Sunday, May 29, 2022

My Opinion on The Chosen

I mentioned in a previous post that I am getting ready to launch a revamped Unam Sanctam Catholicam sister site with an entirely new and attractive layout (Deo gratias). I also stated that the movie reviews section would be going away; I've already started deleting them, as a matter of fact. But before I toss in the hat on movie reviews altogether, a viewer asked me to give my opinion on The Chosen series. This reader said that "it seems really cheesy" and "the fact that it's universally acclaimed by evangelicals" made them more skeptical.

Given that The Chosen is a series comprised of (at the time of writing) two seasons with 16 episodes total and a third season coming out in a few months, I'm not going to give a comprehensive review, but I will share my general thoughts.

I think The Chosen is absolutely fantastic. I have watched both seasons, and watched them multiple times. Several episodes have made me break down in tears in the best kind of way. It touches my heart in a way very few religious movies have been capable of. I liked it enough that I gave money to the crowdfunding campaign. So I am a big fan.

I will say that at the outset I did not like it; the first time I watched Season 1 Episode 1, I was not impressed. I even sent the folks at The Chosen a message complaining. My complaint had nothing to do with content; I was making a very technical gripe about camera angles and cinematography. I regret I sent this message now. It's challenging making any professional video production, and any series takes a few episodes to get their feet under them. I wasn't going to continue, but I heard so much praise for The Chosen that I had to continue—and I'd watched and reviewed every other depiction of Christ on film so I thought I owed it to see what all the hubbub was about.

I am so glad I persevered. The writer's of The Chosen clearly understand the difference Jesus makes in a person's life, and it is the only Jesus movie or series I've ever seen that successfully wields typology to show how the New Testament is hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is revealed in the New.

Are there little gripes I could make? Yes, of course. Every now and then there's some cheesy lines. Some of the sets—especially in Season 1—are a little low budget (they make the miraculous catch of fish happen in about two feet of water). John the Baptist's beard totally looks like its glued to his face. Now and then the characters talk like Protestants. But these things are all minutiae in my opinion, and not the sort I am going to gripe about. Afterall, the writers of The Chosen have also gone out of their way to incorporate Catholic elements into the storytelling as well. Season 2 Episode 6 has a beautiful scene that symbolically demonstrates the intercessory power of the Blessed Virgin Mary. And, as I mentioned, the typology is positively Catholic. And the operation of grace is depicted masterfully. 

Some may take issue that the series really uses a lot of creative license to fill in the backstories behind certain biblical episodes. But the stuff they are improvising on is stuff that's not mentioned in the Bible anyway, so it's in no way a distortion of the Scriptures—and in most cases the fabricated backstories significantly buttress the biblical episodes. For example, remember the paralytic at the Pool of Siloam who had nobody to put him into the water? He just gets a few verses in the Gospel of John. In The Chosen, we get an entire episode centered on him with a very well developed backstory. Not just a backstory, but one that is deeply moving; both times I watched that episode I wept. And the way the show used all these little narratives to build up to the Beatitudes at the end of Season 2 was superlative. Is there extrabiblical material? Of course. But everything that matters is played straight, following the New Testament beat for beat. 

As for the acting, I want to single out for praise three in particular: Jonathan Roumie (who is a practicing Catholic) as Jesus, Paras Patel as Matthew, and Elizabeth Tabish as St. Mary Magdalen. All the actors are good, but these three really carry the show, in my opinion. There are some excellent interviews on YouTube with Dr. Scott Hahn (who is also a big fan of the show) talking to Jonathan Roumie; I found these very edifying. Oh, and Eric Avari completely nails it as Nicodemus, who is a major character. I only wish he were in more episodes.

Now, I know there are Trad Catholic criticisms of The Chosen out there, some by popular priests. I am already aware of them and have read them, so please don't post them in the comments asking me to respond. All I can say is I find these Trad critiques without merit, focusing too much on matters of little import, or else making mountains out of molehills (like the critique I read where the Trad viewer objected to the fact that the infant Jesus in the Nativity was depicted wet after being born—as if its a matter of dogmatic faith that we must believe Jesus emerged from the womb of Mary entirely dry! What nonsense! I am not aware of a single point in which The Chosen deviates from any Catholic dogma, nor has any Trad criticism I've read of it been convincing. In fact, some of the Trad critiques I read made me think, "What is on earth is wrong with us?"

As to the issue that "evangelicals are excited about it therefore I am suspicious," while I understand the hesitancy when you see Protestants going gaga over something, I don't think that's ultimately a justification for skepticism. In 2004 Catholics were going gaga over The Passion of the Christ; had a Protestant said they were skeptical of it for that reason, would you have found that a compelling argument? I would hope not. Of course, sometimes Protestants get excited about something because its Protestant nonsense; but sometimes they get excited about something because its good. I say The Chosen is the latter.

One final thought: As some of you know, I was not raised Catholic. I was baptized Catholic as an infant, but I never made a First Communion until I was 22, didn't start practicing until I was an adult. I had what I consider to be a dissolute and debauched youth. When the Lord snatched me from the snare of the fowler—when He looked at me and said "Follow me"—it was life changing. And I've never looked back. The Chosen has brought me back to that place of remembering what it is like to be redeemed. Yes, I know every Catholic, even cradle Catholics, are redeemed, need to be forgiven etc. But I mean that sense of being totally lost, totally mired in darkness, and then you see the light, and you hear His voice, and He summons you, lifts you up, turns your heart of stone to flesh and calls you His own. The Chosen continually reconnects me with that experience. It continually reminds me of the difference that Jesus makes, and it challenges me to love better. 

But hey, that's just my viewpoint, and maybe my perspective on this show is colored by my experience, which is different from yours. Some of you will probably disagree; some of you probably watched it and couldn't stand it for various reasons. Some of you will think I'm a sentimental schlub for liking it. That's fine; I am a sentimental schlub. De gustibus non est disputandum and all that. I would say, if you're not positively predisposed against it, at least watch to the end of Season 1. You might find an unexpected gem.

Friday, May 13, 2022

The Traditional Low Mass: Simplicity vs. Informality

Recently I had the pleasure of visiting the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wisconsin. This beautifully designed neoclassical structure is situated on a forested hillside in a quiet neighborhood outside La Crosse. It was the creation of Cardinal Raymond Burke, specially dedicated by him to the patroness of the America. This structure was meant to reflect the liturgical ideals of the movement known as the "Reform of the Reform." The church itself is gorgeous; the altar is constructed in an Italianate style reminiscent of St. Peter's basilica, with a massive baldachin supported by four massive marble columns. The altar features the so-called "Benedictine arrangement" that was so touted during the last pontificate. A series of splendid paintings of various saints decorate the transepts, each situated over a reliquary altar of their respective saint. A sign in the narthex explains that all Masses at the shrine must be offered ad orientem and explaining that this is "really" how the Novus Ordo is meant to be offered according to the rubrics. It is an impressive place that elicits a sense of piety and grandeur.

I attended the 12:15 daily Mass, which of course was offered in the Novus Ordo. The contrast between the majesty the structure evoked and the realities of the liturgy being offered was stark. There was nothing amiss with the priest; he did a fine job, offering the Mass exactly according to the rubrics with worthy reverence. But the liturgy itself was so strikingly...informal. The banal dialogues, the Prayers of the Faithful with the scattered whispers of "Lord, hear of our prayer" squeaking out of the congregation, the casual language of the Eucharistic prayers. Of course this realization is nothing new, but I think the informality of the New Mass is thrown into relief when celebrated in a more solemn locale. The glory of the building shines a brighter light on the banality of the liturgy. The more splendid the church, the more unsuited the New Mass appears. 

But I wondered if I wasn't being unfair. After all, a Low Mass offered in the Extraordinary Form wouldn't be much to look at either...right? Would I not find the silent, stripped down Low Mass as unimpressive in the same circumstances?

As I pondered this, I realized something about the traditional Roman rite: even though the traditional Low Mass is simple, it is never informal. A Low Mass is a rather simple affair: the priest approaches the altar, he works his way through the prayers (with the laity participating with whatever manner of quiet devotion seems best to them), and Sacrifice is offered, Holy Communion is distributed, and Mass ends. It is extremely straightforward. It is simple. But it is elegant. It is noble. It is dignified. The much touted "noble simplicity of the Roman rite" the liturgical reformers lauded was always present in the traditional Low Mass. It is a liturgy capable of rising to the occasion when offered in a glorious basilica—but also of elevating the occasion when offered elsewhere, like on the hood of a Jeep on a World War II battlefield, or a hastily constructed wooden altar in the wilderness of Brazil. It is a kind of simplicity that has a universal appeal, admirably reflecting the omnipresence of God whose glory is present in the grandest cathedral and the vilest slum.

When it comes to the Novus Ordo, however, the reformers fundamentally confused simplicity with informality. In seeking a "simplified" Mass, they crafted one that was shockingly informal. Informality in the way it addresses God, in the commonplace language of the prayers, in the gestures, in the way it clumsily drags the congregation into the dialogue-responses. It is an informality that is capable neither of rising to the majesty of a beautiful church, nor of elevating the surroundings when offered elsewhere. 

Simplicity can still be grand. Informality is not. Simplicity can still lift us out of the workaday world and orient us towards God. Informality merely reminds us that we are still in the workaday world. The traditional liturgy never made the mistake of conflating simplicity with informality. It may have had rites that were simple, but they were never informal. Never humdrum. The Novus Ordo sought to create "noble simplicity" but instead created ho-hum informality and its progenitors were too inept to tell the difference.

The Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Wisconsin is an absolutely beautiful structure situated in beautiful surroundings. It is a place of beauty through and through. I wish it had more liturgies suited to the grandeur of the place.