Jesus, Dancing Jokes, & Genre (The Chosen Controversies)
Updated: Feb 16
Dallas Jenkins recently released a video highlighting the top five most frequent controversies and complaints directed at The Chosen. While I haven't shied away from pointing out flaws in The Chosen and offering constructive criticism, almost every "controversy" that Jenkins shared was based on a very flawed understanding of how to engage with art and adaptation, and so I'd like to take a little time to build on or add to the arguments that Dallas offered. The Chosen may not be quite as grandiose as its most devoted fans would like to think it is, but it's also not nearly as blasphemous or controversial as its worst critics claim. In the place of knee-jerk adoration or heresy hunting, we need more thoughtful and balanced analysis of how The Chosen works as an adaptation of the biblical accounts.
The Controversy: Does The Chosen Deny Jesus' Omnipotence?
Compared to Season 2, Season 1 of The Chosen generated a lot less theological controversy. That being said, there are a few throw-away lines that caused hyper-sensitive critics of The Chosen to stumble. One of these takes places in Episode 4 of Season 1 (the Wedding at Cana episode), while Jesus and his disciples are celebrating together. The Chosen establishes that Andrew is an incorrigibly poor dancer who often gets playfully teased for his bad moves. At the same time, the disciples are just beginning to recognize and appreciate Jesus' supernatural power, and so Simon lightheartedly asks Jesus to perform a miracle and fix his brother's lame dancing. Without skipping a beat, Jesus jokingly retorts, "Some things even I cannot do."
The complaint against this scene is paper thin, but let me sketch it really quickly. According to the Bible, Jesus is God and therefore omnipotent. As John 1:3 points out, "All things were made through him" - and therefore he has complete mastery and power over the entire creation. At first glance, The Chosen seems to be depicting Jesus as denying his own omnipotence by claiming that there is something that is beyond his power - namely, making a poor dancer into a good dancer.
You may be asking yourself, "Are these people serious?" Sadly, it seems like they are - far, far too serious.
The Lesson: When Interpreting Art, Genre Matters
Over the past few decades, there's been a growing awareness among evangelicals that when we read and interpret the Bible, we need to pay attention to genre and literary forms or styles. Proverbs don't work the same as prophecies, and narratives don't work the same as epistles. If we fail to account for these differences, we're liable to misinterpret a biblical text based on the rules and conventions of another genre. The classic example is to ask people to imagine what the woman from the Song of Solomon would look like if we tried to interpret all the statements in the poem literally.
More to the point, without a proper understanding of genre, many of the psalms will come across as blasphemous texts that belittle God. For example, consider this very typical line from Psalm 44:
Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever! (Psalm 44:23 ESV)
Is the psalmist actually accusing God of being asleep? If you had no understanding of poetry, you could be forgiven for coming to that conclusion. Most of us understand, however, that the psalmist isn't literally trying to rouse God from a snooze. After all, if God had literally fallen asleep, it's unlikely that he could actually hear our prayers. Rather, it's precisely on account of the fact that God doesn't sleep and is always listening, that psalmist is confident that God will hear him when he says, "Hey God! Wake up!" Asking God to wake up is a hyperbolic/metaphorical way of asking him to hurry up and take action.
Just as good biblical interpretation demands attention to genre, when we interpret a piece of art or adaptation like The Chosen, we need to pay attention to the rules and conventions of the genres and literary forms that it is employing. In the case of this controversy, The Chosen was employing the rather arcane literary form that scholars technically refer to as a joke.
Since I know many haters of The Chosen haven't had the chance to become acquainted with such an obscure and peculiar subject, allow me to make some observations about how jokes work. The most important observation to make is that jokes are rarely literal statements of fact. Typically, jokes rely on exaggeration (an unlikely over-statement) or hyperbole (an impossible over-statement) to drive home a point in a way that's funny and memorable.
Jokes that involve exaggeration and hyperbole often have two elements: the Target of the Joke and the Point of Comparison. The Target (or "butt") of the Joke is what the joke is actually making a statement about. The Point of Comparison is a piece of common knowledge that the joke draws on in order to make that statement; the joke usually isn't actually attempting to say anything about the PoC itself. Often, the Point of Comparison is an extreme example or Absolute Standard of a particular quality or trait. The joke highlights a trait of its Target by saying it is more/less/better/worse/uglier/fatter/etc. than the PoC. In a literal sense, the audience understands that this is an absurd or ironic claim (that's what makes the joke funny), and yet we understand that what the joke really means is that the Target is really x.
I hope I haven't killed jokes for you guys by giving a really dry and technical explanation of how they work, but having this framework will help to explain why Jesus' joke in The Chosen Season 1 Episode 4 isn't blasphemy. Before we turn to that joke, however, let's take a moment and apply this framework to a similar kind of joke that many of us have encountered before:
The dinosaurs looked at Chuck Norris the wrong way once. You know what happened to them.
The Target of the Joke is Chuck Norris. The joke is trying to make a statement about how extremely dangerous and powerful Chuck Norris is. Dinosaurs are the Point of Comparison. It's common knowledge that dinosaurs were very dangerous and powerful. The joke exaggerates how dangerous and powerful Chuck Norris is by not only suggesting that Chuck Norris is more powerful than dinosaurs but, what is more, claiming that he's so much more powerful that he wiped out all the dinosaurs just for looking at him the wrong way (a very minor provocation). Obviously, this joke is not saying anything literal about dinosaurs, how they went extinct, or how powerful and dangerous they once were. On the contrary, the joke assumes that it's absurd to believe that a man could wipe out the dinosaurs - that. In essence, the joke is a hyperbolic and memorable way of saying, "Chuck Norris is really really dangerous."
Now let's look at Jesus' joke in The Chosen Season 1 Episode 4. The Target of the Joke is Andrew's incurably bad dancing. The Point of Comparison is Jesus' miraculous ability to cure incurable sicknesses. Although the disciples probably don't understand Jesus' divine identity yet, it's common knowledge among them that Jesus can do the impossible through his miracles. The joke exaggerates just how incurably bad Andrew's dancing is by claiming it's so incurable, not even Jesus' extremely powerful miraculous abilities can help. But, again, this joke is obviously not saying anything literal about Jesus' miraculous abilities or divine power. On the contrary, the joke assumes that it's absurd to believe that any problem is so bad that Jesus couldn't solve it - that's what makes the claim about Andrew funny. In essence, the joke is a hyperbolic and memorable way of saying, "Andrew is a really really bad dancer." Like Psalm 44 above, the joke seems blasphemous at a superficial level, when interpreted as a literal statement. When interpreted in accordance with its genre, however, what actually underlies the joke is a biblically orthodox belief.
Would Jesus Joke?
Some may object to Jesus' joke in The Chosen Season 1 Episode 4 not because they think it was actual blasphemy but rather because they think it's unlikely that Jesus would joke that way. I have much more sympathy with this criticism. As much as The Chosen likes to tout its reliance on biblical and historical scholars, the show clearly imports modern attitudes and cultural patterns into its depiction of 1st century Judea and Galilee. Moreover, in order to conform to the conventions of a modern binge-worthy show, The Chosen needs its characters to engage in clever, funny dialogue. Jesus' joke in Episode 4 of The Chosen Season 1 is almost certainly more influenced by these factors than by actual history. So, if what you're looking for in a show is a meticulously accurate representation of what the life of Jesus and his disciples actually looked like, The Chosen is not you. The Chosen does care about its source material and historical accuracy, but it also feels free to adapt that material in a way that is contextually-sensitive and geared more toward entertainment/engagement than toward historical precision and education. The good news is that, if that's not what you're looking for, there are many other adaptations of The Gospels that you can consider viewing instead of The Chosen.
Having conceded that Jesus probably didn't joke in precisely the same way that he does in The Chosen, I'm not at all convinced that Jesus never joked at all. Indeed, many of his parables and illustrations draw very close to the border of jokeland. Think, for example, of Jesus' warning about attempting to remove a speck from the eye of your brother when you have a log coming out of your own eye. This is a pretty absurd and funny image if you actually picture it. Or think about the humor of comparing God to a corrupt and cowardly judge who finally gives in to the belligerent complaints of a poor widow or to a grumpy friend who doesn't want to get up late at night to give someone bread. We often miss the humor in what Jesus said because we assume that Jesus (and the Bible) is always very serious and somber. In reality, both the words of Jesus and the Old Testament that shaped him are full of exaggeration, hyperbole, and humor, if we have the ears to hear. And so I don't think the choice of The Chosen to make Jesus funny is inaccurate - even if the way that the show conveys Jesus' humor is influenced by modern sensibilities. The show is engaging thoughtfully with real aspects of how Jesus is portrayed in the Gospels - aspects that have received far too little attention in prior biblical adaptations. Even if this isn't always done perfectly, I give The Chosen credit for paving the way for future artists, writers, and filmmakers to engage creatively with the humor and hyperbole of Jesus.
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 3
The Chosen Season 3 Episode 1 & Episode 2: Reaction and Analysis
The Chosen Season 3 Episodes 7 & 8: Recap, Review, & Analysis
The Chosen Season 3 Episodes 1 & 2: Questions to Discuss Before the Premiere
Adapting Biblical Characters Series
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]
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
The Chosen Season 2 Controversy (Jesus, the Bible, & the Process of Inspiration)
Should Nicodemus Kneel? Narrative Ambiguity & Charitable Reading
Beyond The Chosen
Amazon Prime's The Rings of Power & The Challenges of Biblical Adaptation
In Defense of The Chosen and Other Christian Movies, Books, & Media (Part 1)
In Defense of The Chosen and Other Christian Movies, Books, & Media (Part 2)
Imagining Mary Magdalene (5 More Bible Adaptations While You Wait for The Chosen Season 2)