It was last July when a priest friend said to me, “you really need to watch this” as he handed me a DVD of “The Chosen.” Full disclosure I had heard about it from some students who were pretty enthusiastic about it in the midst of being in quarantine. It’s hard to tell if people recommend these things thinking “he’s a priest, and it’s about Jesus so he should love it.” Hate to break it to you, that’s not necessarily the case. There’s a list (that I won’t make) of all kinds of forms of “dramatic” presentations (plays, movies, youth group productions) that have left me bored, embarrassed, or just frustrated. So when “The Chosen” was first recommended I politely listened. But having been burned before by these “you gotta see this thing about Jesus” reviews, it didn’t seem likely I’d “waste” some hours watching 8 episodes of a show about a story that I know intimately well.
Thankfully this friend of mine intervened, at a time when I had just gone through a difficult few weeks (who didn’t in 2020?) “You really need to watch it.” Later that night, I found myself watching episode 1, wondering what exactly was I watching? Who were these individuals? Where was this in the bible? Oh and by the way, where’s Jesus? (No spoilers here) When Jesus did appear, and the way that episode ended, I found tears flooding down my face in a way I don’t ever recall happening before watching a TV show. I ended up staying up very late into the night/early morning watching three more episodes which all brought about similar reactions at different points for varied and different reasons.
This is one of the most creative, moving, and ground-breaking depictions of the life of Christ I’ve ever encountered. Even after multiple viewings of every episode, I am still moved to tears. That’s coming from someone who wasn’t moved during Les Miserables and was almost rooting against the main characters… but that’s for another time.
In any event, if you can’t tell, I’ve gone full fanatic for this show… Follow all their social media. Watch their vlog updates as they were prepping and then filming season 2… Been buying DVDs to give out to friends, other gear as gifts, “paid it forward” as they continue to raise funds for future seasons. It seemed perfect that Season 2 would premiere on Easter Sunday. And true to their “get used to different” motto/mantra they announced that episodes would not be released on any announced schedule but “as soon as they were finished.” Which thankfully episodes 2 and 3 of season 2 came out only a couple of weeks after Episode 1 (with episode 3 being a “surprise” coming minutes after episode 2 completed…)
So I wasn’t prepared for some of the negative reactions from fellow Catholics that have emerged this season. Having been a loud and vocal supporter I’ve gotten more than a few messages. Some politely concerned and asking sincere questions to some, well let’s just say “extremely worded critiques” not only questioning the creator’s motives but my own priesthood. (Haven’t been called a heretic in a while…)
I don’t plan to be a “The Chosen” apologist, because in short, it’s a television show, written by some pretty devout Christians who’ve explained their process and approach to providing “extra-biblical stories” that are plausible to help bring scriptures to life in our day and age. That alone would seem to make it obvious that there will be things that Christians from different denominations will view very differently. But I thought I’d share a few thoughts and responses to some people’s questions for Season 2. There are spoilers ahead, so just be forewarned.
The first concern was with the arrival of Philip (the Apostle) in Episode 2 when in a dialogue with Matthew he said something along the lines of “Jesus doesn’t care for religion much…” The first comment I got was “typical evangelical attack on institutional Churches.” To me, the show is accurately picking up that Philip had been a follower of John the Baptist who was critical of everyone – especially Jewish leaders and teachers who had in fact done much to give Judaism a bad name. Hate to break it to fellow Catholics, we have some leaders who do the same in our day and age, so if that arrow hits a nerve, it’s probably worth taking some time to reflect on it.
The bulk of critics, concerns, and worse came from the latest episode titled “Matthew 4: 24.” In this third episode of the season, Jesus is attending to a seemingly endless line of people looking for his attention, for healing, for a miracle. Meanwhile, the disciples are taking turns helping to direct the crowds. In their downtime, the show uses their trademark creativity, artistic license, and attempting to build plausible narratives from what we know of them to create a back story. The disciples are depicted in a camp setting getting better acquainted with each other and with Jesus’ mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary (who featured so heavily in season 1, episode 5 that, as hard as it was to decide, that was probably my favorite episode of season 1)
The concerns arose with three particular points with regard to the Blessed Mother. As Mary was responding to questions about what it was like to be Jesus’ mother, the show has her empathizing with another character who was talking “about making mistakes;” and then a moment after Jesus’ birth where she and Joseph had a moment where they wondered if he truly was the Son of God. For some this seemed to attack her being “free from sin” as we know her to be as “the Immaculate Conception.” To me, that dialogue wasn’t in any shape a denial or attack on that belief. We know and treasure Mary’s fiat to God’s invitation – “Let it be done to me according to thy word.” Why would the fact that wonder, amazement, complete awe might cause her to question her own worthiness somehow be difficult to imagine? Or that Mary could be so lost in the moment of looking at her newborn son — who as an infant was utterly helpless and dependent on the care of this simple, humble, Jewish couple could be somewhat overwhelmed by God’s omnipotence in such littleness? Is it somehow a denial of Mary’s innocence to imagine her asking herself “how is it that God has chosen me?” Not in doubt or denial but simply humble awe?
The one area of concern that I imagined some Catholics would pick up on was as Mary is depicted talking about Jesus’ birth itself and having to “clean” him. This was also a problem that arose in the “pilot” episode of “The Chosen” called “The Shepherd” which was their approach to the Birth of Christ. In that episode, Mary is seen enduring the pains of childbirth. Catholics believe, Mary being free of Original Sin would also be free of the pains of childbirth (a result of original sin) and so this was and is going to be a point of disagreement between Catholics and Non-Catholics. Having listened to Dallas Jenkins, the Director and creator of the Chosen explaining in an interview his learning about this difference of beliefs after “The Shepherd” premiered and his sensitivity moving forward in running the scripts by Catholic, Evangelical, and Jewish theological experts, I’ll be curious to hear their discussions on this scene (hopefully when) those “round table discussions” that were part of season 1 are released for this season.
Not to be dismissive of those concerns, because having taken a class in “Mariology” in Seminary with a visiting scholar there were so many things I learned in that class that I can assure you I had never heard about in my years of CCD, or even getting my undergraduate degree in Theology. And there are a treasure of beauty in writings, reflections, and teachings that our Church has thoughtfully reflected on through two millennia that can truly deepen our love for Mary and ultimately for the source of her – and our- joy, Jesus. But I’d just caution people with some of their vitriol and harsh judgments. Unfortunately, a vast majority of Catholics have such little knowledge of the truth of the Eucharist should tell us how poorly catechized several generations of Catholics are… I doubt sincerely most of those individuals, should they be blessed to come upon this show would think “that contradicts Catholic Church teaching on Mary.” For many viewers I’m encountering, it is igniting a thirst to come to know more about Jesus and falling deeper in love with Him. The students I am blessed to serve here, we had a viewing party of each episode of Season 1 with a discussion group after where we were able to add a lot more in terms of Church teaching after they viewed it.
So why not appreciate the beauty and blessing of the show as it is and look for ways to continue the discussion after? I for one have been constantly drawn back deeper into prayer, scripture, reflection, and discussion with every single episode. I’d much rather be talking about Jesus and what spoke to someone after watching an episode or addressing questions than hearing about the latest episode of “The Walking Dead” or people re-watching “Breaking Bad.”