THE CHOSEN: Powerful TV series connects viewers with Jesus’ humanity
April 21, 2021
Olivier Coutant was initially skeptical about “The Chosen,” a multi-season television series depicting the life of Jesus, streaming on the internet.
The director of Youth Ministry at St. Wenceslaus Parish in Omaha wondered: “Is it just a nice thing that churchy people like to watch because they don’t know what good art looks like?” He noted that Christian filmmakers have good intentions, but the production value of “Jesus TV” is often poor.
Father Taylor Leffler, associate pastor at St. Wenceslaus, felt similarly at first, but decided to give “The Chosen” a try after a recommendation from a trusted friend.
“From the very first episode, I knew I was watching something different,” Father Leffler said.
For one thing, he said, the production quality matched that of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” The character development caught his attention as well.
“I think this series shows the humanity of Jesus more than any other artistic representation I’ve found,” Father Leffler said. “Viewers will experience Jesus laughing, telling jokes, camping, telling stories to kids, having a glass of wine at a wedding reception, etc.”
At the same time, he said, “The Chosen” doesn’t “dumb down” Jesus’ character but maintains the mystery of his divinity.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Father Leffler created a short video encouraging parishioners and friends to check out “The Chosen” as an alternative to Netflix. He said his video went viral on social media, and a member of the series’ primarily Protestant marketing team contacted him for assistance in reaching Catholics with the series.
Father Leffler later discovered that Jonathan Roumie – the actor who plays Jesus – is a faithful Catholic, and he subsequently interviewed Roumie on Spirit Catholic Radio.
Having watched Season 1 of “The Chosen” several times, Father Leffler has noticed the Gospel stories have “come alive” for him in a new way.
“I found that when I go to pray, I think immediately of some of these scenes in the show,” he said. “It helps me to get in touch with the humanity of many of these characters, which can be hard to do when you’re just reading the biblical text.”
CONNECTING WITH JESUS
Pat Dempsey, a candidate for the permanent diaconate at St. Columbkille Parish in Papillion, described a similar experience.
Due to his own “terrible imagination” and the scant details of early Palestinian life in the Gospels, Dempsey said he had struggled in the past to connect with Jesus in prayer.
“It’s very hard for me to have a relationship with someone I’ve never seen,” he said. After watching “The Chosen,” however, Dempsey said he can more easily visualize what Jesus might have looked like in a historical context.
“‘The Chosen’ has helped me breathe with the Gospels in a way that moves beyond an intellectual appreciation into something that also stirs my emotions,” he said.
Dempsey added that while the focus of the series is on Jesus, his understanding of the apostles and other biblical figures such as Mary Magdalene and Nicodemus has grown as well.
“These are real people with real struggles, and Jesus enters into their struggles,” he said. “It’s about meeting people where they are.”
In fact, Dempsey found “The Chosen” a helpful resource in reaching the candidates and catechumens in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) classes at St. Columbkille, where he is an RCIA catechist.
He said RCIA participants can sometimes be motivated to become Catholic for the sake of unity with their fiancé or spouse more than by a personal conversion. For these souls in particular, “The Chosen” is far more winsome than hours of teaching, he said.
“I think it has been a great evangelical tool,” Dempsey said, adding that the series has encouraged candidates to really dive into the Catholic faith instead of treating the sacraments like a box to check.
EXPERIENCING THE DRAMA
Deacon Subby Enzolera of St. Bernadette Parish in Bellevue coordinated an outdoor viewing of “The Chosen” last fall. The parish provided snacks such as popcorn, and even wine and cheese for the Wedding at Cana episode. Anywhere from 50 to 75 people brought chairs to watch weekly on the parish lawn.
Deacon Enzolera enjoyed “going a little bit outside our box” in planning an event during the COVID-19 pandemic. He said one of the families in attendance had recently enrolled their children in Parish Religious Education for the first time and appreciated the opportunity to connect with the community.
Deacon Enzolera especially appreciated the development of Nicodemus’ character throughout Season 1.
“Nicodemus so much wanted to be part of Jesus’ small group of apostles,” he said. “The movie depicts how hard that was for him at his age.”
“He was very highly regarded,” Deacon Enzolera said. “To just drop that and follow Jesus is something a lot of us can relate to as we struggle to do that in our lives.”
For Coutant, who offered presentations of “The Chosen” to youth at St. Wenceslaus last summer, this kind of personal reflection is key.
Following each episode, volunteers led small groups of teens in discussion using prompts such as: “Have you ever felt a moment of spiritual loneliness like Peter did when he was out fishing all night? What was that like?”
“St. Peter is so messy, so conflicted, so selfish, so afraid,” Coutant said. “We’re trying to form the students so they get to know the drama and the struggle.”
When he first heard about “The Chosen,” a question frequently arose in Coutant’s mind: “Is it actually evangelizing people, changing their opinion and moving them toward a relationship with Jesus Christ?”
Months later, Coutant can confidently answer with a resounding “yes.”
“It presents Jesus in such a fresh, authentic and faithful sort of way, and (the students are) changed,” he said. “They’re transformed by it.”
Coutant added that the youth weren’t the only ones impacted.
Kaitlyn Earl, a volunteer with St. Wenceslaus youth ministry, said that prior to viewing “The Chosen,” she tried to pray but never felt she knew how. However, the program’s portrayal of Jesus as a tangible person gave her confidence in approaching him, particularly in eucharistic adoration.
“I had never felt so much power sitting there in adoration and talking to God,” Earl said. “This series helped me realize that I don’t have to feel like I’m burdening him. It’s really helped me to connect and become closer to him.”