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‘The Chosen’: TV series as prayer

As a child of the ‘60s and ‘70s, I grew up with my share of interesting entertainment options when it came to exploring the life of Jesus. I performed songs from “Godspell” with the folk group at St. Aedan’s parish in Pearl River. I saw Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway with my parish CYO friends. I was a devoted fan of the annual airing of the multi-part TV series “Jesus of Nazareth,” so much so that I later owned my own copy of that series so I could watch it every Lent. So, when I started hearing about a new Jesus series called “The Chosen,” I didn’t pay much attention. What could this latest take on Jesus’ life have to say that all the other shows and movies hadn’t already said through drama, song and sometimes straight up kitsch?

I ignored the hype, until I led a retreat weekend in Baltimore and kept hearing about “The Chosen”—which is a completely crowd-sourced series available to viewers for free through an app—from people of all ages and backgrounds. I knew I had to give at least the first episode a chance, and, boy, am I glad I did. Last night, when my husband and I finished the eighth and final episode of season two, I felt mild panic rising as I said, “What am I going to do without my Jesus show until a new season is released?!?” It’s that good.

There is a beauty to this series that takes the things we know by heart about the life of Jesus and his followers and attempts to flesh them out—all with reverence, respect and a touch of humor. The Apostles and women disciples have such depth of character and are portrayed with storylines that make us imagine them as so much more than the fleeting glimpses we get in Scripture. From Peter’s sometimes-abrasive and aggressive personality that sets him up as the obvious leader, to Matthew’s savant-level ability with details and numbers that caused him to take on the hated role as tax collector before being called by Jesus, to Mary Magdalene’s ongoing struggles not with the demons that Jesus cast out of her but with her feelings of unworthiness, it’s impossible not to identify with these new versions of the old characters; they feel so familiar and beloved. And Jesus, played by Jonathan Roumie, perfectly portrays the very human Son of God who prays and laughs, forgives and commands.

I had tears running down my face when the paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-13) could not simply say Yes to Jesus when he asks quite simply: “Do you want to be healed?” It was not just the power of the acting in that scene, but the depth of that Scripture passage come to life that brought on the emotions. How often does Jesus ask simple things of us and rather than simply say, “Yes, Lord,” we make excuses and cast blame and do anything we can to avoid the obvious.

What Scripture is to Lectio Divina, “The Chosen” is to Entertainment Divina, if there was such a thing. Maybe now there is. Watching this series is an opportunity to turn off the news and visual junk food that fills our screens and our heads and dive deep into our faith in an entirely new way. It feels very Ignatian, as though the creators of this show sat with Scripture and truly imagined themselves in the scenes and then took those imaginings to the screen and handed it to the rest of us as a beautiful gift, one that’s worth unwrapping and savoring.

To view trailers, download the app, or get more information about the series from Angel Studios, visit https://watch.angelstudios.com/thechosen.

This column originally appeared in the July 28, 2021, issue of Catholic New York.

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