You wouldn't know it from the Hollywood buzz machine, but on the first weekend of the month, in a limited release, the film Christmas with the Chosen: The Messengers raked in 8.45 million viewers and came in fifth at the box office. Originally scheduled for a limited three-day release, it has now been extended through Christmas, even while being made available via streaming.
For those who don't know the work, the short film is an offshoot of one of the most successful crowdfunded streaming projects in history, The Chosen, a retelling of the Gospels that focuses on the backstories of many of the major characters. Projected for seven seasons, with two already available online and a third set to begin filming shortly, crowdfunding has supported the $10 million to $18 million cost for each season.
The success of the streaming series and the Christmas film demonstrates the ongoing market draw for shows that celebrate, rather than ignore or denigrate, traditional faith. Yet many films in this subgenre offer nothing beyond predictable, polemical plotlines.
The original God's Not Dead, released in 2015, set the pattern, with predictable characters and story. The central conflict is between an overbearing atheist professor who is forcing students to sign a God is dead statement and a rebellious Christian student. The latest installment (God's Not Dead: We The People) is even more polemical as it shifts, following a strain of contemporary evangelicalism, in the direction of putting faith in the service of direct political advocacy.
The Chosen is different. Accompanied by Bible study-guides and created by Dallas Jenkins, whose father penned the Left Behind book series, the series and the film might seem to be more of the same. Yet, Jenkins repudiates the notion that this is a "stick-it-to-Hollywood thing," according to The Wall Street Journal. Inspired to become a film-maker after watching the Jack Nicholson film One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and who likens The Chosen to rich character-driven dramas like Friday Night Lights, Jenkins combines the best of Hollywood with the best traditional storytelling techniques.
The series and spinoff film pose the question what might it have been like to have encountered the person of Jesus in the course of ordinary daily life, to have lived, dined, traveled, laughed and mourned with him. And what might it have been like to begin to wonder about the strange capacities of knowing, healing and forgiving of this otherwise seemingly ordinary human being. The result is a captivating human drama invested with deep spiritual significance.
The Chosen series, whose episodes have been viewed more than 312 million times, is unique. It is sympathetic to faith in ways that Hollywood finds difficult. Yet in its openness to the best of Hollywood and in its avoidance of culture wars and political diatribes, it is atypical of faith-based films.
Its popularity is a good sign for our culture and for art. It reflects our exhaustion with politics and our longing for meaning that transcends ideological battles.
Especially in the faith-based audience, there is a hunger for depictions of faith that include, rather than rule out, doubt. In one episode, Peter — here portrayed as a desperate fisherman with a gambling problem and mounting debts — complains to God, on behalf of the Jewish people: "You can't decide whether we're chosen or not."
Viewers also want to see complex depictions of the struggle with evil in the depths of the human soul. While Hollywood continues with some regularity to produce fantastical and absurd stories of exorcism, the story of Mary Magdalene, in the inaugural episode of The Chosen, is a compelling and chilling account of what it might mean to be in the grip of evil. Her eventual encounter with Jesus fills her and the audience with surprise and awe.
The brilliance of The Chosen is to take the most influential story of all time and to make it fresh, not by altering it to suit contemporary fads, but by inviting us to inhabit the perspectives of Jesus' contemporaries. In its use of indirection and in its focus on surprise and wonder, The Chosen adopts both the method of the Gospels and the tools of genuine art. It thus opens a fresh path, one with lessons for both faith-based and mainstream Hollywood filmmaking.