The Chosen update: feeding the 5,000, creator Dallas Jenkins on the show’s unorthodox marketing campaign, and more!

The Chosen update: feeding the 5,000, creator Dallas Jenkins on the show’s unorthodox marketing campaign, and more! June 11, 2022

Time for an update on The Chosen!

The hit life-of-Jesus series has been shooting its third season in Texas for the past seven weeks, and this week they shot their biggest scene yet: the feeding of the 5,000, which happens to be the only miracle that appears in all four gospels — and in two of them, it kind of happens twice. (Mark and Matthew both report a feeding of the 4,000 in addition to the feeding of the 5,000.)

According to a press release, the scene was shot over four days with 12,000 extras, most of whom are fans of the series who have contributed to its crowd-funding. Producer Derral Eves hosted an 80-minute livestream from the set on Thursday:

To judge from some comments that are made in the video, it sounds like they shot the scene with 5,000 extras at a time, but if they used all 12,000 extras at the same time, that wouldn’t necessarily be inaccurate. All four gospels specify that there were 5,000 men at the event, and Matthew 14:21 adds the phrase “besides the women and children” — so the crowd was presumably much, much larger than people tend to think.

Also: in the livestream, someone mentions that the feeding of the 5,000 is taking place in the Decapolis, a group of ten Hellenistic cities that were mostly located in what is now modern-day Jordan. But while Jesus did minister in that region (e.g. Mark 5:1-20, 7:31-37), Luke’s gospel says the feeding of the 5,000 took place near Bethsaida (Luke 9:10-17), which was the hometown of the disciples Peter, Andrew, and Philip (John 1:44).

This isn’t the only crowd scene the producers have been working on. Season 2 ended with the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount — the image at the top of this post is actually from that scene — and it seems Season 3 will revisit that event, albeit with a smaller cast. Last week, The Chosen’s YouTube channel posted this behind-the-scenes video which said they had only about 100 extras for the new Sermon on the Mount scenes:

The Chosen co-writer/director Dallas Jenkins will be hosting another livestream Sunday at 5pm PST / 8pm EST. You can watch it here:

Meanwhile, The Chosen’s unorthodox marketing campaign — which started two months ago with billboards that were “defaced” by the Devil and his minions — is still ongoing, with new videos being posted to the YouTube channel TheChosenIsNotGood on a regular basis.

The social-media account created for “the Devil” and his anti-Chosen campaign has even posted snarky little comments during series creator Dallas Jenkins’ livestreamed interactions with the fans, such as this one from just over a week ago:

The controversy around the marketing campaign seems to have died down, but it raised a lot of issues that I find fascinating, wherever one stands on them. I had a chance to ask Jenkins some questions about those issues several weeks ago via e-mail, and he very graciously took time out from his work on Season 3 to reply to them.

Here is our brief exchange (note: unlike an interview transcript, where each question follows the previous answer, this e-mail includes answers that Dallas inserted into the middle of some of my questions, so some of my questions actually flow directly from the earlier questions and are not follow-ups to the answers that appear in-between):

PTC: Image-making: As you probably know, Christian opinions on visual depictions of Jesus — and how to treat those depictions — are all over the place. In the 8th century there was an “iconoclastic” movement that tried to destroy all images in church, and an Ecumenical Council ultimately decreed that images were not only permitted but basically mandatory (partly because images are a way of affirming that God had come to us as a physically embodied human being; we cannot see God the Father, but we can definitely see God the Son, so ultimately images of Jesus are an affirmation of the Incarnation) and that’s why Orthodox and Catholic Christians have images everywhere in our churches. But even there, you find some tension, as Catholics are now very open to statues whereas the Orthodox generally stick to painted icons. (This may or may not have something to do with how close statues can get to seeming like “graven images”.) And, in reaction to that, many Protestants — including Evangelicals — have rejected images altogether. (Robert Johnston, a Fuller Seminary prof and author of a major book on watching films as a Christian, once told me that the entire section of J.I. Packer’s Knowing God that deals with images — which basically rejects the role of images in Christian practice — needs to be removed from that book.) And now, with movies, there’s the added wrinkle that the church has always been at least somewhat distrustful of acting, for a variety of reasons. So there are all sorts of theological issues involved just in making a film or TV show about God-in-the-flesh and the saints etc.

DJ: For sure. I talk about this often. We evangelicals are very suspicious of a few things when it comes to art, some of which work in my favor and some that don’t. For example, the idea of imagination while reading Scripture, which was popularized from St. Ignatius in the Catholic Church, feels very wrong to evangelicals. So the idea of The Chosen taking Bible stories and expanding on them, and of me imagining new storylines or words for Jesus and the heroes of the faith, can be uncomfortable for many evangelicals. On the other hand, we tend to really dislike statues and stained glass windows that portray Jesus and the people from the gospels. Whether it’s because of our fear of “idolatry” (which we can take too far and reject good art) or because of our discomfort with the emotional distance that comes with a lot of religious art (I feel this way), we seek to really get up close and personal with the human Jesus. And I do believe that’s been one of the appeals of the show for people; it seems to take Jesus off the wall and into a relationship.

PTC: And then there’s the question of how we treat these images. More traditional Christians, like we Orthodox, kiss icons as a way of venerating the people who are represented in those icons; it’s similar to how you might kiss a photo of your wife or girlfriend (or how Jesus kisses a Torah scroll when he reads from it in the synagogue in Campus Crusade’s Jesus movie; I can’t remember if he kisses any scrolls when he goes to the synagogue in The Chosen). If you’ve read the book Silence or seen either of the movie versions, you might recall how the Japanese who torture the Jesuit missionaries try to force them to step on an icon of Jesus as a way of recanting their faith. And I think fans of The Chosen had a similar reaction to the “desecration” of the images on the billboards for your show.

DJ: Some did, sure. Although I do believe it was a small minority. I think most of our fans have a healthy understanding of the difference between Jesus and Jonathan and know that the “desecration” wasn’t of Jesus himself. That said, I do believe some of the visceral and intense reaction to the billboards was because of a passionate love of the show, and in many cases, they were defending the show, not necessarily Jesus himself. For most people, I think it was a fair response. They thought someone was doing something publicly harmful to a show they love, and that would be inappropriate for any show. But there were some people who I do believe overreacted because the show might hold too high a place in their hearts. To be very clear…that’s a minority of people. The overwhelming majority of Chosen fans appreciate it in a healthy way. But there are some who exalt it in a way that isn’t right-sized, and I think it’s good sometimes to have a reminder that this show isn’t the Bible, I’m a flawed human who they might not click with if they knew me, and that satire isn’t reality.

PTC: In fact, I would press even further and note that, while I have seen photos of Simon Peter and Mary Magdalene’s faces vandalized, I have not seen any photos of Jesus’ face being vandalized. (Other parts of the poster with Jesus’ face were vandalized, in the photo I saw, but not his face.)

DJ: There are some that vandalized Jonathan’s face.

PTC: And I wonder if the people behind the “reverse psychology” ad campaign realized that vandalizing his face might have been a step too far. And if so, I would be curious to know why it was a step too far. Why is it okay to vandalize Shahar Isaac’s face or Liz Tabish’s face but not Jonathan Roumie’s? I mean, he’s not really Jesus, he’s just an actor, right? Is it possible that there is still some residual sense that This Is Not How We Treat Sacred Images at work here?

DJ: There is, yes, and for better or worse, I am not comfortable with that perspective. Leaving aside my respectful disagreement with some of my brothers and sisters from other faith traditions about sacred images, I will die on this hill: Jonathan is not Jesus, our show is not sacred, and we will always take the work seriously but not ourselves. We get this response from some people when we post memes poking fun at our show, or when we design something that puts pictures of our cast in modern pop culture settings. “Jedi Jesus” comes to mind, where a picture of Jonathan in one of the scenes made him look like a Jedi. Some of our fans were horrified, and they’re horrified every time we do pop culture references like that. So why do we keep doing it? Well, besides the fact that most of our fans love it and laugh along with us, and we’re here to entertain among other things…we’re also making the continuous point that this is a TV show, and these are actors. That isn’t to minimize the impact or the subject matter, but it’s a very important point.

PTC: Separate from the “image” issues, I’m also intrigued by the whole “reverse psychology” thing, and what some might see as a pursuit of hipness, edginess, or whatever. Also what some might see as a tendency to be overly self-critical in Evangelical circles, or a tendency to distance oneself from the “Christian”, “Evangelical”, whatever labels. I’m sure there’s a better way to explain the idea that I’m aiming for here, but you get the idea, maybe. (The video also pushes in this direction with its emphasis that this isn’t like all those other Jesus movies…)

DJ: Yeah, I know what you’re saying. It’s become popular for faith-based filmmakers to distance themselves from the genre or even the church. That’s not me. I’m proud to be an evangelical, I don’t reject all faith-based media, and I don’t apologize for the fact that my work is explicitly “Christian.” That said, whenever you are marketing to different audiences, you have to overcome their resistance. And by far, the #1 resistance to our show has been the fear that it’s going to “stink” (I’ll use that word instead of the one we used in the ad). I can’t tell you how many people have said, “I didn’t watch it for a long time because I thought it would be awful.” Well, any good marketer will tell you it’s important to acknowledge a viewer’s biases or hesitations so that you can overcome them.

Also, to be frank…I do believe many depictions of Jesus have done more harm than good and have made Jesus out to be a boring and lifeless figure. So I don’t mind making fun of that or joking that the devil had something to do with it.

PTC: Then again, to come at this from the opposite angle, did the ad campaign go far enough? My wife said the “vandalism” was obviously not real because it didn’t involve any “dick pics”. (Her words, not mine.) To put this another way: if this “vandalism” was supposed to come from people who hated The Chosen, they didn’t seem to hate it very much.

DJ: I totally agree with you, which is one of the reasons I didn’t expect it to “fool” quite as many people as it did. I do understand why people who saw one billboard out of context would have been concerned. But overall, the billboards are a little ridiculous. Come and see “poopy butts”? “Binge Kale (eww)”? These were pretty light swings, in my opinion, and the defacing of the actors was laughable. I still laugh at the glasses and the hair and all that. The premise of the campaign is that the devil is actually pretty bad at what he’s doing, particularly social media, and that he’s got the maturity of a teenager.

PTC: And now that I think of it, this raises interesting questions about how far your series would go in depicting the kind of evil that Jesus and his disciples face, and how “realistic” it can be if it pulls its punches, so to speak.

DJ: Well, I think that’s a bit of a reach. The show itself is very different from the campaign, and we haven’t pulled any punches when it comes to demonic attacks, for example. Or the sin struggles of the followers of Jesus. Heck, we get criticized for going too far in that direction, sometimes, so now with you wondering if we’ll go far enough, it’s clear I’ll never please everyone! (I’m being lighthearted)

PTC: Then there are the implicit theological ideas in the video’s depiction of Hell. Yes, it’s a parody — obviously — but still, depicting demons ascending to Heaven caught me by surprise. (A friend was also struck by the idea that demons could descend to even lower levels of Hell, as that seemed very medieval-Catholic to him and not very Evangelical. To that, I would say that the DMV isn’t Heaven, and using one as a punchline doesn’t come across the same way as using the other as a punchline. To put this another way, the DMV gag was poking fun at the very idea of Different Levels Of Hell, which is more of a cultural/mythological thing, whereas the Heaven gag was… well, it was about Heaven! Which we believe in, right?) (This all sounds like I’m taking it terribly seriously. I’m more fascinated than anything else. But — since The Screwtape Letters has been brought up in discussions of this video — I have to say I don’t think it would have done the Heaven gag.)

DJ: At the risk of getting too granular, because most of this was just funny and not a serious representation of my theology of heaven and hell…we weren’t necessarily saying the “demon” was ascending to Heaven. What’s the level above hell in the traditional or mythological ideas of how this all works? Earth. But that’s about as much as I’m going to say about the theology or lack thereof in this depiction, because it really isn’t meant to give a serious perspective on this. Does the devil have horns? Wear a suit? Are there demon students? It’s all ludicrous. It’s close enough to our traditional concepts of hell that it resonates, but it’s ridiculous enough to not be taken too seriously.

To those who take issue with it because they don’t think this is a topic worth joking about or risking someone misinterpreting spiritual warfare, I get that. I just don’t agree, and I don’t think one person will newly believe something spiritually flawed because of this campaign.

PTC: I will confess that a part of me wondered what would happen if you ever did film a flashback to the Temptation scene, and the Jesus of your series had to deal with the Satan we see in the video. It’s kind of hard to imagine them existing in the same universe, isn’t it?

DJ: I sure hope so! This devil would NEVER exist in Chosen canon, I sure hope that’s obvious.

PTC: Then again, of course they do, given that the series exists as a series within the world of the video. But now that raises all sorts of questions like what the real Jesus would be like in the world of the video, since he wouldn’t have to be like the Jesus in the series that is discussed in the video…

DJ: Well yes, those are questions asked every day. Our show is just a small part of the universal discussion of God, Christianity, good vs. evil, what Jesus was actually like, etc.

PTC: And then there are the newsier elements of all this: What has the feedback from viewers been like?

DJ: The majority have been positive, but it’s probably gotten more negative feedback from Chosen fans than other things we’ve done, right up there with Jesus preparing for a sermon in Season 2. In our ranking of Chosen controversies among the actual fans, this is for sure on the Mt. Rushmore. But the majority really love it.

PTC: How do you know which viewers (or which percentage of the viewership) have been drawn to the show because of this campaign?

DJ: We can’t know for certain from numbers and technology alone, but anecdotally, we’re hearing from a very large number of people who outright say they’re now watching the show because of the campaign. We’re also hearing from plenty of people who are saying they couldn’t get their friends to watch it until this campaign came along. In the end, will the results justify the cost? Too early to tell, but so far, it’s doing what we hoped.

PTC: Does it appeal to non-Christians or primarily to Christians who are otherwise unimpressed with Christian pop culture?

DJ: Probably more the latter so far, but there’s some of the former for sure.

PTC: And what do you make of the fact that fans of the show are still discovering the “vandalized” billboard ads and feeling offended on behalf of the show, without realizing that it’s all part of an ad campaign — several days after you went public with a defense/explanation of the ad campaign?

DJ: We expected a little of that. Hopefully over time it all starts to make sense, especially when the billboards aren’t getting taken down. As I’ve publicly said, I wish I would have included our core fans from the beginning, because not only could I have spared them some frustration and in some cases embarrassment, we could have used their help in spreading the word about the campaign.

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