The Chosen

This show has been on my radar for a while, but it took me a while to get to it (thanks, Joel, for providing the impetus for actually watching it). The first season of The Chosen is available on YouTube, as well as through a special app created for the show. (The second season is apparently on the way.) For an independent series, and for one that was clearly created as an evangelistic tool, it is one of the best things I’ve seen. The production value is high, the actors are, overall, very talented, and it looks good.

The first eight episodes cover various material from the Gospels, plus a couple scenes dealing with Old Testament precedents for what Jesus is doing, as well as providing creative background for the various characters. Since the Gospel writers are generally not interested in either giving the background stories of various people, or in filling in the gaps that result naturally when there is a single-minded focus, The Chosen has to do that in order to make a compelling visual narrative. We get particularly creative renderings of Peter’s money troubles, as well as providing much fuller stories for Mary Magdalene, Nicodemus, and Matthew.

There is nothing inherently wrong with filling in some of those gaps to tell a Biblically informed story about the mercy of Jesus. And for the most part, when it comes to events recorded in the Gospels, the screenwriters are largely faithful to the text. They are forced, however, to take some license in order to give us likely human reactions to the things Jesus does and says, since the Gospels are very rarely interested in giving us the inner thoughts of anyone. (A literary parallel—and one I would recommend—would be Anne Rice’s Christ the Lord novels, Out of Egypt and Road to Cana. Both novels fill in gaps in the life of Jesus and in the Gospels to good effect.)

I think The Chosen would be an excellent way to introduce some of the accounts in the Gospels, as long as people were sitting with their Bibles open and a good teacher to examine the various depictions of events. In that kind of context, watching the episodes could produce fruitful reflection on what kind of Jesus Christians actually believe. I think, for instance, that The Chosen does a pretty good job at not denying or down-playing either Jesus’ humanity or His divinity. Another thing that I especially appreciated was that Jesus says to Nicodemus, “God loved the world in this way,” rather than “God so loved the world.” The former is what John 3:16 says. I do not think, however, that when Jesus says that people will worship the Father “in spirit and truth,” that He was speaking about worship really being “in your heart.” Instead, He is speaking of the Spirit and Himself, the Truth; in other words, Trinitarian worship in Christ, rather than worship physically located on Mt. Gerizim or in the Jerusalem temple.

But however one interprets those things, and maybe especially because it is well done, The Chosen raises provocative questions about what we are actually doing when we watch something on a screen versus reading words on the page, or hearing the accounts read. How does it change the Gospel accounts to see them visually, rather than reading or hearing them? Consider, for example, reading a novel and imagining in your mind what is going on, and then seeing the book as a film or TV series. Choices and interpretations have to be made, which means that one or another avenue of interpretation—one or another vision—is closed off by what actually happens on the screen.

The dramatic and creative choices that are made may or may not be different from how you would have imagined them. That, of course, is not problematic in itself. But it is a different kind of experience to read something and then see it, and the experience is, in part, dependent on how familiar one is with the material. People who are familiar with the Scriptures, or with the Gospels, are going to see things differently than are those who are unfamiliar with them. More than that, creative choices on the screen are going to influence those who may open a Bible after seeing the series. 

And for those who believe that the Scriptures record actual events and actual words and deeds of Jesus, what are we actually believing when we watch something on the screen? In other words, what does it mean to watch a miracle on the screen, which (if we take time to consider it) we know is a trick of the camera or the special effects artist? The actress playing Mary Magdalene is not really possessed, so the actor playing Jesus does not really cast out any demons from her (as powerful as the scene is). The actor playing the leper does not have skin lesions miraculously closed up and healed. The actor playing the paralytic does not actually have his legs miraculously start to work. The nets of the actors who play Peter and Andrew are not really filled to breaking. And so on.

As Paul Schrader points out in his book Transcendental Style in Film, there is a difference between “cinematic” and “spiritual” reality. What we see on the screen is not “real.” (That should go without saying, but in light of recent discussions on Twitter about WandaVision, I’m not sure whether people realize that what is on the screen is not real. Neither WandaVision nor the world she magically creates are “real,” although the story can—and, I think, does—tell us true things about grief and the ways in which our grief impact those around us.)

Because what is on the screen appears real (in the same way as a photograph, which is a different kind of thing than is a painting), it has—almost from the very beginning of film—been used to try and “represent” or “recreate” some spiritual reality. As Schrader puts it, “The film is ‘real,’ the spiritual is ‘on’ film, ergo: the spiritual is real. Thus we have an entire history of cinematic magic: the blind are made to see, the lame to walk, the deaf to hear, all on camera” (in the “Conclusion,” [Kindle location 3145]).

Schrader goes on to say that there is belief inspired by such spiritual depictions, but “this belief cannot be honestly be ascribed to the Wholly Other; it is more accurately an affirmative response to a congenial combination of cinematic corporeality and ‘holy’ feelings” (location 3157). The viewer is not confronted with anything Transcendent, but made comfortable in religious identification with the subjects on the screen for “an hour or two.” “A confrontation between the human and spiritual is avoided. The decisive action is not an unsettling stylistic shock, but the culmination of the abundant means used throughout the film” (location 3168). (By “abundant” Schrader means the fact that every emotion is shown, everything is depicted immediately, rather than the “sparse” means that may lead to a sort of shock, or an actual encounter with Something that cannot be contained on film—that is, transcendent.)

Agreeing with Schrader, of course, is dependent on sharing his assumptions about what an encounter with the Sacred or the Transcendent might or should look like, as well as deciding on the purposes of trying to conjure something transcendent with the medium of film. I think, however, that whether one agrees on the purpose or not, he raises the sorts of questions we should ask about cinematic depictions of religious (in this case, Christian) events.

I appreciated the technical and artistic value of The Chosen far more than any other “Christian” film or show that I’ve seen. Again, it is worth watching and the writers, producers, and director have obviously put a lot of thought into how they are going to show certain things, claiming that it “allows us to see Jesus through the eyes of those who knew Him.” (It is also made “outside of the Hollywood system,” which obviously carries a certain amount of weight with Christians who have, perhaps, disagreed with how the events of Jesus’ life have been put on screen previously.) I would argue that it does not really show us Jesus “through the eyes of those who knew Him” (that would be the Gospels, themselves), but through the theological interpretation of those who put these events on the screen—which is not, again, inherently bad. Every sermon, every book, every account of Jesus and scriptural events or ideas—every translation of the Bible—is an interpretation. It is literally (in both senses) unavoidable.

But all of that leaves me with a question inspired by Schrader: does depicting events from the Scriptures or from the life of Jesus actually put a roadblock in the way of deeper understanding and faith—that is, in the way of something seriously transcendent? Because it is “realistically” depicted, isn’t our reflection forced to end with what we see? Doesn’t seeing something on a screen effectively close off certain meditative avenues in a way that reading something over and over does not? Aren’t pictures fundamentally different from words?

I’ll leave it up to you to consider and decide.