Updated: Jun 4
In response to Dallas Jenkins video about the top five controversial moments in The Chosen, I've begun looking at each of these controversies, excluding the Season 2 controversies, which I responded to earlier. My goal isn't just to give my two cents but more importantly to highlight important concepts related to interpretation, criticism, and adaptation.
In one recent post, I took a look at the most ridiculous controversy (pardon the pun): Jesus' joke in Episode 4 of The Chosen Season 1 about how not even he could fix Andrew's bad dancing. In today's post on The Chosen, I'll turn to the "Creepy John" controversy. We'll be considering whether the way Simon (Peter) and Andrew refer to John the Baptist as "Creepy John" or "Crazy John" means that The Chosen (or Dallas Jenkins) is being disrespectful.
The Controversy: Is Dallas Jenkins disrespecting John the Baptist?
The Chosen introduces us to Simon and Andrew several episodes before the brothers first encounter Jesus. While both brothers are made sympathetic and likable, we are given clear signs that the sons of Jonah are far from perfect, both morally and spiritually. The brothers get in fist-fights, gamble, cheat, lie, and work on the Sabbath in order to evade taxes. Nevertheless, even as Simon desperately attempts to pull himself out of the hole that he's dug himself into, Andrew begins to take interest in the ministry and preaching of John the Baptist. Andrew urges Simon to consider what John is proclaiming, but Simon sarcastically dismisses Andrew's advice, insisting that he's not going to go listen to "creepy John". The Chosen then loses sight of John the Baptist for the latter half of Season 1, but his character reappears in Season 2. Throughout The Chosen Season 2 Simon continues to refer to him as "creepy John" - even in the flash-forward to the gathering of the post-Pentecost Church in the Season 2 Episode 1 intro.
Some people may be asking what exactly the problem with all of this is. After all, the disciples fight and make fun of each other all of the time, so what makes the way that they make fun of "Creepy John" any different? I don't think it really is any different, but those who are up in arms about this controversy point to Jesus' speech in praise of John:
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings' houses. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, “‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he." (Matthew 11:7-11)
The logic seems to be something like this: Jesus clearly respected John the Baptist. Therefore it's wrong to disrespectful John the Baptist. There's no way Simon would be disrespectful John the Baptist because that's wrong. And so it's wrong for Dallas Jenkins and The Chosen to depict Simon being disrespectful toward John the Baptist.
Okay, so calling that "logic" is a bit of a stretch. There are several places where this argument doesn't hold together, and I won't try to address all of them. But what I do want to address is a general trend of faulty logic that this specific bad argument exemplifies.
Views & Opinions Expressed Do Not Belong to Dallas Jenkins
In super simplistic stories - the type of stories that my toddler sometimes reads - good characters do good things and bad characters do bad things. If a good character makes a mistake and does a bad thing, that character is immediately corrected and learns his lesson by the end. In stories like this, it's pretty easy to draw a straight line from what a good character does to the message of a work and from there to viewpoint of the author.
Very, very few adult stories are this simplistic. Even in somewhat simplistic adults works that are more interested in spectacle than in story and character, most characters are given weaknesses and personal foibles that make it difficult to draw a straight line from a good character's actions to the author's beliefs and message. In more complex stories, things are even murkier. Characters aren't divided into just two categories, good and bad. We see a spectrum of moral statuses and viewpoints. Moreover, the moral spectrum is multi-dimensional, including not just an axis of good and bad but also axes for wisdom and folly, laziness and diligence, intelligence and stupidity, belief and unbelief - and the status of characters on these axes changes over the course of the narrative. In a complex story, you must not draw a straight line from the actions of a "good" character to a conclusion about what the story is in favor of and what the author is saying. If you do, you will almost certainly distort the story and misrepresent the author.
Anyone who has ever read the Bible should already know all of this, because the Bible is a fairly complex story. Regardless of what your child's Bible Storybook may say, biblical narratives are rarely a simple battle between "good guys" and "bad guys." Characters in the Bible aren't simply "good" or "bad" - they are "wise" (Ahithophel) and "unwise" (Saul), "believing" (Abraham) and "doubting" (Thomas). More importantly, where a character falls on the moral spectrum changes over the course of the story. For example, there are just as many examples of Abraham showcasing doubt as there are examples of him believing in what God offers - and Abraham moves back and forth between faith and doubt repeatedly over the course of his story. More to the point, characters like the biblical Simon Peter can be very complex. Simon has moments of amazing faith and insight - and then, almost in the same breath, moments of equally amazing stupidity and worldliness. As we should expect, it's simply impossible to draw a straight line from the actions of Simon, Abraham, or any other biblical "hero" to the message of the biblical authors.
There's another issue involved here that's also worth noting. In literary studies, it's long been recognized that the connection between an author's personal views and the meaning of a work is complicated. Authors can misread and misinterpret what their own stories actually say; conversely, we need to be cautious about ascribing all the ideas and messages we take away from a story to its author. While an author may intend a work to have a particular meaning, the actual work itself may have more (or less) meaning than originally intended, because the creative process has a way of scrambling and transcending an author's conscious intentions. Meaning is a function of what the story actually says, not what the author claims the story says.
This principle is even more true when we're talking about a film/show. Although a show like The Chosen may have a single lead creator like Dallas Jenkins, it's ultimately the product of multiple creators and creative processes. Even the most intentional lead director/writer/producer will not be able to maintain complete control over the meaning of a film. Though the lead creator may have an initial vision of what a movie/show is about, the influence of other members of a creative team can alter the meaning of the final product. This is why it's better to talk about what The Chosen is saying/meaning, rather than making claims about what Dallas Jenkins is saying. Dallas Jenkins may play a central role in shaping the vision of The Chosen, but there are dozens of others who are also participating in the creative process and shaping what The Chosen actually says and means.
So let's circle back to the "Creepy John" controversy. Is the way Simon refers to John the Baptist as "creepy John" in Season 1 of The Chosen disrespectful? Certainly - at least in the first instance (more on the later instances below). But is The Chosen itself (or "Dallas Jenkins") disrespecting John the Baptist by depicting a scene where he is dishonored? To make sense of this, we need to ask ourselves how the narrative of The Chosen invites us to evaluate Simon's words.
If Simon was dismissive toward John and then the events of The Chosen confirmed Simon's opinion or encouraged us to trust Simon's insight, there might be a basis to this argument. But the opposite is in fact the case. The events of The Chosen makes it clear that John the Baptist is not in fact a creep or crazy. Yes, John is depicted as having an eccentric personal style, but the Gospels give us this impression as well. Though John may look creepy, The Chosen makes it clear that he is in tune with spiritual reality and that his predictions of the coming Messiah are true.
More importantly, when The Chosen first depicts the brothers referring to John the Baptist as "Creepy John," Simon is clearly at a low point in respect to his moral/spiritual story arc. The weight of Simon's past lifestyle of lying and gambling and Sabbath-breaking has almost caught up with him. Other characters like Eden give viewers clear signals that Simon is not living up to his God-given potential. Not that that should be surprising to us. Simon hasn't yet had an encounter with Jesus and within Season 1 of The Chosen, personal encounters with Jesus have a radical transformative effect on the spiritual trajectory of most characters.
Moreover, even after Simon encounters Jesus and begins to follow him, The Chosen often uses Simon's viewpoints and opinions as a foil to those of Jesus and of disciples like Mary who seem to be more in tune with Jesus. For example, early on Simon seems to think that it's his job to be Jesus' bouncer - a misunderstanding that has to be corrected several times. Throughout Season 2 of The Chosen, Simon's attitude toward Matthew the Tax Collector is clearly stuck in a pre-Gospel framework and is challenged often. Early in Season 2 of The Chosen, Simon also seems to have a misunderstanding of his role in guiding/influencing Jesus' priorities and the shape of the movement. The point being: The Chosen (like the Gospels) does not depict Simon as a trustworthy source of insight - at least not at this point in the story. So if Simon dismisses John the Baptist as creepy, that doesn't mean The Chosen (or Dallas Jenkins) is claiming that John the Baptist was creepy. Rather, just like The Chosen depicts Simon as needing to grow in his appreciation of Matthew, it is also depicting him as needing to grow in his appreciation and understanding of John. In other words, when Simon calls John the Baptist "creepy John," that says more about Simon than it does about John.
The Evolving Significance of "Creepy John" in The Chosen Season 2
I imagine some critics are less bothered by the fact that The Chosen depicts Simon calling John the Baptist "Creepy John" in Season 1 than they are by the fact that Simon continues to use the phrase in Season 2 - and particularly during the Season 2 post-Pentecost flash-forward scene. After all, the Simon Peter we meet in the flash-forward scene isn't a young and immature disciple; he's an established pillar of the church with apostolic authority. From a narrative standpoint, this Simon has reached the endpoint of his story arc and character growth. If the whole "Creepy John" comment was a mistake, Simon Peter should be over it by now.
But that's only true if the meaning of the phrase "Creepy John" has remained static over the course of decades. In reality, the significance of nicknames often evolve over the course of life and narrative time. A name or epithet that begins as an insult can easily become a term of endearment or nostalgia later on. This pretty clearly seems to be what's happened in the case of "Creepy John" in the world of The Chosen. When it comes up in conversation between Simon, Andrew, and John the Evangelist, they clearly aren't looking back on John the Baptist with disdain or contempt. Their conversation is warm and nostalgic. In light of this emotional context, it's clear that "Creepy John" has taken on a new layer of significance. The use of the phrase no longer signals disrespect for John the Baptist, whom all the surviving post-Pentecost disciples clearly hold in honor. On the contrary, if the use of the phrase comes at the expense of anyone, it's Simon. The phrase "Creepy John" has become a humbling reminder of how ridiculously different Simon's point of view has become as a result of the events of Jesus' ministry. That Simon and Andrew can joke to each other about this kind of thing on the far-side of the Resurrection is a sign of the humble maturity that they eventually attain.
An adaptation like The Chosen isn't meant to replace the Bible; it's meant to drive us deeper into the Bible and spiritual reflection. The 40 Days with Jesus series helps readers connect what they watch in The Chosen with the Gospel stories that they're based on and then engage in spiritual reflection.
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Contributing to The Bible Artist
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If you liked this post, you might want to check out some of my other posts on The Chosen and Bible adaptation. I have Bible studies/discussion guides for each episode of The Chosen Seasons 1-3, blogs exploring how The Chosen adapts key biblical figures, and articles exploring the controversial nature of adaptation. I hope you enjoy them!
The Chosen Season 4
The Chosen Season 3
Adapting Biblical Characters Series
Thomas & Ramah in The Chosen & Scripture ***Season 3***
Yussif, Jairus, & Shmuel in The Chosen ***Season 3***
Quintus, Gaius, Atticus, and the Romans in The Chosen ***Season 3 Update***
Little James in The Chosen & Scripture ***Season 3***
Pontius Pilate & his Wife in The Chosen ***Season 3***
Judas in The Chosen ***Season 3 Update***
Matthew in The Chosen ***Season 3 Update***
Simon and Andrew in The Chosen ***Season 3 Update***
Exploring The Chosen with Youth or Small Group [Discussion Guides]
How to Discuss The Chosen - and Why
Episode 1 Guide: Homecoming
Episode 2 Guide: Two by Two
Episode 3 Guide: Physician, Heal Thyself
Episode 4 Guide: Clean Part 1
Episode 5 Guide: Clean Part 2
Episode 6 Guide: Intensity in Tent City
Episode 7 Guide: Ears to Hear
Episode 8 Guide: The Feeding of the 5,000
Season 2 Reflection P1: What is The Chosen Season 2 about?
Season 2 Reflection P2: What was The Chosen Season 2 about? (Plots & Theme)
Episode 1 Guide: The Beloved Disciple
Episode 2 Guide: Philip, Nathanael, & Matthew
Episode 3 Guide: Life Among the Disciples of Jesus
Episode 4 Guide: Simon the Zealot & the Man at the Bethesda Pool
Episode 5 Guide: Mary's Demons & the Destiny of John the Baptist
Episode 6 Guide: Mercy and Not Sacrifice
Episode 7 Guide: Quintus Returns
Episode 8 Guide: Judas, Matthew, & the Sermon on the Mount
Episode 1 Guide: Mary Magdalene, Lilith, and the Redeemer
Episode 2 Guide: Mary Magdalene, Nicodemus, and Shabbat
Episode 3 Guide: Depicting Jesus in Art, Film, and TV
Episode 4 Guide: When Jesus Met Simon (Peter)
Episode 5 Guide: Mary, Mother of Jesus
Episode 6 Guide: Jesus, Shmuel, & the Pharisees
Episode 7 Guide: Did Nicodemus Follow Jesus?
Episode 8 Guide: The Woman at the Well, Eden, & Zohara
The Chosen Controversies Series
Themes & Theology of The Chosen [Exclusive for BMC Members]
Episode 1: What do we do when we are scared?
Episode 2: What is Shabbat for?
Episode 3: Who is Jesus?
Episode 4: What kind of man are you?
Beyond The Chosen
The Chosen: 9 Good Friday & Easter Episodes ***Season 3 Update***
Other Bible Adaptations
Recap & Review: His Only Son