Jesus (Jonathan Roumie) in episode 5 of The Chosen, from The Chosen Press Photos, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikipedia
I resisted watching the popular evangelical television series The Chosen for a long time. I (wrongly) assumed that I wouldn’t appreciate it but having now binge-watched the first three seasons with my wife Rebecca, I have to admit that it’s grown on me after all.
I wasn’t wrong to expect a woodenly literal reading of the Gospels, although the series supplements Gospel narratives extensively with numerous fictional embellishments. I actually laughed out loud when John, sitting subtly out of sight of Jesus and Nicodemus, made notes on his wax tablet about their conversation. Admittedly, when Matthew and John were conspicuously recording information for their Gospels, I wanted to see Mary, Thomas, Philip, and Judas portrayed as working on their respective Gospels too.
Distracting historical anachronisms persist as well, as when people routinely pull up their chairs to their desks to sort through their paperwork. (Why not add typewriters and laptops?) I’m reminded of Mel Gibson’s carpenter Jesus inventing the table and chairs in “The Passion of the Christ.” More significantly, Jesus’s sense of a mission to Gentiles is clearly overstated. And the series’ portrayal of legalistic Jews is unsurprising.
I’ve also found the program engaging.
To an extent, watching The Chosen is a little bit like playing Bible trivia – sorting fact from fiction and the biblical record from its televised portrayal. It’s fun to try to anticipate how scenes are being set up for a biblical narrative, and to note how the writers harmonize certain texts. It’s also refreshing to see few explicit criticisms of non-conservatives.
But what’s particularly interesting is the care and attention to the role of women in Jesus’s ministry. Mary Magdalene isn’t denigrated as a prostitute. And generally, women are not only named, but they’re also prominently featured, even beyond what the Gospels portray. In 1 Corinthians 9:5, Paul mentions that Peter is accompanied by his wife, and in Matthew 4:18, we read that Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law. Those are the only two verses in the New Testament that imply Peter even had a wife (and Matthew 4:18 doesn’t even mention her). Yet in The Chosen, Peter’s wife is not only named (Eden), but she’s also given a prominent role, and portrayed as even more faithful than Peter.
In addition to Mary Magdalene (and often Jesus’s mother) traveling with Jesus, other prominent women are added to the entourage. These include an Ethiopian woman named Tamar, and Thomas’s love interest, a vintner named Ramah, whom Mary Magdalene is teaching to read and write. Joanna is shown financially supporting Jesus’s ministry (as in the Gospels). The woman with an issue of blood is both named (Veronica) and given a back-story. Whether she will turn out to be Saint Veronica in season six remains to be seen. Mary and Martha of Bethany could easily have been given bigger roles than their brief introduction, but (so far at least) have not yet. But the degree to which women are featured and celebrated is refreshing.
The fictional context developed for the biblical narrative adds depth. At the end of the third season, the show makes the most of Matthew’s allegorical image of Peter stepping out on the water on faith. The stormy seas are a satisfying manifestation of the storm raging inside Peter, and the juxtaposition of his struggle with the journey of his faithful wife Eden, shown simultaneously, adds even more. My only wish was that the theodicy of the otherwise artful story was more thoughtfully developed; “suffering strengthens your faith” is a pretty crappy response to a miscarriage. Jesus’ words, literally, are “Why do you think I allow trials? They prove the genuineness of your faith. They strengthen you. This is strengthening you and Eden.” Although suffering can be the crucible in which strength develops, as an explanation for the existence of evil, it rings hollow at best.
But, all things considered, I’ve found The Chosen to be worth watching. At times it can be hokey, but it can also be serious and thought-provoking, and its added depth, character development, color, diversity, and lush background is engaging. It explores family relationships, interpersonal conflicts, and real-life problems. It’s a bold reimagining of Jesus and his ministry, and its central focus on his disciples, male and female, is compelling. Even where it falls short – and it does have plenty of shortcomings – it can nevertheless serve as a decent springboard for discussion and reflection.