Article ID: JAR2202CB | By: Cole Burgett
Television Series Review
Created by Dallas Jenkins
**Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for The Chosen.***
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“Oh, friend John, it is a strange world, a sad world, a world full of miseries, and woes, and troubles; and yet when King Laugh come he make them all dance to the tune he play.” These are the words spoken by Abraham Van Helsing in Bram Stoker’s gothic masterpiece, Dracula, as part of his lengthy speech on the ambiguous figure he called “King Laugh.” It’s a little-known passage that has stumped literary scholars since the book’s publication, with words like “ambiguous” and “unclear” littering any number of commentaries. Contextually, the exchange occurs after the burial of Lucy Westenra, as Van Helsing attempts, in his broken English, to justify his laughter at a seemingly inappropriate moment. What some critics tend to stumble over, of course, is the biblical imagery in Van Helsing’s explanation. “Bleeding hearts,” he continues, “and dry bones of the courtyard, and tears that burn as they fall — all dance together to the music that he make with that smileless mouth of him.”1 The gift of laughter is not the only thing in view here; nor is Van Helsing’s personification of laughter as a king mere coincidence.
Through the character of Van Helsing, Stoker presents a certain kind of faith that looks quite foreign to the intellectualized West, one that embraces both a very real and tangible presence of evil — an evil that must be staked through the heart rather than educated or medicated — alongside the prodigious power of goodness. He presents a kind of Christ, personified in King Laugh, that the Gospels attest to but never quite enflesh: one who is fully human, capable of embracing all the little paradoxes and quirks of the emotional spectrum, including mirth and laughter.
With the current hit streaming series, The Chosen, Dallas Jenkins and company look to develop those very aspects of Jesus of Nazareth. Through the eyes of the apostles, viewers are introduced to Jesus not as a mystic, but as a living, breathing, relatable human being — as a teacher, yes, but also a friend.
Personal without Personality. If my Christian upbringing were an ice cream, it would look a lot like that midwestern staple known as “Superman” — a multitude of flavors all swirled together. On one hand, there were the fundamental Baptists (the kind who can redefine your perceptions of what a “fundamentalist” is); on the other, there were the hand-raising, tongues-speaking charismatics of all stripes. I knew other kids who fell anywhere and everywhere on the spectrum between. But one thing on which everyone seemed to agree was that Christianity “is not about religion, it’s about relationship.”
Even with what, for many, is considered a terminal degree in Christian theology, I have always struggled to understand exactly what one means by this cliché. I suppose the closest biblical analogue one can find is the famous “mutual indwelling” passage of John 17, but even then what Jesus prays for here is more about the glorification of those who believe that the Father sent the Son, and the maintaining of the unity that is achieved through that mutual belief, than articulating the specific textures of what a “personal relationship with Jesus” is meant to look like in practical, day-to-day existence.
Anyone who has interacted with another human being for more than a few minutes can attest that relationships are messy business — especially personal relationships. Personality quirks can lead to amusement or friction, or both. People do things some find downright weird, while others might find them endearing. Getting to know someone “personally” requires time, effort, grace, and, I would argue, conversation and interaction that goes beyond customary small talk. It’s eye-to-eye, flesh-on-flesh, good ol’ fashioned in-person interaction. All of which makes a “personal relationship” with Jesus of Nazareth something that I find remarkably difficult to achieve for obvious reasons.
Please, do not ask me to describe the man physically. I can hazard a few guesses, but that’s all I’ve got — and even then, most of our interpretations of Jesus are filtered through the lens of artistic representations (I’m looking at you, Warner Sallman!). What about His personality? We can get a bit more detailed in that regard, thanks to the gospel accounts. But even then, Jesus remains a somewhat elusive and thinly drawn character.
Reflecting on the personality of Jesus as gleaned from the Gospels, Christian author John Koessler observes, “I had been reading through the gospels and had marveled over how little they seem to reveal about Jesus’ personality. They do not deny that Jesus had a personality. In fact, their emphasis on the reality of his humanity implies the opposite. Yet they tell us virtually nothing about the things we normally talk about when we describe what someone is like.”2
This hazy area is where The Chosen takes all its risks. And those risks pay off in spades. By giving Jesus and His disciples clear and discernable personalities, The Chosen rises above the traditional (some would say “wooden”) Christian adaptations of the gospel story to offer viewers a thoroughly engrossing series. Of course, this means creative licenses are taken when fleshing out the gospel characters.
Mary Magdalene (Elizabeth Tabish), for example, is presented as a tormented and self-destructive woman in desperate need of people who genuinely care for her. Matthew (Paras Patel) is portrayed as a high-functioning autistic man who was ostracized from his family, having been snapped up by Rome at an early age for his keen literary and mathematical skills. John (George H. Xanthis) and James (Shayan Sobhian; Kian Kavousi; Abe Martell) live up to their moniker “Sons of Thunder” as a fiery, abrasive duo. Simon the Zealot (Alaa Safi) is a regimented warrior, eager to be out from under the thumb of Rome, no matter the cost. But the most intriguing character to get a refined personality is, of course, Jesus (Jonathan Roumie) Himself.
The Chosen picks through the Gospels with a fine-toothed comb to find every trace of His personality and attempts to pull those thin threads into a cohesive whole. Consider, by way of example, Jesus’s interaction with the Pharisees in Matthew 12. The Pharisees see His disciples picking and eating heads of grain on the Sabbath and confront Him for breaking the Law of Moses. In His response, Jesus leads with, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry?” (Matt. 12:3 BSB). Theological points aside, look at the texture of Jesus’ response — asking Pharisees whether they have read about David! And this is not the only time in the Gospels He poses this question to the same group. Obviously, the Pharisees have read about David — they are the religious leaders of the day. The question demonstrates the man’s cutting sense of irony, itself a form of humor. And this sense of humor is on full display in The Chosen.
The Three-Dimensional Christ. The first time I saw Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), I had to slip and dig out the DVD from the bottom of the movie cabinet. I was ten years old when that film came out, and the “R” rating on the back of the case — which struck me as odd, since the film was supposed to be about Jesus — lingered tantalizingly in my mind. So, I waited for the grownups to go to bed, then popped the film into the DVD player. There are only two scenes in that movie that jumped out to me then and continue to haunt me. The first is, oddly, the final scene of the film: the grinding sound of the stone rolling away; the light falling across the linens; the somber look of acceptance and determination on Jim Caviezel’s face as the drums swell and he walks out of that tomb. There is no chorus of angels, no explosion of ethereal light, no white-robed Jesus — just sheer grit and fortitude and relief. Brilliant.
The other scene is one of complete creative license and occurs early in the film. Jesus the carpenter is building a tall table when Mary comes to fetch Him for dinner. It’s a scene that is barely two minutes long, but their interaction is full of humor, and culminates with Jesus playfully splashing Mary with the water He uses to wash His hands. The utter humanness of that interaction, the playfulness, the spontaneity, stuck out to me. It was the first time it had ever occurred to me that Jesus might actually know how to have fun.
In The Chosen, we meet a Jesus very similar to the one we see in that two minutes of Gibson’s film. Most portrayals of the man, from church plays to movies, tend to cast Him as muted and subdued, with sharp features and a piercing gaze — very much in line with those modern artistic depictions, mind you. By contrast, Roumie’s portrayal is rife with playfulness. His features are less sharp and more rounded, and even on the marketing material, Jesus is smiling and inviting. His eyes burn with intensity far less than they gleam with something more akin to sadness or, perhaps more accurately, shyness.
The ultimate result is a portrayal of Jesus that is actually quite believable. This is not to say that all other portrayals are faulty, because they certainly aren’t. However, where most other mainstream portrayals of Jesus lean into the ambiguity of His personality as depicted in the biblical canon (thereby making Him seem distant or aloof), The Chosen gives Him well-defined, multi-dimensional personality traits and marches forward with the story. The emphasis on Christ’s humanity will take more than a few viewers by surprise, and perhaps that is for the best, as it has quickly become the show’s defining feature. Writing for the Jesuit-published America magazine, Mary Grace Mangano asserts, “The show’s most important feature is that it portrays the characters as human — especially Jesus.”3
This unique approach to a familiar narrative has certainly won the show a number of admirers during the first two seasons, if not mainstream appeal. “Take it from a Christian and a critic with an aversion to Christian entertainment: The show is good,” writes Chris Deville for The Atlantic. “I’d stop short of calling The Chosen a prestige drama, but it looks and feels downright secular.”4 Word-of-mouth, it seems, is largely responsible for the show’s success, as The Chosen is crowdfunded and released via online streaming services. This has certainly allowed the creators no small measure of leeway in writing and producing the show they envision, free from the usual committees and constraints characteristic of larger networks, as evidenced in the bold but respectful re-envisioning of iconic historical characters.
Creativity in Context. Though the show certainly takes an earthier, plainer approach to its characters, the more biblically literate crowd should not write off The Chosen as a limp-wristed reach for popular appeal. In fact, many of the situations depicted in the Gospels are adapted here with careful attention. I stop short of saying that the show “recontextualizes” certain events, simply because so many previous gospel adaptations contain threadbare contextualization in the first place, likely as a result of trying to please viewers of every stripe.
Many well-meaning adaptations understand that what Jesus says is supposed to be profound, but ultimately miss the significance of what He is teaching within the cultural context of the first century. This frequently results in either heightened melodrama trying to achieve an emotional response, or a blank recitation of words written in red. The Chosen, however, seeks to ground these events and conversations in the personalities that the show itself has built for its characters, and within a loose recreation of the first-century cultural context.
The scene that most readily demonstrates this is Jesus’s conversation with the Pharisee, Nicodemus (Erick Avari). This is a story familiar to the average Christian and most secular audiences, due to the passage containing the oft-recited John 3:16. In The Chosen, the scene is given immediate context, thanks to Nicodemus, whom viewers have followed for multiple episodes prior to his fateful encounter with Christ. Rather than staging the scene as a showcase for Jesus to speak the words of John 3:16 into the camera, the scene is instead framed as a genuine conversation between the two of them. We understand what is at stake (and why) when Nicodemus seeks out Jesus by night. We empathize with his struggle to grasp Jesus’ words and what they mean for his life, his family, his reputation. We watch as Jesus patiently wrestles with articulating His point in a way Nicodemus can grasp. The extended dialogue scene plays out less like a rote recitation of well-known verses, and more like a fully fleshed out dialogue between two people inhabiting two very different worlds, broaching a topic from two very different perspectives.
This attention to context, both historical and immediate (for the characters), sets The Chosen apart from the usual Christian media fare. Of course, much of the immediate context is drawn from the show’s fictionalized backgrounds for the characters — for example, we never encounter Zohara, the wife of Nicodemus, in Scripture, but she plays a key role in the series. Yet these creative licenses, sure to provoke the ire of some, are what make The Chosen work as good contemporary television in ways that other adaptations, like History’s 2013 The Bible miniseries, simply cannot. Brett McCracken, writing for The Gospel Coalition, articulates the point well when he writes, “sometimes biblical screen adaptations are so concerned with pleasing everyone that they come across as lifeless. The Chosen understands that filling in these characters requires some speculation about the type of people they were, sketching out the details of their lives in a way that’s consistent with but goes beyond what’s said of them in Scripture.”5
Divine Mirth. If nothing else, The Chosen is worth viewing for Christians simply to see Jesus portrayed in a way that is achingly human. The show never shies away from His divinity but recognizes that this would be the most difficult characteristic of the man for His fellow humans to grasp. Rather than distance Him and render Him aloof as a result, the show leans into His human qualities to present a Christ who experiences real and complex human emotions; a Christ who is keenly aware of the fate that awaits Him but is nonetheless capable of enjoying Himself and others along the way.
One wonders if the writers of The Chosen are familiar with the great Christian thinker, G. K. Chesterton. At the end of his well-known work Orthodoxy, Chesterton wrote, “There was something that He [Jesus] covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon the earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.”6 With The Chosen, the veil is lifted, however slightly, on divine mirth to give us a glimpse of a Jesus who laughs. Personally, I find it to be a refreshing take that certainly makes me long for the day when faith is made sight and these particular aspects of Christ’s personality are no longer governed by speculation. The Chosen renders Jesus, His shyness, His passions, and His humor, in striking technicolor, and there is something revitalizing to faith in recognizing that the man is a man, and that includes all the complexity that comes with humanity. It makes me long for the day that the relationship can actually be personal.
Do I think that Jesus, like Van Helsing, would laugh at a funeral? No. But the realization that He is very much capable of it excites me — not because I want Him to, but simply because it means He can understand profoundly the man who would. —Cole Burgett
Cole Burgett is a recent seminary graduate, a graduate of Moody Bible Institute, and an author for the website Christ and Pop Culture.
- Bram Stoker, Dracula (1897; London: Wordsworth Editions, 2000), 145.
- John Koessler, “The Personality of Jesus,” A Stranger in the House of God, September 17, 2018, https://johnkoessler.com/2018/09/17/the-personality-of-jesus/.
- Mary Grace Mangano, “‘The Chosen’ Is the Jesus TV Show Your Very Catholic Aunt Keeps Telling You to Watch. And You Should,” America, July 2, 2021, https://www.americamagazine.org/arts-culture/2021/07/02/chosen-jesus-tv-series-240952.
- Chris DeVille, “Chrisitan America’s Must-See TV Show,” The Atlantic, June 27, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2021/06/the-chosen-jesus-tv-show/619306/.
- Brett McCracken, “4 Reasons Why ‘The Chosen’ Works,” The Gospel Coalition, May 23, 2020, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/four-reasons-chosen-works/.
- G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908; San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 168.