Editor’s Note: Kathryn Reklis (@kathrynreklis) is an associate professor of theology at Fordham University where she is also the co-director of the comparative literature program. She is the Screentime columnist for The Christian Century. The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
I am not the target demographic for “The Chosen,” a wildly popular, largely audience funded television drama that adapts the story of Jesus from the Christian Gospels. But I am definitely the target demographic of those who are constantly told by people in their lives that they should watch it — but, maybe remembering all the mediocre Christian pop culture of their youths, haven’t brought themselves to do it yet.
I’m a previously homeschooled teenager raised in the heart of evangelical counterculture in the 1980s who is now a cultural historian of modern Protestant Christianity, so it’s unsurprising that people from many corners of my life have insisted I watch. They say some version of the following: “the characters are just so complex and the story telling is so good. Not just Christian-good; really good.”
Given my profession, and since I also have strong opinions about what makes good TV (and a well-tuned appreciation for the category “Christian-good”), I finally gave in. And what I found is that “The Chosen” was a compelling form of storytelling that beautifully embodies a Christian imaginative world I recognized, but the question of whether it’s good TV will depend on whether viewers can think outside those imaginative horizons.
As I watched episodes from the three seasons currently available, I kept thinking how perfectly the techniques of multi-season, world-building television drama were suited for this show’s style of Christian imagination building. In this imaginative world, the world Jesus inhabited seems concrete and specific, the people he loved seem vulnerable and complex and the claims many Christians make about what his life and death mean seem reliable and realistic. The show doesn’t complicate contemporary evangelical orthodoxy as much as make that orthodoxy seem compellingly real.
“The Chosen” is the pinnacle of a style of biblical interpretation has been developing in American evangelicalism for more than a hundred years. Evangelicalism emerged in the 18th century, largely because forms of empirical reason and rational calculation — experienced by most people less in lofty philosophical debates and more in the economic transformations of modern colonial capitalism — seemed more real than the miracles of Jesus or the mystery of salvation. By the early 20th century, that anxiety had become the central concern for a large number of Christians: the worry that the story of Jesus might be more akin to a myth or a fable, that the miracles of Jesus and the revelation of God might be challenged by other standards of truth (like scientific empiricism or religious pluralism), that these stories don’t feel real the way gravity is real or your mortgage payment is real.
For many evangelicals, being a Christian meant committing to the reality of all these stories, to doubling down on “this really happened,” and then trying to live inside the stories as though they were true. As such, it’s hardly surprising that as the technology of entertainment evolved, so did the prevalence of evangelical popular media — from radio, films and books to Sunday School curricula. The ways of reading the Bible that these stories circulated has influenced many ordinary Christians, even if they don’t identify as “evangelical” on a survey.
Indeed, the influence of the evangelical imagination is most evident in Christian pop culture, which reaches millions of Christians across denominational and confessional adherence. Focus on the Family provides biblical advice on parenting, marriage and gender roles to millions of Christians, including Catholic, Orthodox and Mormon Christians who rarely identify as evangelical.
The children of those adults might watch “Veggie Tales,” a popular children’s cartoon that uses anthropomorphic vegetables to retell biblical stories as moral parables, with the hope of introducing a more comprehensive understanding of the Bible to follow. And the creator and director of “The Chosen,” Dallas Jenkins, is son of Jerry Jenkins, the co-author of the massively popular “Left Behind” book series, which may have single-handedly popularized an evangelical interpretation of biblical prophesies about the end of the world that continues to animate American culture wars. “Left Behind” was understood by its authors and many of its fervent readers as using the techniques of fiction to make an entire theological system seem real and compelling.
So, too, in “The Chosen,” it isn’t just Jesus who seems real but a whole scheme of interpreting Christianity as historically accurate, coherent and untroubled by historical contradiction or inconsistency. Buried in the show’s narrative arcs are answers to nagging questions that challenge the veracity of the Gospels — like why Luke’s story includes the virgin birth and the other gospels don’t or why John’s gospel starts so differently than the others. There are flashbacks to episodes in Hebrew scriptures that many Christians interpret as foretelling Jesus’s life, to make the whole arc of Christian salvation history seem like the self-evident unfolding of a good drama, like someone figuring out how all the houses are related on “Game of Thrones.”
Anyone who has inhabited the imaginative world of contemporary evangelical Christianity knows how intense the longing is — and the pressure — to believe that all of this really happened. Every youth pastor I had was trying to convince me and my peers that all that was asked of us — abstinence until marriage, obedience to our parents, ability to witness to our feckless peers, patience and faithfulness and humility — would come naturally if we could believe in our hearts with the certainty of those who had seen with their own eyes. I am sure that more than one of the friends from this period of my life recommended the show to me with the confidence that maybe this would be the thing that made it possible for me — doubtful and backslidden — to finally, really believe.
But is watching a TV show the same as being a real Christian in a way evangelical orthodoxy might recognize? This might be where the television medium exceeds the power of orthodoxy to marshal it. On the one hand, watching “The Chosen” is meant to replicate the transformations it dramatically portrays. On the other hand, that isn’t exactly how great TV works.
I asked some of my former and current students to watch the show and talk with me about it because most of them grew up outside the imaginative world of American evangelicalism and I was curious how they would respond. They all found things to like about the show. One of them said that Jesus seemed so much kinder and even radical in “The Chosen” than he ever imagined, given how close-minded and judgmental he assumes most Christians are. “It’s not as good as ‘Succession,’” my former student told me earnestly, “but it is way better than reading the Bible.” Somewhere between “Succession” and the Bible might not sound like high praise, but given her low expectations for both reading scripture and Christian pop culture, she meant it as a compliment.
But when I pressed her and other students on why they all felt the show wasn’t as good as other television they loved, it had little to do with production values or Christians making cheesy art. They all felt like the show wanted something from them. It is not like other shows don’t want to be liked, they said. But the best thing about great shows is that you can disagree about what they mean or debate their merits with others, or love and hate them at the same time. “I can tell this show really, really wants me to like it and it feels like there is something wrong with me if I don’t,” one of them summed up.
One of the most well-worn paths out of American evangelicalism is through art and literature because those experiences often generate uncertainty and ambiguity that is foreclosed by an imagination formed by steadfastness of belief. There are hints of this kind of unsettled interpretation within the show, like when Jesus challenges religious authorities and appears unpredictable, maybe even blasphemous.
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My students liked these moments best. Within the overarching imaginative world of the show, of course, all that is potentially radical or destabilizing is reaffirmed by the insistence that Jesus and his disciples knew he was the Son of God, which the show is making real to us. But if this really is “good TV” and not just “Christian good,” there is no definite way to control how viewers will interpret these characters or toward which religious authorities their own transformative revelations might be directed. Less confidence that this is how it really happened might open up space for something new to happen now.