“Get used to different.” That’s the show’s motto, and “The Chosen” is different indeed.
It’s the first multi-season TV dramatization of the Gospels and largest crowdfunded TV show in history. Without being tediously didactic or woodenly literal, it moves masterfully from inspired Scripture to inspiring script with captivating drama, splashes of humor and cleverness, superb acting, and rich character development.
The cinematic quality has impressed many. But talk to anyone excited about the series and they’ll say that what truly sets “The Chosen” apart is its personalization of Jesus and the characters of the Gospels. Director Dallas Jenkins — an evangelical Christian with a Bible degree — hopes the show will help modern people feel the same kind of connection to Jesus that his original followers felt.
In order to achieve this evangelistic aim, he and his co-writers have added fictional dialogues and backstories. And in a video on the show’s YouTube channel titled “Miracles are Personal,” Jenkins explains that not every story in the Gospels will be portrayed, only those “that have the most human emotion that we can relate to.”
This focus on emotional moments is no doubt due to the evangelical heritage. Since the 18th-century Great Awakenings, evangelicals have focused on dramatic conversion experiences.
“The Chosen” does something truly special. But does making every event in the Gospels emotionally dramatic and “relatable” give us the best reading of Scripture and the most profound grasp of the human relationship to God?
Angelus discussed the theology of the show with Jenkins over a weeklong exchange. What emerged was both a sense for the great kinship Catholics have with our evangelical brothers and sisters as well as a sense for the different lens by which they interpret Scripture and understand the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
One of the pleasant surprises is how “The Chosen” depicts Mary. Jenkins is very concerned and respectful here, remarking: “If there's one thing I'm…nervous about when it comes to the show…it's my portrayal of Mary.” The depiction is praiseworthy from a Catholic perspective as it marvelously highlights her generosity and joyfulness as well as her intercession.
In episode five, which focuses on the Wedding at Cana, Jesus refers to his mother as “the most important and powerful person I know.” When the wine runs out, her humble compassion is movingly portrayed in a tender scene which features a close-up shot of her confidently pleading to her son in potent silence.
At the same time, Catholics might search for her queenly qualities. Jenkins replied, “You are absolutely correct, [she] lacked regality — that was very intentional.” The goal was to make her just like you and me.
This might expose the limits of reading Scripture only in terms of what we find immediately relatable. For the Catholic understanding of Mary is rooted not just in a conviction about relatable human experience, but in Scripture’s own portrayal. What makes her inspiring is the way in which she is “blessed among women” (Luke 1:28). And it’s worth asking why from a Catholic perspective her queenship enhances her relatability.
In the Old Testament, it was the mother of the king who was queen (see 1 Kings 2:15-21). If Jesus is the Messiah, then Mary is our queen, a conclusion the Book of Revelation makes in chapter 12. She therefore has a role in God’s Kingdom that goes beyond being a simple homemaker in Nazareth.
Jesus related to her as the New Eve who gives Man the good fruit (John 2:4), and so she is the true mother of the living. She is the Ark of the Covenant (Luke 1:39-56; Revelation 11:19-12:5), who, in order to bear God, must possess a soul as pure as the gold and acacia wood of the original ark.
This is why Christians as early as the third century didn’t just relish her human struggles but begged her intercession as their spiritual mother with the words of the Sub Tuum Praesidium: “Beneath your compassion, we take refuge, O God-bearer; do not despise our petitions in time of trouble: but rescue us from dangers, pure and blessed one.”
Angelus asked how future seasons might highlight people coming to Jesus not just because of his charisma or miraculous performances but out of a sense of obedience and reverence to his divine authority. Jenkins said he didn’t “know why people would have followed Jesus out of duty to God” if they didn’t have some reason to believe Jesus was God, and that he “believes most people followed him because of the amazing experiences.” “I don't see any indication in the Gospels that Jesus' times with people were reverent affairs, at least not very often,” he added.
Here Jenkins sells himself and his show short. For one of the great strengths of “The Chosen” is its deft presentation of Christ’s divinity and rendering of Jesus’ divine gaze. While miracles might get people’s attention, in “The Chosen” it is ultimately Christ’s lordly look into the human soul that converts.
When Peter in episode four, overwhelmed with guilt and shame after the miracle of the catch, hangs his head, Jesus says, “Lift up your head, fisherman.” Then he crouches to meet him at eye level, which transforms Peter’s demeanor and sees Peter respond, “Whatever you ask, I will do.”
When Matthew catches Jesus leaving after healing the paralytic. Jesus turns around and almost paralyzes him with a searching gaze.
“The heart of Jesus, and the heart of this show,” said Jenkins, “is that he sees us and knows us.”
Yet in one instance of this theme, intimacy with Christ seems to pull in an egalitarian direction, and there seems to be an unwarranted aversion to traditional gestures of reverence.
In episode seven, Nicodemus goes to Jesus at night, as depicted in John 3. Upon recognizing Jesus as the Messiah, he bows down and begins kissing Jesus’ hand. But Jesus quickly rebuffs his homage, lifts him to his feet, embraces him, and looks him in the eyes.
Jenkins explains that: “A few people were really bothered by that, wondering why we'd show Jesus rejecting someone's worship. It's a fair question. We did it because Nicodemus was someone who had been consumed with earthly traditions and was treating Jesus like an earthly king, and Jesus wanted his heart.”
But why are traditional gestures of reverence, obedience, and adoration opposed to Jesus having Nicodemus’ heart? Must all moments of the Gospels be interpreted in a merely emotional way? Is the heart merely emotion?
Mystery and adoration, obedience and reverence are at the core of Scripture’s account of the human relationship to God. Humans are commanded, not just enticed, to obey and worship God (Exodus 20:8). And when humans encounter God, it’s not always pleasant, but typically terrifying. They fall to their knees (e.g. Psalm 95:6), prostrate themselves (e.g. Genesis 17:3; Numbers 20:6; 1 Kings 18:39; 1 Chronicles 29:20), cry out for mercy (e.g. Isaiah 6:5). They put on special vestments and go through certain purification rites to be with God in the Temple (e.g. Exodus 40:31; Leviticus 8:5-12).
This is why scholars argue that when the apostles (Luke 5:8) or others fall down or tremble before Jesus (John 18:6) the evangelists are affirming his divinity. Even the Roman Centurion perceived Jesus’ holiness and supreme authority (Matthew 8:5-13). And what of the Gospel of John’s depiction of Jesus as light (John 1:6-10; and John 8:12)?
Jenkins told Angelus that he’s “not at all interested in making Jesus or the Gospels more ‘relatable’ just for the sake of it, and I would never change anything from Scripture to accomplish that goal.”
But the focus on relatability and emotional connection does seem to eclipse aspects of the human relationship to God that are not immediately emotionally provocative, whether its Mary’s queenship or traditional expressions of duty and reverence.
In fact, Jenkins confessed that while his imaginative reading of Scripture may be more at home in the Catholic than the evangelical tradition, “there's a lot of Catholic art that does feel like a formal and reverent presentation that doesn't resonate with me.”
Saints with halos and tranquil faces, the Jesus as homunculus or glowing infant in a manger, or depictions of him dying serenely on the cross come to mind. To be sure, many contemporary Catholics struggle with these images as well, thinking them unfeeling or unreal.
The purpose of those serene portrayals, however, is to show people who are so animated by God’s grace that they are able to put into proper perspective their perilous plights. Their emotions aren’t raw but refined, as they’ve learned by God’s grace to contemplate their fears and frustrations in the light of his perfection and providence.
At the heart of this difference between evangelical and Catholic sensibilities is a different angle on the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Evangelicalism is a modern version of Christianity, and at the heart of modernity is humanism. Humanism prioritizes fleeting feeling and historical experience while typically scorning habitual virtue and eternal truth.
Consequently, modern theologies of the incarnation tend to think it is primarily about God identifying with human experience and making the relationship between Himself and humans more personally intimate.
But behind Catholicism is a classical understanding of the reality of God as more determinative than human experience. Traditionally the incarnation is first and foremost about God elevating human experience by purifying it through contact with his own perfect life.
The incarnation, then, isn’t a new experience for God, but the fulfillment of the creation of human beings in the image of God (Genesis 1:26; cf. Colossians 1:15). What matters is not human experience as such, but, more specifically, human experience governed by the indwelling of God’s spirit.
Catholics therefore would want to suggest that a truly Christian humanization includes divinization — the infusion of divine qualities into the human soul (see 2 Peter 1:4). The more God’s life animates the human soul, the more — not less — human we become. Virtue and holiness do not lessen or falsify human nature but bring wholeness to it.
Traditional Catholic art and expressions of worship might not be especially evocative. But they are apt ways of rendering the goal of our relationship to God — repose produced by perfected knowledge of God.
We must be grateful for the way “The Chosen” powerfully depicts the experience of God’s tender and personal love. But precisely because of the show’s great promise, we should also hope that future seasons will do as well reimagining the traditional dimensions of the human relationship to God as season one does with imagining the emotions behind the Gospels. For the real dynamism of Jesus Christ and his salvation is the glory of the eternal God. Faced with that, humans are prompted not just to emote, but to adore.