I have a complex relationship with Christian media. Don’t get me wrong—as someone who genuinely believes an encounter with Jesus Christ can be life-changing, I maintain that excellent and inspiring media should reflect the impacts of such an encounter.
However, I’m regularly underwhelmed with the quality of the Christian film industry. Christian movies and TV often leave me with more questions than answers, whether it’s the poor cinematography, the sub-par musical accompaniment or the patchy lighting. It leaves me longing for something that reflects the brilliance, creativity and majesty of Jesus, the Person on whom Christianity is based.
I primarily find myself at odds with the storylines of such media. Between the demonisation of the world in general, a tendency to be preachy rather than follow a narrative structure or presenting a “pray and the troubles go away” kind of reality, Christian media can often be guilty of depicting a sterilised, unfamiliar and at times offensive representation of society and the lives of people in it.
However, my biggest qualm with Christian media is its depiction of Jesus—whether it be a Jesus who doesn’t smile, a Jesus who says more “thous” and “thys” than William Shakespeare, or a Jesus with a British or American accent. I have often struggled to reconcile famous depictions of Jesus with the Jewish Carpenter from the first century AD. After all, this was a man who drew thousands with His words, compassion and sacrifice, according to multiple historical texts. Yet He seems very far removed from what we see on screen.
So when a video popped up on my YouTube recommended list advertising The Chosen, a new television series centred around the life of Jesus, I was sceptical. Directed by Dallas Jenkins, son of Jerry B Jenkins, author of the Left Behind series, The Chosen is presented as an invitation to “[d]iscover Jesus as seen through the eyes of the people who knew him best”. The series is not Jenkins’ first work. In 2017 he directed the film The Resurrection of Gavin Stone before releasing The Shepherd, a short film based on the traditional nativity story.
This short film led to The Chosen becoming “the largest crowdfunded media project in ‘history’”, generating more than $US10 million towards the first season. Since then, funding has been steadily provided by various independent investors worldwide. At the time of writing this article, funding had been provided for approximately three full seasons, with fundraising currently occurring for season four.
As of January 2023, The Chosen boasts more than 458 million worldwide views. On IMDB, it holds a rating of 9.3 out of 10, and on Rotten Tomatoes, it has a rating of 100 per cent. It has a solid social media presence, with viewers tagging their photos with #bingeJesus and #getusedtodifferent. There is evidently strong support for this series. But why?
Upon viewing The Chosen, there is immediately a contrast to the bemoaned Christian media I mentioned previously. The acting is solid, the costuming refreshingly realistic and the set design easily transports its audience to the Middle East in the first century AD. A 15-minute “single take” (that is to say, the scene had no cuts in post-production) within season two also speaks to a more refined cinematography.
The dialogue (constructed in consultation with scholars and researchers from various faith backgrounds) is punchy, meaningful and humorous when needed—a feature often lacking in Christian films.
However, it is the characters within the ensemble of the series that draw the audience. In biblical culture, Matthew is traditionally only known for his career as a tax collector. He is instead represented as a highly intelligent young man on the autism spectrum, creating an opportunity for representation and narrative depth in this character that I have never seen before. Mary Magdalene, a traditionally almost caricatured character, is developed as a woman with real struggles whose life is transformed after interacting with Jesus.
But it’s the character of Jesus, superbly performed by Jonathan Roumie, of The Mindy Project and Chicago Med, who shines. Unlike the stilted, ethnically ambiguous and solemn depictions of Jesus found previously, Roumie’s Jesus is a breath of fresh air. He’s a Jesus who laughs and jokes with His disciples, a Jesus who sits comfortably in silence and offers compassionate advice to those with questions and a Jesus who confronts oppressors with firm but gracious words. Most importantly, He’s depicted as a regular, lower class, Middle Eastern man from the first century who draws people to Himself simply because of who He is. In other words, He’s the type of Jesus I read about in the Bible.
Like any television series, The Chosen has not been without criticism. The first episode of the series feels, at times, unnecessarily long, and the background CGI graphics in some scenes are not always of the highest quality. Certain characters are not found in the Bible and some narrative points are moved around or not included, which may create confusion for those unfamiliar with the original stories. Furthermore, some critics have chastised The Chosen for adding dialogue and scenes not included in the Gospels.
It should be noted in this regard that a disclaimer at the beginning of The Chosen informs viewers that: “The Chosen is based on the true stories of the Gospels of Jesus Christ. Some locations and timelines have been combined or condensed. Backstories, some characters or dialogue have been added. However, all biblical and historical contexts and any artistic imagination are designed to support the truth and intention of the Scriptures. Viewers are encouraged to read the Gospels . . .”
Jenkins further speaks of how The Chosen “is not a replacement for Scripture” and repeatedly directs people to further read the Bible for themselves. It may not placate all critics but does provide an idea of intention, an important factor in determining any communication medium.
The Chosen is not without fault, but it should be commended for its ability to address tough topics and make Bible stories relatable. Whether it be severed relationships with family members, anger issues, mental health issues or even demon possession, the series dives right in and intentionally chooses not to offer cheesy solutions. It’s a show of hope, healing and redemption for those who may be struggling with what the characters are.
Nathan Clarkson, actor, director and writer of Christian films such as Confessions of a Prodigal Son, states that: “Until [Christians] say that we want art that more accurately reflects the beauty of a perfect God with high standards, more realistically shows the human condition, and more effectively shows the world in an honest and connective way, then we will be sentenced to clean, family-friendly, badly-made art.”
The Chosen offers us the human condition, gritty realities and a chance to reflect on challenging questions. And for this, at times disillusioned writer, it provides a reminder that there is an ever-present, ever-loving Jesus who is worth following.
Jessica Krause is a lawyer from the Central Coast, New South Wales. In her spare time she loves travel adventures, trying new foods and spending time with friends and family.