|A391 : by Tony Garland
Unless you've been away from the Internet of late, you've no-doubt heard about the crowd-funded Christian series, "The Chosen." You also may know that numerous ministries have been critical of the show. What should a Christian think about the series? In evaluating The Chosen, I''ll be looking at two aspects of the show: (1) the content of the show itself—as seen by viewers; and (2) behind-the-scenes aspects of the show.
So what about the critical "buzz" about the show which has been expressed on the Internet? Just yesterday, when viewing an excellent Q&A session by one of the best-known, faithful preachers of modern times, the question came up about The Chosen — what did he think of it? To which he basically said, "I don't like that." In the context, it was clear that he was unfamiliar with the show, but objected to the show on the principle that it included material not found in scripture. (For what it's worth, I am quite familiar with the show—having watched all the episodes from all the seasons. So my observations are not being made from a position of unfamiliarity.)
What are the most common criticisms? I think there are primarily three.
Before discussing each of these criticisms in greater detail, I'd like to recognize aspects of the show which I find commendable.
- The show includes material beyond what Scripture contains — some see this as implying that Scripture is insufficient.
- Associated with the first criticism, the show takes liberty with the backstory—by communicating situations and details concerning the lives of Jesus, his mother, and the disciples which are not derived directly from Scripture.
- The Mormon connection - the company distributing The Chosen, and some of the people working behind-the-scenes, are Mormons. There have also been puzzling statements about Mormonism by the director, Dallas Jenkins.
Having mentioned these commendable aspects, let's look at each of the criticisms
- Production excellence. The screenwriting, actors, and sets are all top-notch. This is a breath of fresh air: a Christian production that is not "B" grade!
- Faithfulness to the biblical narrative. The backstory is well-written and effectively augments the biblical truths and narrative which derives directly from Scripture. (I might quibble with a thing or two—but they fall into the category of secondary issues or interpretations of the meaning of Scripture which I don't entirely agree with, no different from when I read a biblical commentary on a passage. For instance, that Jesus came to inaugurate a purely spiritual kingdom. Or that Jesus rehearsed the Sermon on the Mount—are you kidding?!) In my view, the backstory functions much like the setting for a diamond. It effectively supports and sets off the jewel: the biblical truth and scriptural dialog.
- The depiction of aspects not found in Scripture is plausible and compatible with Scripture
Goes beyond Scripture
I'd like to frame our discussion in light of a verse from John's Gospel concerning the way in which believers participate in the work of salvation.
38 On the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. 38 He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” 39 But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:38-39) The Holy Spirit empowers believers such that, out of their hearts, flow the message of salvation. This primarily takes place out of our mouths, when we share God's inspired Word or principles derived from it. But it actually includes every way in which we communicate within the culture around us: our attitudes, behavior, body language — our overall life witness. In discussing this river of life—and how it manifests—I'd like to consider three examples: (1) preaching; (2) worship hymns; and (3) personal evangelization.
When a preacher shares the truth of God's Word, the river flows primarily out his mouth — the content of the preaching contains the life-giving truth of God. Most preachers pride themselves, and rightly so, on sticking closely to the inspired Scriptures. As it has been wisely said, "Preachers are waiters, not cooks." They do not create the food, they faithfully deliver the food which God has already prepared. But how is this done? Do preachers restrict themselves only to exact sentences and phrases drawn from God's inspired Word? Not exactly — at least I've never heard a preacher read a passage and not say anything more about it. Illustrations, contextualization, and bringing out insights concerning what is being taught always entails additional insights, commentary, and discussion — all of which is flavored by the preacher and his adequacies and inadequacies.
If we were to restrict preaching to only the exact words of Scripture, then which translation would we mandate? Would we choose only the authorized KJV? Would preaching from another translation be deemed unfaithful? And if we really were serious about avoiding all additions to the inspired Word, could we even preach in any of the modern languages? Wouldn't we have to avoid translation inaccuracies and resort to preaching in the original languages: Hebrew and Aramaic (in the OT) or Greek (in the NT)? No, every preacher goes beyond the inspired text itself when delivering a message and expounding it's content and relevance for living — and rightly so.
So it seems a bit disingenuous to me for preachers to be the main ones pounding the pulpit and criticizing The Chosen for this same aspect. The same could be said of every sermon I've ever heard.
The same goes for those wonderful and classic hymns of the Church. Do they only contain exact phrases and statements from Scripture? Or are they flavored by "backstories" — experiences and emotions which the hymn writer draws from which essentially augment or surround the biblical truths being communicated? Of course, faithful hymns will major on biblical truths expressed using phrases, words, and concepts derived closely from Scripture. But there is also artistic license to place those truths within a setting of a song, complete with verses, a bridge, a tune, and so forth.
The river of life doesn't just flow out of the hearts of preachers and hymn-writers. More frequently, it flows out of the heart of individual believers who share their faith with those around them. This is personal evangelism. If you've ever watched effective street evangelists the likes of Ray Comfort or Todd Friel, you'll see that sharing the gospel often involves communicating biblical principles in ways that are not direct phrases from Scripture. When effectively communicating with non-believers, these preachers will build a bridge with unbelievers in an attempt to communicate truths of Scripture which are universal and timeless. For instance, rather than citing Psalm 51:5, "Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me," Ray Comfort typically asks a series of questions to establish the fallen nature of his listener. "Have you ever stolen anything?" "Yes." "What do you call someone who steals?" "A thief." "Have you ever lied about anything?" "Yes." "What do you call someone who lies?" "A liar." "So then, that would make you a . . ." "Thief and a liar!" — so the listener self-proclaims.
Effective personal evangelism will be peppered, even saturated, with biblical phrases and concepts. But it will also involve communication not drawn directly from Scripture. Even so, and this is key: it will never distort or misrepresent biblical principles and truths. Is our personal evangelism perfect? NO. If God had to wait for perfect representation (beyond Jesus at His first-coming), evangelism simply would not get done—at least not by the weak vessels we are.
I want to pause here to clarify what I am NOT saying. I am not attempting to "play" the oft-heard evangelism "get out of jail" card: the idea that if at least one person get's saved, then the method being employed is beyond criticism. No, I'm not advocating for sloppy agape, — but recognizing that the river of life flowing from believer's is an admixture of Scriptural truth and personal communication, deemed effective in the setting.
We've seen that preaching, writing hymns, and personal evangelism all have a certain amount of "backstory" of a sort, addition to Scriptural truth which sets the context and bridges the gap with our listeners. When done well, it does so minimally and remains steeped in and faithful to biblical truth.
Taking liberties by adding a backstory
In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul tells us one of the primary purposes of meeting as a body of believers for Church.
11 And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ . . . (Eph. 4:11) The primary purpose of believers meeting together, and especially the work of the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teacher is to equip the saints. The saints, having been equipped within the Church, then do the work of the ministry, primarily outside the Church. This is the primary means by which the gospel finds its way beyond the four walls of the church (although with today's technology Church services also make their way across the world on the Internet and though other media.) The saints have critical giftings beyond the pulpit. Having been equipped through the five-fold ministry mentioned (a critical step), they then minister to others.
The ministry of the saints beyond the four walls of the Church is highly important. There are many unbelievers who will never find their way into a church or will do everything in their power to stay out of a church service (I counted myself among their number when I was an unbeliever.) In today's world, many of these saints are involved in the media: video producers, musicians, screenwriters, authors and the like. These brothers and sisters are called and equipped to communicate God's glory through these means. Their work is similar to that of street evangelists — their work is primarily among unbelievers outside the church. Similar to personal evangelism, there are both dangers and allowances. Dangers if they stray from or misrepresent Scriptural truth. Allowances to communicate with their audience with content not drawn directly from Scripture so long as, and this is key, none of what they communicate misrepresents or distorts the Scriptures, either in content or presentation. So long as their content remains faithful to Scripture, they have artistic license (even a gifting) to place biblical truths within a broader setting or narrative.
Some people have expressed concern that various people and actors on the set are unbelievers. I don't find that concerning. Acting in a movie production isn't the same as leading (offering) worship directly to God. Sure, those who are believers are acting in a way which serve's God. But unbelievers are simply doing a job which they were hired to do. I think it would be quite challenging to be in The Chosen, participating in a re-enactment of aspects of the gospels, and speaking portions of Scripture and remain completely aloof to the core message. (Nevertheless, we know that people can remain blind to God in situations where other people would be drawn to faith.)
Another concern that has been expressed is that people active behind-the-scenes, supporting or distributing The Chosen, profess to be Mormons. In particular, they worry about Mormon influence on the content, although that has not been evident so far. I definitely see the possibility of blurring Christian/Mormon distinctions. Especially since the distributor, Angel Studios, has people of Mormon faith in influential positions.
Dallas seems to think that the choice of media company is neutral: that going with Angel Studios is no different than doing business with Disney or NBC. But distribution channels such as Disney or NBC are not overtly religious in their outlook in a traditional sense (their "religion" is humanism). There is very little possibility of mistaking a company like Disney or NBC as "Christian." But, in this case, we have Angel Studio. The name is easily associated with Christianity. Thus there seems a real possibility that people could make the mistake of thinking that whatever Angel Studio offers, now or in the future, is in the Christian mainstream. If Angel were to offer content with a Mormon doctrinal slant, would viewers be able to discern? If you add up "The Chosen" + Angel Studios, there can be a perception that Angel Studios is a source of consistently Christian content—which may or may not turn out to be true over time. This is not a huge concern, but a definite potential for trouble. Especially given Mormonism's more-recent attempts at gaining acceptance as if it were a Christian denomination or sect.
A more troubling aspect is the puzzling statements which the director, Dallas Jenkins, has made from time-to-time. The main thrust of which has been that he has close Mormon friends who worship "the same Jesus" as he does. For instance, in an article in the Christian Post, titled 'The Chosen' creator Dallas Jenkins clarifies his 'Mormons are Christians' commentsa (dated May 21, 2022) — which I encourage you to read in entirely since I'm just drawing a couple of quotations from it — he has said the following about his reluctance to distinguish between Christianity and Mormonism:
"Not because there aren't LDS folks who aren't Christians and not because there aren't LDS and Evangelicals who love the same Jesus, but because it would be wrong of me to ever say that any one group believes any one thing altogether. That is just a level of arrogance that I don't have.” [emphasis added]
In the same article, when discussing his fellowship with his close Mormon friends, he states:
". . . those friends of mine that I'm referring to absolutely love the same Jesus that I do" [emphasis added]
There should be no surprise that many Christians, myself included, find all sorts of issues with these statements.
A while back, I watched a lengthy video interview with Dallasb where his feet were held to the fire (a bit, although not enough for my liking) concerning similar statements made earlier. To his credit he was forthright in being open to questioning on these issues and statements. However, I felt his responses lacked clarity—being mostly equivocation and back-pedaling. When challenged concerning important aspects of doctrine where Mormonism and Christianity are at irreconcilable odds (such as the deity of Christ and the nature of the Godhead), he side-stepped the issue. His general excuse was that he wouldn't want to seem arrogant by presuming what these people believe. (Remember, now, they are self-styled Mormons and apparently comfortable within the framework of the LDS church.)
After all was said and done, I had to wonder: why the unwillingness to call a spade a spade? To clearly identify the important distinctions between Christianity and Mormonism and to distance himself from the latter? Why the unwillingness to say what orthodox Christianity has been asserting all along: Mormonism is a non-Christian cult?
Of course I don't know all the factors behind this, but it was troubling to listen to. I don't know if it was ignorance, naivety, hubris, or perhaps more likely, pressure to avoid offending his friends and channel of distribution—or a combination of the above.
What we can say is that his stance is a huge disservice for Mormons who are still within the LDS Church, not to mention ex-Mormons who have found the true Jesus and left the Mormon church, often at great personal cost.
If he truly loves these friends who are self-described Mormons, it's not acceptable to leave them in Mormonism. Here's why: every Mormon falls into only one of two mutually-exclusive categories:
Regarding saved Mormons that remain Mormons: where is evidence of their allegiance to Jesus? Jesus made it clear that we have to separate from everything which denies Him, including family when necessary, in order to follow Him. Once a Mormon is saved, they simply cannot continue in the LDS Church and its our duty to lovingly challenge them if they mistakenly think they can.
- Unsaved: they are not born-again, and embrace doctrine and practices promulgated by the LDS church. As such, they are in danger of eternal separation from God in hell. We are duty-bound, especially if we love them, to communicate why they are trusting in a false Jesus and point them to the truth.
- Saved: they are born-again, but remain within the LDS Church and continue to identify as Mormon. These are true believers—brethren—whom we must challenge.
Be that as it may, Dallas' statements and responses have caused a great deal of confusion and concern. He seems to view his position as being the humble path of dealing with the issue, but it takes a great amount of hubris to ignore what the orthodox Christian Church has determined on the issue of Mormonism. It also devalues and undercuts the ministries of those people who have been saved out of Mormonism and now serve as Christian missionaries to those still in the LDS Church. If Dallas is right and Mormons can absolutely love the same Jesus — yet remain Mormons — why have ex-Mormons paid the huge personal and family cost of leaving LDS? Dallas appears to hold a view about Mormonism which is at odds with experts on Christian/Mormon distinctions who have devoted their lives to ministering to Mormons.
If the differences between Mormonism and Christianity are not a big deal we have to ask, why do Mormon missionaries seek to convert Christians to the Mormon faith? Why don't Mormons come to our churches? Why don't we attend Mormon churches? It is simply unacceptable for a Christian to equivocate over, be ignorant of, or refuse to call out a competing religious belief empowered by demonic influences.
It also aids Mormonism in its ongoing attempt to reposition itself as a Christian sect: meeting on Sundays instead of Saturday, downplaying the term "Mormon" in favor of LDS, making the public-facing doctrinal pages of the Church major on commonalities with Christianity—or using language carefully crafted to give that impression.
In conclusion . . .
Will I continue to watch and recommend The Chosen? Yes. Do I have significant concerns? Yes. But, up to now, they do not seem to have affected the content of the show.
What should be our response to this situation?
- When given the opportunity, clearly, lovingly, communicate our concerns about the show.
- To pray for the director, our Christian brother, Dallas Jenkins — and the many other believers who are part of making "The Chosen."
- To pray that God will guide the production, that it will be faithful in its content and that He would use this imperfect conduit of His message of salvation for His glory.