Updated: Jun 4
Out of all the recurring characters in The Chosen, the Virgin Mary, Jesus' mother, has a very unique role. Because The Chosen (especially in Season 1) has a strong interest in exploring how an encounter with Jesus can change someone's life, most of our primary figures meet Jesus for the first time as a pivotal moment in the evolution of their character. One of the goals of the show is to show us how, as a result of meeting Jesus, you can say (in the words of Mary Magdalene) "I was one way. Now I'm completely different." Mother Mary, on the other hand, is one of the few characters who doesn't have this kind of 180 character change.
Of course, Christmas with The Chosen: The Messengers does, in some sense, show us the moment when Mary met Jesus face to face for the first time (i.e. his birth). And yet this isn't Mary's first personal encounter with Jesus - by the time we meet Mary in The Messengers, she's already "known" Jesus in a very intimate way for about nine months. Clearly Mary has experienced some kind of transformation as a result of bearing Jesus in her womb for nine months and The Chosen communicates this through the way Mary treasures her song (the Magnificat) and passes it on to Mary Magdalene. Even so, we don't see a before-and-after for the Virgin Mary in the same way we do for Mary Magdalene, Simon, Andrew, Matthew, James, John, Thomas, Ramah, Nicodemus, Nathanael, Simon the Zealot, or Judas. If Mother Mary has been transformed by her encounter with Jesus, we don't understand exactly how, because we don't know where she was before he came into his life (and womb).
To be clear, I'm not making this observation about Mary's unique role in order to be critical of The Chosen. Rather, by noticing this unique aspect of Mary's character in comparison to other characters in The Chosen, we can learn something about how the show is approaching the challenge of adapting the Virgin Mother for a broad, ecumenical audience.
Evangelical and Catholic Views of the Virgin Mary
If we want to talk about the challenges The Chosen has to overcome while adapting the figure of Jesus' mother, it's important to understand the relationship that The Chosen has both to Evangelicalism and to Roman Catholicism. On the whole, The Chosen is pretty Evangelical - in large part because director/creator Dallas Jenkins is a product of Evangelical culture and seems quite enmeshed in the emphases and aesthetics of Evangelicalism. On the other hand, the marketing department for The Chosen has gone out of its way to pitch a large tent and invite a variety of viewers to enjoy the show and appreciate how The Chosen resonates with their faith tradition. In particular, Jonathan Roumie (the actor for Jesus) has played an important role in that regard as a Roman Catholic - he seems to serve as a kind of brand ambassador outside of the evangelical world to engage with Catholic audiences. The Chosen has also released several short interviews that invite Catholic scholars or priests to give their thoughts on the show's adaptive decisions. And this effort to include Catholics makes perfect sense - as a crowdfunded show that can't rely on the financial support of a traditional studio,The Chosen needs the support of a broad ecumenical audience, rather than restricting itself to its core Evangelical base.
That being said, by trying to cater to both Catholics and Evangelicals (and to a lesser extent other Protestants and Christian traditions), The Chosen is inevitably going to face some adaptive hurdles. As I've noted, the Bible is never the sole influence on a biblical adaptation; there are always extra-biblical factors that shape the way a biblical story is re-presented in an artistic medium. When an adaptation seeks to provide a comprehensive depiction of the Gospel narratives, theological tradition will inevitably color how events and figures are understood and consequently brought to life. This is particularly the case in any extensive depiction of the Virgin Mary.
I don't want to assume that all readers are aware of the distinct ways Mary is understood by contemporary Roman Catholics and Evangelicals and so let me give a very oversimplified summary of some key differences:
The Immaculate Conception: Sometimes uninformed Evangelicals hear the phrase "Immaculate Conception" and confuse it with the biblical concept of the virgin birth. On the contrary, the Immaculate Conception is a Roman Catholic tradition that the Virgin Mary herself was conceived without original sin. Closely tied to this belief, the Roman Catholic Church also teaches that Mary was without personal sin. Theologians in the Protestant-Evangelical tradition have consistently rejected these beliefs about Mary, both because of the absence of direct biblical support and because these beliefs conflict with Protestant understandings of sin and salvation.
The Perpetual Virginity of Mary: Evangelicals and Catholics can both agree that Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus. But Catholics don't believe that Mary's virginity ended after Jesus was born; they believe that Mary was a virgin for her entire life. Protestant and Evangelicals have had a hard time accepting the idea of perpetual virginity in light of the Gospel passages that refer to Jesus' siblings (e.g. Mark 3:31, John 7:3). In response, Catholic commentators usually argue either that these are half-siblings from Joseph's previous marriage or that the word "brother" could refer more broadly to cousins or other close kin.
The Assumption of Mary: The Bible doesn't give us much information about Mary's time after Jesus - just that she was taken in by the "Beloved Disciple" (John 19:26-27). Over time though, traditions about Mary's later life grew up within the Catholic Church. The belief arose that Mary did not die but rather was taken up, body and soul, into heaven. Again, Protestants and Evangelicals have historically rejected this belief on account of the lack of a clear biblical basis.
Mary's Intercession for Believers: It's hard for Evangelicals to wrap their minds around the importance of Mary for Roman Catholic spirituality. The doctrines that I've noted above aren't just trivial matters for Roman Catholics; they contribute to an elevated picture of Mary as an object of sincere devotion and prayer. Of course, prayer to (or through) the Virgin Mary isn't unique; it's part of a broader Catholic practice of praying to the glorified saints in heaven. While it might be a little easier to construct a biblical argument for the intercession of dead saints on the basis of how the Bible clearly encourages the intercession of living "saints," Protestants and Evangelicals have generally been suspicious of this practice, seeing it as incompatible with Jesus' role as the sole mediator between God and man (1 Timothy 2:5).
Like I said, I'm probably vastly oversimplifying these differences and not presenting a full-orbed understanding of the beliefs on both sides, but I hope this at least sets a rudimentary groundwork for understanding the challenges The Chosen faces in adapting Mary's character on screen for both Catholics and Evangelicals (and other Christians).
Adapting the Virgin Mary for Evangelicals and Catholics
I began this post by drawing attention to Mother Mary's unique role as a character in The Chosen: among the major characters, it's fairly unique that she doesn't have a before-and-after character shift. We never see how Jesus transforms her life - even as early as Christmas with The Chosen: The Messengers, she seems to have already arrived at an exemplary level of humility and faithfulness. Having reviewed some of the differences in how Mary is understood by Evangelicals and Catholics, I think we can now better understand the function this "flat" character arc serves.
Imagine what The Chosen would look like if it was being written by a hardline Protestant with a beef against the Roman Catholic Church. Such a narrowly-Evangelical version of The Chosen would go out of its way to depict Mother Mary as flawed, sinful believer who, like the rest of us, depended on Jesus for forgiveness and personal transformation.
On the other hand, imagine what The Chosen would look like if it was being written and headed by a devout Roman Catholic creator. A narrowly-Catholic version of The Chosen might go out of its way to depict the extra-biblical story of the immaculate conception in order to highlight Mary's freedom from original and personal sin.
But what does The Chosen actually do? It avoids the need to weigh in on such matters by keeping Mary in the background and giving her a flat character arc as a wise, old mentor. We aren't told that Mary is without sin, and so Evangelicals aren't going to complain - they can just assume that there's more complexities to her moral life than what we see on screen. But we also don't see Mary actively sin, and so Roman Catholics aren't going to be offended either - Mary is close enough to perfect for most Catholics to accept. In order to make its adaptation of Mary acceptable to both traditions, The Chosen carefully avoids tipping its hand on a matter that's going to be divisive.
This isn't the only Mary-related doctrine that The Chosen avoids weighing in on. Consider how many of the other disputed concepts about Mary are sidestepped in a way that's acceptable to both Evangelicals and Catholics:
The Perpetual Virginity of Mary: At this point in The Chosen, I think it's conspicuous that Jesus' brothers and sisters (or half-siblings/cousins from a Catholic perspective) haven't shown up yet. It could be that The Chosen is saving all the drama related to Jesus' family for a future story arc in Nazareth. But it's also quite possible that The Chosen is intentionally keeping Jesus' brothers and sisters out of the narrative in order to avoid having to weigh in on the disputed question of whether they are blood-siblings (born to Mary and Joseph after Jesus' birth), step-siblings (from Joseph's previous marriage), or cousins. Of course, if they were step-siblings, one would have expected them to be traveling with Mary and Joseph in The Messengers, but such details are easy to explain away.
The Assumption of Mary: The Messengers not only gives us a picture of Mary near the beginning of her biblical story; it also gives us a picture of Mary near the end of her life story. But just as The Chosen avoids giving us an exact picture of what Mary was like before encountering Jesus, it also avoids giving us an exact picture of Mary's departure from this world. The Messengers strongly hints that Mary isn't going to be around much longer, but we aren't shown or told how she will depart. Thus, Evangelicals can assume that she dies a natural death, while Catholics can assume that her body will get taken up into heaven.
Mary's Intercession for Believers: The challenge with this doctrine is unique. Obviously the idea of praying to Mary as she resides in heaven isn't directly relevant to The Chosen, since the show takes place prior to her departure from this world. But tied up with this practice is the Roman Catholic understanding that Mary acts as a kind of secondary mediator - Jesus mediates between God and humanity and Mary mediates between Jesus and the Church. To resonate with Catholic spirituality, The Chosen can't treat Mary as merely an exemplar of faith (like Evangelicals might be tempted to); Mary needs to serve as a kind of mother to the fledgling church, helping the disciples connect to Jesus. This is exactly what we see The Chosen doing in the way the Virgin Mary's relationship to Mary Magdalene and Ramah is depicted. In this case, The Chosen can focus on catering to a Catholic perspective because it doesn't directly involve the specific issue that Evangelicals find objectionable (praying to Mary).
In all of these ways, The Chosen walks a fine line in order to present a version of the Virgin Mary that will resonate with its broad, ecumenical audience. Having pointed this out, I should be clear that I don't see this as a fault in the show. We live in a fairly ecumenical moment in church history, when most of us are less concerned about emphasizing the differences between the branches of the global church than we are about simply remaining true to historic Christianity. While the distinctions between Roman Catholicism and Evangelicalism are significant at a personal level, it's good for Christians from a variety of traditions to be able to come together around Jesus and his story and I'm glad The Chosen is making that possible.
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