Photograph by Bruno van der Kraan via Unsplash

Encountering the gospel anew through “The Chosen”

February 7, 2024

I was having coffee with a friend, a retired Roman Catholic priest, and just as we were getting ready to say our goodbyes, he asked me if I had seen any of “The Chosen.” I had. In fact, the church I attend was using it for an adult class. It’s even on network television. What is it about this still evolving series on the life of Jesus that makes it so widely viewed and accepted in the Christian community?

Since 2017, “The Chosen” has quietly emerged from streaming services and DVDs to national recognition. It was not in a response to a cultural awareness that there is a market for religious films. It was financed partially through crowdfunding and the actors are not names you would probably recognize. We know “The Ten Commandments” will appear around Passover each year, but this series doesn’t seem to take advantage of the publicity engendered by a liturgical calendar. Only recently did “The Chosen” have a Christmas story.

I grew up knowing many Christians who were suspicious of movies in general, let alone films based on the Bible. The first theatre movie I was allowed to see as a child, on a Sunday no less, was “The Sound of Music.” By the time I reached youth group age, it was not uncommon to see biblical narratives shown on TV and in church fellowship halls. Max von Sydow was triumphant in “The Greatest Story Ever Told” (1965) and it became a staple on Sunday television around Easter time. Franco Zeffirelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth” (1977) seemed so real. When the Jesus film came out (1979), churches embraced its “words only from the Gospel” approach. It was easily voiced over and missionaries would set up battery-powered projectors in a field. People who had never seen a film, let alone one on the life of Jesus, heard the Gospel story for the first time, in their own language.

Sometimes, life of Jesus films have gotten weird. Art theaters showed the “Last Temptation of Christ” (1988) with protesters outside. We were told it depicted Jesus falling in love with a woman. We never actually saw it, but with its reputation, church youth groups were not going to be attending. And Mel Gibson’s personal misbehaviors, along with the amount of footage spent wallowing in the suffering and death of Jesus, made “The Passion of the Christ” (2004), well let’s say, uncomfortable to watch.

“Son of God” (2014), “Risen” (2016), and a word-for-word “The Gospel of John” (2003), along with others, have each added some insight or perspective that remain with the viewer. In one film, the disciples are traveling to meet a post-resurrection Jesus. Along the way, they discuss missing him and realize that in sharing the communion bread and cup they could be near him. I think of that every time I receive Communion now. I have loved so many narrative films on the life of Jesus. So what’s so unique about “The Chosen”?

Since 2017, “The Chosen” has quietly emerged from streaming services and DVDs to national recognition. What is so unique about this still evolving series on the life of Jesus?

STRUCTURE – For one, the structure is intriguing. As each episode opens, even those of us familiar with the Gospel story are never quite sure where we are in the “old, old, story.” By half time, a lightbulb goes off and you suddenly recognize a character or biblical scene. Hey, that’s Mary, or Jairus’ daughter, or Nicodemus. Nearly every episode sends me back to my Bible, like the Bereans, to see if it was true (Acts 17:11).

PACE – Then there’s the pace. Most Jesus films are in a rush to get to the cross and the resurrection. Do you ever imagine what Jesus did and said between the words of Scripture? John’s Gospel closes with the words, “But there are also many other things that Jesus did…the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). What was it like for the disciples to live with Jesus? Did they ever go home? Would he be humorous or anxious or quiet? “The Chosen” allows us to imagine what life with Jesus might have been like when he wasn’t being quotable or busy performing a miracle.

HUMANITY – Then there is the humanity of not only Jesus, but of the disciples. If we believe in the incarnation, Jesus must be both divine and really human. Being human is not sinfulness. It’s being relatable. You see common interactions between Jesus and his most and least faithful. The Twelve argue about their roles, about their gifts of healing, and the fact that they don’t always like each other. Women are present, along with “Mother Mary.” And at times they go home…if they have one.

EVANGELISM – I became a Christian through a conversion experience with a time and place. I quickly discovered that most fully devoted followers of Jesus came to faith more like the disciples. “The Chosen” gives us a glimpse of faith developing over time. Even the Roman soldiers and members of the Sanhedrin take time to develop an understanding of who Jesus is. People don’t come to faith, one and done. The series helps us imagine how people following Jesus moved from curious, to convinced, to committed (to borrow a phrase from Stuart Briscoe), and not always in that order.

HEARTFELT – I must confess that rarely have I not had a moment of tears while watching. You see the rigid become open to the Savior. You see how a healing might have transformed a life. You see followers testing out what Jesus taught them, leading to forgiveness, hope, and love.

Critics point to the creative and artistic liberties. But it is hard for any of us to read from the pages of our favorite translation of the Bible and not fill in some of the spaces with our own imagination. I’m still watching, of course, enjoying the slow walk to what I know is coming. Jesus will die and rise again, but in “The Chosen,” every episode tells the story of things I should have recognized all along were nearly as amazing.

Rev. Dr. Paul Bailey retired in 2021 from the Eastwood Baptist Church in Syracuse, NY. In addition to over 40 years of pastoral ministry, he was an adjunct instructor in Communications at Onondaga Community College for 15 years.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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