The Chosen Season 4 Controversy? (The Transfiguration of Jesus & the Second Commandment)
Updated: 5 days ago
The Chosen has weathered several controversies over the course of its first three seasons and I doubt the show's critics will stop looking for ways to attack it any time soon. As we begin to anticipate Season 4 of The Chosen, I have a hunch about what the next debate surrounding the show will be. A few weeks ago, I made some predictions about what to expect in The Chosen Season 4, based on what we know in Scripture and a few comments that the creators of the show have made about the upcoming seasons. As I note in that blog, one event I'm expecting to see at some point in Season 4 is Jesus' transfiguration. But, if my hunch is correct, then The Chosen is probably in for some more controversy.
Before we get into why the Transfiguration might provoke disagreement and debate, let's first take a moment to recall how the Gospels describe the event. Then we'll explore different views of the Second Commandment and how they may influence the way people respond to a depiction of the Transfiguration. Finally, we'll consider some ways that the creators of The Chosen can seek to navigate the potential controversy.
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The Transfiguration of Jesus in the Bible
The story of the Transfiguration is found in each of the Synoptic Gospels. It may be a bit redundant, but I want to include the accounts from both the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of Matthew, because they each include distinct details of interest:
Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, but when they became fully awake they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. As he was saying these things, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen. (Luke 9:28-36, ESV)
And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.” (Matthew 17:1-8, ESV)
The description of the Transfiguration is chock full of Old Testament allusions:
The dazzling glory and bright cloud should call to mind the Shekinah Glory Cloud, the visible presence of God among his people in the Old Testament.
The appearance of God's glory on a mountain in the presence of Moses and Elijah should make us think of the story of God calling Moses at the Burning Bush on Mount Sinai (Exodus 3-4), the story of God's covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai (Exodus 24), and the story of God's appearance to Elijah on a mountaintop (1 Kings 19).
The glowing face of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah recalls how the face of Moses used to shine after he talked with God (Exodus 34).
The tents that Simon wants to set up for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah recall the Tent of Meeting, where God would meet with Moses face to face.
Moses and Elijah talk to Jesus about his "departure" - the underlying Greek word is "exodus."
When God speaks from the cloud and the disciples are terrified, it recalls how the Israelites were terrified when God spoke to them from the cloud at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19).
What God actually says about Jesus is a remix of several Old Testament quotes. Jesus is declared God's son, like the Davidic King (Psalm 2:7), God is pleased with him and has chosen him, like the Servant of Yahweh (Isaiah 42:1, Isaiah 49:7, Psalm 89:3), and the disciples are told to listen to him, like God commanded Israel to listen/obey the voice of the Angel of Yahweh (Exodus 23:20-22).
What do we make of all of these Old Testament allusions? Are the Gospels simply presenting Jesus as a new Moses/Elijah or is the something more going on? Historically, Christians have understood that in the Transfiguration the disciples received a glimpse of Jesus' divine glory - the glory with which he appeared in the Old Testament as the pre-incarnate Word of the Lord or Angel of Yahweh. This is why Simon Peter later looked back on the event as such a pivotal moment in the development of his faith (2 Peter 1:16-18).
So, the significance of the Transfiguration event in the biblical accounts is pretty clear. Unlike other biblical events, there isn't a huge division over how to interpret what happened or what it means. So why would depicting this moment be a source of controversy? Before we can answer that question, we have to take a step back and consider some of the different ways that Christians view the use of images and visual representations of Jesus.
The Second Commandment & Images of Jesus
There are few if any figures who have been the subject of as many artistic depictions as Jesus. And yet throughout the centuries there have been violent disagreements among Christians over whether depicting Jesus in art is even permissible. The foundation of this debate is the second commandment:
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments." (Exodus 20:4-6, ESV)
Jews have long understood this command to forbid any attempt to represent God in a visual form, particularly for the purpose of worship/idolatry. That raises a tricky question for Christians, who believe that Jesus is fully divine (and fully human). Does the Second Commandment forbid artistic representation of Jesus, the Son of God?
There's a broad spectrum of Christian responses to this question. On one end of the spectrum are iconophiles ("image" + "lovers") who prize images of Jesus and even venerate them as a means of grace. The most iconophilic branch of Christianity today is the Eastern Orthodox Church, in which religious icons play a very prominent role both in weekly worship and in everyday spirituality. Theoretically, the Roman Catholic Church also embraces the religious use of icons, but the practice of veneration isn't nearly as important in the life of a typical Roman Catholic.
On the other end of the spectrum are iconoclasts ("image" + "breakers"), who view any attempt to represent Jesus (or the Father or the Spirit) in a visual medium as a form of idolatry. Throughout history, iconoclastic movements have been responsible for ransacking churches and destroying any artwork considered to be idolatrous. During the Protestant Reformation, the Reformed branch tended to be iconoclastic. For example, in its explanation of the sins forbidden by the Second Commandment, the Westminster Larger Catechism states:
The sins forbidden in the Second Commandment are, all devising, counseling, commanding, using, and anywise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself; tolerating a false religion; the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever; all worshiping of it, or God in it or by it; the making of any representation of feigned deities, and all worship of them, or service belonging to them; all superstitious devices, corrupting the worship of God, adding to it, or taking from it, whether invented and taken up of ourselves, or received by tradition from others, though under the title of antiquity, custom, devotion, good intent, or any other pretense whatsoever; simony; sacrilege; all neglect, contempt, hindering, and opposing the worship and ordinances which God has appointed. (WLC 109)
While many Reformed churches have come to adopt a more moderate position on the spectrum, there are still hardline iconoclasts in the Reformed movement today who oppose any visual representation of Jesus (including his depiction in a show like The Chosen).
In between these extreme ends of the spectrum are a variety of mediating positions. To simplify things a bit, we can say that to the center of the iconophiles are the icono-curious, and to the center of the iconoclasts are the icono-pragmatists. The icono-curious might not be willing to embrace the full theology of veneration found in Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, but they still see art as an important means of worship. They tend to see the Second Commandment as limited exclusively to false idols and so they aren't particularly concerned about using images of Jesus. Icono-pragmatists, on the other hand, are more concerned about the implications of the Second Commandment when it comes to depicting Jesus. While they aren't willing to completely reject all images of Jesus like traditional iconoclasts, they tend to limit the use of images to specific pragmatic purposes like teaching/illustrating a biblical story. Thus, they are fine with Storybook Bibles but may be skeptical of practices like live-painting during worship.
Among Protestants and Evangelicals today, the icono-curious position definitely seems to be the most common (being especially prominent among nondenominational, charismatic, and mainline congregations) while the icono-pragmatist position probably comes in second (being prominent among reformed denominations). This is an important context for understanding the success of The Chosen. If there was a statistically significant number of iconoclasts today, the pushback against the show would have been much stronger. Instead, the number of actual iconoclasts is vanishingly small. Most Christians today actively favor the use of images of Jesus in at least some respect - whether it's simply as a tool for illustrating biblical stories or as a bonafide means of grace. The depiction of Jesus in a biblical adaptation falls within the scope of what the vast majority of Christian consider to be acceptable and even beneficial.
The Transfiguration of Jesus and Divine Glory
Hardline iconoclasts are never going to support a show like The Chosen. Meanwhile, iconophiles - and most of the icono-curious - are never going to question The Chosen, at least not on the grounds of the Second Commandment. But icono-pragmatists are more up in the air. Unlike iconoclasts, they aren't opposed to all biblical adaptations. Most will embrace films like The Gospel of John, which strictly seek to illustrate biblical stories. However, when a show like The Chosen introduces novel storylines or sayings of Jesus (like "I am the Law of Moses"), the more stringent icono-pragmatists see it as an attack on the sufficiency of Scripture. My suspicion is that this group will also balk when The Chosen attempts to depict the Transfiguration.
On the one hand, the Transfiguration is simply another biblical story. In that sense, depicting Jesus getting transfigured is no different from depicting Jesus performing an exorcism - the goal is to illustrate a biblical story about Jesus, which should be acceptable to most icono-pragmatists. On the other hand, the subject of the Transfiguration narrative is Jesus uncovering his glory. To adapt that story, one has to visually represent the unveiled divine majesty of Jesus. And this is exact what iconoclasts - and many icono-pragmatists - want to guard against: an attempt to capture the uncreated glory of God in a man-made image.
Now, I don't think most Christians - even most icono-pragmatists - will be bothered by any of this. Most of those who might have an issue with depicting the Transfiguration are already opposed to The Chosen for other reasons. But there may be a contingent of icono-pragmatists who have been open to the show so far but who might be uncomfortable with a direct representation of the divine glory. And even if everyone who might bothered by this issue is already opposed to The Chosen, it's worth anticipating the new criticisms and objections that the opponents of the show might raise.
I also think it's possible that there will be another group of people who will object to a depiction of the Transfiguration on purely aesthetic grounds. Depictions of angels or other glowing beings in film often fall flat - particularly when there's an inadequate VFX budget. For example, some of the weakest visual moments in His Only Son are the appearances of the Angel of Yahweh. It's just hard for filmmakers to take such an alien experience and make it feel life-like. It's worth anticipating that as a potential source of criticism as well.
For my part, the only hesitation I have about depicting the Transfiguration is based on aesthetic grounds, not theological ones. The Gospel of John makes it pretty clear that the fullest revelation of Jesus' glory was actually on the cross (John 12:23-33) - something relatively few Christians are against depicting. The glory that the disciples see at the Transfiguration isn't the exclusive uncreated divine glory of God. After all, Moses and Elijah also appear with Jesus in glory - and one day we will too (Matthew 13:43). But, like I said, glorious glowing is hard to do on film. I'm not saying the creators of The Chosen can't pull it off - but I do hope they take stock of what they have the resources to pull off before committing to doing so.
3 Ways The Chosen Season 4 Can Navigate the Controversy
After several years of controversy, I hope that the creators of The Chosen have come to accept that they can't please everyone. Visual adaptations of books inevitably displease certain segments of the original fanbase. When the book being adapted is the sacred text of a movement as zealous and yet ideologically-diverse as modern Christendom, the likelihood of displeasing people is much higher - and the intensity of displeasure can be off the charts. The creators of The Chosen will never be able to completely avoid controversy. Someone is always going to be disappointed by what they choose to do with the biblical story - and if they chose to do things differently, someone else would be disappointed.
Still, while it may be impossible to please everyone and avoid controversy, I think it is possible for the creators of The Chosen to anticipate the controversies that the show will generate and to think strategically about how to navigate these potential debates. When the "I am the Law of Moses" controversy first hit, Dallas Jenkins seemed completely caught off guard. Instead of focusing on building excitement for Season 3 based on the new trailer, the team behind The Chosen was forced to scramble to find a way to respond to the (false) accusations that were being leveled at the show. In retrospect, the creators probably regret using the "I am the Law of Moses" quote in the Season 3 trailer, since it distracted from the substance of the season - and also allowed the quote to be taken out of context and misconstrued. The main reason I'm currently speculating about a potential controversy for The Chosen Season 4 is because I don't want them to be caught off guard again.
So, what could the creators of The Chosen do in order to head off a potential controversy generated by the depiction of Jesus' divine glory? I can think of a few directions that they could take:
Option 1: Avoid/Minimize the Controversial Elements
One way to navigate a potential controversy is to attempt to minimize elements that are the source of controversy. If the creators of The Chosen are worried that they'll alienate potential fans by depicting Jesus' divine glory in the Transfiguration, they could simply avoid doing so. In theory, The Chosen could completely skip the Transfiguration (they can't possibly depict every biblical event) - although doing so would probably create a whole other controversy and lead people to accuse the show of minimizing Jesus' divinity. The show could also try to find a creative way to adapt the material. Instead of actually seeing the Transfiguration, we could hear Peter, John, and James talk about it after the fact. Alternatively, the event could be depicted in such a way that we never directly see the glorified Jesus (e.g. the camera just focuses on the disciples). I think it would be hard to pull that off in a way that feels satisfying, but that's certainly one way to try to navigate the controversy and minimize potential criticism.
Option 2: Anticipate and Address the Controversy
I certainly wouldn't blame the creators of The Chosen if they don't want to compromise their creative vision in order to appease a relatively small segment of their potential audience. If they're committed to depicting the Transfiguration in a way that might make some people uncomfortable, they should go ahead and do it. But if they do, they don't have to wait for controversy to pop up and catch them off-guard. Instead, they can take a few practical steps to anticipate and address potential controversy in advance (these steps apply not just to the Transfiguration but to other controversial elements):
Gather a focus group made up of people from a variety of theological positions - especially people who have theological commitments that make them skeptical toward the show. Have them sign NDAs, show them either entire episodes or select scenes that are theologically-significant, and then get their feedback. If there's significant pushback against a particular element in The Chosen Season 4 (e.g. the Transfiguration), flag that concern.
Avoid putting elements that have been flagged as controversial in a trailer, where they'll lack context and may prove to be a distraction.
Before airing an episode that includes an element that's been flagged as controversial, put together a panel of theologians and biblical scholars from a range of traditions, including a critic. Record them having an honest and but civil discussion about the different ways that Christians approach the issue.
When airing a potentially controversial episode, have Dallas acknowledge the potential controversy during his pre-show update and tell viewers about the panel discussion that was recorded. After the episode airs, share the panel (or a clip from it) in the post-show segment.
If possible, have a respected pastor or theologian publish a short blog or article providing a more detailed theological defense of the show's decisions.
The benefit of this approach is that it would allow the creators of The Chosen to set the tone for conversations about the show. It would also ensure viewers that the creators of the show are being theologically thoughtful and deliberate. But there is a potential downside: addressing a controversy amplifies it and lends it a degree of credibility and significance. Of course, the show's current approach - scrambling to respond to controversies after the fact - has the same downside, without the potential benefits.