Let me tell you a story…

Since ancient of days, these words have held our collective imaginations captive. We all enjoy a good story: to be drawn into a compelling narrative; to be transfixed by flawed but sympathetic characters; to be swept away by conflict, tension, adventure; and finally, to be rescued by resolution, conclusion, completion.

In every generation, good storytelling provides more than mere entertainment. It reveals truth about the human condition. Author and historian James Carroll has the audacity to define storytelling as holy. In The Community of Saints, he writes, “We tell stories because we can’t help it. We tell stories because we love to entertain and hope to edify. We tell stories because they fill the silence death imposes. We tell stories because they save us.” Noted author, teacher and story consultant Robert McKee would concur. In Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, he posits that “a culture cannot evolve without honest, powerful storytelling.”

Of course, Jesus was a storyteller. He taught in parables, simple stories that conveyed profound moral and spiritual lessons. His is arguably the greatest story of all time, and for more than 2,000 years, storytellers of all ilk—artists, songwriters, playwrights, novelists, screenwriters and producers—have told and retold the Jesus story. In the modern era, storytellers have delivered rock star Jesus and graphic novel Jesus. In film, we have met Jesus at his birth (The Nativity Story) and in his final hours (The Passion of the Christ). In the late 1970s, an impressive cast of big-name artists brought Jesus to our TV screens in a mini-series that continues to air half a century later (Jesus of Nazareth).

Which brings us to the current moment. How do you share the Jesus story today in a manner that is at once realistic, relatable, reliable, and relevant to a 21st century audience? Like most things in 2022, there’s an app for that. Film director, producer and writer Dallas Jenkins appears to have a corner on the market. In 2019, he broke form with traditional film distribution methods and brought his multi-season series The Chosen to market via an app developed by Angel Studios. He also eschewed Hollywood money (and artistic interference), opting instead to fund the endeavor through small donations from a large number of like-minded individuals eager to bring quality faith-based programming to market.

The result: The Chosen is the #1 crowdfunded media project of all time, raising more than $40 million for the first three of seven planned seasons. As production begins on Season 3 this spring, the fourth season is already nearly 20% funded. The show has been translated into 50 languages, and the producers estimate existing episodes have been viewed upwards of 395 million times as of April 2022. Today, viewers can stream The Chosen from the app to any device for free or find it on streaming platforms like Amazon Prime Video and Peacock.

As word of The Chosen spreads and its popularity increases, many observers wonder, what makes this series so special? After all, it’s not a new story. Most of us know the ending already. Many of us are familiar with the stories within the story—the woman at the well (John 4:1-42), the healing of a paralytic (Matthew 9:1-8), the miraculous changing of water into wine (John 2:1-12). Yet Jenkins and his team have found a way to inject a freshness to the telling of the story that has energized long-time believers, new Christians and skeptics alike. Likely, that freshness derives not from a singular aspect but from a combination of factors, like a well measured recipe. The first ingredient is authenticity.

A Realistic Jesus.  In the early years of film and television, the pure wonder of cinematic and broadcast technology made it easy for audiences to overlook the less than remarkable quality of actual programming, particularly of the religious genre. What passed for technical excellence in previous decades would now be pegged by many as being cheesy, campy, or even preachy.Today’s audiences are more sophisticated and want authentic storytelling, and by those standards, The Chosen serves up a realistic Jesus.

“If you think back to the classic Jesus stories, Jesus appears as this almost glowing type of figure. He seems almost otherworldly, as if he’s dropped into a situation,” says Craig Detweiler, a seasoned entertainment and media professional who currently serves as Dean of the College of Arts and Media at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Arizona. He credits the writers and producers of The Chosen with making a “smart artistic choice” to present a more earthy, believable version of Jesus who lives and moves among people who are broken. “You have people engaging in the kinds of activities and vices that we see today. People boxing and gambling, worrying about taxes. I don’t think anybody has ever imagined the ancient, biblical world having an everydayness that matches our own experience.”

Indeed, Jenkins resists the presentation of yet another idealized Jesus by intentionally focusing the story on the brokenness of those who were called to follow Jesus. The disciples are portrayed as real people, living commonplace lives, complete with the same worries and burdens familiar to a modern audience: loneliness, marital strife, employment issues, illness, loss of loved ones, depression, regrets. To achieve this authentic everydayness, Jenkins leans heavily on backstory, a technique that has garnered some criticism but also drives the true-to-life appeal of the series.

Where scripture is light on details about the lives of the disciples, Jenkins the storyteller fills in the gaps with what he describes as “plausible” content and context. For example, three of the four gospels recount the story of Jesus healing the mother of Peter’s wife (Matthew 8:14-15, Mark 1:29-31 and Luke 4:38-39). From these verses, we know that Peter was married, but nowhere does scripture speak to the nature of his marriage or how his decision to follow Jesus impacted that relationship. Yet one of the most endearing relationships portrayed in The Chosen is that of Peter and his wife, Eden. Observing this couple, we recognize familiar human emotions—concern, tenderness, accountability, encouragement. Through this interaction, we encounter a real-life Peter.

Despite claims by some that he is adding to scripture, Jenkins defends his approach. In one of many video messages to viewers, he states: “Our first and primary source for this show is the gospels. If we add something artistic or creative, we ask is this plausible? Does it fit with the character of the people involved and at least the intention of scripture? And if it does, then we believe this show can be a great tool to enhance the love of scripture for viewers.”

Like many viewers, Bruce Haynes learned about The Chosen by word of mouth. His son came home from college one weekend and insisted they watch together. Haynes is the managing director of a leading global strategic communications firm in Washington, D.C., so he knows a thing or two about commercial film production. It was the technical excellence of The Chosen that caught his attention. The opening of Season 2, Episode 3 was a game changer for Haynes. He describes the scene where cameras roll as two of the disciples walk into frame, deep in conversation. They walk past a long line of people waiting to be healed by Jesus. “About three minutes into the scene I hit the pause button and said, did you see what’s happening? There are no cuts. It’s what they call a tracking shot.” In fact, at 13 minutes it’s one of the longest tracking shots on record and a testimony to Jenkins’ cinematography chops. “That was the point where I really understood that these are serious people trying to make a serious show.”

The technique was more than a clever display of talent, however; it created the level of realism required for the narrative at that moment. In the scene, the disciples gradually walk away from Jesus and the miracles he is performing. They begin to argue amongst themselves. “They didn’t use the tracking shot just to show off,” adds Haynes. “They did it to relate something to us, which was to show part of the ordinary Christian struggle where Jesus is over here doing amazing things, and we pull away and pull away and bicker amongst ourselves. We get distracted from what is really important.”

In terms of production quality, Haynes believes Jenkins has found the trifecta of success: people, culture and integrity.  Jenkins has surrounded himself with good people; they are telling a story that people want to engage with; and they’re true to their core mission. Still, Haynes cautions that people who squint too hard at such details can sometimes miss the most important point: “You can just watch this show, and you can love it,” he says. “It’s entertaining. You don’t even have to be a Christian to watch and conclude, that was cool. That was fun. I was moved. That’s a great story.”

Realism has that sort of effect on people. It also makes space for the development of characters who are relatable, another essential ingredient that has The Chosen fans eagerly awaiting the next installment.

A Relatable Jesus.  In Story, McKee writes, “True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure—the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential character.”

The Chosen format lends itself to deep character development. Over the course of seven seasons, the show aims to peel back the layers of Jesus’ true character by studying the character of the people who walked most closely with him during his three-year ministry. This is not a mere snapshot; this is a deep dive. One example is an early episode in the series that focuses entirely on Jesus’ relationship with children. “We know how important children are to the heart of Jesus and to the core of his teaching,” says Detweiler. “But there’s never been a movie that could spend time just highlighting what that looks like. In the space of a long-form series, however, you can luxuriate and speculate in those moments more. It humanizes people. It’s about getting close to the characters and their internal struggles.”

Indeed, The Chosen does not shy away from struggle and conflict but leverages these qualities to build a cast of characters that are both sympathetic and relatable. In reading scripture, it is often tempting to view the disciples as one homogenous happy band of Jesus followers. In reality, they were a disparate and imperfect lot, thrown together by their singular love of Jesus. Jenkins intentionally punctuates the tensions between characters like Matthew, the reviled tax collector (depicted as being on the autism spectrum), and Peter, the struggling fisherman trying to make ends meet. Mary Magdalene wrestles with depression, backsliding even after her encounter with Jesus, only to be reaffirmed by his love and assurance. One disciple is played by an actor with severe scoliosis and minor cerebral palsy. Rather than mask the disability, Jenkins leaned into it, allowing the audience to see the disciple’s battle with insecurity and his inner struggle for self-acceptance.

These characters are not one dimensional. They are complex, and because of their encounter with Jesus, they are changed just as we are changed in his presence.

The Chosen also teaches about community, a timely lesson for the current moment when community feels more than a little messy and out of reach for many of us. At times, the disciples didn’t necessarily like or respect each other, but Jesus basically said, “Get over it, we’ve got a job to do.” “We seemingly have irreconcilable differences with each other over fundamental things,” notes Haynes. So did the disciples. “They managed to find a way when they gave themselves up to following Jesus. Those differences began to seem petty. They began to see that they did have things to offer each other. It’s a good reminder that we can’t let our differences consume us.”

Jenkins is careful to weave moral lessons like this into every episode. The stories are believable, and the characters are relatable, but only because Jenkins and company work hard to develop a third ingredient: trust.

A Reliable Jesus. Jenkins firmly and frequently reminds his audience that The Chosen is no substitute for the Bible. In one of his many YouTube messages he says, “The Chosen is a narrative show, which means it’s not a documentary. It’s also not a church. It’s not a nonprofit ministry. It’s not formally connected to a denomination or a faith tradition, and it’s absolutely nota replacement for Scripture. It’s a show.”

But it’s a show that is rooted in fact and runs true to holy scripture found in both the Old and New Testament. Jason Sobel is a messianic Jewish rabbi who serves as one of three biblical and cultural consultants for The Chosen. Together with a Catholic priest and an evangelical scholar, he routinely lends his perspective as to historical and cultural accuracy of the show. “One of the things Dallas wanted to do was be biblically sound,” says Sobel. “But he also really wanted to be unique about it and portray a Jesus in his Jewish, historical context and make that a key part of what The Chosen did.” Sobel eagerly stepped into the role of consultant. He started by leading Jenkins and members of the production team on a tour of Israel, to walk in the footsteps of Jesus and put the story of Jesus into proper geographical and cultural context.

Sobel also heads up a nonprofit organization called Fusion Global that helps people connect the Old Testament with the New Testament and better understand how the former informs the latter. He says everyone involved in creating The Chosen recognizes the importance of preserving biblical integrity by bridging between the old and the new. He describes the shared values among the team in “honoring the biblical text, a love of Jesus, and a desire to tell this story in a way that impacts and transforms people’s lives but does it in a way that reflects real people who really encountered Jesus. And it’s done with a level of excellence from a cinematic, artistic and creative perspective.”

Jenkins relies on Sobel and the other consultants for broad interpretation, but also for small details. For example, during the original casting when outfits were being designed, the costume department forgot to add tassels to certain garments. Sobel was quick to point out the historical and spiritual significance of the embellishments and the tassels were added. A weightier adjustment was needed when the script called for Peter to fish on the Sabbath. Sobel objected, noting that Peter was an observant Galilean, very pious and not likely to have broken the Sabbath. But for the sake of moving the plot forward, Jenkins was insistent. So, Sobel found the all-important plausible solution with the Jewish principle of pikuach nefesh, which means any commandment can be broken to save a life. The episode moved forward and was developed with the understanding that Peter’s life was in jeopardy at the hands of the Romans. The solution honored historical Jewish sensibilities while also preserving the creative integrity of the scene.

The reliability of The Chosen narrative is foundational to a broader mission, what Sobel refers to as a John 21 moment.  “I think God wants to bring in a great catch, and you can’t have the catch without the nets. It’s our responsibility to create the nets, and I think part of that is the net of media because we live in a media-driven age.”

In other words, it’s not enough that a message or a project like The Chosen be realistic, relatable and reliable. It also has to be relevant.

Relevant Jesus. One look at The Chosen’s social media analytics is a convincing measure of its abundant cultural relevance at this current moment. This groundbreaking enterprise has nearly 33,000 Twitter followers, 2.3 million Facebook followers, and 1.6 million YouTube subscribers. There are The Chosen soundtracks, devotionals, and copious amounts of behind-the-scenes content available for viewing on YouTube and The Chosen app.  The Chosen swag is abundant—everything from hoodies and t-shirts to caps, puzzles and calendars. The marketing department churns out catchy slogans like, “Binge Jesus” and “Get Used to Different.” There are The Chosen livestreams, and blooper reels, and fan clubs.

Of course, another measure of The Chosen’s cultural relevance is the decision early on to rely on a savvy new funding model as described previously. “With crowdfunding, you now have an ability to go straight to the fans and straight to the target audience,” says Detweiler. Now, viewers actually have skin in the game, and that’s important for many people of faith longing for stories that reflect their values, passions and concerns. “Crowdfunding allows people who might feel estranged from the corridors of power to vote, not just with their feet, but with their dollars.”

Perhaps the best measure of relevance, however, is how viewers are using the content in their daily lives. On one Facebook fan site, members meet for group events to watch and chat about favorite episodes. Many churches and covenant groups are using clips from the series, coupled with The Chosen devotionals as content for small group studies.

Jade Molina is the Middle School Spiritual Life Director at Oaks Christian School in Westlake Village, California. He shares how the school adapted The Chosen as an online teaching tool during COVID. When the pandemic hit in March of 2020, the school adopted a fully remote academic model. Molina had less than a week to prepare. “Somebody within that timeframe said, you gotta see this new show. So, my wife and I sat down and watched the entire first season. I thought, Wow! This is different. So, I gathered our Bible department and said, why don’t we show these episodes over the next six to eight weeks as part of our Bible curriculum.”

Molina and his colleagues scrambled and created lessons to complement each episode. Then he called on a friend — Rabbi Sobel, the same rabbi consultant for The Chosen. “I reached out to Jason and asked if he would do something personalized and he agreed. So, I went over to the house and we shot a little video. But then, he reached out to Dallas, and Dallas sent me a video talking directly to the students.” It didn’t end there. Jonathan Roumie, the actor who plays Jesus, also sent along a video. Once they started watching the series, the students were hooked.

One of the comments students often make to Molina is that they had never really thought about Jesus having a personality or laughing or interacting like he does in The Chosen. “They’re seeing the humanity of Jesus and the humanity of Jesus is luring them into the curiosity of his divinity. We’ve had more than a few dozen parents that have said, ‘Thank you for introducing us to The Chosen.’ And some of these families don’t even go to church. But there’s something about watching this at home and then entering into discussions about what’s going on in class or chapel that carries over.”

The Chosen has gained traction not because it is a realistic portrayal of relatable characters or because it is a reliable account of scripture that is relevant to modern circumstances and sensibilities. It has gained traction because of the confluence of all these factors. The question now is whether the show’s team can continue to break barriers and maintain the same high degree of praise in the remaining five seasons.

Navigating the Danger Zone. The Chosen series has not been without criticism. As noted before, Jenkins has taken some heat for his creative license with scripture and backstory. Also, a few voices have raised concerns about Jenkins’ association with assorted faith groups. And recently, The Chosen marketing department released a nationwide campaign that was met with some disapproval. The campaign uses reverse psychology to encourage people to watch the series in a parody video that features Satan instructing his minions on how to discourage mortals from watching the show (think C.S. Lewis and The Screwtape Letters).

Criticisms aside, Molina believes that the series will continue its trailblazing trajectory if it continues to vigilantly fuse the old with the new. “The more that a person knows about the promises God gave to the Israelite people and that He had a plan for bringing about salvation through them for all people, the more it informs the beauty and depth of the New Testament and what Jesus completed and fulfilled.”

Haynes sees the potential for danger moving forward at the intersection of authenticity and relevance. “There’s always a danger of oversaturation, so [Jenkins’] biggest challenge is staying relevant in a way that stays true to the project’s core and what made it so successful to begin with.”

Detweiler has a similar concern. He cautions, “Anytime you get into a ‘Jesus Inc.’ mindset, you start to tread some really dangerous terrain. We who deal within these corridors of cultural power have to really come into every day as a beggar seeking bread, just looking for manna from God rather than from a franchise.” It’s a principle he teaches his own students. “I really try to work on their sense of calling and the depth of character for the ups and downs, the successes and failures. That’s going to help them for when they make it.” He notes that even Dallas Jenkins has experienced his share of failure. “The irony of the whole thing is, Dallas’ successes are rooted in his failure.”

Indeed, Jenkins didn’t originally set out to make The Chosen. He had a more traditional arc in mind for his film career. But God had a different plan and calling in mind. That is one backstory that has resulted in one of the most engaging faith-based projects of all time, and Jenkins pours the emotions of those disappointments into Season 2, Episode 2 and the story of the disciple Nathanael.

Season 3 will likely debut sometime in the Fall of 2022. So, if you haven’t already jumped on The Chosentrain, there’s plenty of time to #BingeJesus and come to your own conclusions.

Erin Rodewald is a published writer, editor and communications strategist based in Northern Virginia. Her topics include civil society, community engagement, international religious freedom, and foreign policy. She is the author of the Writing for the Public Square blog. Erin holds a Masters of Public Policy from Pepperdine University. You can follower her on Twitter at @EDRodewald.

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