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Binging Jesus: Will a Crowd-Funded TV Show Spark the Next Great Revival?

Simon Peter (Shahar Isaac) and Andrew (Noah James) on the Sea of Galilee in The Chosen. Photo courtesy of VidAngel Studios.

by Sean Connolly

“Join me in spreading the news; together, let’s get the word out” (Psalm 34:3, MSG).

Mike Wacker (Servant Branch) estimated he’s told 45 people about it. A sister here in my branch (South Bend) said eight people told her about it in a week, arousing her curiosity and her skepticism. I tested it out on my kids, who begged for more of it. The Evansville missionaries are sharing it with their neighbors. One neighbor, a woman who struggles with drug addiction, reported that it helped her have her first-ever personal encounter with Jesus. Nancy Grams (Servant Branch), after witnessing amazing health improvements in her husband Louis (see their story here), remarked that she feels like she’s living right in the middle of it. So what is it?

A new TV series called The Chosen. A show that tells the old, old story in a fresh way, where Jesus is a minor character and the Gospels’ minor characters are the stars. The characters speak with Middle Eastern accents in an accessible, idiomatic English. “Get used to different,” Jesus declares to his disciples.

Watching The Chosen is like watching the unfolding of someone else’s Ignatian meditation, someone skilled at intuiting peoples’ motivations, someone with enough historical knowledge to know what a first-century Galilean fishing boat might actually have looked like.

Simon Peter, one of the main characters, is married to Eden, a woman just stubborn enough to live with that most stubborn of disciples. They argue about things: Simon’s business decisions and how to care for Eden’s mother.

Matthew the tax-collector is a numbers whiz who has trouble with relationships and appears to have a form of Asperger’s syndrome. His closest companions are a black dog and a towering, out of place Roman soldier.

Lilith lives in the first-century equivalent of a red-light district. She is possessed by demons and both oppressed and blessed by her memories. She doesn’t tell the men in her life her real name.

Jesus is there, too, but only at the margins of the other characters’ lives. They bump into him at the lakeshore or stumble on his campsite in the woods. One character meets him in a first-century equivalent of a dive bar. Jesus does miracles, but they don’t always draw big crowds. He also dresses his own wounds and lights fires by rubbing twigs together. Whether wittingly or not, the writers of The Chosen seem to have taken Ignatius’s advice in his Spiritual Exercises—to consider “how the divinity hides itself.”

The Chosen’s first season focuses on the early part of his ministry and has eight episodes that run from 30 to 59 minutes. You won’t find the show on Netflix or Amazon Prime. The easiest way to watch it is through a free app, also called “The Chosen.” The series is also available on the Internet and on DVD.

Nicodemus (Erick Avari) and Mary Magdalene (Elizabeth Tabish) in The Chosen. Photo courtesy of VidAngel Studios.

The show isn’t perfect—no show about Jesus could be. The sets and production values are humble. There is only one recognizable star, Erick Avari, who plays Nicodemus. Still, what they managed with a budget of about $1 million per episode, less than a tenth of what a serial drama like The Crown ($13 million) or Game of Thrones ($15 million) has to work with, is impressive. More importantly, the show has heart. Spirit! It appears to come from people who know what it’s like to have a life-changing encounter with God, to be at the end of your rope in the middle of an ordinary life that includes sickness and health, riches and poverty, weddings, death and taxes—all features of daily living that we share with our first century forebears.

***


Just as heart-ful as the show’s existence is the story of how it came about. I spoke with Dallas Jenkins, the creator and director of The Chosen, to get the lowdown. Jenkins is an evangelical Protestant by background. He’s also the son of Jerry Jenkins, the author of the Left Behind novels, and seems to have inherited the story-telling gift.

He starts the story of The Chosen in 2017, when he was working on a faith-based comedy called The Resurrection of Gavin Stone.

“I had an opportunity to make a movie with some of the biggest production companies in Hollywood. Everything came together really well. It was clear that God was behind it. The investors loved the movie and the plan was to do multiple movies for the next 10 years. I was a director with a very bright future. Then the movie bombed at the box office, and I immediately became a director with no future.”

The weekend when it became clear that Gavin Stone was a flop, Jenkins recalls crying and praying with his wife, then staying up into the wee hours of the morning working on a 15-page memo about everything that had gone wrong. During that same early morning he received a message on Facebook from someone he barely knew in another part of the world. “Remember, it’s not your job to feed the 5,000. Your job is to bring your bread and fish.” The message hit home.

“That realization is what allowed me to get to a place where I was open to whatever God had in front of me,” Jenkins said. “I wasn’t going to worry about the results or about trying to prove anything. I was just going to listen and obey and make sure that whatever loaves and fish I did have to offer were as healthy and as good as they could be.”

Jenkins returned to his church in the Chicago suburbs, where he had filmed video testimonials for Sunday services. There, a long way from the big Hollywood investors, he decided to make a short film for the church’s Christmas Eve service. His goal was to tell the story of Jesus’ birth from the standpoint of a lame and struggling shepherd. He filmed the story at a friend’s farm. In terms of his directing career, he says, “It was a step down for sure. It was humbling in many ways.” And yet, working on the project Jenkins got a new idea: an entire TV series that would tell the story of Jesus through the eyes of those who knew him.

A friend gave the 18-minute film he produced, dubbed “The Shepherd,” to executives at VidAngel, a company with a website that allows viewers to filter profanity, sex and violence from popular TV shows. VidAngel had been embroiled in lawsuits, and wanted to get involved in producing their own content. They suggested that Jenkins use “The Shepherd” as a pilot episode and turn to crowdfunding to raise the millions of dollars that would be needed to produce the series.

“I didn’t think crowdfunding was a good idea,” Jenkins told me. “I thought it would never work. The VidAngel executives said, ‘Let’s put the short film (“The Shepherd”) out on social media, and then at the end you can come on and say, “We want to do a show like this about Jesus, from different perspectives.”’”

Jenkins brought his loaves and fishes. God did the multiplication.

“The Shepherd” went viral. The Chosen’s website says “The Shepherd” has been seen by more than 20 million people around the world. The Chosen itself attracted more than $10 million in funding from 19,000 donors.

“Largest-Ever TV Crowdfunding Campaign,” blared the headline in Hollywood Reporter. The article described how Jenkins and his partners had offered equity to investors, selling shares for $1 each and promising not to receive any profits until investors had made “at least 120 percent on their investments.” The investors would be partial owners of The Chosen in perpetuity, a rare way of funding a media venture.

“We’re able to say to our investors and to our fans that we literally couldn’t do this without you,” Jenkins said. “That’s not just a platitude—it’s real.” Thousands of the investors’ names appear in the credits at the end of the season’s eighth episode.

The filming of the first season took place in Texas in 2018. The crew used a model village of Capernaum that had served as a tourist attraction, while relying on visual effects to fill in some details (like the miraculous catch of fish from Luke 5) that they couldn’t film directly.

***


I asked Jenkins how he and his team of writers developed their characters. He said they began with the Gospels and looked to identify personalities that would work well on a TV show that they hope will run for eight seasons.

“With Simon Peter, you’re looking at how temperamental he was and how passionate he was. He was brave about Christ and he also denied Christ, and so you think, that’s a really unique person, a bit of a rollercoaster ride of a personality. He’s also married. So what must it be like to be married to Simon? And if he was a little bit crazy after he met Christ, he must have been a little bit more crazy before he met Christ.”

The Simon Peter of The Chosen does have a fiery personality. He gets in fights and lands himself in deep trouble with the Romans after failing to pay his taxes. When he finally meets Jesus in the fourth episode, it’s clear that he needs a miracle, and it’s easy to understand why he would fall to his knees before Jesus and say, “I am a sinful man.”

Jesus (Jonathan Roumie) heals a leper in The Chosen. Photo courtesy of VidAngel Studios.

Jenkins said he is deliberate about a slow build up to bigger emotional moments. He didn’t want to make a show like others he’d seen that “go from miracle to miracle, Bible verse to Bible verse, and there’s no back story or connection to the people Jesus impacted.” A TV serial gives him time and freedom that a feature film director wouldn’t necessarily have.

He adds, “I remember when we were filming a scene between Simon and his wife, and they were arguing, and I realized, I’ve never seen a marital argument in a Bible show before. And then I realized, I’ve never seen a marriage portrayed in a Bible show before!”

For all the emphasis on humanizing, Jenkins credits God with inspiring some of his best lines and most creative ideas. He mentions a moment when Jesus winks at a character across a dinner table. Another time, after Simon has cast his fishing net into the sea, he looks back at Jesus with exasperation, and Jesus teases him a bit with his expression. “When people talk about how these moments impacted them or brought the stories to life in a way they’ve never experienced, I react by saying ‘Wow, that’s exactly how I reacted when God first gave that to me.’”

Jenkins said the show has drawn criticism from people who worry that audiences won’t be able to distinguish what’s in the Bible from fictionalized scenes. He responds, “All I can tell you is that we hear from literally hundreds of people daily and thousands of people overall who say, ‘This show has made me read Scripture more than I ever have. This show has made me love Jesus more than I ever have.’ ”

Some have criticized the show, but an audience Jenkins didn’t expect has welcomed it with open arms—children. “I’ve been shocked by how much kids love the show. I didn’t think the show was for kids because it has a kind of complicated plot. It moves quickly. Yet I hear every day from parents who say their kids as young as seven or eight years old want to watch every episode.” (Parents should be advised that the first episode contains some adult themes.)

Jenkins said that the writing for season two is underway and they hope to film it later this year, but a lot will depend on funding. VidAngel’s app gives viewers the chance to “pay it forward” by contributing funds that allow others to watch it for free and that will help finance the second season. According to The Chosen app, the show’s episodes have been viewed 7.1 million times and they’ve raised $1.2 million from 75,479 people toward their goal of $10 million for season two.

Jenkins’s own heart for the project is clear, and he wears it, if not on his sleeve, on the front of a grey sweatshirt with bright aquamarine letters that reads, “Binge Jesus.”

At the end of the day, it’s always going to be about drawing people closer to Christ and to the word of God. But I also think it’s a great thing if people have a show that they can binge-watch that speaks to their faith, because that’s really rare right now.”

Dallas Jenkins directing some of the younger actors. Photo courtesy of VidAngel Studios.

How to Watch 

1. To watch on a Smartphone or tablet, download “The Chosen” app from the Apple or Google Play app store.
2. To watch on a computer, Go to www.thechosen.tv. The first episode is available for free.
3. To watch on a TV, you’ll need a TV with an internet-connected device such as a Chromecast, Apple TV or Roku. First download the app to your smartphone or tablet, then use that app to broadcast the show to your TV.
4. DVDs are available at www.thechosen.tv/store.

Responses

  1. Mary Gaffney says:

    Brian and I love this program! It was refreshingly different, and a wonderful portrayal of Jesus! I could watch it over and over, and not get tired of it. We have told many people about it.

  2. Miriam Pena says:

    I have seen it three times and we, at our house, have recommend it to many. I am very impressed with the reactions people have had to this series. Many have said that it brings new insight to the humanity of Jesus.

  3. Tom Duddy Sr says:

    Mary and I purchased the DVD set after we first heard about it several months ago. We very much enjoyed it and immediately thought of people we'd like to share different episodes with. Our favorite is the wedding at Cana, which I've shared with my men's group, and showed to our 5 and 8 y/o grandsons. That's a great image of Jesus I want my grandchildren to get to know!

  4. Tom Shriver says:

    I love the series. We have it on DVD and I’ve watched each episode multiple times and get emotional every time. I tell everyone about it and how to get it for free on their devices. I also encourage others to support this effort as one of the best shows on the life of Christ I have ever seen. I have gained a much greater appreciation of the gospels, and of the apostles as real human beings living a transformed life and facing day-to-day challenges. Looking forward to season two!

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