If you've exhausted your quarantine viewing list, and even if you haven't, I've got a suggestion: "The Chosen." Premiered last fall by the streaming service VidAngel, season one of this series about the life of Jesus, as portrayed through the experience of his followers, has now garnered more than 20 million viewers.
My family just wrapped up season one, which is limited to Jesus' early ministry, and speaking as someone who is typically skeptical of Christian television, this series is refreshingly gritty and has an impressive depth. And then, there's the story behind the story: how "The Chosen" came to be at all.
While Christians throughout history have made invaluable contributions to the world of art, we don't have such a stellar recent track record when it comes to Hollywood. Though there have been valiant efforts, the result has been some pretty cringe-worthy TV shows and movies. Sometimes, I think, it's because we try to be too "wholesome," "family-friendly" and "positive" to adequately picture the depth of the fall and the human condition. Other times, we seem so scared of perceived heresy that everything comes out sanitized. Or we get so super preachy that every drama becomes an altar call.
Of course, more than a little fault lies with the entertainment industry too, which often thrives on calling good evil and evil good. Let's just say it has been difficult to find the sweet spot in Christian TV and movies.
After the response to a short film of Jesus' birth he made for a Christmas Eve service, "The Chosen" producer Dallas Jenkins was inspired to create an entire series about Jesus' life, one that was neither sanitary, watered-down, nor uber-preachy. Along the way, Jenkins and his team not only created their own TV show, they also created their own delivery system. "The Chosen" app allows viewers to stream all eight episodes of the show onto their TVs, computer screens or phones for free. No Netflix or Hulu or Apple TV — or their boardroom politics — required.
This costly strategy is behind another amazing part of this story. "The Chosen" is now the single largest crowdfunding entertainment project ever. More than $10 million was raised from more than 19,000 individual donors to create the first eight episodes. Through the app, viewers are encouraged and equipped to recruit new viewers and new donors. To date, they've raised nearly $4 million toward season two.
Given how thoughtful and moving we found season one, my family is looking forward to new episodes. While I could certainly find a quibble or two with the way some of the dialogue goes, or the way certain story lines proceed, I'm grateful that Jesus isn't portrayed here as some serene, otherworldly guru-type figure who whispers parables and stares mysteriously into the middle distance. Instead, the series does a good job of portraying Jesus as he was: fully human, an actual man.
As my colleague Timothy Padgett put it at BreakPoint.org, Jesus in "The Chosen" works "outside in the hot Levantine sun, and he sweats. He's working with wood for hours at a time, and he cuts himself and has to bandage his arm. The children come to wake him one morning, and he's tired and smilingly asks why they couldn't wait another half-hour."
To be clear, the series creates backstories to the Gospel accounts, in order to carry the story forward smoothly. But, in my view, the writers have not gone overboard or off-base. The added material, such as Peter's economic troubles or the place of Nicodemus in the priestly hierarchy, plausibly sets up the details that we know to be true from the text of Scripture, like how the fishermen dropped their nets and why Nicodemus struggled to grasp Jesus' words in John 3.
Of course, "The Chosen" isn't perfect. Some of the costumes are a little silly, and some actors overact. There are more than a few cultural blind spots, and a few reviewers have pointed out areas of theological iffiness.
The key is to remember what "The Chosen" is and what it is not. It is art, and as art it's good. It's not the Bible. So don't expect "The Chosen" to stand in for your Scripture reading. Instead, enjoy this refreshing way to consider again the God who made himself human, and experienced all the joy, heartache and even tedium that entails.
From BreakPoint, May 7, 2020. Reprinted by permission of the Colson Center, www.breakpoint.org.