Now that the third season of The Chosen is out, and I have gotten up my courage to start watching it (more on that
in a moment tomorrow), I have also been seeing critical tweets of the show, some of them from my own dear internet friends, and a couple of people have even gone so far as to ask me what I think of it. Those of you who know me in person haven’t been able to escape the fact that I enormously enjoyed the first two seasons. Indeed, whenever anyone started to talk about the Bible, I would always manage to work The Chosen into the discussion, even when it was completely irrelevant. How could this be, given that I am a committed hater of all Christian movies? What is different about this program? Or am I the one who has gone off the deep end?
I’m going to sketch out what I think Dallas Jenkins is doing–a presumptuous undertaking as I have not listened to very much of what he has said with the exception of his answer to those accusing him of being a clandestine Mormon. Moreover, I haven’t watched all of the latest season because my crowded household is committed to watching them together and everyone’s schedules make it hard to find the time. Still, what’s to stop me…don’t answer that.
Then, I’m going to explain why what I think Jenkins is doing is, in fact, a good thing to do. And finally, I’m going to respond to some of the tweets I’ve seen. The people I’ve seen tweeting are people I would count as friends, and this is a friendly disagreement. I’m pretty sure–wouldn’t stake my salvation on it, of course–but am feeling fairly confident that watching The Chosen falls into the realm of adiaphora.
What On Earth Is Dallas Jenkins Doing?
Dallas Jenkins making an eminantly watchable program about Jesus and his disciples. His source material is the biblical gospel accounts, with, by his own admission, lots of expert exegetical, doctrinal, and theological advice from various scholars. He draws on the Old Testament and tradition and then works out possible backstories and imaginative reckonings of Jesus’ ministry. As one person I like very much on Twitter put it, it’s basically “historical fiction” in that a lot of what is going on is straight out of the Bible, but then a lot of it isn’t as well.
Why is Dallas Jenkins doing this? Well, I would imagine it is because he wants people to meet Jesus and be saved. That is why a lot of Christians do a lot of things. To talk about Jesus, to think about and write about him, is to direct one’s efforts toward building up the kingdom of God, bringing people in and make them more surely and deeply followers of Jesus. He wants people to know Jesus and so he is using the gifts and talents he has to that end.
But I think he’s doing something else as well that a lot of people say they think we should do, but then either don’t do it or do it in the manner of a battle axe that destroys everything. The something else that I think Jenkins is doing is exegeting American evangelical culture. This second exegesis is the vehicle through which he shows the life of Jesus in a way that American evangelicals might be able to hear and understand. But, and this is what I love so much, at the heart of this second exegesis is a gentle, necessary, and very funny critique of those same evangelicals.
Which is to say, Dallas Jenkins is being funny about that which ought to be funny–sinful human people–and being serious about that which ought to be serious–Jesus.
Why Is This A Good Thing To Do?
You can accumulate enormous political and cultural capital right now for bludgeoning evangelicals with your rhetorical bludgeoning instruments. Look how wicked and bad they are! They always do and say the wrong things. They love their stupid big churches and their merch. How dumb! They should all go jump in a lake and die. Thus is the posture of so many exvangelicals who would love to be loved by people who openly hate God and his scriptures and his church.
Those who adopt this sort of view of American Christianity miss some necessary and important truths. First, American Christianity is both Christian and American. To say that America was once a “Christian Nation” is to admit that there was a sort of symbiotic relationship between the kinds of things American Christians love and the push and pull of those American Christian on the moral landscape of the rest of American culture. There are so many fun tropes in American culture that derive from the Christian side of that coin: the football coach dad who just wants the team to do awesome and who prays on the field, the mini-van mom who packs awesome lunches and has long heart-to-heart conversations with her kids over an Orange Julius in the mall, the worship leader, the youth pastor, the activist, and, in these more modern times, the abuse-survivor and the person on the autism spectrum. Jenkins–I think deftly–shapes the kind of Christianity Americans are most used to in and around the Biblical story. He is doing pretty good exegesis on both counts and, as they say, I am here for it.
Why does it work so well (at least for me)? Because it’s the right kind of funny. Sure, you can hate American Christian culture if you want to. But that’s like hating your parents for being from a different generation than you. It’s ungrateful and mean and bad. Rather, if you were a good person, you would both laugh at yourself and laugh–gently–at your parents. You would set down your righteous moral superiority and admit that you yourself are really really wicked. The easiest way into the truth is through laughter. And Dallas Jenkins is a master class in brilliantly timed humor. My favorite example of this is Jenkin’s symphonic orchestration of all the Wedding Planner tropes wound tightly together to kick you in the spiritual gut with a profoundly moving, dare I say, Eucharistic moment of Jesus changing the water into wine.
But seriously, I also love that Peter’s wife is a recognizable soccer mom, that the Roman soldiers talk American English and at least one looks like he definitely coaches football. I love that Andrew and Peter are basically our last Youth Minister. I love how bad the accents are and that Mary the Mother of Jesus is literally every mom who prays for people in the lobby of every church especially when you particularly don’t want her to.
I love it in the same way that I love staring at medieval or renaissance or any era of paintings of Mary holding the baby Jesus and seeing that particular cultures put themselves right in the frame. Isn’t that what we do? Don’t we translate the Bible over and over and over and over again into every language? Every culture? Can’t we do this with art? We’ve done it in bygone times. Can Dallas Jenkins be allowed to do it now?
Because he’s not critiquing the scriptures by doing it this way. On the contrary, he’s critiquing you…and me. Jesus is the same, yesterday and today and forever. Jenkin’s Jesus emerges fresh on the screen as a knowable man who was God, who came to save his people from their sins…which are many and plentiful and which we don’t like to look at that much. We like our sins to be other people’s problems, which is how you get the phenomenon of the exvangelical. Whereas, Jesus came to save you, a sinner. So you need to listen to him and read his Bible. How are you even going to start? You’re going to laugh at how funny it all is, and then, when your guard is down, you’re going to be punched in your heart by the word of God. I’m sorry, but that’s just good preaching.
Shoot, I’m not done with all my thoughts on this. I haven’t even got to the third part but I have to run along, so I will pick this up tomorrow and say more. In the meantime, feel free to disagree, but I’m totally gonna tell all you lovely tweeters why you’re wrong tomorrow!
Love and kisses!