A week or two ago, I was chatting with a lovely friend–hi, Eva!–who asked me when my next blog post would be coming.
“I don’t know,” I told her. “I never really know when I’m going to write a post. Usually, I see something, I get mad, and I write a post about how mad I am.”
Well, surprise, surprise … I SAW SOMETHING, AND NOW I’M MAD, AND I’M HERE TO POST ABOUT HOW MAD I AM.
But seriously. I have things to say, and I must say them forthwith. 😛 Buckle up, munchkins.
If you’ve been following this season of The Chosen (an amazing TV series about the life of Jesus and his disciples which I can’t recommend highly enough), you know the fifth and latest episode, “Spirit,” made some pretty big waves in the fandom. Some people loved it. Others hated it. In this post, I want to talk about one specific criticism leveled at Episode 5, because I think it illustrates common audience expectations for Christian media … and how those expectations hold Christian storytellers back.
In the pilot episode of The Chosen, Mary Magdalen, a prostitute who struggles with alcoholism, PTSD, and demon possession, meets a preacher named Jesus. He calls her by her name–her real name, not the name she’s been going by for years, Lilith. Jesus drives the demons from Mary’s mind and spirit, choosing her as his first disciple. It’s an incredibly raw scene of both pain and hope, and instantly boosted The Chosen way, way above the level of most run-of-the-mill Christian fare.
Fast-forward to Season 2, Episode 5. Mary has stayed in the background for most of this season, quietly going about her business as the male disciples bicker and jockey for power. (Seriously, Simon Peter. Get your act together. :-P) By the fifth episode, though, Mary begins to show signs of strain. She has a disturbing encounter with a Roman soldier, bringing flashbacks of her rape by a Roman years ago. She also witnesses a man in the throes of demonic possession, another painful reminder of her past. The triggers pile up, it becomes too much, and Mary wanders off to a tavern to drink, gamble, and generally drown her sorrows. Cut to black. End of episode.
Dallas Jenkins sure packs a mean cliffhanger, doesn’t he? xD
The problem is … some Chosen fans are complaining that Mary struggling with addiction after encountering Jesus is unbiblical. Not “unbiblical” in the sense of “this particular story didn’t happen in the Gospels.” A LOT of the show’s plotlines weren’t included in the Gospels. That’s nothing new. If you’ve continued to watch beyond the pilot episode, you’ve pretty much accepted that this is a fictionalized story. No, people are saying the very concept of a Christian returning to their addictions is unbiblical.
In other words, even if Mary Magdalen was addicted to alcohol, she couldn’t have continued to drink once she had Jesus in her life. Because Christians, apparently, just don’t make mistakes like that.
Just kidding! We do have time to unpack all of that! Otherwise, I wouldn’t be writing this blog post! Before we go any further, I’d like to clarify that this isn’t a matter of a few isolated YouTube commenters. Enough fans have complained to prompt Dallas Jenkins to post a video specifically responding to this criticism. Which is unusual for him, since he rarely engages with negative comments. So yeah, it’s a serious issue, and I’d like to explore it.
What’s really going on here? What’s so scandalous or “unbiblical” about a Christian character with ongoing addiction issues?
Let’s break it down.
First, I think this criticism is influenced by certain Evangelical Protestant notions about salvation … or more accurately, notions about salvation which happen to be found in some Evangelical circles. Because obviously, if Evangelicals were a monolith, and if all Evangelicals thought the same way, Dallas Jenkins wouldn’t be in hot water with his fellow conservative Christians over his portrayal of Mary Magdalen. But he is. Why?
Because … a number of Protestant Christians who subscribe to born-again theology (ie, saved through faith by means of a singular decision to trust in Jesus) also believe that failure to satisfactorily transform your life in the wake of the aforementioned decision to trust in Christ proves your salvation experience was inauthentic. You were never truly “born again.” In other words, you were never truly a Christian.
In this particular theological schematic, your sins, which were supposed to be completely irrelevant to your salvation, can instead “make or break” you in the eyes of your fellow Christians. You messed up? You’re no longer one of us. Worse, you were never one of Jesus’ flock in the first place.
Again, I AM WELL AWARE NOT ALL PROTESTANTS BELIEVE THIS. Not all Evangelicals believe this. Not all born-again Christians believe this. Dallas Jenkins explicitly told us he doesn’t believe this! But it’s still out there. I’m not making this stuff up. I’ve watched my fellow Christians turn on their brothers and sisters using these very words. “I don’t believe you were every really saved.” And now I’m watching them turn on Mary Magdalen in The Chosen.
#i’m not happy, bob #ask me why I’m not happy
Now, as I’ve said before, I’m a Catholic, so I don’t approach salvation in terms of being “born again.” I see the Christian life as an ongoing journey with Jesus where nothing is set in stone. Sometimes sin has the upper hand, and sometimes grace has the upper hand, but you don’t know what will happen to you after you die until you actually … y’know … die. 😛 Because your story isn’t over until that moment. (If you want to learn more about my personal beliefs regarding salvation, check out this post.) But regardless, even if I believed being a Christian meant being “born again,” I WOULDN’T ARGUE THAT REAL CHRISTIANS CAN NEVER STRUGGLE WITH ADDICTION.
BECAUSE THAT’S ABSOLUTELY HORRIFIC.
ARE YOU EVEN LISTENING TO YOURSELVES.
We are all sinners, whether or not we have Jesus in our lives. We all make mistakes. We all stumble. The grace of God gives us a way to (slowly, painfully) root out those stumbling blocks within our hearts, but it doesn’t transform us into perfect little angels. Mature Christians, whether Protestant or Catholic, recognize this. Immature Christians, meanwhile, claim the authority to take away other people’s “Christian cards” the minute they display weakness or vulnerability. Especially if–God forbid–such weakness stems from a legitimate mental health issue like *gasp* addiction!!!
In fact, that’s a good segue. Let’s tackle the addiction angle next.
Addiction is a heavily … mythologized … issue in Christian culture. Yes, there’s a lot of shame and stigma surrounding it, but there’s also a strange fascination with curing it. Going back to the 19th-century temperance movements, the various Great Awakenings, and frontier revival meetings, all of which left an indelible mark on American Christian culture, we have this collective cultural image of the alcoholic or gambler who calls on Jesus, finds his sinful urges instantly and painlessly removed, and never succumbs to them again.
That’s the story American Christians want to see. And that’s the story The Chosen is refusing to tell.
No wonder people are a little steamed, huh? 😛
There are absolutely real-life Christians who have experienced instant recovery from addiction through God’s grace. That’s a beautiful blessing! Our God is absolutely powerful enough to grant us instant healing from either mental or physical disease; and on occasion, he will do so.
But is it always that easy?
Is it usually that easy?
Is it okay for us to demand this type of instant, permanent, miraculous change in a person’s life before we believe their relationship with Jesus is real?
The fact of the matter is, addiction creates chemical pathways in the human brain which require hard work, patience, and often, quite a few stumbles and missteps before they can be fully dismantled. This story of a slow, painful recovery from addiction is something that’s very personal to Dallas Jenkins. Even though he’s a lifelong Christian, Dallas has struggled with multiple episodes of pornography addiction. According to the logic folks are using to attack Mary Magdalen–if Dallas were a “real Christian,” he would’ve a) never fallen into that sin in the first place, or b) instantly and triumphantly defeated it, then never returned to those bad habits.
But that’s not what happened.
Can we just … step away from our idealized images of how Jesus “should” save those struggling from addiction, and instead listen to the real stories of people Jesus has actually saved?
Because I’m pretty sure there will be as much joy in heaven over somebody who took months or even years to kick their alcoholism (or porn habit, or drug habit) to the curb, as there will be over somebody who simply quit cold turkey.
Like I said, following Jesus is a journey. Focus on the end goal. Don’t get caught up in the process.
I will say, too, the way some Chosen fans have reacted to Mary Magdalen’s battle with alcoholism and PTSD is, sadly, par for the course for the way Christians often react to mental health issues in real life. If you have some serious mental struggle which God hasn’t immediately lifted, some Christians will freak out and reject you completely, because you’re a living denial of their cozy image of perfect Christian peace.
It’s also VERY interesting to compare the conversation around Mary with the conversation around the the male disciples, who have clearly and openly been shown Sinning and Doing Bad Things throughout Season 2. For example, Simon Peter keeps bullying Matthew, because Simon Peter (at this point in the story) is a selfish, cruel, and domineering character. “Why isn’t Mary making better choices”–uhhhhhhhhhh, WHY ISN’T SIMON MAKING BETTER CHOICES? If showing the disciples as ordinary, human sinners is “wrong” and “unbiblical,” why haven’t Simon’s sins provoked the same outcry?
Well, since you asked, I suspect it has something to do with the fact that Simon is a man and Mary is a woman. 😉 Men in Christian culture are allowed a wide latitude to make mistakes, a la “boys will be boys,” while women are expected to be pure, spotless vessels, utterly submissive and utterly angelic, with no inconvenient struggles or needs of their own.
Instead, The Chosen is showing a Christian woman with serious, ongoing, self-destructive tendencies … and a lot of people just don’t know how to handle that.
I’ve noticed a trend in Christian storytelling toward “before and after” stories. By “before and after” stories, I mean picture-perfect conversion stories, starring someone who was completely ignorant of Jesus, whose life was a complete mess … and then whoops, they found Jesus, they dropped every single bad habit like a hot potato, and now their life is squeaky-clean enough to grace the cover of a Bible college promotional brochure! Night and day, just like that! Hallelujah!
You know what’s funny, though? I look around at my life, the lives of my family members, and the lives of my lifelong Christian friends, and I don’t see squeaky-clean perfection. I don’t think MOST Christians ever experience that kind of sanitized, elevated existence, either.
So why do we cling to it in story form?
I think the answer is simple. Because we’re afraid.
We’re afraid Jesus isn’t everything we say he is. We’re afraid he can’t really save us. We stumble, and we fall … and we worry that maybe this time, Jesus is finally tired of picking us back up. So we point to stories of mythical people for whom Jesus obligingly fixed everything, right away, boom, shazam, and we say, “Look what God can do!”
Do you want to see what God can do?
Go read the Gospels again. And this time, pay special attention to the part where Peter denies Jesus THREE TIMES, after being his best friend for THREE YEARS, like a STINKIN’ COWARD. And then, think about Jesus choosing a guy like that to lead his church. Really think about that.
“The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”
I don’t think we need more stories of perfect Christians. I think we need more stories about people like us. And that’s exactly what The Chosen has to offer.
Have you seen Episode 5?
What did you think?
Let me know in the comments!