh perspectives on persons, situations and themes that might have become stale in our imagination.

But is this a safe watch for Christians? Is it really a good thing? What do we make of this, Tom?

Tom: Good question. I’m trying to leave aside the things I dislike about it that are truly neither here nor there morally: things like the fact that it’s advertised on YouTube with a hashtag called #BingeJesus, which is truly cringeworthy. That’s a typical stunt from a young Christian director-type in our day, and I know what he means by it, as does his audience, but I absolutely hate the flippancy. Then there’s the introductory title sequence and theme tune, which looks and sounds like most anything new from Netflix, though the whole “twelve fishes swimming against the school” motif is rather clever.

IC: The slogan, yes, is too flippant, too “hip”. A minor point in the grand scheme, perhaps, but still irritating.

A Safe Watch?

Tom: That aside, to your question “Is it a safe watch?” For me, sure. For you, sure. For people who are in scripture every day and know good from bad, absolutely. We can pick it apart, celebrate the good stuff and trash the junk. It’s refreshing in some ways. I like the idea. I get caught up in the storytelling. I will probably finish it. I like the thought of it as a “gateway” for the unsaved to the gospels, because it covers a lot of territory very quickly. If you had never known a thing about Israel under Roman rule in the first century, this would be a great primer.

But there are times when I stop and say, “This is just wrong, and not just inaccurate, but reinforces a popular meme about Jesus that misleads and confuses people.” For example, Jesus doesn’t love the little children because they are innately lovable (which is the impression left here); he loves them because he is Love Incarnate. And Jesus didn’t choose Peter, or anyone else, because he “saw something in him”. Like all of us, Peter possessed no innate qualities which would appeal to a holy God; rather, knowing and being known by Jesus changed him forever. These are distinctions with differences.

IC: I thought the same about the episode with the children. I think it was where the drama moved farthest away from scripture, and there, I found it began to lose both its power and its way. In the end, it was a bunch of sentimental twaddle.

Tom: Exactly.

IC: I would rather that they had waited to the “suffer the little children” part of the gospels before they ventured any theology of kindergarten, if they had to have one. And really, that whole episode could be gone, with nothing of substance lost in the bargain.

Cautionary Notes

Tom: It’s also a minor point, but to have the Lord interacting with children in the absence of their parents is very non-canon. Jesus always showed the greatest respect for God’s family order. So he says to the woman at the well, “Go, call your husband.” And when he blessed little children, it was because their parents brought them to him, not because he had secretive meetings with them in the woods. I’m not suggesting the writers were even aware of the way those scenes might play with protective parents today, but they are entirely unnecessary and out of character. Furthermore, he trashes the disciples to those same kids just before leaving, which is also out of character. I do not think you can find a scriptural example of the Lord using his disciples as an object lesson to third parties behind their backs, and definitely not before they had even failed to perform.

IC: Maybe that’s a good cautionary note: insofar as the series is allied to the scripture, it seems to have merit; and when it wanders I think the spirit of the thing goes wrong. I’m not saying they should never dramatize or imagine scenes or dialogue; I’d just advise them to avoid doing so too wildly.

A Note of Hesitancy

But back to what you were saying earlier, because I think it’s important. Can I ask you to expand a bit? You say that this sort of imaginative series is no problem for Christians well grounded in scripture. Okay. But I hear a note of hesitancy, do I not?

Tom: Well, yes. I have a ways to go with the series, so you’ll have to tell me if you’ve observed the same thing: in The Chosen, most of the strongest scenes dramatically are the ones farthest removed from scripture: exorcist Nicodemus vs. Mary Magdalene’s demon possessors, Peter spying on other Jewish fishermen in the dark, the wrestling match con-game, or Matthew almost getting his head chopped off for insisting on an audience with the Romans. There seems to be a sort of internal conflict between the standard conventions of the medium of visual storytelling and the need for sacred truth to be treated accurately and respectfully.

So then, if weaker Christians and unbelievers become most occupied with those scenes, as might be quite natural given their impact, there’s a risk the greater lessons of the material will be overshadowed by mere drama. On the other hand, if even an imperfect presentation serves to whet their taste for the word of God, who could complain? Sometimes the perfect is the enemy of the good. So I’m of two minds, and I think I will need to see the whole thing to really judge it fairly.

On the Fence

IC: I already have, and I have the same reservation. For new and immature Christians, I don’t think it’s a place they should be drawing their theology, or even necessarily their initial impressions of the biblical narrative. And if it becomes any kind of substitute for actually reading the scripture, well, that’s totally bad, of course. A more mature Christian, one with a well-formed sense of the gospels, would be able to compare it with scripture, and see added value where it exists, gleaning the best from the story’s imaginative elements while having much more ability to recognize any unwarranted departures and liberties with the text. Still, I’m undecided about how far that goes, and I’m still particularly uncomfortable with any human attempt to recreate Christ dramatically. That seems to me to be an undertaking just bound not to work.

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