As I gazed at the smiling, gentle face of Jonathan Roumie, I felt uneasy. This actor who portrays Jesus in ‘The Chosen’ was different to any other Jesus actor I had ever encountered. He had the right skin colour for a start. But more than that, his face somehow simultaneously conveyed a strength and kindness that attracted and drew me in. I felt the need to remind myself that he wasn’t Jesus, and that thought gave me pause.
At last, a screen interpretation of Jesus and his disciples that is believable! … Why then this niggling sense of disquiet?
Kudos to Jonathan Roumie for conveying these attributes of Jesus so well. Likewise, the other actors in ‘The Chosen’ do a wonderful job of convincingly portraying their characters. I have heard many Christians say how much they enjoy and relate to them, and I resonate with that. At last, here is a screen interpretation of the life and character of Jesus and his disciples that is believable!
Why then this niggling sense of disquiet?
Others have written about the merits of ‘The Chosen’—this article in particular is helpful—and I don’t dispute any of these. In fact, I agree that “if ‘The Chosen’ helps remind us of [the hope Jesus offers], or introduces it to some audiences for the first time, then that alone is reason for us to cheer its success and share it with others.”* Nevertheless, as I reflected on the unrest in my heart, I finally came to a conclusion. Notwithstanding its merits, this show presented a temptation for me.
The Power of the Senses
It is beyond dispute that audio visual media has a unique ability to evoke emotions and strong responses. So as I watched the first and second seasons of ‘The Chosen’, it is unsurprising that I felt moved in a new way by the stories of the disciples as they left their old lives to follow Jesus. Similarly, there are aspects of Jesus himself that evoked very strong responses in me as they were portrayed. For instance, there is a scene in episode 3 of season 2 where Jesus returns to camp late at night after spending the day healing hordes of the sick. The portrayal of Jesus as utterly exhausted from all his selfless service (especially contrasted with the disciples’ bickering) is heart wrenching. There is nothing like seeing pained facial expressions and body language or hearing a weary tone of voice, sighs and groans to produce sympathy for the plight of another. I found myself freshly drawn to Jesus and wanting to worship him for being willing to undergo this sort of simple suffering for our sake.
But it made me think. Was it really the true Jesus I was responding to? And if so, why did I respond so much more strongly to this scene than to the verses in God’s Word about the fatigue Jesus was subject to (like John 4:6, Mark 6:31, Luke 8:23 and Psalm 69:3)?
The first question is a tricky one to answer, and I’ll come back to it. The second one though, I think is simpler. An audio-visual representation of the concept of human fatigue does all the hard work for us. The producers have taken a reality that the Bible tells us of—that Jesus got tired—and demonstrated to our senses just what that might have looked like. Seeing it in this way makes it very real to us, and triggers an almost visceral response. It’s how our senses are designed to work.
The Challenge of Words
Words, on the other hand, present concepts to our minds rather than our senses. We read in John 4:6 “Jesus, wearied as he was from his journey, was sitting beside the well” and we need to think about that to work out what it means. If we want to stimulate a heart response, we have to imagine what being weary is like and then connect that to the awe-inspiring thought that the Creator of the universe condescended to experience that human frailty.
Our physical senses make it so much easier to respond to a depiction of Jesus on a screen.
Herein lies the risk. Our physical senses make it so much easier to respond with our hearts to a depiction of Jesus on a screen. Drawing forth a similar response from the written words of Scripture is significantly harder. This means it’s quite likely we’ll have a stronger response to someone’s audio-visual representation of Jesus rather than Jesus as he is presented to us in the Bible.
Responding to The True Jesus
Which brings me back to the first question I asked. When I respond to Jesus as portrayed in ‘The Chosen’, am I responding to the true Jesus? Well, maybe. To the degree my response relates to attributes of Jesus established by the Bible, I believe I am. The strength and kindness that I saw in Jonathan Roumie’s face did point me to those same qualities that appear in Jesus in Scripture. Likewise, the scene that depicts Jesus’ weariness helped to bring home the very biblical idea of his condescension to human frailty.
The trouble for me was, it wasn’t only working in that direction (pointing me to Scripture). What I found disturbing was the way that images from the show would start playing in my head when I read certain stories in the Bible. In some places, the show had taken over my imaginative response to the written word. My ability to meditate on the stories and form my own ideas had been seriously compromised. Indeed, the strong emotions I experienced in connection to the way ‘The Chosen’ interpreted them made part of me not even want to.
I’m sure it’s obvious that that presents a serious problem. Our response to Jesus should come most dominantly from reading his Word—since that’s the only completely trustworthy place we can go to find the true Jesus. So when I realised the propensity for my heart to be more strongly influenced by ‘The Chosen’ than Scripture, I had to make the decision to leave off watching it. The temptation was just too strong to dabble with.
Where Do You Fit?
What is the purpose of me writing about this then? I acknowledge it is my own experience, and I cannot presume that everyone else is the same. Perhaps, for those who have little or no knowledge of the biblical Jesus—or who have had their impressions of him distorted by other human traditions—‘The Chosen’ might be a helpful way back to the Jesus of Scripture. Perhaps others will be able to enjoy the beneficial aspects of the series without it dominating their imaginations when they come to the Bible.
Yet I’m sure there are others like me who will find it harder to move past those powerful images. After all, “no temptation has overtaken [me] except what is common to man” (1 Cor 10:13). So I want to pose some questions and a quote to my readers as a kind of litmus test to finish off.
Has watching the show helped you reflect deeply on the meaning of the Gospel accounts? Have you been able to maintain enough emotional distance from the show?
First, what impact has watching ‘The Chosen’ had on how you view Jesus as presented in the Bible? Has watching the show helped you reflect deeply on the meaning of the Gospel accounts for yourself? And second, have you been able to maintain enough emotional distance from the show to reject any interpretation that may be at odds with Scripture? To recognise that the speculative elements are exactly that?
I sincerely hope others are stronger than I am in this area. If you are, and my experience does not resonate with you, I am glad. “Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves.” (Romans 14:22)
But for those who aren’t, let me just say that it’s ok. Part of humility is acknowledging our weaknesses and adjusting our lives to compensate for them for the sake of love for Christ. This is known as the practice of watchfulness. As the Puritan Richard Rogers said, “[We] must be content to be dealt with like children, who are not allowed to handle or play with knives; or as the mentally insane, who are kept from occasions to hurt themselves.”** What a knife looks like probably varies for the individual; the point is, once we discover one for ourselves, wisdom dictates to put it back in the cupboard.
*Quoted from “4 Reasons Why ‘The Chosen’ Works”
** From Holy Helps for a Godly Life, p42