By Jacob Sahms
In the flickering light of the fire, a Jewish man encourages his daughter to learn the Torah and repeat the prayers contained there when faced with adversity, shining a light into the way that the new series The Chosen integrates faith and life. From Dallas Jenkins (The Resurrection of Gavin Stone, Midnight Clear), the Biblical-themed series explores the untold stories of the Gospels, painting a vivid picture of the backstories of characters that you think you know.
While other series have depicted different elements of the Bible, from the soapy Kings to the more direct The Bible, The Chosen aims for something that is less theological discussion and more of a streamable, bingeable exploration of what the individuals of the Gospels were experiencing before, during, and after their interaction with Jesus. Playing with the expectations of the audience, Jenkins knows that Christians often come with a box that the people of the Bible are fit into, and he’s trying to get to a place where people think differently.
“Get used to different,” the writer/director says, quoting the Jesus character from a late-season episode. It’s the mantra that Jenkins’ team brought to the script, but it also spread to their musical score choices and the cinematography. Just don’t accuse them of changing Scripture. “We are changing how the story is delivered, because we want people to think deeper about these stories. To be clear, we’re not changing anything that’s in the gospels. We’re just using historical and cultural context to expand on the character backstories, so that we can connect to the gospel stories even more personally.”
Jenkins and two others have spent the last two years taking the stories from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in the New Testament of the Bible and “working backward.” Using the example of Simon Peter, Jenkins took the things that are written about Peter explicitly, that he was a fisherman called by Jesus and left his nets to follow Jesus, and was alternatively called “rock” and “Satan,” and consider the pieces of his personality that are conveyed through the Gospel stories and the letters attributed to him.
“He’s up and down,” Jenkins opined. “So our story is rooted in the gospel and we use history to show what’s plausible. We can make guesses to his home life and about his life pre-Jesus. The back stories are our own invention.”
The tax collector-turned-disciple Matthew has emerged as the character Jenkins has seen audiences find most engaging, and one that has personal investment in. The character in The Chosen has been written as being on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum, a disorder that makes interaction and nonverbal communication more difficult. Jenkins himself is on the spectrum, and has spent years studying the brain, psychology, and behavioral issues to better understand the issues and become a better leader.
While Jenkins sees that in his own life, and in members of his family like his daughter, the show’s portrayal of Matthew allows audiences to see how the spectrum can be a detriment and a strength. Building on Jenkins’ own efforts in the special needs community, Matthew allows audiences to consider those on the autism spectrum in a new way. The way that Paras Patel delivered the character even allowed Jenkins to build episodes five through eight differently, because the humanity of Matthew’s struggle shone through so clearly the actor’s portrayal that more room was left for other stories. That’s a different use of story from a Biblical perspective, bringing humanity to the forefront to allow audiences to see the gospel differently.
The Chosen isn’t just bringing a new approach to storytelling though; it’s changing the way the whole process works. Jenkins has tackled a different business model for the show as well. Audiences can watch the eight episodes for free on their phones or streamed to other devices, thanks to eleven million dollars crowdsourced. Jenkins saw how passionate the audiences were about the show as they revealed it, and realized that the audience wanted to make it accessible to others so that they created a “pay it forward” option.
And realistically, The Chosen never even happens if Jenkins’ previous project, the theatrically-released The Resurrection of Gavin Stone, wasn’t a box office disappointment. “If the movie had done well, the producers wanted to work together to make five or six films over the next ten years,” remembers Jenkins. “But I realize that I’m closer to God now because of that failure. I realize that God used failure on purpose.”
That kind of reflection has made Jenkins deeper as a director and as a person, but his transparency in sharing with the audience has been a rallying cry for the thousands of people who gave toward The Chosen. Jenkins is sharing regularly through social media like Facebook and Youtube about his own process, the way that they’re crafting episodes, the behind the scenes of production, and the ups and downs of filming. And the audience has not only invested and bought into the series, but continues to pray for it.
Sometimes, the audience believes in the stories they see that they expect Jenkins to throw a tract in for convicting an unbeliever about the truth of the series, and Jenkins demurs. “The show isn’t a replacement for the Bible but it’s trying to introduce people to the authentic Jesus,” he explains. “The job of the church is to disciple, and it’s God’s job to close the deal. Viewers are encouraged to read the Gospels for themselves.”
The Chosen isn’t the Bible, but if it draws audiences closer then it may just be the parable the twenty-first century needs.