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Cautiously eating crow while watching “The Chosen.”
A reflection on a very human depiction of Jesus.
I must confess that I’ve always had a bad taste in my mouth when it came to the notion of “Christian media” and entertainment. Not that I didn’t want Christian themes, ethics, or influences infused in movies, music, and books, etc. — but that whenever a project of that kind was marketed as “overtly Christian,” I just assumed it wouldn’t be good. Notwithstanding the subjects being discussed or the events which comprise the plot, the level of artistry in “Christian media” often doesn’t hold a candle to what the other studios are able to produce. And I know that funding has a lot to do with that — but still, it’s created in me an inherent cynicism when it comes to the next “evangelical media fad.” I say that only to say that I assumed that that would hold true with the latest Christian preoccupation, the show that’s become a phenomenon, a.k.a., The Chosen. But, to avoid burying the lede, I was sorely mistaken in that initial assessment. Although I’m a late-comer to The Chosen, I’ve happily found my initial reserves towards the show pleasantly subverted. You might say, I’m cautiously eating crow now (thanks to my sister who encouraged me to give it a chance!).
If you don’t know, The Chosen is a crowd-funded television project from American filmmaker Dallas Jenkins, the son of Jerry B. Jenkins — yes, that Jerry B. Jenkins, of Left Behind fame. The show follows the life of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels of the New Testament, with a generous helping of additional artistic license thrown in for good measure. The viewer is thrust into the middle of ongoing Jewish life and culture, with the noise surrounding this preacher, this “Jesus of Nazareth,” picking up steam as the show progresses. I really did not think I would ever write this, but The Chosen is excellent for what it is and what it’s trying to do — namely, present an honest and humanizing version of the events of surrounding the world’s introduction to God’s only begotten Son.
I suppose I was reluctant to engage with The Chosen because of the Internet’s insistence that it was the brainchild of a Mormon collaborating with a Catholic to write a scripted show about a first century Jewish Rabbi, which sounds more like a setup for a joke than anything else. Perhaps my reticence still exists, in some measure — but Dallas Jenkins’s motivation behind The Chosen seems to be, for all intents and purposes, sincere. To a large degree, my misgivings towards the director/writer have subsided the more I’ve read about his aspirations behind this creative endeavor in the first place. Additionally, he’s not even Mormon. Jenkins’s religious affiliation, if you will, is “evangelical Christian,” which, to some, might not mean much — but still, as one who finds himself somewhere on the spectrum of evangelicalism, I haven’t found anything overtly unorthodox present in the show, so far. (At least, nothing that’s “faith-rattling.”)
I think the best way to appreciate The Chosen is from the standpoint that it cannot and must not and should not replace the inspired, inerrant Word of God — which is good because neither does it set out to. It’s an artist’s version of the events of Jesus’s life. They make this clear from the opening titles of the first episode, with the creators encouraging viewers to “read the gospels” with the understanding that their show is merely an artistic representation meant to “support the truth and intention of the Scriptures.” The interstitial conversations and interactions might have occurred the way they are presented, but they just as well might not have. It’d be a shame, though, if you got lost in all the “mights” and “might nots” and miss the wonderfully compelling version of the life of Christ the show-runners have managed to pull off.
I like how Mark Kellner in the Washington Times puts it when he says that the “‘secret sauce’ to this modern telling of Jesus’ story” lies in “the very human Christ that is shown to viewers.” This is most definitely true. Speaking from experience, there are times when the characters which populate the Bible can become less and less human. The stories which surround such-and-such and so-and-so can become more akin to moralistic exemplars than flesh and blood human beings. Whether that’s a consequence implicitly caught or explicitly taught, I don’t know. All I know is that there have been moments in my own Christian life when the people which figure into the biblical narratives are less like humans and more like spiritual archetypes. This nebulous spiritualizing and moralizing of the scriptural populace tends towards an easily agitated and perhaps even abandoned faith, as this present life’s corporeal frustrations are felt and experienced and endured.
Which is to say, that what makes the Bible so enduring and endearing is not only the fact that it is divinely inspired and preserved — which, of course, it is — but also that it presents real humans, struggling with real problems, grappling with real crises of faith, in a real way. The stories of Scripture are compelling precisely because they’re relatable. They’re honest. They’re human. David’s not so different than you and me. Though separated by untold centuries and shifts in culture, he’s still a man who lives and breathes and depends on the unmerited favor of his Creator to get on with his day. That’s been one of the most revelatory changes in recent years in my own Christian walk, as a student and disciple of the Word — that is, the humanization of the Bible’s characters. They were people just like you and me, with emotions and families and feelings and good days and bad days and confusion and aspirations and all the things that make life beautiful and frustrating all at once. You could say that The Chosen is that very scriptural sentiment put to film. Again, to quote Kellner’s piece for the Washington Times:
There’s none of the stiffness that other movie and television portrayals may have shown. The Christ of “The Chosen” smiles, laughs and even dances at a wedding feast.
This Jesus displays a sense of humor: He’s the kind of person most people would want to have a conversation or share a meal with, as opposed to the sometimes holier-than-us portrayals previously seen in films and television productions.
I think this is a point that’s well worth our consideration. Jesus is God in the flesh. Yes, he is God. He is divine. He is immutably holy. But he is also Man. He is “made in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:7). I think, for me at least, the humanity of Jesus is often the part of him I most overlook, except for specific moments in the Gospels. The Garden of Gethsemane is a good example. There, Jesus appears very human. But that shouldn’t be a one-off moment. He is the God-Man, Jehovah enfleshed, from the nativity to the cross to the ascension. He is the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). As a Man, he expressed and emitted the full emotional range you and I exhibit in our own lives — but, as God, he did so perfectly and without sin. I’d say that the “without sin” part can sometimes overpower the fact of Jesus’s humanity. What The Chosen does well, then, is show you a very “human Jesus.”
I will concede that for however much the show has gripped me, there still remain some apparent misgivings that I will be monitoring as the show progresses. I won’t detail them all, but the apparent weight added to certain female relationships, the odd backstory given to a certain disciple, and the “condensing” of scriptural narratives for dramatic effect are all things on which I am keeping sharp an eye. I know some critics, I being one of them, have raised their voices decrying the ways the show isn’t entirely “biblical” or fully “orthodox.” There are definitely elements that make my eyes widen and narrow into perplexed slivers. I won’t wager on The Chosen standing the test of time. Film and television is far too volatile a market for that to be true. But, to be sure, it will be a mainstay in certain Christian circles for easily the next several years, and beyond.
For the most part, though, I can overlook some of the eye-brow-raising artistic choices they’ve made thus far enough to recommend this show to others — with the only caveat being this: uphold the Word at all costs. In fact, crucial to anyone’s enjoyment or benefit of this show might just be a follow-up Bible study. Seriously. After watching what Dallas Jenkins has written and directed, spend some time engaging with what God himself has revealed about himself in his Word. And when there’s a variation between the show and Scripture, stick with Scripture. Cling to the Word over and above and beyond The Chosen. “Hold fast the profession” of your faith as derived from God’s holy Scripture (Heb. 10:23). Let that be your directive, not one’s artistic vision and interpretation of the biblical story. God’s Word is, after all, the only Word that matters.