THE CHOSEN and the de-Bastardization of Christian Filmmaking

If I had to summarize the typical faith-based film in one word, it would be “shamefully, embarrassingly subpar.” Okay, so that’s technically three words.

Here’s the deal. As a Christian who loves visual stories, I am, more often than not, ashamed and embarrassed by the lack of creativity displayed by those who claim adherence to (and often inspiration from) the original Creator. A few years ago, I wrote a piece entitled God’s Not Dead and the Bastardization of Christian Filmmaking. I meant every word of it, and I still believe what I wrote.

Suffice it to say, it is a rare thing for me to fully enjoy a faith-based drama. It is rarer still for me to fully enjoy and fully admire a faith-based drama.

Enter The Chosen, a faith-based TV show on the life of Christ, with multiple seasons planned.

Technically, I have already reviewed this show, and it’s not typical to write two reviews of the same piece. However, I have more to say about this work of art (in both the literal and figurative sense), so a follow-up review became necessary.

GREATEST LIABILITY = GREATEST ASSET

One of the elements I love about The Chosen is one of its most controversial features: its fidelity (or, as some might say, the lack thereof) to Scripture. The show has received criticism for including dialogue and scenes in the narrative that don’t appear in any of the gospel accounts. In most cases, at least, this additional material is controversial, not because it is actually problematic, but because of misplaced expectations.

While the gospels are factual, historical records, they are not biographies in the modern sense, in which details and emotions and backstory are fleshed out in order to present a comprehensive picture of a particular figure. When we read about an encounter Jesus has with any number of people, we are often not given the entire conversation, nor the entire scenario. The gospels highlight only the parts of Jesus’ life that were important to the divinely-inspired authors who wrote them. That is partly why one gospel might omit certain events that another gospel includes.

When a show like The Chosen attempts a more comprehensive picture of the life of Christ, it necessitates filling in the blanks with details, emotions, and backstory that may or may not have happened. As such, when The Chosen takes scenes we are familiar with and adds new dialogue or plot developments to enhance their emotional impact, it isn’t an inherent affront to Scripture. It can—and, in the case of The Chosen, it does—act simply as a way to imagine what might have happened between the lines (so to speak).

As the show’s director, Dallas Jenkins, has made clear elsewhere, The Chosen is not the same thing as Scripture, and it isn’t trying to be. And as I have previously written, “The Chosen is historical fiction: it…uses artistic license when needed, but always in a way that exalts, not dishonors, what we already know about the Biblical narrative. To put it another way, The Chosen is speculation, not subversion.”

Indeed, Jenkins and his team have approached the Scriptures with a commendable sense of reverence and humility.

For example, consider the Scriptural account of the woman at the well. When she finishes her conversation with Jesus and goes back into town, she tells people, “Come, see a Man who told me all things that I ever did” (John 4:29). We actually don’t have a record of Jesus telling her those things. All we have a record of is Jesus telling her about her marital status—certainly not what would constitute everything she ever did. That means the gospel of John left out some of the conversation.

When The Chosen portrays this encounter, it adds dialogue that isn’t in the Bible, but which honors what the Bible does tell us. Based on John 4:29, this additional dialogue enhances the scene with dramatically powerful results.

It is this reverence for Scripture that characterizes each episode of The Chosen.

Besides, we have the testimony of Scripture itself that Jesus did many other things not recounted in the gospels, which “if they were written one by one…even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). What else did Jesus do? What else did He say? There’s a lot to speculate about—certainly enough to speculate on for six, seven, or eight seasons (what the producers of The Chosen hope to accomplish).

OH, THE HUMANITY

Another factor I love about The Chosen is that its extended format gives us ample time to really get to know the characters—including, of course, Christ himself. By showing us more of the humanity of Jesus, we are, almost counterintuitively, more in awe of his divinity. After all, the way Christ came to relate to us—to meet us where we are and draw us out of our sin and shame—was to become one of us.

It is in His humble humanity—the emptying of Himself—where we find the connection to Him that we so desperately need. The Jesus we meet in The Chosen practices daily hygiene, builds fires, and even experiences physical injuries. This is truly God made flesh—in a way we’ve never seen before.

By emphasizing how Jesus tabernacled amongst us as a human, The Chosen never strays into blasphemous territory. Rather, it connects us with the wonder of Christ’s condescending love, as we see just how much and how often He denied Himself many of his rights and privileges as the sovereign Lord of all (see Philippians 2:5-11 and 2 Corinthians 8:9).

GET USED TO DIFFERENT

One of the main problems with the faith-based approach to moviemaking is that it views the medium of film as being similar to a sermon. In other words, the main point is to communicate a particular message to an audience ready and willing to listen. The result of this faulty perspective is a plethora of sermons-in-disguise with little to no care taken for artistry, nuance, or realism. These stories are often filled to overflowing with caricatures, wish-fulfillment fantasies, and even outright deception.

The reality is that a film is not a sermon, and the requirements for a filmmaker are not the same as that for a pastor. When we conflate the two, we confuse the two—with embarrassing and even detrimental results.

Unlike the typical faith-based drama, where the message trumps everything else, The Chosen remains committed to a complex, artfully-told, and engaging story. It is never debased to the level of a simple vehicle by which the filmmakers promote any personal soapboxes.

The Chosen is in a class all by itself. It deals honestly and realistically with its characters. It refuses to caricature its villains just to stack the narrative deck in its favor. And it utilizes the format of a multi-season show to provide depth to a story that we already know. As such, The Chosen is at once both intimately familiar and surprisingly foreign. It provides what could become the most complex, nuanced, and powerful portrayal of the life of Christ to ever grace the visual arts.

That might sound like highfalutin praise. If so, remember that my tendency is toward highfalutin criticism. And yet The Chosen has won me over; I am a genuine fanboy. We’re only in Season 1 of what will, Lord willing, be a multi-season show, but The Chosen has already become my extended universe of choice. (Sorry, Marvel and DCEU.)

So, either The Chosen has slipped me a Mickey, or it really is something extraordinary. Either I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid or The Chosen really is the best thing since sliced garlic bread sprinkled with parmesan cheese and drizzled with coddled eggs.

You’ll have to decide for yourself.

Comments

Charity said…
I haven't even heard of this (which is sad, since I'm usually "into" Bible epics) but the trailer gave me the chills, so I'll certainly check it out. Thanks for the recommendation. :)
Cap Stewart said…
Sure thing, Charity! I think you'll really like it.
Unknown said…
What a well crafted, insightful, and thought provoking review, Cap. I'm one of the very well blessed Original Investors who was moved to jump into the pool after viewing the Pilot (The Shepherd) which is just as inspirational as The Chosen. Immediate commitment. I knew that I knew that this was a project that had guts and glory written all over it, with impetus that we didn't see yet, but that came into being almost immediately in the form of thousands of investors who apparently caught the same vision. We couldn't be prouder or more enthusiastic, and grateful to you for so eloquently expressing what we can only feebly attempt to proclaim to the world about the unique and surreality (is that a word? If not, it should be. . .)of this series. To being made on what Hollywood would consider a shoestring, its suffers no loss of quality in any aspect of its collaborative writing content, production value, talent onscreen and off, technical and CGI input, music, art and costuming design, literally ALL entities are top-notch and second to none. Thanks again for noticing and for sharing with the world. We do so much appreciate you.
Cap Stewart said…
Thank you! Yes, I agree that the production values are top-notch. Of all the faith-based projects released over the last several years, this does have a different vibe--in all the good ways. I am grateful for how investors like you have helped to produce and promote this wonderful TV series! I hope to inspire more people to join the fan (and investor) base of the show.
Unknown said…
It’s beautifully made. Whoever says otherwise has a a heart of stone. Jesus and his disciples are portrait so relatable and human it’s easy to get into the story of Jesus Amongst people and his disciples.
Luiz said…
The most meaningful analysis I've ever read. Thank you Cap!
Anonymous said…
What a lovely review. After watching The Chosen, I have "fresh eyes" when reading the Bible. Many things pop off the page. It encourages me to go deeper.
Anonymous said…
As a fan of the show myself, I really appreciate it when I see other people get the word out about this show. It's super encouraging to see the comments from people who haven't heard about the show til seeing this article!
Wow. I totally agree about the lack of creativity in Christian filmmaking. I plan on joining the film industry, and while I am a Christian, I am going to focus on creating moving, artistically sound projects, not a two hour long Jesus commercial. If I focus on creating art to the best of my ability, my values should shine through that, instead of feeling forced like the average Christian film. I’m attracted to beauty, not sermon, and I think most people feel the same way.