Updated: Jun 4
As I watched the update on The Chosen this past Sunday, I was surprised to learn that the controversy sparked by Episode 5-8 of Season 2 of The Chosen is still ongoing. Of course, if there's one thing Christians are "good" at, it's creating controversy. Nevertheless, I was surprised, not because I deem The Chosen to be utterly beyond criticism, but because in these particular controversies the show is obviously on the side of historical Christianity. So, since I haven't hesitated to acknowledge the artistic and theological defects in The Chosen, I feel honor-bound to not hesitate in defending the show when it faces controversy and criticism in areas where it is spot on, both artistically and theologically.
Controversy 1: Mary Magdalene's Spiritual "Relapse"
Episode 1 of The Chosen Season 1 establishes that Mary Magdalene is a victim of significant trauma. Not only has she been tormented by a literal demon, it's also briefly suggested that Mary was the victim of rape at the hands of a Roman soldier. Under the weight of all this trauma, Mary seems to fall regularly into self-destructive coping mechanisms like drinking. However, when she encounters Jesus, he not only exorcises the spiritual demon that is tormenting her, he also helps her repent of her unhealthy dependence on drinking. This change is drastic - and, if The Chosen deserves any criticism in regard to Mary's journey, it's that the show depicts a shift that is so abrupt that it feels hard to believe. Very few victims of both trauma and addiction have ever experienced such a clear-cut, uncomplicated reversal. Sadly, that is not the source of the controversy over The Chosen.
During Episode 5 of The Chosen Season 2, Mary's past trauma is triggered, first by an encounter with a Roman soldier (similar to her rapist) and second by an encounter with a demon (similar to her spiritual rapist). The stress Mary experiences as a result of these triggering events causes her to fall back on her old coping mechanism - drinking. She leaves the camp of the disciples and finds her way back to one of her favorite bars, where she drowns herself in booze. In Episode 6 of The Chosen Season 2, Jesus sends Simon Peter and Matthew in search of her and they're thankfully able to convince her to come back. Once she returns, she struggles to approach Jesus because of her shame at falling back into her old ways, but he gently and graciously extends forgiveness and love. It's a beautiful scene - one of the most moving moments of The Chosen Season 2.
So, what's the controversy, exactly? Apparently some "Christians" got bothered that The Chosen depicts Mary as falling back into her old sin after encountering Jesus. "But, um, don't all Christians struggle with sin at times?" you might ask. I guess those stirring up this controversy don't - except perhaps with the sin of being quarrelsome. Never mind all the other biblical believers who clearly experience relapses into sin - Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and Simon Peter - not to mention all the other disciples who abandoned Jesus when he was arrested. Never mind that the New Testament clearly instructs believers to confess their sin and seek restoration (1 John 1:8-10; James 5:16), which would seem kind of unnecessary if believers couldn't relapse into old sinful patterns. Never mind how we're told to go seek out those who are wandering from the faith in order to win them back (James 5:18-19) - which is pretty much exactly what The Chosen depicted. And never mind the broad testimony of historical Christianity - Protestant/Evangelical, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox - that believers continue to sin and often need to repent and be restored.
Of course, what makes this controversy even more silly is that The Chosen has never tried to depict the disciples as perfected saints who never sin. Simon relapses into being a jerk all the time, as do most of the other disciples. But I guess Mary's relapse is somehow different because it involves alcohol - because God can totally forgive men being self-important jerks but he can't possibly show grace to a traumatized woman who shows a moment of weakness involving alcohol.
Far from being bothered by the very tame way The Chosen depicted Mary struggling, I honestly think the show could have gone a little farther. I think Mary's struggle and relapse would have been much more realistic and powerful if it had been longer - a season-long arc that depicted the real ups and downs that people with trauma face on their road to healing. I won't seriously fault The Chosen in this regard though, because apparently even what the show did do was too much for some wacky corners of the Christian internet. In the world of Christian media, apparently having a woman relapse into drinking for a day or two is a great feat of artistic daring.
Controversy 2: Divine Inspiration & The Sermon on the Mount
Season 2 of The Chosen showed a significant interest in the process of biblical inspiration. The prologue of Episode 1 showed us part of the Apostle John's process of researching and crafting the Gospel of John, drawing on both the testimony of other disciples and his own unique theological insights. In Episode 5, a disciple briefly overhears Jesus crafting and rehearsing the Sermon on the Mount out loud. During this scene Jesus tries out various turns of phrase and ends up keeping some and rejecting others. Jesus' process of sermon preparation continues in Episode 8, where Jesus actually invites Matthew to give input on the wording, organization, and even content of the sermon. And, as a coda to Season 2, Christmas with the Chosen: The Messengers also explores the writing of Scripture by depicting what Luke's effort to collect testimonies for his Gospel might have looked like in the early church.
Here I understand the controversy a bit better, though I still think The Chosen is on the side of large swathes of historic Christianity. The problem is that many Christians are never taught a thoughtful approach to understanding what the Bible is and how it was written. As a result, they adopt the "Dictation" or Mechanical Theory of Biblical Inspiration - an idea that's much more in keeping with Islam or Mormonism than with biblical Christianity. In essence, this theory depicts the writing of Scripture as a completely 1-sided process. God is pictured as beaming the words of Scripture directly into the brains of writers like Moses, John, and Paul, and these writers are then pictured almost like tools, mechanically reproducing these words without any input of their own. All of this is deemed as necessary in order to ensure that we can affirm that the Bible is 100% divinely inspired, without any taint of human error.
But can we still believe that the Bible is 100% divinely inspired - and yet also believe that it contains the imprint of human processes and personalities? Many, many well-respected theologically conservative theologians and teachers have said yes. The Organic Theory of Inspiration, the main alternative to "dictation" has been championed by the most respected writers of Systematic Theology in a variety of theological branches. In my own Presbyterian tradition, theological heavy weights like BB Warfield, Herman Bavinck, Louis Berkhof, and John Frame all ascribe to this understanding. The gist of the Organic View is that God is 100% the author of Scripture - and yet he doesn't exercise that authorship by directly dictating the words of Scripture to mechanical humans tools. Rather, he sovereignly shapes the human authors and their writing processes through a variety of means - both natural (education, personal experiences, written sources, verbal sources) and supernatural (the supervising influence of the Holy Spirit) in order to guide them to his final intended product.
The Organic Theory certainly seems to be the way we're invited to imagine the creation of the Gospel of Luke (Luke 1:1-4). It also seems like the obvious implication of how personal many of the New Testament letters are. Moreover, the fact that many, if not most, of the New Testament letters are a collaborative product (cf Romans 16:22, 1 Peter 5:12) almost demands a more complex view than simple "dictation." After all, it would seem rather superfluous for God to dictate words to one human if that human would likewise need to dictate the same words to a scribe.
If your picture of inspiration is something-like the "dictation" view, The Chosen is obviously going to bother you. When John writers his Gospel in the prologue of Episode 1 of The Chosen Season 2, he clearly isn't just a passive tool; he's actively reflecting on his own experiences with Jesus and writing out of his own unique personality and insight. Likewise, when Jesus crafts the Sermon on the Mount in Episode 5 and Episode 8 of The Chosen Season 2, he isn't just receiving a spiritual brainwave; Jesus is clearly engaged in a creative process - and, what is more, Jesus not only draws on his own personality and schooling, he also draws on the ideas and training and personality of Matthew. But those who hold to a picture of inspiration in line with the Organic View will have no problem entertaining the possibility that God used a variety of means and processes to guide John and Jesus to his infallible desired product. The Chosen is not denying the divine inspiration of Scripture; it is merely trying to imagine and represent the complex, organic process that God appears to have used in order to craft his word.
Controversy 3: Jesus' Divinity and The Sermon on the Mount
There may be some Christians who were not bothered by the depiction of John writing his Gospel in Episode 1 of The Chosen Season 2, but who still objected to how Jesus crafted the Sermon on the Mount in Episode 5 and Episode 8. Such viewers may be willing to accept the Organic Theory of Inspiration and the possibility that the writers of Scripture were not mindless tools but rather intentional ingredients in the writing of Scripture. What they object to isn't that God may have involved a complex process and human personalities in the writing of Scripture. Rather, they object specifically to the idea that Jesus would have relied on or been influenced by the ideas and suggestions of others in crafting his teaching and, more broadly, that his teaching was a result of a temporal human process. They see this as conflicting with Jesus' divine identity and authority. I suppose they would have preferred a depiction of Jesus as teaching spontaneously, so as to suggest that the teaching was not a result of human processes but rather was solely from his eternal Divine Nature.
Just as Christians have struggled to understand how the Bible can be both the authoritative Word of God and a word produced through human processes, so too have we often struggled to understand how Jesus can be both divine and human. Many people (and adaptations) attempt to navigate this paradox by parceling out which parts of Jesus are human and which parts are divine. Such people will often end up suggesting that Jesus is divine with respect to his mind and thinking and only human with respect to his body and emotions. As popular as this approach might be, however, it's clearly heresy - Apollinarian Heresy - which was condemned by the early church in favor of the orthodox belief that Jesus has a full human and full divine nature, united in one person. Jesus wasn't just a divine mind covered in human flesh; he had real, human mental processes like you and me. Jesus had a complete human nature, like you and me, and yet it was fully united to a complete divine nature. Thus, we can conclude that when he spoke and taught (e.g. in the Sermon on the Mount), the product was a result of his united human and the divine natures, not one or the other by itself. There's no reason then to object to Jesus creating his teaching in a human way - by engaging in a gradual process involving experimentation, input, and collaboration - so long as we as recognize that his divine nature was likewise engaged in this process in a way that can't actually be depicted on screen.
If the paragraph above was a bit too abstract and theological, let me make this more concrete. If you look at the Sermon on the Mount and compare it to the Old Testament and to non-canonical Jewish writings, it's clear that the Sermon on the Mount is building on the ideas and language of other works. It isn't a purely "original" work, in the sense that it came ex nihilo, without any discernible human origin. No, Jesus had clearly learned these other writings - he had "increased in wisdom" (Luke 2:52). Then Jesus took what he had learned and creatively transformed it into something new, in the same way that all teachers and thinkers do. But, if we're willing to accept that Jesus' ideas were influenced by his knowledge of the Old Testament and other Jewish writings, why would we not also allow for the possibility that his ideas were influenced by a full creative process or by the input of other humans like Matthew? How the divine nature was united to this complex human process is a mystery - but that's always going to be the case, whether the human process was complex and involved a variety of inputs or whether it was relatively simple.
Whew, that was much more theological than I usually get here on the blog, especially when talking about The Chosen. But I'm curious - what do you think? Am I not giving one of the objections raised in these controversies about The Chosen a fair representation? Feel free to push back and offer your thoughts in the comments below!
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