Even as the positive reviews poured in and word-of-mouth continued to spread like wildfire, I’m sure that many Christians were—and still are—skeptical of The Chosen. Admittedly, I was once one of them.
The skepticism is understandable. For one thing, the independent, crowd-funded, multi-season series about the life of Christ is the first of its kind—a high-risk and experimental production. The series (though its producers encourage viewers to read the Gospels) is also loosely based on Scripture, relying mostly upon the imaginative creativity of its writers—an approach fraught with difficulties and dangers. But most importantly, the series seems, at first glance, like the kind of project geared toward the Christian film market—a market generally saturated with soft-focus sentimentality and formulaic morality tales.
But from the first episode onward, it’s clear that Dallas Jenkins and the whole cast and crew of The Chosen mean business. And yet the strength of the show is precisely that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. This is not a thundering biblical epic of the Ben-Hur era, nor is it the kind of ponderous work of spirituality tucked away in arthouse theaters. It is meant to be a binge-worthy TV show in the era of binge-worthy TV shows. This is not to say that The Chosen is superficial or irreverent—the creators clearly operate out of a place of deep faith, and the characters and themes are presented with great love and care—but there is a kind of playful, homespun manner about The Chosen that is both disarming and absorbing.
This includes some wonderful creative touches—“James the Lesser” and “James the Greater,” for example, are called “Little James” and “Big James” by Jesus—and also some genuinely funny moments, like this exchange between Jesus and the disciples when they reunite after a time:
Little James: “Rabbi, we got food. What would you like?”
Jesus (speaking of doing the Father’s will): “Ah . . . I have food to eat that you do not know about.”
(Long, confused pause)
Andrew (mouth full): “Who got you food?”
Or this one, as Jesus begins to lead the group toward Samaria:
Andrew: “Forgive me, Teacher, but it’s safer to go around Samaria by way of the Jordan in the Decapolis.”
Jesus: “Did you join me for safety reasons?”
Big James: “But Rabbi, they’re Samaritans.”
Jesus: “Good observation, Big James.
That down-to-earth quality emerges most prominently in the breakout performance of Jonathan Roumie as Jesus. In sharp contrast to the more stoic presentations of Christ on film, Roumie, who is Catholic and a friend and collaborator of Word on Fire, brings an unparalleled warmth, gentleness, and humor to this daunting role, lighting up the screen—yes, with quiet prayer and deeply felt stares, but also with lighthearted banter, joyful smiles, and even celebratory dancing. Beautifully embodying the “kenotic hymn” of Philippians 2, The Chosen paints a compelling picture of the God who humbly descended into the ordinary travails and triumphs of our human condition—who works, jokes, sweats, bleeds, travels, and even offers tired prayers as he lays down to sleep after a long day. Rather than diminishing the mystery of the Incarnation, watching Jesus portrayed in this way has the curious effect of only heightening it all the more.
And as magnetic as Roumie’s performance had been across the first season, the directing, writing, and other performances have kept apace. A surprise episode 3 of season 2, titled simply “Matthew 4:24,” was possibly the best episode of The Chosen yet.
The verse reads: “So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them.” With one long, unbroken shot, we are drawn into the camp where Jesus’ disciples are staying as he heals nearby—a scene that is alluded to but that powerfully remains hidden off-screen.
As dusk turns to nightfall, the disciples engage in various conversations about who Jesus is, what he is doing, and the mystery of why he has chosen them, unworthy and broken as they are, to be a part of it all. Philip walks with Matthew, speaking to him of Scripture and God; Thomas sits with Little James and talks about Jesus’ healings in light of James’ own infirmity (based on the actor’s real-life disability); and Mary—whose role at the wedding at Cana was powerfully underscored in episode 5 of the first season—arrives to feed them and speak to them with motherly tenderness. The technical execution of the scene—which feels so human, immediate, and believable—beautifully draws viewers into a sense of what it might have been like to be living in this moment and the types of conversations that very well might have spontaneously sprung up.
When the disciples gather around a fire, a reflective, meandering conversation leads—through Peter’s prodding of Matthew, a former collaborator with Rome—to a place of division and conflict. (It’s not exactly an unthinkable situation, in light of the Gospels.) But just as tensions start to run high, Jesus emerges silently and slowly out from the darkness, exhausted from hours of healing. His mother rushes to his side to wash his feet and clean the blood from his hands and his face—a foreshadowing of both Holy Thursday and Good Friday. Jesus thanks her and smiles at her; she instructs him to sleep, and he acquiesces. “I’m so tired,” he says, as he disappears into his tent to pray.
The subtle impact of this turn is masterful: Jesus’ journey into the darkness of sin and suffering and his self-emptying love for the poor, which awakens his mother’s own gentle response of love, is a stinging rebuke to the disciples’ games of power and control, of blame and recrimination, and an invitation to look upon and humbly follow the way of Love incarnate. Two thousand years later, it’s safe to say that the Church is still learning the same lesson.
The image of fish is a running theme of The Chosen, and the series clearly emerged out of a desire to put out into deep water and, in faith, cast a wide net. Judging by the fact that The Chosen has tens of millions of views in over a hundred countries with subtitles in dozens of languages, it is succeeding in spades. But so long as Jenkins, Roumie, and company continue to churn out episodes like this latest one—with scenes that are not only eminently entertaining but also thematically rich and artistically subtle—its reach will be not only broad but deep, and its future will be bright indeed.