How the Chosen Gets It Right
From Cecil B. de Mille’s silent epic King of Kings (1927) to Mel Gibson’s intense and bloody Passion of the Christ(2004), movies about Jesus have always provoked controversy. In the 1940s, when Dorothy Sayers wrote a series of radio plays on the life of Christ for the BBC called The Man Born to Be King, there were critics who considered the whole endeavor of putting Christ on the airwaves, much less on the screen, to be blasphemous. My own view of Jesus was strongly shaped as a teenager by Franco Zeffirelli’s television miniseries Jesus of Nazareth (1977), which shocked some viewers because of its more earthy and realistic portrayal of Jesus.
What Jesus of Nazareth was to me and my generation, The Chosen, the first season of which aired in 2019, is proving to be for my son and daughter's generation. Unlike Zeffirelli’s six-hour miniseries, however, The Chosen plans seven seasons of about six hours each that will span Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection. That means Dallas Jenkins and his co-writers will need to include a considerable amount of information, dialogue, and interaction that does not appear in the Gospels. They have done so thus far by fashioning elaborate backstories for each of the disciples and each of the miracles that Jesus performs: a strategy that includes writing additional dialogue for Jesus.
Though fewer evangelicals today than in the past seem concerned about depicting Jesus on screen, there are many who are nevertheless uncomfortable with the extent of non-biblical material that has been incorporated into the first two eight-episode seasons. Are the makers of The Chosen justified in adding this material? Should they have limited themselves to the actual words of scripture and resisted extrapolating on their own?
My answer is “no,” and not merely because film is a different medium than the written word or because good drama demands rearrangement and elaboration. The Chosen is correct to factor in well-conceived, carefully-written backstories for Jesus’ followers and the people he heals because, by doing so, they stay true to the very nature of the Christian life, whether it is lived out in first-century Palestine or twenty-first-century America.
Coincidence Versus Providence
How can a Christian tell whether something peculiar that happens to him is a coincidence or an act of divine intervention? Generally speaking, the former is an isolated incident, one that takes place in a vacuum, while the latter occurs at the apex of a long process of prayer and seeking. Miracles are not haphazard acts of power; what God does, he does with purpose. A true miracle is not an aberration but a culmination.
Many Christians, today and in the past, have sought to discern God’s will for their lives by flipping the Bible open randomly and putting their finger down on a verse. Sometimes the verse so selected will seem to offer direction, but in nearly all cases, the connection is merely coincidental. God does not play parlor tricks and rarely answers questions asked by lazy or flippant seekers.
But there was once a very famous Christian whose life, and the life of the Church, was changed forever when he cast his eye upon a seemingly random verse of scripture. That Christian, Augustine of Hippo, memorialized the incident in Book 8, chapter 12 of his Confessions. He recounts how he came upon Romans 13:13-14 because he heard a child chanting “take it and read” and felt compelled to do just that with a nearby Bible.
At first glance, this incident will seem no more significant than the chance rolling of a pair of dice. That is, unless one reads the first seven books of Confessions. Those who do so and then proceed to Book 8 will recognize that God spent many years preparing Augustine’s heart so that when his eyes fell on the verse, he would know for sure that he had come home to God and his Church.
In my own life, I have been tempted on many occasions to read divine significance into a chance meeting with an old friend or an unexpected natural phenomenon or an oddly timed letter or phone call. In truth, none of these represented a true act of divine intervention—none except for one, one that I might have dismissed had it not brought to a providential close the struggles and yearnings and prayers of several years.
The grandson of four Greek immigrants, I grew up and came to know Christ in the Greek Orthodox Church. During my undergraduate years at Colgate University, however, and through the influence of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, I slowly sensed that God was leading me toward Protestantism. Over the next three years, I studied, questioned, and prayed about the meaning and function of the Lord’s Supper and baptism. In the end, the Lord led me toward the evangelical position on these things, climaxing with a believer’s baptism in the fall of my junior year.
But there was still the undecided question of my denominational identity. For at least two years, I had been praying continually about two things: 1) Should I leave the Orthodox Church and became an evangelical Christian? 2) How was I to stay strong spiritually over the summer when I was not meeting, studying, and praying with my InterVarsity brothers and sisters? It wasn’t until the spring of my junior year that God, through the strangest of “coincidences,” answered both of my prayers.
As was common back then for third-year liberal-arts students, I spent my spring semester studying in London, England, during which time I attended All Souls, Langham Place, where the famous John Stott was the Rector Emeritus. While some friends and I were having lunch at a Wendy’s after church, I saw George, an elderly man from the church, walking toward us with his tray. We immediately invited him to join us, and he did so.
George knew from my accent that I was an American, but that is all that he knew. And yet, after he sat down, he turned to me and said, in an absentminded sort of way, “You’re from America, aren’t you? I just got a letter from America. Look.” And then he handed me the letter. I didn’t know what else to do, so I opened and read it. It was from an Irish Protestant couple who had attended All Souls for many years but, the year before, had moved to America. They were writing to tell their friend and mentor George that, after long months of searching, they had finally found a strong, Christ-centered, Bible-believing church: the Mountainside Gospel Chapel.
As it so happened, I had grown up and still lived in Mountainside, NJ, a town of about three-square miles! George had no idea that he had been used by God to answer my two prayers, but there was the double answer. When I returned home for the summer, I attended the Gospel Chapel and found rich fellowship. Actually, I knew precisely where it was, for I had ridden by it on my bike dozens of times when I was a boy. I just didn’t know that it was a church because it had no icons or stained-glass windows!
I share this story at length to make clear that God’s intervention in natural and human affairs is real but never arbitrary. The miracle stands at the finishing line of what is often a long personal race across difficult terrain and through confusing twists and turns.
Context for the Callings
Although the Gospel writers supply very few backstories for the people that Jesus calls or heals, those stories certainly existed. In John 1:43-51, for example, the evangelist gives a beautiful but somewhat strange account of how Jesus called Nathanael. The strange part is Nathanael’s comically inappropriate response to Jesus telling him that he saw him while he was under a fig tree. As far as Nathanael knew, Jesus might have been told that bit of information by a spy or maybe guessed it, Sherlock Holmes style, by the color of the dirt and leaves on his pants.
But he didn’t think any such thing. Instead, he exclaimed with utter abandon that Jesus was the Son of God and King of Israel. What could possibly elicit such a response? Certainly not the kind of “mind-reading” that charlatans then and now have used to fool credulous audiences and clients.
But what if, while Nathanael was sitting alone under that fig tree, he was wrestling with God, calling out to him for meaning and hope. Maybe he was at the end of his rope, ready to give up the simple Jewish faith of his childhood and embrace nihilism and despair. Maybe, as he sat under the shelter of the tree, he had given God one last chance to speak—only he didn’t. Not, that is, until a strange rabbi told him that he saw him—his dark night of the soul—when he was sitting alone beneath the tree.
I wish I could claim to have constructed that interpretation all by myself. In fact, I learned it from watching season two, episode two of The Chosen. The backstory that Dallas and his team give to Nathanael is not some fanciful, melodramatic fluff added in to pad out the running time of the episode. To the contrary, it is an attempt—to my mind, a wholly successful one—to read back into a well-known Bible story the mysterious but intentional way in which God has worked in people’s lives throughout history.
They do the same, in the fourth episode of season one, for Jesus’ more flamboyantly miraculous calling of Simon Peter (Luke 5:1-11). It is certainly appropriate that when Jesus fills Peter’s nets with so many fish that they begin to break, the hapless fisherman who had caught nothing all night recognizes something divine in the miracle worker. But that does not explain why Peter unexpectedly responds by calling himself a sinful man and bidding Jesus to keep away from him.
Unless . . . the reason that Peter was fishing all night was because he was in some kind of a jam that he had gotten himself in to by making some very bad, very illegal, very sinful choices. God’s miracles are not random; they have purpose, and they bring about changes in the emotional and spiritual, as well as the physical realm.
According to the writers of The Chosen, cockiness and impulsive gambling had caused Peter to fall deeply into debt to the Roman tax collector. To get out of his self-caused predicament, he began secretly fishing on the Sabbath and agreed to betray fellow Jewish fishermen to Rome. That is why, when Jesus provides him with a boatload of fish, Peter feels simultaneously saved from his debts and exposed for his sinful actions.
It is in just such a manner that God works in the lives of believers, not just today but in biblical times as well. Dallas and company are to be praised for reminding us of this and for using it to flesh out the Gospels and bring them to life. Only The Chosen has thought to ask why Jesus specifically heals Peter’s mother-in-law (Mark 1:29-31). Perhaps it was because Peter was the only disciple who had a wife, and Jesus knew it would be very hard on Peter’s wife if he left her to care for a sick mother while he lived nomadically as a follower of Jesus.
God’s miracles are not generic; they meet specific needs. They also do not take place in isolation. The tax collector that Peter owes money to is none other than Matthew. Matthew, who has been shadowing the debt-ridden Peter, witnesses the miraculous catch of fish but does not know how to process it. Later, he also witnesses Jesus’ healing of the paralytic (Mar 2:1-12), which prepares his heart to accept Jesus when he is called (Mark 2:13-14). Meanwhile, the paralytic knows to come to Jesus because a friend of his had earlier witnessed, by accident, Jesus’ healing of the man with leprosy (Mark 1:40-45).
It has become fashionable for filmmakers to make movies and shows where the lives of random people overlap through a series of chance meetings. In adopting such a narrative structure, Dallas and his crew do not mimic an aesthetic style but the very means by which God works in the world and in the lives of the people he created.
It is God who writes our backstories and then works through them to our salvation and his glory. Here is my hope that we will be blessed with five more seasons of The Chosen, and that Dallas Jenkins will continue to open our eyes to God’s love and providence.
Louis Markos is Professor in English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, holding the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities. His works include From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics, The Myth Made Fact: Reading Greek and Roman Mythology through Christian Eyes, and From Plato to Christ: How Platonic Thought Shaped the Christian Faith.
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