The Chosen: A Review

“I love goat cheese.” – Jesus of Nazareth, The Chosen, 2020.

There are probably many things upon which Jesus and I would agree. Goat cheese being one. Who doesn’t like goat cheese? Heretics, perhaps.

The above quote is just one of many examples found in the independent streaming series, The Chosen, which is a retelling of the story of Jesus of Nazareth. I begin this review with an innocuous quote because it makes an important point for this review. I will attempt to explain.

The story of Jesus has been told, retold, placed in books, filmed for theatrical productions, and portrayed in television mini-series many times. So many times, in fact, that I was not willing to even attempt to count them. Some were fantastic. Some not so much. Some have been embraced by the audience and some have resulted in outcry declaring them sacrilegious or heretical. Some were just really poor productions.

One thing most of them had in common was their inability to portray Jesus as…human.

The Chosen attempts to break this standard. In it, Jesus, played by Jonathan Roumie, is not only an interesting person but is likeable. He possesses humor and compassion and other characteristics that make him feel more…human. Real. That isn’t to say the scriptural portrayal of Jesus doesn’t express his compassion for people. Quite the opposite. The gospels, however, are very thin on personality.

Much of the gospel accounts promote Jesus’ teachings and things he did during his ministry but they don’t express much of his personality. They don’t let us know if Jesus was, well, fun to hang out with.

It can be assumed that Jesus must have been charismatic and an inspiring speaker. It simply must have been that way or so many would not have chosen to follow him. Unfortunately, both the gospels and the varuous retellings found in film fall short in bringing this aspect of who he was to life. In this regard, Dallas Jenkins, the man behind the series, and his numerous coworkers, writers, and advisors have found a sweet spot. Roumie’s Jesus makes you smile, laugh, think, as well as feel compassion and love. I would like to think the historical Jesus must have possessed these qualities.

The rest of the “normal” understanding of Jesus is there as well. The pious intellectual. The learned scholar of scripture. The preacher of a new understanding of the law. They have not removed this from Jesus for the sake of a few laughs. It is presented as a whole person, as complex and nuanced as any person of his standing in history must have been. You would follow this Jesus along his journey just as many did in 28 AD/CE.

Theologically, the series presents a High Christology as presented in the Gospel according to John. This is the, “The word was with God, the Word was God, and the Word was made flesh” christological view of Jesus; whereby Jesus existed before time and through him all things were created and he was sent down to earth for the salvation of humankind. Not all christologies were the same in the first century but that view, a High Christology, won out over time and is accepted by the majority of Christian denominations today.

The High Christology view is so entrenched in Christianity that most Christians are probably unaware that anyone ever believed differently. This, of course, is not the case. There were as many differing views about Christ in the first and second century as there are today. Perhaps even more. Even the four canonical gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, express slightly different christologies when taken individually. Most believers won’t accept that or admit it but it is accepted among scholars. Some theologies endured the test of time and many did not.

Some were rooted out and destroyed by the  leaders of the proto-orthodox and later orthodox Christian sects. What they considered orthodox at the time anyway. Even what is considered the orthodox view changed over the first few centuries of the movement. But that would be a different discussion for another day.

I entered into this examination of The Chosen after a few Christian friends had seen the first season and recommended it. I was virtually inundated by advertisements for it, probably due to all of the religious research I do on a regular basis. In other words, I was targeted. I resisted for quite some time because I was skeptical of yet another retelling of the story.

This being an independent production sponsored using crowd-funding and primarily targeted toward believers, I didnt expect it to be very good. I have to be honest about that. This review would be dishonest if I said otherwise.

“Great…another cheap production made by true believers who want to impose their views on everybody. Oh, joy.” Those were my actual thoughts before biting the bullet and giving it a try.

With business being slow and social interactions at a minimum as we all deal with this pandemic, I had already binge-watched numerous series of varying qualities. Some, well, were actually bad, so I eventually decided The Chosen couldn’t be any worse than demon-fighting teenage nuns.

To say I was surprised by the quality of this production would be an understatement. It is beautifully filmed and produced. Most of the acting in this series is quite good and some is superb. No one was “phoning it in” in order to get another film credit. Various actors appear to be literally pouring themselves out in order to bring a character to life. The performances are touching and inspiring and defy the idea that indie productions or reduced budgets equals low-grade performances even by established actors. The Chosen has broken another mold with their production.

The first actor I recognized was Erick Varis, who plays Nicodemus. Most people who have seen a variety of films and television series have seen Varis probably many times. Crowd funding production, or not, Varis’ performance in The Chosen is superb. Watching the character’s transition from superior authority to attaining a new understanding that shakes his world is phenomenal. I can’t imagine this series being among those considered for major awards due to its subject matter and method of production but if it ever finds itself there, Varis is deserving of whatever accolades he receives.

Erick Varis as Nicodemus. Photo from the Chosen press kit.

Yes, much of the story is fabricated. How could it not be? The gospels are narratives that simply tell us what was said and done and their detail is truly lacking. Adding bits and pieces to the story to give life to the characters and to flesh out the world in which they lived was absolutely necessary for good filmmaking. The Chosen does this in a very entertaining and tasteful way.

Theologians may take issue with some of the creative license applied to the story. Matthew is portrayed as a man with autism, which doesn’t appear in any description in the Bible. It in no way detracts from the story but it does add yet another level of humanity to characters we know nothing much about from the New Testament. Matthew the tax collector: Boring, tedious, and unamusing. Matthew the tax collector as a successful autistic person who has learned to exploit his gifts: Loveable, endearing, and…human.

The portrayal of Mary Magdalene as a former prostitute, although never directly stated, is implied in the storytelling. This, of course, is not found in the New Testament. At all, actually. Ever. This fairly common view was due to Pope Gregory “screwing up” and mixing several scriptural passages together and making them about the same person in 591 AD/CE. This was not the case but it took more than 1,000 years for the Catholic church to officially correct the error in their traditions. Hopefully you didn’t read it here first but Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute, ladies and gentlemen. If nothing else, you learned something from this review. I now feel vindicated about the word count.

But wait. There’s more.

The Chosen is a synthesized gospel account. People who don’t spend a lot of time studying the Christian texts are generally unaware that most films, tv shows, Christmas plays, and Easter performances provide a synthesized account of Jesus. That means the four gospels, each of which provides a different and sometimes contradictory account, are combined in order to provide a fuller view of what is known from the scriptural accounts of Jesus’ life. The Chosen sticks with this method and can’t be faulted for it. It is actually what the consumer expects, I think.

In the case of the Chosen, however, the story begins with Jesus’ ministry, with some flashback scenes to earlier life. Debates about the virgin birth, wise men, mangers, and such is so far not present by the end of season one. If that is presented in future seasons, we will just have to wait for them to be produced.

In conclusion, I have to repeat that I was very skeptical about this series. I didn’t expect it to be “different” from the numerous others previously created. I was wrong.

The Chosen is entertaining and I think would stand up to any other account on film. It is also very touching and heartwarming. It has a depth I honestly didn’t expect. It is inspiring. It doesn’t matter your beliefs, faith, denomination, or even lack thereof. Viewed as simply a television series, it is still worth watching. As a statement of faith, it is beyond what you will expect and you won’t be disappointed.

At the time of this writing, season two is funded well into episode 6. It is likely the full second season will reach its funding goals within the next two months or so. There is one nice feature of being a part of the crowd funding for the project as you purchase episodes or donate to the project or purchase merchandise. The end credits for the episodes include the names of donors at various levels and currently occupies about 8 minutes of screen time. At the very end, the producers thank those donors who have chosen to remain anonymous. I am now among that group. Well, I guess the anonymous part doesn’t count anymore but you get the idea. Yes, I am so impressed with what they have accomplished that I supported their future endeavors. I’m looking forward to season 2.

You can access the show by downloading the mobile app from the app store or at the link below.

https://studios.vidangel.com/the-chosen

Ross