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Should Nicodemus Kneel? Narrative Ambiguity & Charitable Reading (The Chosen Controversies)

Updated: Jun 1

As a creative and risk-taking adaptation of the Gospel narratives, it should be no surprise that The Chosen has been a source of controversy. It's hard enough for an adaptation of a non-religious text like The Lord of the Rings to please its fans; it's even harder for a Bible adaptation like The Chosen to interpret and re-present the stories of the Gospel in a way that satisfies the standards of a community as diverse and yet demanding as contemporary Christianity. From the start, many Christians are predisposed to viewing an adaptation of the Bible with skepticism - and for understandable reasons. The Christian and Jewish communities have often seen their sacred stories distorted beyond recognition in mainstream Hollywood adaptations like Noah or Exodus: Gods & Kings. Negative experiences like this make it difficult for Christians to give new adaptations the benefit of the doubt. When a show like The Chosen has scenes that are ambiguous and open to a variety of interpretations, it's unfortunate but not surprising that viewers tend to assume the worst. This seems to be the dynamic at play in The Chosen controversies that we'll be exploring today, both of which are related to The Chosen's depiction of the Born Again conversation in Episode 7 of Season 1.

The Controversies: Sinful Hearts & Should Nicodemus Kneel?

Season 1 of The Chosen focuses on how various potential disciples [Matthew, Simon (Peter) & Andrew, Mary Magdalene, and Nicodemus] first encounter Jesus. Nicodemus' big moment comes during the penultimate episode of the season. Leading up to that encounter, The Chosen depicts Nicodemus as an esteemed Pharisaical Rabbi on a visit to Capernaum. During the visit, he gets pressured (against his better judgment) into attempting to conduct an exorcism of a demonized woman ("Lilith," who turns out to be Mary Magdalene) in the Red Quarter. Nicodemus ultimately fails in his attempt, writing the failure off as a matter of Mary being too far gone. When he runs into her soon after and finds her in good health, freed from the demons, he doesn't quite know what to make of it. Mary doesn't even know Jesus' name yet or where he can be found, but she tells Nicodemus about what happened, and this leaves Nicodemus in doubt. Nicodemus goes on to encounter John the Baptist in prison and hears him testify to the fact that God's Messiah is coming. Eventually, Nicodemus meets Mary once again and, since she's now become an integral member in Jesus' band of followers, she's able to arrange for a meeting between Nicodemus and Jesus.

The encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus loosely follows the famous Born Again conversation recorded in John 3. Some viewers may be bothered simply by the fact that the scene doesn't strictly follow the dialogue given to us in John's Gospel. In fairness to the show though, I seriously doubt that the biblical writers would have been bothered simply by the fact that the dialogue isn't a word-for-word replication; the synoptics often record precisely the same conversations with different wording. However, the more significant criticisms that I've seen have to do with some of the specific changes.

The first controversy is centered on the role of personal feelings or experience in knowing truth. At one point during the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, Nicodemus asks how all of what Jesus says can possibly be true. Jesus responds by saying, "What does your heart tell you?" For those who aren't aware, while proselytizing, Mormon missionaries will often share a testimony or read from the Book of Mormon and ask the potential convert if they experienced a "burning in the bosom" and then point to this as proof that Mormonism is true. Some evangelicals have worried that this Mormon concept of "the burning of the bosom" is being put into the mouth of New Testament Jesus. Alternatively, some have worried that the line encourages subjectivism or emotionalism and makes the truth of the Gospel dependent on the feelings of the deceitful human heart (Jeremiah 17:9).

The second controversy is centered on Jesus' divinity. Toward the end of the conversation, as the messianic identity of Jesus begins to dawn on Nicodemus, Nicodemus tries to kneel in front of Jesus and kiss his hand as a sign of reverence and loyalty. But Jesus doesn't receive Nicodemus' gesture; he tells him that it's not necessary. Some have seen this as a sign that The Chosen is denying Jesus' divinity or his desire for worship.

Narrative Ambiguity & Charitable Reading

Before we explore the controversy generated by the ambiguity of The Chosen, it's worth taking a step back and recognize how much controversy has been generated by the ambiguity of the Gospels themselves. Consider all the controversies that have raged throughout the history of the church regarding the nature of Christ or the Trinity. While the Gospel accounts give us very strong reasons for believing the historic orthodox position in these areas, we also have to recognize just how ambiguous they are. Except for John, the Gospels don't just come out and explicitly state "Jesus is God." Don't get me wrong - I believe they do communicate Jesus' divinity, but that truth is generally delivered through indirect narrative techniques (e.g. allusions to the Old Testament, the actions of the disciples). Because narratives tend to communicate in a manner that leaves room for interpretation, there's always been enough ambiguity in the Gospels for heretics and secular scholars to question the orthodox interpretation.

Consider what would happen if heresy hunters approached the Gospels with the same level of suspicion and scrutiny that they show when criticizing The Chosen. There are more than a few problem passages that on the surface don't seem to jive with an orthodox view of Jesus as co-equal with God the Father. Jesus says the Father is greater than he is (John 14:28), he claims that there are things the Father knows that he doesn't (Mark 13:32), and he seems to reject the title "good teacher" because "no one is good but God alone" (Mark 10:18). Of course, orthodox interpreters can reconcile these apparent discrepancies with a high view of Jesus - I know that quite well. But if the Gospels themselves can sometimes be ambiguous about important theological matters like the divinity of Jesus, it's fair for an adaptation of the Gospels to also contain a little ambiguity.

Let's consider the first controversy, about the role of the heart in knowing truth. Could the words of Jesus in The Chosen be construed in a sense that doesn't jive with what the Bible teaches about the heart? Sure, if you want to read a lot into a single comment. But does that kind of interpretation actually fit in the context of the entire show? I don't think so. In fact, I don't think it even makes good sense of the scene as a whole. Jesus (in The Chosen) is clearly not telling Nicodemus to reject Scripture and embrace whatever feels right. The context of their conversation makes it clear that the two share an assumption that the foundational source of truth is Scripture - that's why they both continually make reference to various biblical passages or concepts. Moreover, Jesus clearly communicates how the ultimate need of humanity is salvation from their own sin - a claim that would never be made by a wishy-washy subjectivist.

Keep in mind, the main point that Jesus is trying to make is that all people need to be born again through the Holy Spirit in order to see the Kingdom of God. That argument assumes that, apart from regeneration, the human heart can't properly know the truth. On the other hand, it also suggests that when the Spirit is at work in someone's life, their heart should resonate with the truth. Nicodemus isn't being invited to believe in Jesus just because it feels right. He's being encouraged to not resist the power of the Holy Spirit, who is attempting to draw Nicodemus toward Jesus through Scripture and the miracles that Jesus has performed.

Now let's consider the second controversy, over Jesus telling Nicodemus not to kneel. Could this be construed as The Chosen rejecting Jesus' divinity? I guess. And yet you would be hard pressed to look at The Chosen as a whole and conclude that the show is rejecting the divinity of Jesus. As I've pointed out, if you're going to interpret things through the lens of suspicion, you'll also end up taking issue with a variety of passages in the Gospels as well. If anything, the show is probably more explicit about the divinity of Jesus early in his ministry than the synoptic Gospels are. Even during the Nicodemus conversation, the allusion to Proverbs 30:4 suggests a very high view of Jesus - the kind that we get in only a handful of places in the Gospels. Moreover, there are reasons why Jesus might discourage Nicodemus from kneeling other than a low christology. As Dallas Jenkins has pointed out, Nicodemus (in The Chosen) still holds to a misguided view of the role of the Messiah. If we look at the Gospels, we see Jesus reject adoration in similar situations, like when the crowds want to make Jesus king and he hides from them (John 6:14-15).

Could The Chosen have avoided some of this ambiguity and the potential for unwanted interpretations? Probably. Ambiguity can be good, when it encourages deeper reflection, but it can also be a distraction. The Chosen didn't gain much from any of this and the show probably could have avoided generating all this unnecessary controversy. That being said, people need to chill out. These are minor narrative details that are, at worst, ambiguous. If The Chosen displayed a general trend of low christology or subjectivism, it might be worth worrying about, but these are isolated incidents. In moments of ambiguity, we should be willing to give the work of other Christians the most charitable reading possible. After all, if we're called to love our neighbors as ourselves, we should be willing to give interpret the work of our neighbor with the same degree of generosity and openness that we would desire for our own work.


Further Reading

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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