By Katie Tjerrild
There is no shortage of movies, TV series, and plays depicting the life of Jesus--The Passion of the Christ, Godspell, and Jesus Christ Superstar come to mind, among others. These portrayals vary as much in quality as in medium, and new content about the life of Christ rarely feels worth the watch. Because of this, my first reaction upon seeing the YouTube thumbnail for The Chosen was to groan and wonder whether the series’ cardinal sin would be poor acting, uninspired storytelling or the casting of a too-smiley (or too-stern) Jesus. I was pleasantly surprised. The Chosen demonstrates a real commitment to excellence in its production, storytelling, and acting, as well as its attempt to honor the gospel narratives.
The Chosen is a multi-season series about the life of Jesus, and is available on YouTube or The Chosen’s free app. According to its website, The Chosen is the “largest crowdfunded media project of all time”—an impressive accolade for Christian media. Because the series will consist of multiple seasons, of which the first and part of the second have been released, the show allows for a more fully-developed look at the life of Jesus than other projects have in the past. The creator and director of The Chosen, Dallas Jenkins, who is himself a committed Christian and an accomplished director, forecasts that there will be seven or eight seasons total, all of which will be funded by viewer contributions.
So, a disclaimer: if you’re looking for a barebones portrayal of the life of Christ that limits itself to scriptural dialogue and detail, The Chosen is not for you. If, on the other hand, you’re comfortable with imaginative elaboration on scripture (within the general bounds of plausibility, cultural realism, and the intent of the gospels), then The Chosen might serve as a fresh, enriching way for you to encounter the life of Jesus and his disciples anew.
Overall, the series’ imaginative yet faithful writing is a triumph. The show explores the rich inner and relational lives of many of the gospels’ characters. Nicodemus, for example, is shown grappling at length with the competing pulls of Christ’s invitation to follow him and his wife’s preoccupation with tradition and status. The show also portrays Matthew as being on the autism spectrum—a characterization that’s consistent with Matthew’s detail-oriented job as a tax collector and his knack for precision in his gospel.
Occasionally, the show’s writing may overstep the bounds of what is in keeping with the gospel accounts. For example, several episodes trace a plotline in which Simon Peter hatches a plot to betray Jewish fisherman to Rome in order to pay off a debt. That so much time is devoted to developing this extra-scriptural story may rightly raise a few eyebrows. The experienced student of the Bible will recognize that plotline as a fabrication, but someone for whom The Chosen is a first point of access to the gospel may develop a flawed understanding of the disciple’s character. However, these excesses of narrative liberty are rare, and the series’ storytelling is, on the whole, scripturally faithful and artistically excellent.
In addition to the skillful writing, the actors’ performances are impressive as well. Jonathan Roumie, an actor and faithful Catholic, portrays Jesus with a remarkable balance of seriousness, good-humor, gentleness, sadness, and joy. His performance emphasizes the humanity of Jesus without detracting from his divinity—no small task, I’d imagine. Erick Avari’s performance as Nicodemus and Shahar Isaac’s performance as Simon Peter also stand out as strong against an ensemble of other pharisees and disciples.
Most of all, what really sets the show apart is its obvious passion for bringing the gospel narratives to life and drawing people to Christ. This is a project that has been much prayed over, and that has done much good in the lives of believers and unbelievers alike—the series’ Instagram page frequently shares testimonials of viewers whose faiths have been revitalized or ignited for the first time after watching the show. The series isn’t a replacement for reading the Bible, and doesn’t intend to be. In fact, a disclaimer preceding the first episode of season one instructs, “Viewers are encouraged to read the gospels.” In my view, this demonstrates the show’s humility and awareness of its own limitations.
Thus, rightly engaged with, The Chosen will likely enrich your emotional and imaginative interaction with scripture, and may help to deepen or reinvigorate your faith. The series’ attention to detail and imaginative engagement with the source material speak to a genuine love of Christ and an eagerness to tell his story well.