-Pastor Melissa Fain-
I watched the first episode of "The Chosen." Before I begin you should know this is full of spoilers for the first episode. It's based on the Bible, so perhaps spoiling anything seems silly. I have only seen the first episode, so everything I say will be based on that episode.
Quick review: On face value this series appears rather innocent. There are enough theologically aware moments that made me happy, while other moments that made me pause. Some of those moments are related to issues outside the episode.
Should we hold ourselves accountable?
My knee jerk response was to let it alone. There are bigger fish to fry. I mean, have you seen Noah the Musical?! Woof! If I wanted to pick something apart, I should pick that to pieces. Only, picking apart something gives it credibility. In this world no news is actually bad news. We live in a very loud world. If no one is talking about you, good or bad, then you are irrelevant. Wanna destroy someone? Ignore them. Ignorance is like water on rock. It seems so innocuous until you realize it has the power to destroy mountains.
What this all boils down to was accountability. I saw enough issues with the series to give me pause. I know Christianity has a dwindling stage to present their case. Most figure this means we need to ignore the flaws and let whatever gets the attention get the limelight. That has not helped us. If anything it has furthered divide within our faith tradition, as we've started ignoring one another.
This is an act of love. Speaking to issues within an institution is to do so believing that institution can be better and do better. Love is kind, but kindness and nice are not the same thing. As Red Riding Hood would sing in "Into the Woods": "Nice doesn't always mean good." We've been to the land of nice. It's time to be good.
First: What am I praising?
I need to start by saying there are things worth watching. I appreciate Nicodemus calling God "Adonai." This respects the Hebrew tradition of replacing the written place holder YHWH with Adonai, which means "Lord."
I also believe the narrative style, despite what I'm going to write, was a good move. The Bible is like a puzzle with big pieces missing. We don't know certain things. We don't know Jesus' inflection as he talked to people. We don't know time and sometimes place to the stories. There are times Biblical narrative conflicts with other Biblical narrative. (That exists more than you might want to realize.) I like to see how others presume the missing pieces. Generally speaking, their presumptions were innocent. The character of Matthew had a really good introduction with his good shoes. A good storytelling arc would lead him to Jesus washing his feet.
Like many others, I also appreciated the Middle Eastern cast.
That's all for good, but realize those are two pretty big pieces. I don't want to keep you from watching it. Just take everything below to heart as you watch.
This is a sermon- the problem with relatability.
There is a move among modern ministers to fill in the Biblical gaps with current culture. There are so many who love this. They call it "relatable." "It was like he was talking to me."
Many times this modern accessibility is innocent. They play like Jesus is Horatio dropping that one liner while also dropping down his sunglasses. It's so outlandish the audience would easily see it doesn't fit, but it's fun.
Other times it hits against other verses that show it to be false, or it plays in ways that are racist or sexist. For example, I watched a minister play the Pharisee's like a bunch of jelly sorority girls at a "party". There are plenty of sermons where I'm in line until they start painting between the established pieces I don't agree with their assumed lines.
You might want to call me a hypocrite here. Sure. We all do it. The moment you read the scripture you are assuming almost everything. I try to paint with context. If I relate something to modern times I try to explain it from distance.
The Chosen's gap filling, like I said above, is mostly innocent. Something I didn't like, but wasn't terribly upset with, was the nicknames. It was totally what a modern preacher would do. Nicodemus' wife calls him "Nico." Lilith get's the same treatment with the bartender calling her "Lil." Yeah, it's relatable. It rubbed me the wrong way, but it's innocent.
What wasn't innocent was something many film companies are doing today- revisionist history. In this case, it was revisionist history in the form of male care for the female. There was a reason it was so incredibly scandalous Jesus was giving females voice. When you have the random bar keep caring for the demon possessed woman, and the wife being given agency to her Priestly husband, you take away the scandal. Half the world was born property through their gender. That tension is completely lost. Do I want to see Lilith being treated like a dog? No, but seeing it would give Jesus more realistic power when he treats her like a human. (Also, this doesn't deserve it's own paragraph, but calling Mary "Lilith" was a bit on the nose.)
The Chosen shows the major problem with modern sermons. Yes it's relatable, but is that good?
I'm curious what they'll do with Stephen.
Honestly, I'm interested in their theological journey for many Biblical characters. I want to know how they treat Judas. Our theological interpretations of sin and sinners are rooted in how we build the missing pieces of Judas.
I can't speak to Judas in this meditation because he doesn't show in the first episode. Who I can speak to are Simon and Stephen. Two fishermen, fishing on Sabbath and catching nothing. Simon is our future Peter, or Rocky- because he's the rock on which the church will be built. (With all these nicknames, I really want Jesus to call Peter, Rocky, which would be a fitting English translation, but I doubt that will happen.) In this first episode, Stephen is the centered of the two, who doesn't want his brother to take unnecessary risks.
Now, this is the same Stephen who would eventually be bold enough to call out a city of people and get himself stoned in the process as a future Paul watches.
They are going to have to take Stephen on that journey. He's the character to watch.
American or British
This will be impossible to ignore once you hear it. Every actor has their own dialect, and it's impossible for a few of them not to stick out like a sore thumb. Especially, the American accents are very obvious next to the high British accents.
The Miracle Problem
There is a growing group who don't believe in Jesus' miracles. All of them could be explained away by science or just didn't happen.
There are a group of people who believe everything happened in the Bible exactly as it was written, miracles and all.
I'm somewhere in the middle. When we are introduced to Mary she is going by the name Lilith, and is literally possessed by demons. In my mind, this takes away from the potential discussion about mental health and wellness. This was a woman who was mentally unwell, and the people during the time didn't know how to talk about mental illness. What is more powerful: Jesus removing demons, or Jesus healing mental illness. I feel the later would give us space to talk about how far science has come with understanding brain chemicals- and God moments in the hearts and minds of scientists and we understand brain chemistry better. Also, we can then talk about God's love for the depressed, and manic. God wants them to find wholeness in their fragmented world. I just think an opportunity was lost with making Mary have literal demons.
The real problem: Behind the scenes.
Everything else is small potatoes up to this point. I'm going to have to bullet point the rest.
About three months ago, when I first watched the first episode, there was a promo that has since been taken down. (For good reason.) There were things in this promo that deserves our undivided attention, because they haven't magically gone away because the promo is gone.
Final Thoughts: It's relatively harmless
It's not amazing. I think Godspell took bigger risks with Jesus than this is doing. Speaking of which, I think white directors and producers turn to a Middle Eastern look because they are afraid of seeing God in other areas. God is in all of us, so we can have a black God, or a female God. This series is not written to be on point Biblically, so I think putting it in 30 CE was to play it safe.
And that's what this is, safe. Not going to destroy your faith. Not going to bring anyone to faith. Just safe for those who already have faith. Enjoy watching. Don't feel guilty about it. Do question why they are not being completely transparent. Always question transparency.