Apparently God Was a Decent Human

Reading Between the Lines of the Gospels with The Chosen

This review comes to us from Grant Wishard:

Until I read Chris DeVille’s review in the Atlantic, I had no idea there was an ongoing television show about Jesus. The Chosen, a drama about our Lord and his disciples, is already being watched by millions and is wrapping up its second season.

I know what you’re thinking because I had the same immediate thought: It must be really good. The greatest, most life-changing story ever told, played out on screen with modern production quality? They can’t miss. I wonder which Hollywood hunk is playing Jesus?

Okay, that’s probably not what you thought, but that’s why I am all the more pleased to report that The Chosen is good television. It is enjoyable to watch. The Bible and the character of Jesus are approached with reverence, and yet the result is entertaining. Jesus, played by Jonathan Roumie, is clearly shown as God and also as a real person with an individual personality. This Jesus has impressive woodworking skills, laughs at jokes, and has a great time at weddings. He performs supernatural miracles, but He wins disciples and influences people by appealing to them in very obvious, non-supernatural ways. “It’s good to see you again, Andrew,” he says to the soon-to-be disciple in season 1, demonstrating the power of remembering people’s names after you meet them. “I’m Jesus,” He says to Simon, offering a firm handshake and solid eye contact. Instead of being charismatic or cool, he is warm and sincere.

Introducing audiences to Jesus is one of the goals of the show. Director Dallas Jenkins, who has made his career in Christian media and is the son of Jerry B. Jenkins, the author of the Left Behind series, has full creative control and told the Christian Post that he wanted to depict a more accessible Christ than what we’ve seen before. “I think that a lot of times, it’s been a stained-glass window version of Jesus in the past. I want people to know and love the authentic Jesus better.” Who is that authentic Jesus according to Jenkins? He summed it up in the same interview:

I do believe that Jesus could be super serious, telling people there’s only one way to Heaven … I do believe He also was very tender and loving. He said, ‘I didn’t come here to judge but to save.’ In the past, people tend to just find one lane for Jesus. He’s either super loving and never judgmental, or He’s harsh and exclusive.

That vision has paid off. I did not cringe to see my Lord and Savior depicted on screen.

The key to the show’s success as entertaining television is that plausible, well-researched creative liberties are taken in places where the Bible leaves gaps, and then expanded into full plot lines. The first four episodes of season 1 show Andrew and Simon falling into debt. The Roman taxes need to be paid soon. They’re about to lose the house and the fishing boat unless one of Simon’s schemes pays off (he’s a bit of a scammer). They try to stage a fixed fight. Simon goes to the Romans offering to turn in his fellow Jews who are fishing on Sabbath. Nothing goes as planned. Simon’s wife and his friends at the bar are furious with him. In a desperate last attempt, Simon himself spends the entire night of the Sabbath fishing, hoping to catch enough to pay off the Romans. He catches nothing. In the bleary-eyed morning, angry with himself and God, he meets Jesus on the shore. When Jesus tells him to put their net on the other side of the boat and (spoiler alert) they pull up a ton of fish, suddenly that story makes sense as a miracle. That famous boat-full of floppy fish could have very likely have been a life-saving moment for those two men. When they decide to leave the catch with their friends and follow Jesus, that decision also carries new weight. They won the Mega-Millions and then trusted their friend Dave with the ticket? Are you kidding me?

Most of the show is like this. Most of the content does not appear in the Bible, but it’s all very plausible. Mary Magdalen, played by Elizabeth Tabish, is possessed by a demon, as fans of the book already know, but she is also suffering the trauma of a past sexual assault by a Roman, giving the character a new psychological depth. Matthew, played by Paras Patel, is a tax collector, but in this telling, he is also autistic. It makes perfect sense that a numbers-oriented individual who finds it difficult to operate socially would be pushed into such a terrible job. Are these strictly Biblical ideas? No. Are they acceptable ideas? To most viewers, yes. Much like those directors who dare approach a well-loved comic book series, Jenkins is reminded every day that he is a heretical blasphemer by a minority of viewers. You can decide for yourself, but I suspect that if someone really loved the Bible simply as a story, they would have a robust imagination for these sorts of details.

The Chosen is also a show to pay attention to because of how it is being made. In place of any major studio or billionaire’s involvement, thousands of individuals have invested money, and actually own slices of the business, in order to make each season. Sixteen-thousand people raised $10 million dollars for the first season, making The Chosen the largest crowdfunded media project of all time. The show is free through its own app. When you click on an episode, you are told, “This was made free for you to watch by Phillipe from the Philippines. Would you like to pay it forward?” It’s a very soft pitch, and I was nothing but impressed by the concept. If you want to #bingeJesus, as the show’s creators put it, you can buy episodes ahead of when they are scheduled to be released. Each episode also streams for free on Facebook Live and Youtube and, as of recently, it is also available on NBC’s Peacock. According to the in-app view counter, 205,731,685 people have seen the show. More viewers tune in to watch The Chosen live than any number of widely marketed HBO dramas with recognizable titles. Meaning, The Chosen is completely independent and highly successful. No major critic or publication (besides the Atlantic) has paid any attention to this TV show, and, like Play-Doh before a steamroller, that has had no impact on its success.

Total independence for Christian media is now not only feasible but makes good business sense. Those who observe media trends have been saying for a long time that the monolithic business will break up into small, highly niche chunks. The Chosen is evidence of this trend, as are platforms such as Patreon, Substack and GoFundMe. The question now is what should be done with that independence. Can Christians use this moment to extend warmth and charity to more people (have you ever heard of DonorSee?), or will we turn further inward, more incentivized than ever to preach to the woke choir? Dallas Jenkins and those behind The Chosen have designed something that is meant to reach out.