It sounds like the set-up to a bad joke. An Evangelical, a Catholic and a Jew walk into a Mormon recreation of first-century Jerusalem. But it's not too far from what Dallas Jenkins has achieved with a multiseason series about the life of Jesus, called The Chosen.
The Chosen is the most successful online series you have never heard of. Its first season raised more money than any crowd-funded entertainment project ever, $10 million from over 19,000 people. The second season equalled that. It has been released in more than 180 countries via a dedicated free app, thechosen.tv/app, and has been translated into 50 languages.
It has a 100 per cent fresh critic score and a 99 per cent audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, along with a 9.7 user rating on IMDb. When its second season launched on Easter Sunday, The Chosen app was briefly number four in the free app chart ratings, behind HBO Max, TikTok and Netflix, and ahead of Disney+ and Hulu. The app has registered 100,000,000 views for some parts of the series.
So, where do the Evangelical, Catholic, Jew and Mormon come into it? The series emerged from a staunchly Evangelical background. Dallas Jenkins, the writer and director, is the son of Jerry Jenkins, co-author of the phenomenally successful Left Behind series of novels which sold 63 million copies.
Put it this way: not even Fr Jack Hackett could say that Left Behind would be an ecumenical matter, given how jarring the theological worldview of the novels would be to Catholics and most mainstream Protestants. In contrast to his father, Dallas seems to be motivated by nothing except the desire to provide high-quality Christian programmes and has been touchingly anxious to consult with different denominations.
Replica of Jerusalem
The first series brought together as consultants a Catholic priest, Fr David Guffey of the Congregation of Holy Cross; an Evangelical New Testament scholar, Doug Huffman; and Rabbi Jason Sobel. The latter identifies as a Messianic Jew, that is, a Jew who accepts Jesus as Messiah.
The Mormon aspect is even more interesting. Many Evangelicals are offended that Latter Day Saints, as they prefer to be called, even call themselves Christian. Remember when it was a problem that Mitt Romney was a Latter Day Saint? (For at least some Republicans, it must provide a classic example of being careful what you wish for, I guess.)
The LDS Church built a replica of first-century Jerusalem in Utah. Non-LDS people have never been allowed to film there. Nonetheless, the doors were opened to Dallas Jenkins. Suddenly, this low-budget series had access to sets that many Hollywood movies could only dream of.
The ecumenism continues with the fact that Jesus is played by Jonathan Roumie, a Catholic who says that his portrayal has been inspired by Pope Francis's vision of mercy.
As Jesus, Roumie has exactly the kind of calm, humorous demeanour and ability to treat children as capable human beings that you would wish for
So, is it any good? I liked but was not overwhelmed by the first episode but, by the third episode, I was hooked. That episode features a natural leader, a little girl called Abigail (Reina Ozbay). She is smart enough to call her friends to go with her before she approaches the intriguing stranger camping outside her village, displaying a caution for which Jesus praises her.
As Jesus, Roumie has exactly the kind of calm, humorous demeanour and ability to treat children as capable human beings that you would wish for.
The incident is not biblical in the strict sense but neither does it contradict anything in the gospels. There is a long tradition in the church, notably associated with Ignatius of Loyola, of entering imaginatively into the gospels and The Chosen utilises that approach to the full.
Like any series, there are annoying notes. Quintus, a Roman centurion (Brandon Potter), has an American accent and shades of the bald sociopath trope. Even he is not without humanity, and Gaius (Kirk BR Woller), another Roman, is very nuanced. The portrayal of Mary (Liz Tabish) was quite lacking, I thought, but her character seems to have much more depth in the second series. The disciple Matthew (Paras Patel) has autistic traits, which at first I wondered about but he has become one of my favourite characters.
The Chosen used an innovative strategy called equity crowdfunding where production companies can offer a share of the profits to online investors. Viewers can also use an equally innovative “pay it forward” strategy, where they pay for strangers to view the series.
The production company has managed to do an end run around the Hollywood system which often displays little interest in and active contempt for Christian viewpoints
In short, the production company has managed to do an end run both around the Hollywood system and an entertainment industry which often displays little interest in and sometimes active contempt for Christian viewpoints.
Ultimately, the high production values and intelligent, surprising plot arcs focusing on the relatable, messy humanity of the women and men who chose to follow Jesus may prove to be even more revolutionary than the ability to side-step major corporations.
A cast of ethnically diverse and mostly unknown actors has created something extraordinary: a fresh, sometimes funny, often moving insight into why people were willing to sacrifice everything to follow a first-century preacher.