‘The Chosen’: A binge-worthy look at the life of Christ

Jesus at wedding with kids. Courtesy VidAngel Studios

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With many households sheltering in place, Catholics around the country are tuning into “The Chosen,” an innovative look at the life of Jesus Christ. The series, currently available via the VidAngel streaming app, has already set a record as the top crowdfunded media project in history. VidAngel Chief Executive Officer Neal Harmon and his brothers and VidAngel co-founders Daniel and Jeffrey were motivated to apply the crowdfunding concept to an entertainment development project.

As fans of director Dallas Jenkins’ previous work, the VidAngel team envisioned a unique opportunity. “Hollywood studios have rarely funded this kind of content, and when they have, they typically have not made it in a way that the audience relates to through the lens of their own faith,” said Neal Harmon. “Because we knew how eager the audience is to see a show like this, we fundamentally believed that they would back us in making it.”

“The Chosen” is the first entertainment project to be released in 180 countries around the world on its own app. “That technology has allowed us to spread the show faster than ever possible before,” Harmon said. “We have a special feature inside the app called ‘pay it forward’ in which people can choose to buy views of the show for other people in the world and gain full access themselves.” This feature has fueled the success of the series. The app is currently generating sufficient revenue to provide for production of one new season per year, with the full run envisioned as seven seasons.

Jenkins, a lifelong Christian, was interested in filling what he perceived as a void in a deeper cinematic look at the life of Christ.

“I love binge-watching TV shows with my wife, but there’s never been one about the life of Christ that could really allow us to see these people as human beings we could connect with,” Jenkins said. “Now that we’ve had the opportunity to do the show, our own lives have changed dramatically, because we’re seeing God do something far bigger and better than we are. Being used in this manner is exciting and humbling at the same time.”

While based solidly on Scripture, “The Chosen” imagines many of the details of Jesus’ life that are not explicitly explored in the Bible.

“We use historical and cultural research along with artistic imagination, but one of the biggest things is just the study of human behavior. [It] sounds simple, but these people were human beings like we are, so writing their backstories has been a fascinating process,” Jenkins said.

The writing team for the series has utilized Holy Cross Father David Guffey, Messianic Rabbi Jason Sobel and evangelical scholar Doug Huffman as their biblical consultants to help ensure fidelity to the character and intentions of Jesus Christ and sacred Scripture.

Portraying Jesus and Mary Magdalene

Jonathan Roumie, an established actor, director and producer, and the vice president of the nonprofit G.K. Chesterton Theatre Company, was cast in the role of Jesus for “The Chosen.” When asked how one prepares to portray Christ, Roumie shared that he actively prays prior to and while filming. “And moreover, I always ask that it’s not my voice or my personality that comes through but that of the Lord’s,” said Roumie, who sees his role simply as a conduit to help viewers better know Jesus.

Discussing his favorite of the first season’s eight episodes, Roumie shared that the season’s first and final episodes, which serve as bookends of sorts for the initial chapter of the story, are particularly meaningful to him.

“Episode 3 was the most fun in the first half of filming, because I love children,” said Roumie, describing an episode where Jesus befriends and teaches a group of children who discover his camp on the outskirts of Capernaum. “I loved filming scenes of Jesus in the wilderness, fending for himself, making food and fire, building things and saying his bedtime prayers. For the second half of the season, filming John 3:16 was profound because of the opportunity to play off of a veteran such as Erick Avari as Nicodemus.”

For Elizabeth Tabish, who portrays both Mary of Magdela and her “before” version “Lilith,” being a part of “The Chosen” has been a gift.

“The writing for Lilith’s character was complex and nuanced — this is a woman traumatized and possessed not only by demons but by pain, fear, grief and shame. A woman who desperately wants to be close to God but is held back by her trauma,” Tabish said. “Though not identical, I did have personal experience to draw from to reenact some of Lilith’s pain. Her loneliness, escapism through alcohol … there was experience to draw from. I was in the midst of a depression when I booked this role. In fact, I had requested that my agent stop submitting me for auditions. I wanted to quit acting. Despite that request, he submitted me for Lilith/Mary, and when I first read the scenes for the audition, I completely broke down. It felt like the writing was speaking directly to me — they spoke to a deep pain in me, but they also spoke to a deeper desire for hope, joy and peace in me, just like these episodes speak to so many who have watched them.”

Tabish points to her booking of the role as the thing that most prepared her to play both the tormented character Lilith and the redeemed Mary.

“I’m still amazed at how God is with us during the most painful moments of our lives, and so often uses these painful experiences to our spiritual growth and benefit,” Tabish said. “God doesn’t simply watch us; God sees us and knows us, just like Jesus sees through the facade of Lilith’s behavior and directly into Mary’s heart. To transform from a woman possessed to a follower and student of Christ and finally become the first witness of Christ’s resurrection, Mary’s story shows us that there is hope, that redemption is possible for those who want it.”

Viewers connect

Andy Matijevic, a seminarian at Mundelein Seminary, has connected with the series deeply.

“Seeing the humanity of Jesus and the fragility and uniqueness of the apostles helps me to continue to realize that in my own life, being in seminary preparing for ordination to the Catholic priesthood, that Jesus calls people from all walks of life to follow him,” Matijevic said. “Discerning the call to priesthood for a number of years now, there have been times of unworthiness. And yet the apostles felt unworthy to follow; those who welcomed Christ into their homes felt unworthy. Jesus uses the gifts we have for his glory and to build the kingdom of heaven here on earth.”

Amy J. Cattapan, a Catholic author, speaker and educator, has broadly shared “The Chosen” with others via social media and sees the series’ broad potential to be used as both an educational opportunity and evangelization tool. For Cattapan, the release of the series is timely.

“This pandemic has increased our anxieties and our fears. So many people are seeking a way to find light in all this darkness, and those of us who are believers know that Jesus can bring that light,” Cattapan said. “In fact, in the first episode, Jesus reaches into the darkness of Mary Magdalene’s demon-tormented experience and brings her into the light. That is what we all need, and what this show can deliver — a chance for Jesus to reach into our darkness and show us his light.”

Learn more about “The Chosen” and screen it online at TheChosen.tv.

Lisa Hendey writes from California.

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