“Christ changed every human being he ever met. In fact, He changed history, splitting it open like a coconut and inserting eternity into the split between B.C. and A.D. If anyone claims to have met Him without being changed, he has not met Him at all. When you touch Him, you touch lightning.”
“Those who meet Jesus always experience either joy or its opposites, either foretastes of Heaven or foretastes of Hell. Not everyone who meets Jesus is pleased, and not everyone is happy, but everyone is shocked.”-Peter Kreeft, ‘Jesus-Shock’
“Get used to different.”Jesus, ‘The Chosen’
I know, I know. There have been so many film adaptations of the Gospel of Jesus. Many of them have grandiose sets, weak acting and attempt an exact presenting of just one Gospel. Then there is the issue of the disciples; these twelve men usually amount to no more than extras with minimal dialogue; often blending together and being indistinguishable from each other. Not to mention the absence of any character beyond one dimension with all the other disciples, both women and men, who followed Jesus.
To say ‘The Chosen’ is a correction to these deficiencies is a massive understatement. I will do my best to avoid hyperbole, but I have had my expectations far surpassed by this adaptation of the Gospels. I use that word adaptation intentionally. This is not a literal, word-for-word presentation of the Gospels and it is also not following only one of the Gospels. And this I believe is one of the reasons this is one of the best sharing of the Gospels I have ever seen presented through the medium of film.
One of the mistakes many well-meaning and devout filmmakers have past made is trying to turn the Gospels into films. The problem: this is not why the Gospels were written. They were written to reveal and encounter Jesus within the Liturgy to prepare you for the apex encounter with Jesus in the Eucharist. The purpose is for Jesus to be revealed to those who are listening. The purpose of “The Chosen” is different, yet complimentary. “The Chosen” wants you to find yourself within the Gospels, as one of the people that Jesus encounters in them. It is very similar to a way of reading the Gospels found within Ignatian Spirituality where you are invited to imagine yourself in the different stories of the Gospel.
The Different Disciples: You can put away your one-Dimensional Cardboard figures
‘The Chosen’ makes the bold and different decision to fill in the backstories and relationships of the people who are found by Jesus and follow Him. The Gospels themselves do not give us much when it comes to who these people were. Some have no recorded words in Scripture and others are only known by how they are first called and chosen by Jesus to follow Him. What makes ‘The Chosen’ refreshing is that it makes some artistic decisions in filling in their stories that enhance what we do hear in the Scriptures. The stories ‘ring true’ and do not in any way contradict what has been given to us in Scripture.
Two good examples of this is with the persons of Nicodemus, Peter, and Matthew. Nicodemus’ character arc is what anchors the entire first season. There is a beautiful dynamic that occurs throughout the season where people have these amazing and shocking encounters with Jesus and yet Nicodemus spends most of the season trying to have that encounter. For Peter and Matthew, the writers make a story decision in having Matthew be the tax collector in the region where Peter is fishing. Again, we do not know this for certain from Scripture, but it is plausible. It also creates reasonable dramatic tension between these two people who would normally not be caught dead associating with each other and yet Jesus calls both of them to this very thing.
The Different Dialogue: A balanced blend of Gospel-Speak and real-speak
I remember watching ‘The Bible’ series a few years back and cringing at the ‘dialogue’ that was given to different characters. Not only was the Jesus in that show not a strong actor, but how do you recover when Peter asks “What are we going to do?” and Jesus responds with: “Change the world…” (CRINGE)
When I first heard about ‘The Chosen’ series I was pretty skeptical. I remember how disappointed I was with what they did in the Bible Series, especially with the episodes on the Gospels. (I mean no offense to those who found that series beneficial to your faith; it just wasn’t for me.) I was grateful with what I found in ‘The Chosen’ series. The three writers (which include the director, Dallas Jenkins) have struck a good balance in how to write dialogue that these real characters would have naturally said in their time and place while at the same time, retaining powerful key phrases and words spoken by the characters in the Gospel. To get this right is no small feat. I find it akin to writing good dialogue in a Musical production. A musical may have great songs but if the dialogue and storytelling between the songs is weak and unconvincing, the entire experience is undermined. The key moments of dialogue found in the Gospels are like the excellent songs of a musical written by a master composer. I am happy to report that the dialogue in ‘The Chosen’ is strong. There were only a few moments where I wondered ‘would they have said something like that’, but there was never a moment where I cringed and was completely taken out of the storytelling (something I experienced with the Bible Series and other films based on the Gospels).
I think the video I shared above with the calling of Matthew gives the best example of how this series reveals these moments of shocking encounter found in the Gospels. I believe that is my favorite scene in this first season. I cried nearly every time I have watched it. It reveals so much of what it means to be called by Jesus and to follow him. The good news is there are plenty of good scenes just like that one found through the eight episodes.
Finally, the humor. Attempts at humor can quickly go wrong. It can either be lame humor or irreverent humor. The Chosen has good humor and just enough of it. What the director and writers get is that some of the best ways to have genuine humor is through unspoken looks and playfulness. Jesus has some good verbal quips, but he also has some great non-verbal glances that ‘feel right’ in the moments that unfold.
The Different Jesus: Authentic, Serious, Compassionate and Appropriately Funny
It is so easy to get Jesus wrong. Most actors avoid being cast as Jesus and this is quite understandable. Most depictions of him either fall to one extreme or the other. Either, Jesus is intense and super serious, seemingly hovering above the earth, never getting his feet dirty. (Jesus in ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’ or the ‘King of Kings’) Then on the other end you have the mild, smiling, bland Jesus who inspires no one and puts crowds to sleep (The Bible Series ‘Jesus’) Some who have played Jesus are uneven in their portrayals, with moments that shine and others that underwhelm (Robert Powell in “Jesus of Nazareth” comes to mind.). You could argue that Jim Caveziel is strong in ‘The Passion’ but there was not as much a dramatic range needed for that part since over ninety percent of the film Jesus had to convey his suffering. Dallas Jenkins, the director of ‘The Chosen’, mentions that the one brief light-hearted flashback scene with the Virgin Mary in the Passion was one of the inspirations with how they would be handling the tonal shifts in the series. They wanted more of what that brief moment had in it throughout the show.
Enter: Jonathan Roumie. I found his depiction of Jesus as utterly and shockingly believable. Jesus gets emotional when a life is transformed. He is joyful when someone decides to follow Him. He dances joyfully at the Wedding at Cana. At that same wedding, the moment I knew everything about Roumie’s approach was right was when there is a brief cut away shot of him sitting at a table with children, stacking the cups.
Or, consider the above scene with Matthew, when Jesus is asked “Do you even know him?” by Peter and Jesus responds with “Yes.” That yes spoken carries so much weight and Roumie said it how I believe Jesus says it concerning each of us. Yes, he knows each of us better than we know ourselves. It was then no surprise that I found out that Jonathan Roumie is a devout, practicing Catholic. It is also no surprise that his portrayal of Jesus is authentic and inspired because that is where Jonathan’s own faith life is at now. This interview shows that Jonathan already has been having regular ‘shocking’ encounters with Jesus in his life:
The Difference: In Conclusion
There is so much to love about ‘The Chosen’. It is well acted, solidly written, with a high quality production. The real difference is that unlike nearly every other attempt at sharing the story of the Gospels, ‘The Chosen’ is one of the few pieces of beautiful media art that both authentically shares the Gospel while inviting you to enter the stories that are being told. ‘The Chosen’ avoids the mistake of merely trying to show the events that take place in the Gospels. Instead, ‘The Chosen’ sets out to have you encounter the person of Jesus through the lives of the people who were chosen and transformed by him. That is something altogether different and it is a different that I want to get used to.