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‘The Chosen’ Is ‘Message’ Entertainment Done Right
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‘The Chosen’ Is ‘Message’ Entertainment Done Right

Plus: The New Mexico’s governor’s shameful whiff on fighting crime.

(Via Angel Studios)

Wait, it’s Wednesday!

Welcome to a bonus Wednesday—Woden’s Day for all you pagans out there—edition of Wanderland. Some weeks, I just have a lot to say. So, here we go.

Bruce Springsteen tells a story about “Streets of Philadelphia,” the song he wrote for Jonathan Demme’s celebrated 1993 film Philadelphia, in which Tom Hanks plays a gay lawyer who sues his firm when the partners fire him after discovering he has AIDS. Demme wanted to package the film for a wide, popular audience, so he hired the personification of mainstream pop culture—Bruce Springsteen—to give him what he described as a “guitar-dominated, American-rock anthem about injustice to start this movie off.” Springsteen tried to give Demme what he asked for, but kept failing. Sometimes even Bruce Springsteen can’t write a good Bruce Springsteen song, and the big, belting, “Born in the U.S.A.”-style anthem Demme was looking for refused to be written. Instead, Springsteen came up with the melancholy, introspective “Streets of Philadelphia,” which was a real departure for him. “Eventually, I came up with that tiny, little beat and I figured it wasn’t what he wanted, but I sent it to him anyway,” Springsteen said some years later. 

Sometimes, you don’t need all the thunder—sometimes, you can just trust the story, the material, and the audience.

I thought of that story when I was thinking about why I so much dislike the opening music for The Chosen, Dallas Jenkins’ beautifully done (so far—three seasons in and we’re only at the loaves and fishes) series about the life and ministry of Jesus. The series is very compelling, and it works better than it should on paper, in that the material is such a mishmash: Sometimes, the writing is simply the Bible in English word-for-word, sometimes it marked by frankly anachronistic American evangelical rhetoric, sometimes it is sentimental, sometimes it gives the impression (which is not entirely mistaken!) that it is the work of good-natured Protestants who want to emphasize the Jewish character of Jesus but do so a little awkwardly. 

Jenkins was born into the world of evangelical mass entertainment (his father is Left Behind coauthor Jerry B. Jenkins, who is novelizing this series), and one gets the feeling that he commissioned the opening music—a kind of bluesy Southern gospel bit sung by Ruby Amanfu, a Ghana-born, Nashville-based singer best known for her collaborations with Jack White—more or less the way Jonathan Demme approached Bruce Springsteen for a Philadelphia theme song: as a little sweetener for masses, to give them permission to enjoy the entertainment as entertainment rather than as an extended homily. Season 3, almost invariably described by the critics as “uneven,” certainly is musically uneven: The climactic episode is bookended by the beautiful unaccompanied performance of a psalm, but, in between the scenes of first-century Capernaum, a little bit of electric guitar breaks in from time to time. 

Sometimes, you don’t need all that thunder. Sometimes, you can just trust the story. 

But trusting the story does not, in this case, mean hewing very closely to the historical record. The Chosen apparently employs a bar-joke’s worth of script consultants—a Catholic priest, a Messianic rabbi, and an evangelical scholar walk into a television studio—but the authors have wisely given themselves permission to make stuff up. That helps to keep the story at the human scale, resisting the understandable tendency to slide into the mode of mythology. For comparison: One of the brilliant aspects of the 2009 film Watchmen was that it took seriously the question of what life would be like for superheroes if they were real and lived in the real world, where they would no doubt experience such things as troubled marriages and financial difficulties. The Chosen does much the same for Jesus’ disciples: Simon (not yet Peter) experiences both financial and marital difficulties, and finds himself positively enraged at Jesus when the Messiah is out healing Gentiles and strangers while Simon’s wife suffers a terrible miscarriage; Matthew is portrayed as having a moderate case of Asperger’s syndrome, his social awkwardness amplified by the fact that many of his fellow Jews, including his parents and Simon the Zealot, are hesitant to forgive him for collaborating with the Romans as a tax collector; James the Less has a disability and wonders tearfully why Jesus hasn’t healed him; Mary Magdalene (played by Elizabeth Tabish; if we had a Caravaggio in our time, he would use her as the model for Mary Magdalene) is wracked by shame at her previously dissolute life (and her early backsliding), which makes her difficult and unpleasant company sometimes, particularly for the other women in the group; Thomas wants to marry another follower, whose father is not ready to consent to the marriage; Joseph, knowing that he will not be there for Jesus’ public career, bequeaths to him a treasured family heirloom, a bit and bridle handed down in their family from the time of the first exile, an extra-biblical story presumably intended to foreshadow Jesus’ triumphal entry in to Jerusalem. 

Sometimes, these imaginary additions are pure entertainment, as with the recurring bits between the mystical evangelist John and the Sheldon Cooper-ish Matthew, who takes copious notes for his future gospel. “It doesn’t have to be precise,” John says, exasperating Matthew. “Why wouldn’t it need to be precise?” Matthew asks. John does not quite understand that the question is not rhetorical but genuine and urgent. A comic beat passes. “Mine will be precise,” Matthew deadpans. When we first meet one future apostle, he complains to Jesus: “From the directions you have provided, I see no logical solution to the problem.” To which Jesus responds to the previously unnamed man, “It’s going to be like that sometimes, Thomas.” 

But the more important inventions reinforce the human character of the story, which is meant to be understood as a series of real events that happened to real people at a particular place and time, not a morality tale about generically saintly figures from a homogenized mythological setting. The end of Season 3 finds Simon estranged from Jesus and the disciples after his wife’s miscarriage. As the other followers feeding the crowd are delighted by the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, Simon glowers and, after joylessly performing the task assigned to him, angrily dumps his overflowing basket at Jesus’ feet. The subsequent walking-on-water scene is played out as a confrontation between a bitter Simon and a tough-love Jesus who informs the disciple that the way ahead for him is going to be even harder than his current disappointment and grief. Literate viewers know what is ahead for the future bishop of Rome, which gives extra weight to the scene. 

That’s one more reason the Bible should be taught to all students—irrespective of religious content, it is our most important literature. And the thing about literature is, it isn’t enough that it affirms your religious or political views–it has to be good

Take a parallel case: In the 1980s, you could see bumper stickers on Subarus and Volvos reading: “The Moral Majority Is Neither.” You might say the same about Christian rock, most of the time. Of course, it isn’t any good as religious material—pop songs aren’t really supposed to be—but if it doesn’t work as rock, it doesn’t work at all. Christians and political conservatives (and many people who are both of those things at the same time) have often tried to leaven the culture by making didactic and heavy-handed music, books, cinema, television, etc., without ever getting the entertaining part of entertainment quite in hand. 

For much of the history of the Western world, the term for “Christian art” was mostly just art; in the parallel political case, some of the most profoundly conservative pop culture of the past few decades has been made by people who either were generally indifferent to conservative politics as such or positively hostile to the self-consciously conservative sensibility: The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Girls on television, No Country for Old Men and the Dark Knight trilogy on the big screen, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall novels, etc. If that seems strange to you, then consider that conservatism is not identical to the political project of the Republican Party (in fact, these rarely coincide today at all) and that where conservatism meets great art and literature is on the ground of timeless truths. I don’t know if William Shakespeare would have thought of himself as a political conservative in our time; I know that Coriolanus is one of the most trenchantly conservative pieces of theater ever staged (and the one with Ralph Fiennes was a pretty good film, too). Because the world of perversion is without limit, I am sure there are people who would enjoy having The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality read aloud to them for two and a half hours, but most people would very much prefer watching one of Daniel Craig’s James Bond films, with their stirring calls to patriotism and their positively reactionary insistence that “sometimes the old ways are the best ways.” Propaganda may communicate conservative ideology, but art can communicate the conservative sensibility, which is, in the long run, the more important part.

There isn’t any way to make a series about the life and career of Jesus that keeps religion at arm’s length (it would be a mistake even to try, I think) but what The Chosen gets right is that what it communicates is a Christian sensibility rather than dogma, theology, or other subjects best left to formal religious instruction per se. It begins with a Jesus and a Jesus movement that are distinctly Jewish and distinctly more than Jewish, a Jesus and an emerging faith that often do not solve followers’ here-and-now problems but instead add significantly to them, putting them at odds with political power, civic and religious authorities, their own friends and families, their own material and social self-interests. Set aside the religious significance of that for the moment and appreciate that this is why The Chosen works as drama rather than as evangelism or apologetics. The Chosen is in fact at its best when it is at its least sentimental and its least comforting. And at its best, The Chosen is very good. 

Except for those opening titles. 

Today in Typos

My fellow gun nuts will appreciate this typo from our friends at Wilson Combat, who sent out an email advertising a rifle chambered for “.65 Creedmoor.” What a difference that decimal point makes! (The writers meant to refer to a 6.5mm cartridge; a .65-caliber bore would be two-thirds of an inch, far bigger than any common firearm caliber.) That being said, I think a .65-caliber modern sporting rifle would probably be a lot of fun. Or maybe a semiautomatic rifle chambered for that No. 4 bore that Scott over at Kentucky Ballistics likes so much

Watch them decimals!

Additional Wordiness . . . 

Do read John McWhorter’s New York Times newsletter on “It is what it is.”

The first encounter with the phrase that I remember was in 2005, when I was cast in a part in a play that was somewhat over my head. (You might think I’d be a good Bernard in Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia,” but you’d have to think again.) I thought I had mastered my lines for a rehearsal, but I wasn’t actually off-book the way I thought I was. My shortcoming had irritated the person with whom I shared the scene, and things had gotten a little messy.

Walking out after the rehearsal with someone else in the cast, I was beating myself up for not having done my job. But my inexperience wasn’t really his cup of tea. What he was interested in was seeing whether a woman in the cast he was attracted to was available to walk to the subway with him. Regarding my troubles, he detachedly intoned, “Well, it is what it is.”

In the podcast, I recounted thinking: What a gorgeously chilly way of saying “Your problems don’t matter to me.” He was not using the phrase’s other, “que sera sera” meaning, counseling me to accept how things unfold in a Zen-like way.

Missed a good chance to put an “another think coming” in there, though.

Today in Other Typos

Some guy writing in The Dispatch: “Recently, the president of India sent out an invitation identifying himself as the president of Bharat.”

Herself

Yr. obdt. crrspndt. regrets the error.

In Other News . . .

Some of you will remember that the late Rush Limbaugh once was unceremoniously fired from a sports commentary job when he did what he was hired to do, i.e., comment on sports while being Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh suggested that the prowess of a certain athlete, a member of an ethnic minority, was exaggerated by people who had a political interest in seeing his reputation inflated. Luke Winkie, writing in Slate, also believes that there is a certain athlete, a member of an ethnic minority, whose prowess is being exaggerated by people who have a political interest in seeing his reputation inflated. The suggestion apparently no longer is controversial. 

What the Heck Is Happening in New Mexico? 

Critics have blasted New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s executive order banning the carrying of firearms in Albuquerque as a flatly unconstitutional exercise in executive authoritarianism—which it is. And that criticism is by no means limited to the governor’s Republican opponents—the Democratic sheriff of Bernalillo County, John Allen, says he will not enforce the illegal order. Some have called for the governor to be impeached and removed from office—and they are right to do so. Even the ACLU has complained that the policy is poorly conceived and impulsive

This is precisely the kind of thing for which impeachment is the proper remedy. To abuse one’s office by acting under official color for illegal and illegitimate ends is a political offense—one that invites the political solution of impeachment. Unhappily, the governor is a member of the same party that controls the state legislature in New Mexico and, unless the state’s Democrats suddenly discover a previously untapped reserve of institutional self-respect, they will acquiesce to having the legislature’s power usurped by the governor. Why? Even the governor herself concedes that criminals will ignore the edict, which will therefore have no meaningful effect.  

The governor has no legitimate power to do the thing she purports to do. She knows this. She knows she is violating the state constitution, the Bill of Rights, and her oath of office—these are “not absolute,” she says. The “not absolute” business is a particularly irritating dodge. It is true that, say, the right of free speech protected in the First Amendment is not absolute—there are libel laws, there are procedures for getting a permit to stage a rally or a parade, etc. These are handled by law. A governor—or a president—doesn’t get to just disregard constitutional rights whenever he feels like it and offer as his only justification that these are “not absolute.” 

This sort of thing is why we have—let’s not forget!—laws

The governor says this measure is necessary as a “public health emergency,” but, even if we took that at face value (and it would be ridiculous to do so), no statute gives the governor of New Mexico the power to unilaterally prohibit the open carrying of firearms in a public health emergency. The right to keep and openly bear arms is very strongly protected by the state constitution and recognized in statute—the governor does not have any legitimate power to simply nullify laws when it suits her. New Mexico has a licensing system in place for concealed carry—and the governor does not have the power to override that, either. 

This isn’t to say that New Mexico’s gun laws are particularly good. For example, unlawful carrying of a firearm is a petty misdemeanor. My view is that this should be treated as a more serious crime—but making the law is why New Mexico has lawmakers, of which the governor is not one. The legislature is more than capable of reforming New Mexico’s gun laws if it chooses to do so. 

It probably should. 

Albuquerque, as fans of Breaking Bad will know, is a pit of crime and despair, but one with pretty good tax incentives for film and television productions. (If you happen to be an idiot: That is a joke—Breaking Bad is not a documentary.) For perspective, consider that Bernalillo County has about one-quarter of New Mexico’s population but accounts for more than half of the state’s crime. Albuquerque is, among other things, the No. 1 destination in these United States if you want to get kidnapped. The crime rate is high across the board—both violent crime and property crime are well above average—and crime has been rising there in recent years, much as it has been in other big, Democrat-dominated cities (Albuquerque has had only two Republican mayors since the late 1970s) from San Francisco to Philadelphia. Albuquerque has the same problems as those cities in part because it follows many of the same policies, such as more or less refusing to enforce the law. 

The problems in New Mexico are across-the-board: The police department and the local prosecutor’s office have seen big budget increases but remain understaffed and underperforming; the police department has added officers in recent years, but those additions are largely offset (in some years, more than offset) by retirements, and even when there have been manpower increases, the number of felony arrests being made has declined; as recently as 2022, some 61 of the 337 funded positions in the district attorney’s office were vacant—as one observer noted, the Bernalillo County district attorney’s office had more vacancies than most New Mexico DA’s offices have positions. About 20 percent of the attorney positions were vacant in early 2022. Those indicted in Albuquerque have a two-in-three chance of walking either by acquittal, mistrial, or voluntary dismissal of the charges by the prosecutor. As former Albuquerque city councilor Pete Dinelli put it, cases have been thrown out when, for example, a prosecutor “did not attend court hearings, did not follow court orders, did not respond to defense motions, missed deadlines, and failed to turn over evidence as ordered by the court,” resulting in the release of a suspect in a drive-by shooting who went on to be arrested for murder in another case. Dinelli notes that “APD felony arrests went down from 2019 to 2020 by 39.51%, going down from 10,945 to 6,621. Misdemeanor arrests went down by 15%, going down from 19,440 to 16,520. DWI arrests went down from 1,788 in 2019 to 1,230 in 2020, down 26%. The total number of all arrests went down from 32,173 in 2019 to 24,371 in 2020 or by 25%.”

If there is an emergency in Albuquerque, it is a bureaucratic emergency: the refusal of public agencies—and the people entrusted with running them—to do their jobs. 

Which is to say, Albuquerque is a great place to be a criminal. 

It is not a place that is big on civil rights. When she is not handing down risible “public health emergency” orders, the governor has been pushing for a constitutional change that would in effect shift the burden of proof from the prosecution to the defendant in matters of pre-trial detention. New Mexico has a problem sorting out who should be released pending trial—one in five of the defendants free while awaiting trial gets arrested for another crime before being tried on the earlier charge, though this often is for petty offenses—and the governor’s favored response is a “rebuttable presumption of dangerousness.” As the Santa Fe New Mexican explains: “While New Mexico’s current pretrial detention system requires prosecutors to provide evidence proving to a state district judge a defendant poses too great a danger to be released on any conditions, the bill states ‘it shall be presumed’ prosecutors have satisfied their burden of proof through probable cause to charge the person with one of several high-level felony counts.” Never mind getting the prosecution to do its job—just “presume” it did! Like the raft of gun control measures that do almost nothing to target criminals but focus instead on licensed firearms dealers—who have fixed addresses, regular business hours, inventory records, licensure paperwork, etc.—this is a policy that is fundamentally rooted in laziness. Enforcing the law on criminals is hard work, but enforcing the law on the law-abiding is easy, and simply shifting the burden of proof in pretrial-release cases to the defense is easy. 

Albuquerque is No. 17 in the United States when it comes to the murder rate—but it has the highest overall crime rate in the nation, 8734.98 crimes per 100,000 residents. And the governor of New Mexico is messing around with this Mickey Mouse nonsense. That is some shameful stuff. 


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Kevin D. Williamson is national correspondent at The Dispatch and is based in Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 15 years as a writer and editor at National Review, worked as the theater critic at the New Criterion, and had a long career in local newspapers. He is also a writer in residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Kevin is not reporting on the world outside Washington for his Wanderland newsletter, you can find him at the rifle range or reading a book about literally almost anything other than politics.