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The Chosen: The Christian-funded hit about Jesus taking the US by storm

Jonathan Roumie stars in Dallas Jenkins’s wildly successful hit, The Chosen, the multi-season series about Jesus of Nazareth that raised nearly $100m from Christian fans.

It’s one of the most successful crowdfunded entertainment projects ever, with its makers claiming that during four seasons of the series, viewer support raised nearly $100m in production expenses. But the chances are if you’re not a US Christian, you might never have heard of The Chosen, the first multi-season series about Jesus of Nazareth, told through the eyes of his disciples and followers, as well as his opponents – as initially it was only available on its own platform, or through other Christian outlets.

From a small pilot in 2017, created by Illinois-born filmmaker Dallas Jenkins, with $11m raised from donors, The Chosen has sprouted into a production that can be watched on its own app, and on streamers including Netflix and Amazon. Its makers claim the series has had 200 million unique viewers across its platforms since launching. Season four had red carpet premieres in Los Angeles and London this week, to be followed by a limited cinema release (previous seasons pulled in around $35m at the US box office). The actor who plays Jesus, Jonathan Roumie, has met the Pope, twice, to talk about the series and his portrayal of Jesus.

There haven’t been many reviews of the series by mainstream rather than religious publications. A critic for The Atlantic, who also declare themselves to be a Christian, wrote: “The show is good. I’d stop short of calling The Chosen a prestige drama, but it looks and feels downright secular.”

The series is, however, all based on the gospel accounts of Jesus’s life and ministry. In seasons one to three, he assembles his inner circle of disciples, delivers the so-called Sermon on the Mount, heals various people, including a woman who has been bleeding for 12 years, raises Jairus’s daughter from the dead, and walks on water (excerpts released on social media show how the filmmakers recreate that miracle.)

A modern take on the story of Jesus

Jesus of Nazareth has, of course, been portrayed many times on screen and stage, notably by Ted Neeley in 1973’s Jesus Christ Superstar and by Jim Caviezel in Mel Gibson’s ultra-violent but ultra-successful 2004 film, The Passion of the Christ. There was also a 1977 six-part TV mini-series, Jesus of Nazareth, made by Franco Zeffirelli. Martin Scorsese said recently that he’d finished another screenplay about Jesus; he also directed the controversial 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ, where Jesus contemplates an ordinary life with Mary Magdalene.

“The West Wing was inspirational for us because it’s about the presidency. The president is around whom these characters dwell, but he’s one of five or six characters that are focused on. We thought the thing that you get when you read the gospels is that Jesus is having this impact on so many people, but if you don’t know those people well, if you don’t see life through their eyes, then the impact is minimised.”

The fleshing out of characters has led to modern interpretations of dialogue and backstories in the show, perhaps most intriguingly seen in the character of one of the disciples, the gospel writer Matthew, who’s portrayed as autistic. But unlike some of its predecessors (such as Jesus of Nazareth’s blue-eyed Robert Powell), The Chosen has a diverse cast including actors who are of Jewish, Arab, Southeast Asian and North African descent. The story is rooted in Jewish life and customs of the time – also sometimes historically glossed over in the representations of Jesus. Jesus and his disciples are to be found in synagogues and celebrating Jewish festivals, such as Sukkot.

“There have been many Jesus movies and miniseries and I’ve seen almost all of them,” Dallas Jenkins tells BBC Culture. “But there’s never been a multi-season show where you can take your time to develop the stories, develop the characters, develop backstories, where you can really explore the humanity of these people. The reason we love long-form series is because we can invest in the characters, invest in the story development, and that’s never been done before in a Jesus project.

Jonathan Roumie, a devout Catholic himself, insists of Jesus: “You cannot strip away his Jewishness. It is imperative that all of what he did fulfilled the prophecies of Jewish culture of his time. So, I think to pretend it’s not there does him and the story a disservice.”

Jenkins says he hopes the tone of The Chosen is more human and humorous than has traditionally been the case for religious programming. “We like to say that we’re taking Jesus down from statues and stained-glass windows,” he explains.

“I think that we are removing the veil and the walls that we’ve sometimes put up between us and the authentic Jesus. Even though we have lots of stuff in the show that isn’t directly from scripture, I do believe we’re accurately capturing the character and intentions of Jesus in the gospels. And I do think that does contribute to people who don’t believe being able to appreciate the show. They just think: ‘Okay, this doesn’t feel so ominous and pious and religious that it’s trying to sell me something, it feels like a historical drama’. ”

But The Chosen does have evangelical intent as well; its creators have established a foundation that states it aims to maximise charitable giving to increase budgets for future seasons of the series, and to eventually subtitle and dub it into 600 languages. The series on The Chosen app and website is free to view, although there’s the option to donate.-BBC

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