By Chris Byrd
NEW YORK (CNS) — More than 19,000 people invested a total of $10 million to become stakeholders in “The Chosen,” a multipart recounting of the life of Jesus. That made it, according to its producers, the largest crowdfunded media project of all time.
Originally released on the VidAngel streaming service between December 2017 and November of last year, the first season of the limited-series drama has, in response to the COVID-19 crisis, been made available again for free on VidAngel and across multiple other platforms, including YouTube and Facebook. It airs in eight one-hour episodes.
Dallas Jenkins (“The Resurrection of Gavin Stone”) created, directed and, along with Ryan Swanson and Tyler Thompson, co-wrote “The Chosen.” Jenkins’ father, Jerry, is the co-author of the “Left Behind” series of novels about the apocalyptic “rapture,” an event during which, according to its adherents, Christian believers will suddenly be snatched away from earth.
In addition to the fact the concept of the rapture rests on a reading of St. Paul’s writings rejected by Catholic theology, many Catholics regard these books, popular in some circles, as anti-Catholic for, among other reasons, their depiction of a fictional pope as the founder of a false religion.
Well-received by critics and audiences alike, “The Chosen” attempts to put a fresh spin on the ancient story of the Gospels by portraying Jesus through the prism of those who knew him. Yet to say that this requires some embellishment on what the New Testament tells us by way of added backstories, characters and dialogue is putting it mildly.
Typical of such additions is the figure of Lilith (Camila Carreon), a young girl introduced in the first episode who, in 2 B.C., is living in the town of Magdala on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Beset by bad dreams, Lilith is comforted by her father, Omar (Christopher Maleki).
He urges her to recite these soothing words from the 43rd chapter of Isaiah: “Fear not for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name. You are mine.”
Flash-forward 28 years to Capernaum. Now in her 30s, Lilith (Elizabeth Tabish) is so troubled that the Sanhedrin’s high priest, Nicodemus (Erick Avari), is called in to rid her of her demons. When this doesn’t work, she naturally grows even more desperate.
Lilith’s fortunes have reached their lowest ebb when, at the neighborhood tavern, a friendly stranger intervenes to rescue her. Quoting the same passage of Scripture her father used to, he calms her and gives her a new name to go along with her now-cured persona: Mary of Magdala. Her comforter is, of course, Jesus (Jonathan Roumie).
Luke’s Gospel does indeed recount how Jesus expelled Mary Magdalene’s demons. But the screenwriters have moved the story up to before the beginning of Christ’s public ministry.
Intrigued by Jesus’ power, Nicodemus visits Mary again. Explaining what happened to her, she says, “I was one way and now I’m completely different. And the thing that happened in between was him.”
But it will be a while before this version of the Redeemer unfolds his true purposes. In the third episode, Jesus is camping out, roughing it alone in the woods outside of Capernaum, when a young girl, Abigail (Reina Ozbay), discovers him. Soon, she’s bringing her friends around to hang out with him. Jesus comes across as their hip camp counselor.
He teaches the kids a folk song about people living in greater unity and, far more significantly, the words of the Lord’s Prayer. Then he recites the passage from Isaiah 61 about announcing “a year of favor from the Lord” that Christ employs — again, in Luke’s Gospel — to inaugurate his public life. There, however, the setting is the synagogue at Nazareth.
Given Christ’s special affinity for children, such an alteration in the narrative needn’t be considered sacrilegious tampering. Yet it does raise a fundamental question: Have the storytellers taken too many liberties with the sacred texts?
While the show is acceptable fare for adults and teens, only those viewers comfortable with the considerable artistic license Jenkins and his collaborators have granted themselves should choose “The Chosen.”
Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.