“Can I just get rid of the subterfuge and say that it’s Gaius?” said Ryan Swanson, appearing with fellow writer of the TV series The Chosen, Tyler Thompson, revealing some minor spoilers about the show’s Roman soldier character at a Jan. 31 Q&A at a cineplex in Oakville, Ont.
“Don’t worry, we’ve read the book,” someone called back amid the chorus of agreement from the audience.
That unnamed theatre-goer was right. Many people in the full-house audience were intimately familiar with the show’s source material (the gospels, as hardcore fans know them) and have been attending a weekly lecture (or sermon, as some call it) unpacking its key themes and applicability for much of their lives. It’s a level of fandom even some of pop culture’s biggest franchises—Marvel, Game of Thrones, Star Wars—can’t count on from their average fans.
The two writers of The Chosen had made the trip to Canada to appear at an advance screening of the first two episodes of their show’s fourth season. There, they took photos with fans and answered questions about their experiences and goals writing the show, ranging from their approach to writing sensitive scriptural material with reverence to the direction Season 4 will take.
“There’s a lot in the trailer and in the early contents to [suggest] it’s a dark season. But there’s also a lot of joy. There’s a lot of light coming through and it’s all mixed together,” said Thompson.
“We’re taking you to Jerusalem this season,” Swanson told a packed theatre. “So that’s how intense things get.”
New episodes of Season 4 will be showing in movie theatres throughout February ahead of their television broadcast and availability through the show’s dedicated streaming site and app.
As anyone knows who’s spent time on the embattled stretches of X (formerly known as Twitter) devoted to discussing movie and TV adaptations of pop culture staples, having a devoted fan base is a sure-fire way to attract minute scrutiny of the final product—not to mention arguments about how it could have been done better.
The Chosen’s creative team has taken one novel approach, however, that takes the edge off a lot of that controversy: they actually made a good show.
Among secular audiences and even among some Christian viewers, entertainment produced by Christian-focused production companies has had a less-than sterling reputation for quality over the past few decades. Sure, there have been high points—The Narnia movies and the ever-popular Veggie Tales come to mind as hits even among friends of mine who never willingly enter a church. But an undeniable air of embarrassment comes up in my social circles, both the atheist ones and the Christian ones, when the conversation comes to most Christian productions. While they must be appealing to some core demographic somewhere, there’s no mistaking the expectation that viewers are leery of sitting down to watch “one of those Christian movies” for fear clanging moralizing and unselfconscious sentimentalism will take top billing over anything so trivial as plot or relatable characters.
For further instructive insights, feel free to check out the Rotten Tomatoes pages for such films as Heaven is for Real (51% positive), Old Fashioned (17% positive) or God’s Not Dead (12% positive). Frequent criticisms include awkward characterization, lack of trust in viewers to grasp the heavy-handed messaging and a priority for sending that message over making a quality film.
That’s why it’s interesting that those are the areas in which The Chosen excels. In the first two episodes of Season 4 the show continues its streak of interesting writing, compelling characters and getting the occasional genuine laugh out of its audience.
Heads up: I’m about to recap several plot points that appear in the early episodes of Season 4. That said, many of them have already appeared in a book that came out nearly two millennia ago. So while the statute of limitations on calling them spoilers might be up, consider this your warning to skip ahead if you were hoping to go in fresh.
Season 4 picks up after the dramatic Season 3 depictions of the miracles of the loaves and fishes, and of Christ walking on water to open with his ministry growing in both fame and notoriety. Major plot points include the death of John the Baptizer, Jesus and his disciples’ mourning process and the declaration of disciple Simon’s new name and title, Peter. These are historical events recorded in the gospels, and as such will be familiar to long-time fans of Jesus and his supporting cast. But what The Chosen has done since its beginning episodes and continues to do as it enters its fourth season is depict them not as moments to tick off on a checklist but as things that are happening to real people who often don’t see them coming. Well, in fairness, one central character with a claim to supernatural foresight often does see them coming, but that’s used for interesting characterization in its own right.
So when Jesus is shown going off to mourn with the knowledge that elsewhere, even now, his beloved cousin John is facing an execution by Roman soldiers, the audience has occasion to consider aspects of his character for the first time—what it must be like to live with a dual nature that includes both supernatural knowledge and human frailty, for example. And when Peter is suddenly thrust into a position of special authority among his fellow disciples—prompting teasing, backbiting and outright bickering among the rest of the flock—the show cleverly accomplishes two goals at once.
First, it avoids the tendency for Christian productions to be saccharine. Its characters are not squeaky-clean ambassadors for Christian values. They’re working-class members of an occupied nation (although one theology student friend of mine frequently reminds me they act a little more like 21st-century people than first-century ones). They are by turns playful, broken, jealous and downright mean to one another in between their moments of appropriate awe and growing faith. Second, with the audience’s defences against being preached to thus batted aside, The Chosen invites its viewers to consider what it would be like to be ordinary people thrust into the middle of seemingly impossible biblical events.
The Rev. Emmanuel Palisoc, a pastor at Waverly Road Baptist Church in Toronto who attended the Jan 31 screening, told the Journal the same thing in a follow-up interview.
The message, he said, is expressed in a subtle way through relationship and characters, and through conversation rather than preaching—and it really helps relatability to depict the disciples as regular people.
“When you take a look at what it says in Acts about John and Peter, these were uneducated, ill-prepared men. They weren’t trained. And … I think we do need to see everyday people portraying these roles because Jesus chose everyday people … God doesn’t choose the qualified, he qualifies the chosen.”
That’s not to say there’s never a dull moment in the preceding seasons. The show sometimes halts for long stretches while characters unpack the implications of plot points for prophecy, culture and history in a way that feels more targeted at exposition than character work. But I’d be hard-pressed to name a moment in the opening episodes that felt like it dragged.
The exact demographics of The Chosen’s viewership are tricky to estimate. A survey commissioned by the show’s producers suggested that around 108 million people worldwide had seen at least part of the show. Whether that audience is made up entirely of longtime fans of the franchise (Christians, that is) or if they’re secular people drawn in remains an open question. One potentially illuminating statistic is that the 2023 season, which aired on the CW Network for the first time, drew in growing numbers leading up to a peak of around 637,000 viewers on its Christmas Eve finale. That shows people are tuning into a secular TV network for it as well as seeking it out on its dedicated streaming platform. But whether those viewers are Christians who are finding it on the CW or non-Christian viewers checking out a show on a network they would be watching anyway would be an interesting research question to follow up on.
If the show does manage the trick of becoming a hit outside of Christian audiences, it will be because it succeeds where so many Christian productions have failed. It’s not ashamed of being about Jesus or of being an entertaining show. It makes being fun to watch—and not just a delivery mechanism for a salvific message—a priority.
However, that priority may be the source of another challenge for The Chosen. As one member of the audience told me, some Christians have been taking aim at the show’s theological positions.
My theology student friend has questioned the amount of emphasis the show places on the personal significance to the disciples of moments like Christ walking on water or feeding the five thousand. He says he expected to see more emphasis on what they reveal about the relationship between God the Father and God the Son.
Still, what the show does excel at is making Christ feel like a real person the audience can relate to—and using the disciples’ reactions to let the viewer put themself in the shows of normal people witnessing miracles of earth-shaking importance. Palisoc argued it makes sense to leave the more rigorous theological questions for later— to be explored by those who become curious after just watching the show for fun.
“I don’t think it’s meant for a Christian audience. I think it’s really meant for the seeker or the curious, maybe even the cynic. I think a lot of criticism comes from Christians because they desire a certain accuracy. Christians for the most part would want to champion this, but there’s a lot of preferences they have about how it ought to be depicted,” said Palisoc.
Another attendee, Michael Taylor, a church music director with a background in theology, said he had seen harsh criticisms of the series online, to the effect that the creative team was trying to force one or another political or ideological message into its portrayal. But after hearing what Swanson had to say during the Q&A, he said any doubts he had were thoroughly put to rest.
“We don’t mess with the stories of the Bible,” Swanson had said. “They are behind glass. We try to portray them honestly and as they’re written word for word. The place where we play is in imagining the lives of the characters that those stories impact,” he said. “And we stay very stubbornly faithful to the words in that book.”
Both Taylor and Palisoc said that with source material as beloved, revered and closely studied as the Bible, any adaptation or elaboration is bound to run into criticism from fans who have their own interpretations, ideas and expectations about the meaning and details of the text.
And in the context of the gospels, “divisions between fans” are no small thing. Over the course of 2000 years of study, disagreement and doctrine about gospels whose texts make world-defining claims about the nature of creation, ethics and salvation, they have formed entire denominational schisms. not to mention a few deadly serious Christological heresies.
I don’t mean to trivialize these vital issues by framing them in the language of fan disputes. Questions about the nature and specifics of salvation deserve all the gravitas they’re treated with. But it might help to draw the parallel between the Chosen and other beloved works of storytelling as a way to illustrate the way a new adaptation of a beloved story can stir up existing tensions among its adherents.
Another thing both Palisoc and Taylor agreed on is that even when we disagree with some elements of the adaptation, much can be forgiven knowing the writers are doing their best to portray the content with humility and honesty. And with an adaptation of this quality, that’s well worth doing, said Taylor.
“I would say enjoy the movie for the positive things in it,” he added. “We live now in a world that relates to video and the arts.” There are some people who might never pick up a religious book written in the first century who might be much more interested in tuning in for a serialized drama, he said.
That fits with Thompson’s stated intentions for the latest season, too. “Bring a friend, even someone who has never seen the show,” he said at the Q&A. “I feel like it could stand alone even if you have the most cursory understanding of who Jesus is and what these stories are about.”
Likewise, Palisoc said, there’s value in having a product that makes the gospel story into something that’s not just important but also entertaining. “I think the first thing is to recognize [the show] is meant for entertainment. If they wanted to be better in terms of theology or doctrinal statements, they would have written a book,” he says. “But I think this is as great a depiction as you possibly could do in today’s modern world.”
As a lifelong Christian, but also as a fan of cinema and television storytelling, I have to say I agree. Every new iteration of a beloved story is going to start feuds on X and arguments about established canon. I’ve seen it happen with superheroes, Star Trek, The Lord of the Rings—you name it. What matters is whether the underlying product is worthy of discussion—whether it’s going to draw in new and lasting fans or disappear into obscurity when people realize there’s no substance behind the new one. And by that metric, I’d take the sincerity and reverence The Chosen’s creative team have shown over another cash grab Star Wars sequel any day, which is saying something in its own right. If you’d tracked me down in line for The Force Awakens and told me that Jesus of Nazareth would be depicted on screen again with nuance, affection and careful regard for the source material before Luke Skywalker was, I would have said you were nuts.