"The Chosen" is not just another Jesus flick
It offers profound insight into what might be implied in the idea of the "messianic"
I’m not really somebody who gets excited Jesus films. But Angel Studios’ The Chosen has really drawn me in, and not just because it is designed like most current streaming media for binge-watching.
My interest has far less to do with the subject matter- the life of Jesus and his disciples - than anyone might gauge. It has to do instead with the undeconstructible justice of the messianic rupture into time, a thought project that probably blows your mind and leaves your head spinning.
Okay, now you’re scratching your head, so let me to explain.
As a kid growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, the heyday of Jesus spectacles, I watched them all – King of Kings, The Greatest Story Ever Told, Ben Hur, The Robe. They were a cinematic buffet to augment the garden variety Biblical tales and memes I absorbed in Presbyterian Sunday School, and they also fitted in well with the public mythos of the Cold War time period that cast the world as its own Manichean struggle between the forces of light and darkness.
Whenever the Romans appeared on the screen the moralistic mental micro-machinery of a child automatically prompted me picture them as the Soviets, and Jesus came to function invariably as a larger than life superhero who made his appearance just in the nick of time to turn things around, even if he had to step into a phone booth first, which is the Easter drama was really all about. Jesus was in many respects John Wayne, just as tough but nicer.
When I came of age just about the same time as the Vietnam War, urban riots, the rise of black militancy and the New Left, the sexual revolution, and the hippie tune-out or chill-out (or whatever you want to call it) , an entirely new genre within the Jesus cultural imaginary suddenly flourished. There was Jesus the angry social revolutionary of Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, but on the main the late Vietnam and post-Vietnam era featured a variety of popular movies that cast Jesus as an anti-hero or subtly portrayed him as a countercultural nobody.
Stephen Schwartz’ Godspell, Webber and Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar, and Monty Python’s The Life of Brian are well-known examples. Martin Scorcese’s 1988 epic The Last Temptation of Christ, which goes out of its way to turn on its head the earlier Hollywood Jesus spectacles in portraying the would-be messiah’s agonizing intrapsychic conflicts, especially when it comes to sexual desire, falls in this category.
Since the turn of the millennium Jesus films have overall attempted to be less agenda-driven as well as theologically in-your-face, focusing more on accuracy of historical detail, the nuances of Biblical story-telling, and more down to earth in the framing of its subject matter. The Passion of the Christ (2004), The Nativity Story (2006) and Mary Magdalene (2018) come to mind in this context.
Portrayals of Jesus in the movie theaters have fluctuated for over a century with changes in religious sensibilities, advances in cinematography, and of course historical scholarship that gives us a better, if not a clearer, insight into who Jesus actually was, and how he was viewed by his contemporaries.
But it is not my point here to rehash the massive amount of academic literature and pop cultural commentary about the lengthy legacy of Jesus on the “silver screen”. It may come as a shock, but my fascination with The Chosen has very little to do with Christian film-making. It has everything to do with the intrusion of what the German-Jewish cultural critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin of the last century dubbed the “messianic”.
The messianic is a motif that haunts Benjamin’s thought. As a scholar who came of age right after World War I in a civilization riven by apocalyptic violence and social chaos, Benjamin angled for an intellectual rapprochement between Jewish mysticism and the spirit of revolutionary Marxism that was in the air across Europe. Benjamin never pulled it off, but he provided inspiration to a later generation of European essayists, philosophers, and critical theorists who had a tremendous influence on the generation born after World War II, the one that largely reshaped American intellectual life between 1985 and 2005 and were known as “postmodernists” or “post-structuralists”.
The most famous of this generation was the French thinker Jacques Derrida, who coined the still trendy buzzword “deconstruction” and was highly indebted to the work of Benjamin. In his highly influential book Specters of Marx, published right about the same time as the collapse of Communism, Derrida proudly proclaimed that “justice is deconstruction, deconstruction is justice”. He also identified both terms with Benjamin’s “messianic”.
Which brings us back to The Chosen. The Chosen is not like any Jesus film you’ve ever seen, because it’s not really from my take much about Jesus at all. It’s about the messianic.
In the 1920s Benjamin made a number of cryptic statements in what were often notes and literary fragments about “messianism without a messiah”. The messianic is not contained in any kind of human personality or historical player. It is that intrudes unexpectedly into history in a manner that is equally incalculable. It is hardly recognizable at the time it appears, even though it radically reconfigures the meaning of present, past, and future.
Contrast the messianic with what in the Christian tradition has routinely referred to as “eschatology” or “apocalypticism”. Eschatology is about some grand and glorious finale. The popular book series Left Behind, all the rage during the George W. Bush era, was a kind of kitsch version of classical eschatology. It was the Marvel Comics version of the Apocalypse of John, or the Book of Revelation, which is also the last book of the Bible. The Book of Revelation itself may be the closest thing we can find in the Bible to a CGI-driven Hollywood action thriller.
The Chosen, however, deliberately eschews any hint of melodrama, or spectacle. The Egyptian actor Jonathan Roumie who plays a Jesus that artfully distracts us from making him the center of attention in the movie. That Jesus also dodges just about every familiar Christian cliché. You know Jesus is the messiah, and Jesus himself acknowledges it in an almost matter-of-fact way.
But his “messiahship” routinely deconstructs throughout the film, whenever it makes an appearance, before our very eyes. The messianic, like justice for Benjamin, turns out to be utterly elusive. It is, as Derrida says, impossible to capture in the thought of the moment. For Derrida, both justice and the messianic are “undeconstructible”, which is to say they cannot be easily explained, nor explained away.
The messianic is what offers powerful hope not because it foretells the future, but it is the secret of a future that takes on a dimension we can barely comprehend. Like a tiny mustard seed sewn in the soil on which we mindlessly tread, and it grows slowly and inconspicuously out of sight until it no longer can be ignored.
As was the case in Jesus’ day, our world is awash with ideological fantasies and fanaticisms about how we are supposed to go about making the world more “just” – whether we are supposed to save it, or simply be saved. In America the much of Christianity has split into warring camps that favor incompatible political strategies.
The religious “right” and the religious “left” are in key respects hardly different from the Sanhedrin and the zealots, both of whom had a hard time making sense of the rabbi who preached a present and coming messianic “kingdom” that did not at any time fit within anyone’s prewired cognitive or theological frames – whether it be those of the Roman praetor, the officious Pharisees, or the revolutionary sicarii.
In the present age of secular disenchantment and spiritual cognitive dissonance, the messianic still stalks us. It is what Derrida called a “specter”, something that is unmistakably present, yet whose shape or substance is not readily discernible.
Jesus himself described the messianic as a “thief in the night” for which we must be ever vigilant and watchful. The messiah brings justice, but as another celebrated twentieth century Jewish philosopher named Emmanuel Levinas, it is always like an in-breaking lightning flash that reveals the face of the other.
Since its initial episode the producers of The Chosen have stressed that they did not want to make about a movie about Jesus per se, but about how those who encountered him must have perceived him. We are still struggling with the possibility of that encounter today, not with Jesus per se but with the “messianic”.
And the moment when it happens may be like no other time, or situation, we have ever experienced. The Chosen gives us a fleeting sense of what the messianic moment might look like in the 21st century, if we can put aside temporarily our deep-rooted religious and intellectual prejudices.
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