by John Ellis
After becoming a Christian, I struggled with the thought of whether my career was appropriate or not. Having grown up in strict fundamentalism, I wasn’t sure if Christians were allowed to be actors. After I would confide my dilemma to them, friends and family members would often encourage me to begin auditioning for Christian movies. This was in the early 2000s, and as bad as much of what’s produced by the Christian film industry is today, at that time the industry was laughably atrocious. However, the advice did get my creative juices flowing, and I began writing a TV series based on the life of David.
Availing myself of commentaries on 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles, I hunkered down and poured all of my creative energy into creating well-written, compelling scripts that were also faithful to the Bible and that didn’t unwittingly promote bad theology or even heresy. After completing three episodes, I asked a few people to read them and offer advice. A pastor of friend of mine expressed concern about dramatizing Bible stories. “How do you keep the characters from overshadowing God?” he asked.
I tried to dismiss his concern, but around the same time my pastor was encouraging me to read the Bible to find out who God is as opposed to self-centered ways that turn God’s Story into a book about me. As my understanding of the Bible grew, it became crystal clear that God really is the protagonist of the entire Bible. My pastor friend was right. I had to admit that I couldn’t write scripts based on the Bible without doing damage to the Bible’s objective. I still have the scripts I wrote (haven’t read them in years, though), but my short-lived foray into the world of Christian filmmaking was aborted before it ever really got started.
I share that anecdote because I thought about my never-to-be-produced TV series about King David while reading The Gospel Coalition’s interview with Christian filmmaker Dallas Jenkins.
Justin Taylor opens the interview by writing, “I recently caught up with the talented filmmaker Dallas Jenkins, who has just wrapped up shooting the first of several episodes of a show that I think readers will be interested in.”
Well, Justin Taylor was right, at least about me. I didn’t read very far into the interview before I scrolled down to watch the pilot episode (I encourage you to read the interview in its entirety as I eventually did). Although interested, I clicked “play” with a large dose of skepticism. As the end credits rolled, I was conflicted. A day later, I watched the pilot episode with my family. I did so because I believed that my family would enjoy it (they did) and that it would be a profitable use of our time (it was). But I also watched it again to see if a second viewing could help me make sense of my concerns and conflicting thoughts about The Chosen. After having reflected on it for a few days, I am ready to put my thoughts on paper while recommending that people watch the pilot episode of The Chosen but with two caveats.
To begin, the pilot episode is well produced. And not in a sliding-scale-because-the-Christian-film-industry-is-bad way. Dallas Jenkins, his production team, and the cast have created a well done, entertaining, and thought provoking pilot episode by the strictest of standards.
While not familiar with his previous work, Dallas Jenkins impresses me with his understanding of how to tell a story using the medium of TV. I love the pacing of the pilot episode. While watching, it never felt plodding but, at the same time, I was allowed to long for the next beat to happen. The blocking was motivated and made good use of the spaces used in the show. The script, appropriately sparse, used Bible verses effectively without making me feel like the verses were inserted simply for the sake of having Bible verses in the story. The acting was believable. However, on one level, that’s easy for professional actors. More importantly, I cared about the characters. That’s partly a product of the script and partly a product of the work of the actors. Unlike many Christian film and TV projects, the score wasn’t ubiquitously distracting. In the pilot episode for The Chosen, Jenkins uses music to great effect to underscore the thematic emotion of the scenes.
There were a couple of standout moments in the episode. Among other great moments, watching the shepherds’ responses to the Angels’ message brought tears to my eyes as I contemplated the wonderful gravity of the moment. However, it was the moment when the Angels appeared to the shepherds that I want to highlight.
I’m not sure if it was a choice born out of aesthetics or budgetary considerations, but Dallas Jenkins made the correct choice with that moment. Without giving too much away (I hope), his choice as a filmmaker allows the viewer to feel the impact of the moment but without becoming distracted by things that humans, frankly, are unable to adequately express in human terms. Kudos to Jenkins for trusting the story and the viewer and for not overtelling.
The pilot episode of The Chosen is well-worth your time. Not only does it succeed as compelling TV, but it succeeds on a theological level, too. At the episode’s conclusion, you will be left giving thanks and praise to God for sending His Son into the world to save His people from their sins.
However, with my praise aside, I need to add two caveats to my recommendation.
I’ve only seen one episode of The Chosen, and with that episode Dallas Jenkins has accomplished what I felt incapable of accomplishing with my now discarded TV series about the life of David. As interesting and compelling as the episode’s characters are, Jenkins doesn’t allow them to distract from the most important part of the story. Front and center, the viewer is compelled to consider the eternal weight of the birth of Christ. But, while I applaud Dallas Jenkins for this artistic feat with the pilot episode, I must confess to a little skepticism that he will be able to sustain the focus on the Bible’s protagonist in subsequent episodes. To be clear, because I’m a fan of the pilot episode, I’m hoping that I’m wrong and am rooting for Dallas Jenkins’ success.
I also want to add Jenkins’ closing words to Justin Taylor to help balance out my first caveat. In response to Taylor’s asking Jenkins who readers can pray for him and the project, Jenkins replies, “Pray that we remain humbled and broken throughout this project so that we are letting God tell his story and not getting in the way. I don’t want my own bias or vision to impede what he’s doing.”
My second caveat involves the use of a piece of the cloth in which the baby Jesus was wrapped. Once again, I don’t want to give anything away, but the way the piece of cloth was used makes me fearful that Jenkins is steering into the Gnostic (heretical) book called Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Like my first caveat, I pray that I’m wrong. But, until I watch the second episode (or I’m told or read otherwise), I will remain slightly fearful that The Chosen‘s source material includes a Gnostic book.
With the two caveats out of the way, I do urge you to watch the pilot episode of The Chosen. It’s an enjoyable, thought-provoking, and praise-inducing way to spend some time this Christmas season. It’s also an entertaining and well-done way to confront your unsaved friends and family members with the true meaning of Christmas.
(You can watch the pilot episode of The Chosen by clicking here.)