The Chosen: this new Christ is not Christ

My generation first met the happy, hippie “Jesus” in our 1970s and ’80s CCD classes. He was a super-nice dude, not scary or stern or particularly demanding. This was a new, enlightened era, after all, and the old paradigms would no longer do. As I’ve often described of those vacuous catechetical times, “the God presented to us was a God who hardly needs to be worshipped, since he’s our pal…” It almost seemed like we remade Christ in our own image and then began to worship ourselves. 

We were told that everyone loved and wanted this new “Jesus.” But is that true? After a few years of this laughing, relatable Jesus—and not the serious, mysterious, Man of Sorrows of the previous twenty centuries—the pews emptied. The cataclysmic loss of faith went on for decades, and it continues to this day. “You will know them by their fruits,” the real Jesus said (see Matthew 7:15-20), and the long-term fruit of happy, hippie, lopsidedly human “Jesus” has been utter destruction. 

Just when we thought we had blessedly stamped out the cartoon, CCD “Jesus,” a newer, slicker incarnation of this caricature has seeped back into the Catholic Church in the form of The Chosen—a wildly popular TV soap opera created by Mormons and Protestants who admit that it is a fictionalized Gospel with fictionalized characters. The show has infiltrated the imaginations of countless Catholics, many of whom should know better. This time, the open promotion of relatable, bro-Jesus is not fueled by “progressive,” dissenting Catholics only, but by faithful, traditional Catholics as well. 

The devotion to this show is real, as the much-hyped fourth season (of seven) is upon us, and the buzz among Catholic influencers, friends, families, parishes, and schools is growing. From this massive commercial enterprise emerges copious merch to be bought, promotional reels entertaining millions, and even a “ChosenCon” extravaganza attended by thousands of fans from around the world.

Being the rigid buzzkill that I am, I have discussed serious concerns about the series with my blog readers here, with Fr. Robert McTeigue here, and with Leila Marie Lawler here. You can go to those links to get the specifics of heresy and blasphemy, an overview of Catholic principles and Christology violated, and the general modernism and anti-Catholicism that pervades the show and the set. The grave issues mentioned by concerned Catholic critics often cannot shake the devotion of the show’s Catholics fans, as the emotional hold on them is as strong as any other soap opera—and that is by design. 

Indeed, creator Dallas Jenkins promises a “very, very emotional” upcoming season, which is exactly what viewers are craving. If you doubt me, go to the comment section of any of The Chosen’s YouTube videos or Facebook/Instagram posts and see for yourself. Laughing, crying, cry-laughing, weeping, belly laughing, relating, getting chills, emoting, fangirling, and feeling like “Jesus is my BFF!” is the constant and general tenor. The question of truth? Not so much.

For purposes of this article, I would like to address the defense of the show that Catholic fans have given when presented with serious concerns. The most common defense goes like this:

“Sure, the show is not perfect! But despite the problems, The Chosen is bringing countless souls closer to Christ!” 

The question then becomes: Which Christ?

Let’s do a thought experiment: Imagine a family matriarch, a great-grandma who is an icon within that family, known and dearly loved. The stories and intimate knowledge of this beloved woman are shared, celebrated, memorized, and handed down through the family, each generation careful to preserve, protect, and cherish the traditions and family history surrounding their matriarch. 

Now imagine an outsider to the family—in fact, an opponent to the family who, for as long as anyone can remember, has actively undermined and contradicted the family in fundamental ways. The outsider begins to tell the world about the family’s matriarch. In the new telling, the great-grandma’s life is distorted by a presentation of different life facts, habits, character traits, and beliefs. Even the matriarch’s personality is now completely changed, hardly recognizable when compared to the family’s longstanding, well-preserved memories. 

Do the members of great-grandma’s family know her more intimately from hearing the outsider’s retelling? Do those who never knew her before now have a genuine and intimate understanding of the woman they never met? Or does the new narrative push everyone now further away from her, leaving her real memory distorted and a counterfeit in her place?

I think the answer is clear. 

Still, good Catholics who love The Chosen believe that they can safely guide their loved ones through the “bad” parts and undo the faulty images seared into their imaginations; however, there are not enough well-catechized Catholics to astutely handle the millions of viewers who will respond like this woman’s parents: 

I recommended The Chosen to my parents and hoped it might stir something in them to read Scripture and get to know the real Jesus that we know with our Catholic faith. But I was really surprised when my mother came back to me, taking the fictional components of the show as literal. For example, “I didn’t know Matthew was [autistic] like Sheldon; I didn’t know the apostles had those jobs,” etc…. I thought since I had the sense to separate the fictional elements of the show that others would, too, and [my parents’ response] was the first time I registered that this could be dangerous to people who don’t know the real Jesus through the faith. They might cling to fictional elements of the show and relate more to Jesus and the Apostles as “buddies” rather than the reverence and moral accountability that Jesus calls us to in Scripture and Tradition.

She is right, but it’s worse than that. Even respected Catholic scholars, writers, and speakers are being emotionally drawn to the “buddy” Jesus, appearing to prefer this fictionalized, fun-guy Jesus to the Catholic Jesus they have always known. I do not mean to single out Austin Ruse, as I have long admired his work (and still do), but his public article on this subject is the clearest example of this phenomenon.

Ruse—a serious and seasoned Catholic writer and thinker—tells us that because of this TV series, he suddenly knows Jesus. The veil that had previously kept him from intimacy with Our Lord has been lifted for him by experiencing the Jesus of The Chosen. This is a Jesus that Ruse makes clear he has never encountered before—a more human Jesus that he (apparently) had not met within Catholicism. According to Ruse, this new and more compelling Jesus is: “…a Jesus we have never quite seen before, one who is fully God and, just as important, fully man” [emphasis mine].

Ruse explains the crux of it:

So, here’s the thing about this series…. Jesus is fully man. You want to have a beer with Him. And He wants to have a beer with you…. But besides being fully God, He is also fully man, so there are also beers and great laughter. The result of watching this Jesus is that I have come to love Him in ways hitherto unknown to me [emphasis mine].

Note the use of the word: “this” Jesus. Not the Catholic Jesus that Ruse knew before, throughout his long and active Catholic life, but this Jesus—the one presented by Mormons and anti-Catholic Protestants who admit to fictionalizing Jesus and the Gospels. 

What is going on here? It could be a phenomenon that Fr. Robert McTeigue identifies:

Whenever culture or academia talks about “this is the really, really, real Jesus” that the Church has been hiding from me all this time, the really, really real Jesus tends to look like either the author of the book or the producer of the film.

Ruse doubles down: “This time, for the first time, [the crucifixion] will be deeply personal. I know Him. He is my friend” [emphasis mine].

With respect (and sorrow), I submit to Ruse and to any other good Catholic who suddenly “knows” Jesus “for the first time” through The Chosen: If this is a Christ whom you have never encountered before, despite two millennia of Catholic Scripture, Tradition, theology, liturgy, sacred art, magisterial teaching, saints’ writings and mystical encounters with Jesus, and our entire Catholic patrimony (in addition to your own devotions, prayers, Holy Hours, and Eucharistic consummations), then it’s because this new Christ is not Christ. 

If you discover a new Christ outside the Church, who has never been presented within the Church, then every red flag in your vicinity should be whirring like a helicopter; every antenna should be up and beeping. Any “new” Christ you discover at this point is simply “another Jesus” that St. Paul warns us about (2 Corinthians 11:4).

Even when the occasional viewer finds his way to the real Christ somehow and is moved to repent and come to the Sacraments of the Church, there may be a thousand (or a million) who turn toward the counterfeit. We cannot possibly quantify the many losses (in the same way we will never know the myriad Catholics quietly lost to Protestant Bible studies), but we can get a sense of the numbers and proportions when, again, we look at all the fan comments under The Chosen’s videos and social media posts and observe that excited, fluctuating emotions—not truth-seeking, repentance, and sacrifice—are leading the way.

Here’s another argument that Catholics use to defend the show when someone points out that many of its scenarios and sensibilities are foreign to Catholicism and our understanding of Our Lord’s life:

“Well, Jesus could have done [x, y, z]!”

It is true that in the world of our own imaginings Jesus “could have” done this or that thing that no one has ever heard of Him doing. Do we really want to use that argument, though? After all, Jesus “could have” done a vaudeville act or had a burping contest. He “could have” done a back handspring then performed a miracle while standing on his head. He “could have” done the Macarena, or flossed the teeth of a shark. 

But if history and human nature are any indication, the things we dream up to add to what we already know about Our Lord will most likely bring us to violate His dignity. We seem to want Him “so human” and “just like us”—but there is good reason that the Catholic Church has presented Him to the faithful in a very consistent way throughout the centuries. And since we know Christ is the Head of the Catholic Church, we know that He has been presented the way that He Himself has desired. There is a reason that Jesus is not ever seen yukking it up in Scripture. There is a reason that you don’t find toothy-grinned or belly-laughing Jesus in the stained-glass and sacred art of the Catholic ages.

It is a dangerous spiritual game for moderns to start dreaming up new, fun, and strangely contemporary scenarios to “humanize” Him for our emotional desires (and our entertainment—such as making Jesus into a “Catskill comedian”). Catholics forget that the devil is exponentially more intelligent than we are. If we do not adhere strictly to Catholic truth, especially regarding Our Lord and Christology, we will be lost. 

Now, before the objections and accusations fly, we all know that Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine, and of course He laughed and smiled, and He enjoyed many events and conversations with His family and friends. Literally no one disputes that; I certainly never have. But there is a reason that we are not shown the laughy-goofy Jesus in our patrimony. G.K. Chesterton makes the point: 

He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something…. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something…. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.

Perhaps, as we have done for two thousand years, we should accept with reverent awe what has and has not been revealed. Perhaps we should respect Our Lord and leave the mystery alone.

But while folks love to use the “Jesus could have done that!” argument in defense of the show, we know that much of what The Chosen serves up could never have happened and never would. Jesus arguing with St. John the Baptist? Never. Jesus cracking a sarcastic joke at the expense of Simon Peter and then literally rolling his eyes, moments before performing a miracle for Simon’s mother-in-law? Never. The very Word of God Himself nervously hung up “writing” the Sermon on the Mount, and needing Matthew’s help and advice on effective wording? Never. Jesus, sitting alone, making flatulence noises to attract school-aged children hiding behind a bush? Never. (The producers tried alternately to claim those were “barnyard noises” or “raspberries”—as if raspberries are ever used with anyone other than babies.)

And then there is the deconstruction and disrespect of the holy ones of God: Would the Blessed Mother be the homeliest woman in Jesus’ circle? Never. Would she distastefully describe Jesus’ (supposedly!) “messy” birth when asked about that most holy night? Never. Would St. John the Baptist speak the words of Judas the Betrayer? Never. Would Peter and his wife discuss the “right time” to have babies? Never.

None of this “could have happened” and we should not be okay with heresy, blasphemy, and misleading anachronisms just because a series makes us laugh and cry. And, as I said in my first post on the subject, my criticism of The Chosen is in no way a denial of the legitimate and beautiful Catholic practice of Lectio Divina. Lectio Divina allows reverent imaginings, but there is no allowance for the re-imagining or deconstruction of the Person of Jesus! We cannot simply do whatever we want with Jesus and the saints because they “could have done this.”

Finally, there is a third argument that is supposed to move the critics along:

“If you don’t like it, just don’t watch it.”

That is wonderful advice, and it would work if we Catholics protested or ignored it, as we have done in the past with other problematic, fictional presentations of the Lord and His life. But in this case we are way past that. This ongoing, binge-watched series cannot simply be ignored. It is horrible to ponder, but The Chosen is already being used in countless Catholic schools and parishes as catechesis! 

It is this schlocky, modernist, fatally-flawed show—and not our priceless treasure trove of twenty centuries of Catholic teaching—that is now often being used to form our Catholic students and the folks in the pews. Expect more formal teaching materials to come. The Chosen is a media empire—and it’s only getting started, with Catholic dollars feeding the flames.

It is this schlocky, modernist, fatally-flawed show—and not our priceless treasure trove of twenty centuries of Catholic teaching—that is now often being used to form our Catholic students and the folks in the pews.

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When asked how they will overcome all the glaring errors when using the show for pedagogical purposes, Catholic teachers and pastors respond, “We will just overlook the bad parts, or correct them.” Two problems with that: 1) How will they undo or erase all those faulty images now embedded in the students’ minds? The imagination is a powerful thing; and 2) There are not enough knowledgeable, properly catechized Catholics to correct those who will be using these error-laden shows for catechesis. The modern Church can barely find qualified religious education teachers as it is. 

Have we learned nothing from the disastrous catechetics of the past? 

Essentially, we have come full circle in our folly. We lost three generations to the goofy, CCD Jesus of the ’70 and ’80s (the ripple effect of lost faith carried to our children and their children), and just when we were staggering back onto our feet, the laughing, dancing, so human Jesus of The Chosen stands ready to destroy catechesis and our knowledge of the Lord and His teachings all over again.

The saddest part in all of this is that some of the same good Catholics who railed against the false “buddy Jesus” of CCD are enthusiastically embracing, defending, and promoting the current “bro-Jesus” fed to us by non-Catholics who do not love the Church.

I beg Catholic fans of The Chosen to ponder this final thought: If the secular world and the popular culture finds a particular “Jesus” to be perfectly acceptable, non-threatening, and inoffensive—if that “Jesus” gets no pushback from the world that hates the true Christ—then it’s a false Jesus. Think. And pray. We live in dangerous spiritual times, and there is no room for complacency, excuses, and compromise.

Catholics, let us remember who we are, and let us stop selling our birthright for a mess of pottage.