Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

“The Chosen”: Get Used to Different

May 27, 2020


As a general rule, I avoid most religious dramatizations, finding them often too kitschy or heavily pretentious. But the recommendations to watch the television series The Chosen became too many to ignore, even as I found them a bit confusing. It’s not on any primetime networks? It’s not on the popular streaming apps? How odd!

So odd, in fact, I had to check it out. After finishing the first season, I am positively surprised at how much I enjoyed it. I highly recommend it for anyone looking to watch something new, beautiful, and good. 

The heavy responsibility of  doing right by salvation history’s pivotal players is challenging enough, but competing with the stubbornness of the subjective imagination makes the task downright daunting, especially when it comes to the person of Jesus Christ. Through artwork, literature, or Scripture, the image of Jesus has become vastly subjective, even individualistic. In our fear of misrepresenting Jesus, we run the risk of stripping him of his humanity and rejecting all depictions of him in any medium that we deem as insufficiently holy or majestic. 

But the knowing of Christ is a “both/and” situation. In The Spirit of the Liturgy, Pope Benedict XVI writes, “God is beyond all thought, and therefore all propositions about him and every kind of image of God are in equal proportions valid and invalid.” What we may derive about Jesus gives us an understanding of who God is as Jesus is God and man. It is also true that whatever we derive pales in comparison to the depth of the reality that we cannot begin to understand. Both/and.

The Jesus Christ of The Chosen is altogether human and divine. If you watch the series you see him turning water into wine, conversing with the Samaritan woman at the well, healing the paralytic, and asking wayward fishermen and a tax collector to follow him. You also witness him making jokes, stacking cups while telling vivid stories to children, and even engaging in a bit of sarcasm. As played by Jonathan Roumie, the characterization of Christ is captivating, enthralling, and heart-wrenching.

In a recent episode of the Word on Fire Show, Brandon Vogt and Bishop Barron discussed the quest for the historical Jesus. At one point they talk about the fact that the right way to understand Jesus is in light of Jewish tradition. Bishop even says, “The Jesus that emerges from that is this luminous figure.” This is beautifully displayed in The Chosen too. Several scenes come to mind: the Wedding at Cana, the sharing of Shabbat, the healing of the man with leprosy. The Jewish expectation of the Messiah is part of this history and cannot be something that is subtle. Kudos to the writers behind The Chosen for the careful attention to the Sanhedrin (especially Nicodemus), the Shabbat, and other Jewish laws and customs. 

Cinematic portrayals of Jesus are more than often not notable. However, I think Roumie’s portrayal is as poignant as Jim Caviezel’s in The Passion of the Christ, although different in substance. Caviezel’s portrayal in the 2004 film mainly focused on the suffering of Christ in the Passion, intermingled with snippets of his teachings and Christ events—the Last Supper, the Sermon on the Mount, etc. Creative liberties were taken to allow for the “humanization” of Jesus, especially in the flashbacks of his childhood and moments with him and his mother, Mary. The images of suffering were the point of the movie though—the graphic nature required the viewer’s compassion, thus making it easier to believe the portrayal because there is such communion in suffering. Roumie’s characterization is vastly different, but equally effective and important as a means to better encounter Jesus. 

The Chosen’s first season is only eight episodes long. and the viewer’s first glimpse of Christ, in the first episode, is only a gaze—at once powerful and full of meaning. As his character unfolds, you see a beautiful intermingling of the divine and the human. Roumie’s peaceful demeanor, his laughter, and his surety support my own imagination and even take it into unexplored realms. He is a wonderful carrier of the Incarnation, and the writing seems to intentionally highlight the obedience of a man who is simultaneously divine but also becoming more aware of that divinity.

In addition to Jesus Christ, key players receive quite a bit of screen time in this new series. After all, they have carried on his message long after the Ascension. 

When you think of the crowds following Jesus, which faces are the most prominent? A month ago, I would’ve only given one name: Peter. But in  The Chosen, the crowd is defined by the faces of Matthew, Andrew, James, John, and Mary Magdalene—played by Elizabeth Tabish—who is a consistent presence in this series. The series includes her journey of redemption, and the character’s quiet charisma and charm are everything I imagine the saint to be. Matthew is ever-calculating, and Paras Patel’s portrayal doesn’t miss a beat. There’s a scene where you can see a note of very human compulsivity as he locks his door three times. I remember watching this and thinking, “Of course Matthew would do that!” 

And then, there’s Simon Peter. When I recall his biblical narrative, I picture his impulsiveness—jumping into the water and swimming to shore to meet Jesus, rather than waiting for the boats to get there—and his temper (cutting off Malcus’ ear). Shahar Isaac plays the mercurial aspects of Peter’s nature remarkably well, and while I didn’t expect to see such a focus on the relationship of Peter and his wife, as the wife of a permanent diaconate candidate, I have taken great consolation in the depiction of a woman sending her husband off to work in the fields of the Lord.  

Another welcome surprise was Nicodemus. A member of the Sanhedrin, he wrestled with the teaching of being “born again” and discussed his apprehension with Jesus under the cloak of night (John 3). I won’t mention more of this other than to say that Erick Avari plays the part perfectly, and this character is the focal point of my favorite scene in the series.

Aside from the show itself, we have much to learn from the way that The Chosen went from an idea and into the homes of so many people around the world, thanks to crowdfunding. The series exists due to the donations of people who wanted it to, and whose contributions surpassed the previous funding efforts of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 and Veronica Mars. Such support meant that the team behind the series were able to bypass the usual gatekeepers and maintain full creative control over their content.

In an interview with The Federalist, creator Dallas Jenkins said, “Some people have said, ‘Oh, I can’t wait till you get picked up by a big studio, and we said, ‘We wouldn’t have developed a brand new technology and gone this whole route if we wanted to get picked up by a big studio.’ We’re not doing this to be sold, we’re doing this to create a whole new alternative for people.”

If you want to watch The Chosen, download The Chosen app. You’ll be met with a sleek design, the entire first season, and capabilities to cast those episodes from your phone to most streaming devices. Within the app, you will also be able to see the name of the person that donated to allow you the chance to see the episodes for free. Viewers also have the option to support the series and the forthcoming future seasons.

It is a  “taste and see” approach. I was hesitant, but after watching the season (and weeping through every episode), I am encouraging everyone to see it. In fact, upon finishing the first season, my husband jokingly said, “Just call them and ask them how much they need for the second season. Let’s sell the house.”

We didn’t sell the house but we did decide to press the pay it forward button on the app and donate to the crowdfunding efforts. 

Honestly, this makes me think of what the New Evangelization should look like, and correlates to much of what we do here at Word on Fire. Using media that have become either disordered or avoided, we are able to get the Gospel into the hands (and screens) of more and more people every day. It takes thinking outside of the box and doing the hard work of moving past obstacles to make evangelization possible—especially where most people (like me) tend to look at religious programming as kitschy or patronizing.

“If Christian content creators want to reach audiences directly,” Jenkins says in the Federalist piece, “they’re going to have to make a choice if they’re going to compete in the big pond with all these other big streamers that aren’t really interested in faith-based content on a significant level, or if it’s fine to create a whole new paradigm.”

The Good News is worth breaking down barriers and paving a new path to the truth. In checking out The Chosen,  I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. It is different from nearly every sort of religious programming you’re used to. But, in the words of Christ Jesus in episode 8: “Get used to different.”