NBC drama "A.D. The Bible Continues" is defined by its compelling storyline and diverse cast, as characters of different backgrounds and ethnicities come together to form the early church following the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. One of those characters is Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus' most devoted followers.
Throughout the series, Mary Magdalene is brought to life by Chipo Chung, a wildly talented Chinese/Zimbabwean actress who has appeared in a variety of shows, including Doctor Who and Sherlock and Fortitude.
In an exclusive interview with the Gospel Herald, the 37-year-old actress shared some profound insights on the person of Mary Magdalene, her special relationship with Jesus Christ, and how the show has transformed her worldview.
GH: Although Mary Magdalene is a key character in the New Testament, the Bible really leaves a lot to the imagination regarding her personality. So, in playing her character, you have a great deal of creative freedom. Who do you imagine her to be?
CC: "I take her characteristics from the Bible; there about ten references to her in the Scriptures. Over the years, people have made up all sorts of things about her that are not in the Bible; that she was a prostitute, that she was guilty of the seven deadly sins. But when you look in the Bible, it's not there. So, I had to say, 'Okay, what IS in the Bible.' It does say that she was healed of seven demons, it does say that she, Joanna the wife of Chuza and a number of other women supported the disciples--and these are all clues as to her character. Although the women allowed the men to do the talking, the women were actually at the center of it. They were either patrons, they were part of strategy, or they were bringing food and blankets. There were definitely women there who were part of the driving force behind the disciples.
And then, of course, there are the most important passages regarding Mary, where she was present at the crucifixion of Jesus, and she was there Sunday morning at His tomb following His resurrection. That says a lot. I think it says that she was very spiritually entrenched, that Jesus had a special, spiritual relationship with her--that He would have chosen her.
In the second episode, there's an amazing dialogue where Mary is talking to Jesus, but she thinks He's the gardener. She says, 'If you've taken Him, tell me where, and I will get Him.' That to me is a major clue, because what kind of person, let alone woman, says 'I will get Him?' She doesn't say, 'I'll get the guys to help me,' she says 'I will get Him myself.' That's a woman of tremendous courage and love and compassion. She's heartbroken at the thought that they could have desecrated the body of Christ. So those are her characteristics as portrayed in the Bible: courage, compassion, daring to do what others are afraid to do, and having some intelligence in order to be able to talk to the disciples. She's a worker as well, helping the disciples with their individual needs.
Because she's not in Acts a great deal--if at all--we have to extrapolate how she could have fit in, which is the work that the women do in the background. I notice this, from the work at my organization (the non-profit Sponsored Arts For Education) that the women are often in the background working together, making sure everything is done on time while the men do the talking. I think that was Mary's role, and you see that in the series, that she was always present, and when it comes to the key decisions that need to be made, she's always consulted. But she has to work in a quiet way because her world is very male dominated."
GH: How has playing in this powerful series about the Bible and the early church affected your faith and your understanding of this time in history?
CC: "Well, I didn't realize how brutal the Romans were. They were very violent--Pilate was very brutal. If you read the history of the Roman Empire, they were very ruthless, they were very military in the way that they treated themselves--they were the men that fed the Christians to the lions. They crucified thousands of Jews--not just Jesus. I didn't realize what a violent world a religion of hope and faith was born to. It's given me a lot more respect for Christianity, that it was born out of that.
I've learned two particular lessons. One is about witnessing, because that is a characteristic of Mary. She was a witness, and not just an eyewitness. She was there for a reason. To me, that reason was to fully witness the pain and suffering of Jesus in His darkest moment. He says, 'My God, my God, why have You abandoned Me?' He feels this loneliness, but there are people there watching Him even though they can't touch Him. While we were filming the scene, I kept thinking, 'No, she can't flinch, she's always got to keep her eyes on Him' because she didn't want to show Jesus she was scared or suffering, because His suffering was so much greater than hers. That experience of witnessing I have applied to my life. When other people are suffering, to just sit with them and give them your full attention and go to their level of pain, and just hold them with your eyes and with your presence. That's truly witnessing. And the reward for that witnessing, for Mary Magdalene, is that she sees God. That was a phrase that went through my head a lot as we were shooting the series-- 'Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.' Mary witnessing His resurrection and the glory of His transformation was a reward for the fact that she had been so faithful in His darkest hour.
The second thing is really contemplating on the concept of resurrection. As the story goes on, Jesus isn't the only one who gets resurrected, other people were resurrected as well. That's fascinating, and I'm still considering what that means. But I think it is about the fact that we experience death and resurrection in our daily life, parts of ourselves die and are born again hopefully in a lighter, brighter way."
GH: Would you say the story of Mary Magdalene relevant in today's society?
CC: "It's absolutely relevant. I think the mythology of her is particularly relevant, because the mythology is that she was this fallen woman who was forgiven by Jesus and transformed into a penitent. Which is not true--it's not in the Bible, there's no evidence that it was the case. And the other mythology of her is that because she was powerful, and she must have been Jesus' wife, or consort, or girlfriend--like the Da Vinci Code presumes. Of course that's not in the Bible either, but those mythologies are relevant today, because when a woman is powerful, I think people want to make her a sex object, and Mary Magdalene has been a sex object with the church for 1,600 years. Or, they say, "Well it must be because she was His wife--that must be why she was important." They can't consider that, in and of herself, as a spiritual practitioner, as a follower of the faith, as a disciple, she was important."
GH: Your are of both African and Chinese descent, which is fascinating, as those regions are where Christianity has experienced significant growth over the past several decades. Can you tell me a bit about your background?
CC: "I was reading the newspaper the other day and read that in 20 years, there will be more Christians in China than there are in America, which is an amazing statistic. I grew up in Zimbabwe, which is actually very Catholic. There is a range of different churches, and I grew up Catholic and was taught in the Dominican Convent, which was a convent started by German Dominican nuns who wore habits and were quite strict; it was all a bit Victorian (laughs). But I got on very well with them. I loved the discipline of the Germans and I ended up being "head girl" of the Convent, that was my title my senior year of highschool (laughs). Culture is amazing-- Christianity has spread all over the world. It's also incredible that I am in Hollywood, because I was watching Hollywood movies on videotape back in the day, and now here I am in L.A. The global world is really very tiny."
GH: What has touched you the most playing Mary Magdalene throughout A.D.?
CC: "She's compassionate, and as the series goes on, you really see that. She suffers with people. That's an archetype of the divine, feminine force that I feel honored to portray. You sit with these parts--we were filming in the desert for six months, and there wasn't much to do. I love the other actors, we were a great family of friends. But there's a lot of time to contemplate the amazing material in A.D., and it has been an enlightening experience getting to really think about all of it, thinking of who Mary truly was. It's also been really enlightening having to embody this story of courage and passion and compassion, which we need everyday in this difficult world we live in."
GH: What was it like working with Kirk Cameron, Jason Kennedy and Pastor James MacDonald in "Beyond A.D." which will air this Sunday?
CC: "We had a good time. I was sort of piggy in the middle, because I sat between them, and they've known each other for twenty years, and I had never met either of them before (laughs). Because Mary is the one female disciple really highlighted among a big bunch of men, I was the only girl around a lot of the time while we were shooting the series. You've got to toughen up, and there I was again--a woman, surrounded by three men, all of whom are very articulate. You've got to find your voice in that. I think I did, and we had a great conversation. I particularly liked when James MacDonald talked about the 'sanctified imagination,' which was the creative license taken with some characters in the storyline in order to hold the parts in the direction of Scripture. There are these special chapters in the Bible that are really kooky; the stories are really intriguing, and the writers include some made up characters, like Leah, the wife of Caiaphas, who's really a foil to Mary Magdalene. She's another woman who's really powerful, but it's all about power and ego and not about compassion and other people. You have to have that creative license with that character, because it allows you to tell a deeper truth. Jesus spoke in parables, he was a storyteller. He knew that if you tell a good story, people will get the spiritual message. And we have to do that in the show. I really liked having that comment from James MacDonald, because it really rang true to me--a 'sanctified imagination.'
I really hope we get a second season, I love the show. Every time I watch it I think it gets better and better. The form fascinates me--the balance between directives from the Bible, interpretation from the Bible, and then what is created around the Bible to give it drama. I think the writers do a really good job with that, and the balance gets better with every episode."
In addition to "Beyond A.D." which will also feature musical guest All Sons & Daughters, Sunday's sixth episode of "A.D. The Bible Continues" will see Peter attempting to guide Jesus' followers as Saul begins to persecute the church. Meanwhile, Caiaphas's position comes under threat from both Antipas and his own family, as Pilate plays them all against each other.
"A.D. The Bible Continues" episode six will air on NBC at 9 p.m. ET Sunday, May 10. The encore of last week's episode five will air directly before the new installment.