‘The Chosen’ is a New and Promising TV Series on the Life of Christ
VidAngel Studios’ crowdfunded epic gives us a soundly biblical Jesus in a profoundly biblical world.
It all began with a box office bomb and a Christmas short. That’s what led Dallas Jenkins, a Bible-believing evangelical, to create The Chosen — a projected eight-season TV series on Jesus Christ. Though the first season was released a year ago, word is just now getting out, thanks in part to a “pay it forward” campaign making the show available on YouTube.
Although his father is famous for fictionalizing the fundamentalist interpretation of Revelation in the bestselling Left Behind series, Jenkins isn’t uncomfortable reimagining the Gospels and doesn’t give us a rigid reading. Still, he sincerely intends The Chosen to be faithful to Scripture. The result is what the show’s Catholic consultant, Holy Cross Father David Guffey, described as an Ignatian meditation on the Gospels.
Jesus Is the Eternal Lord
The Chosen gives us a soundly biblical Jesus in a profoundly biblical world. He’s cast not as an esoteric sage, self-help guru, hippy commune leader or political activist, but as the Lord who knows and possesses us utterly.
This comes out powerfully in the first episode. It opens on a roughly 5-year-old St. Mary Magdalene interrupting her sickly father praying. He playfully points to the “big new star” and asks if the bright light woke her. She says she’s scared. “What do we do when we are scared,” he asks. “We say the words,” she replies, ready to recite Isaiah 43:1:
Thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.’
Mary’s father repeats the phrase “you are mine” as she turns to gaze at the star.
She then wakes up to a real-life nightmare 20 years later. She is a demon-possessed prostitute who goes by “Lilith.” By the end of the episode, she comes close to jumping into the sea, only to drown herself in drink instead. Just when she is about to end her life, Jesus appears. As the demons shudder insider her, he calls her by her real name, cleverly bringing out that detail from the later Resurrection scene. He then exorcises the demons by pronouncing the same prophecy her father taught her. When he asserts “you are mine,” it’s clear he is more a king who repossesses her than a therapist sorting out her personal baggage.
Thankfully, this scene isn’t at all romantic, even if full of love. Rather, Jesus has such command over the human soul because he is the Creator God.
My favorite way Jesus’ divinity is revealed occurs in episode three when he asks a group of children to pray the Shema, a traditional Jewish prayer. As he’s listening, his expression changes and the frame switches to a wide shot overlooking the scene, suggesting God’s perspective. The audio of the children’s voices sounds faintly doubled, giving the impression he hears the prayer both as a human and as God. When the children come to the phrase “I am the Lord your God,” the camera zooms back on Jesus.
Jesus is a Man
In The Chosen, Jesus is far from a weakling who lacks masculine traits. The portrayal by actor Jonathan Roumie — a devout Catholic who says he has had a “personal relationship with [Jesus Christ his] entire life” — reminds me of Aslan, a Jesus who is “kind but not safe.” When he heals the paralytic, he is daring and decisive, defying the Pharisee Shmuel’s challenge. When Shmuel calls for the Roman guards, Jesus calmly walks out the back door, making it plain he retreats not for fear but because his time had not yet come.
Likewise, in the season finale, when Jesus and the Apostles begin their journey to the next town, they march to bring “trouble,” as the lyrics from the gritty song that plays over the scene make clear.
While The Chosen admirably presents Jesus as a deep and enthralling teacher, it is his personal intervention in the lives of those he seeks out and saves that is given greatest attention. This emphasis on a personal relationship with Jesus isn’t surprising for a show written by evangelicals, and it is surely a major motivation behind the addition of fictional backstories.
Take the calling of St. Peter, whose singular leadership is repeatedly acknowledged. While the Gospels don’t explain Peter’s late-night fishing trip, in The Chosen it’s a desperate last-ditch effort to pay off a massive tax debt. Moreover, Peter sets sail after having had an argument with his wife, who chastised his pride, self-reliance and lack of faith. It not only rings true to the biblical portrait of Peter as impulsive and impetuous but it’s very relatable and familiar, for this author at least. When Peter falls to his knees and cries out for mercy, it has all the feeling of an evangelical conversion experience.
You Must Become Like a Child
Matthew 18:3 resounds throughout the series. Encounters with Jesus variously take people back to their childhood as a symbol of his restoring them to innocence. In his presence, his followers become their true selves.
It is children who are Jesus’ first disciples in The Chosen. And when Mary Magdalene encounters Jesus, he shatters her false self by calling her by her birth name and reciting the prophecy taught by her father. When the Apostles are getting to know each other by discussing their former careers, St. James the Lesser says “only Jesus knows what I will become,” suggesting that following Christ is a journey of maturation.
The conversion of St. Matthew, played by Paras Patel in an award-winning performance, is perhaps the best example. In the series he is Peter’s taxman, and he starts writing records at the behest of the Romans for the purposes of keeping tabs on Peter — records that shrewd viewers know become the first Gospel. His obsession with numbers and attention to detail in his Gospel leads Patel to portray him as an obsessive-compulsive germophobe who makes the most of the opportunities his intelligence, guilelessness and giftedness afford him. His conversion occurs right after a visit with his alienated parents and a conversation with his Roman guard about their sense that he’s squandered his God-given talent. As Matthew glimpses Jesus exiting after healing the paralytic, Jesus glances back and gazes into Matthew’s eyes with a look that is as arresting as it is majestic.
The only instance of this theme that gives me pause occurs in the calling of St. Thomas. After telling his colleague he didn’t know what to think, she tells him not to. I winced. I understand the line is said to “doubting Thomas.” But Scripture doesn’t uphold children because of their unthinking naiveté or gullibility. Rather, it’s their keen interest, wonder and humility that make them ready for the mysteries of the Kingdom of God.
Mary and Joseph
My biggest complaint, unsurprisingly for an evangelical show, is the portrayal of St. Joseph and our Lady. Joseph seems a simpleton, with no discernible virtue or fatherliness, and Mary appears bohemian. I understand they came from humble backgrounds. But, as my wife observed, there’s a noticeable absence of regality.
At the same time, I’m glad it hasn’t been suggested that they had other children. And, to my eyes, there is a profound representation of Mary’s intercessory role in episode five. It begins with the events of Luke 2, with Mary and Joseph having lost Jesus. When they find him, Mary is not ignorant of his messianic mission, but she says “it is too early for all… this,” looking up to heaven. Jesus replies, “If not now, when?” She says, “Just help us get through all this with you,” and, as the frame flashes to a close-up and the background noise goes silent, she adds, “Please.”
This dialogue is interestingly inverted during the wedding in Cana. When Mary asks Jesus to help with the wine, he replies “Mother [sic], my time has not yet come.” She replies, “If not now, when?” It brought me to tears as, once again we are given a close-up of Mary’s face and in silence she prayerfully pleads, “Please.” It’s all at least a hint of her integral and intercessory role.
Catholics could also quibble with the view of grace. To be sure, we have neither the old-school Gnosticism nor the new-school social activism of some evangelical soteriology. The material, political and spiritual dimensions of salvation are nicely integrated, and the temporal is subordinated to the eternal. But the evangelical emphasis on a personal relationship does seem to be tainted by bias against sacramentality.
When Jesus tells the woman at the well that God will be worshipped “in spirit and in truth,” he interprets it to mean that the heart is all that matters. One wishes the writers were more familiar with the biblical typology of the Temple and Jesus’ Body at work in John’s Gospel. We need not worship in Jerusalem’s Temple — not because warm feelings in our hearts suffice, but because the new Temple is Christ’s Body, which is given to us only in the Mass.
Similarly, for all the ways in which the series shows itself influenced by the 20th-century recovery of the “Jewishness of Jesus” in biblical scholarship and the kind of congeniality toward Judaism that arose after the Second World War and was encouraged by the Second Vatican Council in the declaration Nostra Aetate, there is lingering evangelical anxiety about good works undermining divine grace in Judaism. And yet here, too, I must be thankful, for when my 9-year-old son, Rowan, heard the Pharisees intimate that it’s only when the people perfectly obey the Law that the Messiah will come, he immediately interrupted: “Wait, there’s a problem here. It’s good to believe that you need to make everything good for the Messiah’s coming, but they are missing the key point: You can’t make everything good without the Messiah.”
So far, it appears Jenkins and his team has succeeded in creating a “binge-worthy” TV show on Jesus that is at once believable and faithful. I’ve found it be fairly friendly to Catholic sensibilities, while displaying the best of its evangelical heritage. Unlike so many portrayals of Scripture in film that prove superficial both in biblical understanding and artistic representation, The Chosen is robust theologically and cinematically. It is more than a series on the life of Christ. It is a promising and fulfilling epic of salvation history.