Review
Culture
Film & TV
6 min read

When Jesus walked in Leicester Square

As the The Chosen’s latest series premieres, Natalie Garrett analyses the TV show’s appeal.

Natalie is the marketing coordinator for the Centre for Cultural Witness. She is an Anglican minister based in Gloucestershire and a trained actor.

A group of actors walk together at a film premiere
Jonathan Roumie, centre, with the cast of The Chosen.

So, I’ve met Jesus twice before. Over 20 years ago, I joined the cast of The Life of Christ at Wintershall, the epic outdoor drama experience that takes you through the story of Jesus’ life (and it’s still going strong). As well as being Crowd Person 176, with glorified tea towel on head, I was cast as the bride at the wedding at Cana. Apart from Jesus, the rest of the cast were local, normal people (as in not professional actors) and I rather shyly attended the first rehearsal knowing no-one. I had been sitting on my own for a bit when Jesus walked in and caught my eye. He walked straight over to me and shook my hand, “You must be Natalie,” he said. For just a moment, I forgot that he was an actor and I thought, “You really are Jesus, you know me by name!” But then I remembered that I was the only new addition to the cast, and he was just a really nice guy welcoming me to the company.  

Some eight or so years later, I was involved with the Oxford Passion, a Passion play written for and produced by Creation Theatre company in Oxford. I helped write the script and played the role of Mary Magdalene. The actor, Tom Peters, who played Jesus in that production was incredible. As an actor and as a Christian, it was an extraordinary experience, sharing some powerful scenes with Jesus. Each night for several weeks, I had to watch my beloved Christ being crucified all over again. I wept deeply, every night. 

Then fast forward to Monday 22 January 2024, and I’m at the cinema UK cinema Premiere of season four of The Chosen in London’s Leicester Square and I see Jesus walk the red carpet. Surreal.  

So, there I was, in all my finery, lurking about, hoping to get a selfie with Jesus. 

In case you haven’t come across The Chosen, it’s a ground-breaking historical drama series. Created, directed, and co-written by filmmaker Dallas Jenkins, it is the first multi-season series about the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Primarily set in Judaea and Galilee in the first century, the series centres on Jesus and the different people who met and followed or otherwise interacted with him. The emphasis is on portraying the “authentic Jesus” through the point of view of the people who spent time with him, asking the question, what did it really look like to be a follower of Jesus? It has quickly become a highly successful crowdfunding project, with episodes viewed 700 million times and a big vision to reach a billion viewers by the end of season seven. 

Jonathan Roumie, who plays Jesus in The Chosen, says,

“Our fanbase was entirely Christian at first, but because of its popularity the show has attracted people from all faiths and no faith to the character of Jesus. We’re trying to really portray his message of love and tender mercy.” 

To raise awareness for the show, which can be streamed on Netflix and Amazon Prime (or for free on The Chosen app), season four was launched with a cinema release in Leicester Square. So, there I was, in all my finery, lurking about, hoping to get a selfie with Jesus. And I had to pinch myself. When did Jesus become a world-wide celebrity with people whooping and whistling and jostling for his attention? Well, it happened when he rode a donkey into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday, but not so much in the last 2,000 years, especially not in recent years in the West. 

It’s a huge risk creating a show when everyone knows how it ends. As we watch, even the early seasons, we know where the narrative arc is going. And yet, somehow, we still want to find out what happen. 

What have the creators of The Chosen got so right that millions of people tune in to binge watch the narrative of the gospel story?  

First up, Jesus laughs. A lot. He smiles and he hugs people. He is intensely personable and bloke next door-y (he’s not very good at ball games for one thing). But he also, when necessary, exerts huge personal authority. There is a confident, courageous, generous, humility to him that is hugely attractive. When the going gets tough, you think, he’d be good to have around. But also, he’s great company around the dinner table, telling stories and listening, too. 

Because of the way the story is told, through the eyes of those who knew Jesus, we get drawn into the personal dramas of the Twelve Disciples as well as a wider group, including several women. It even includes some Romans, who are clearly the “bad guys” but drawn equally plausibly as the other more sympathetic characters. In the lives of these people, we find the domestic reality of the human experience – working hard to put food on the table, relating to family members, suffering illness and even miscarriage. And then we see the difference that it makes to have the Son of God around. And that’s the hook, that’s what means the viewer becomes deeply invested in the show because it turns out the people in the Bible aren’t super spiritual giants, they are people just like you and me. They struggle with the day-to-day realities of life, they’re confused, and they mess up. And then they meet Jesus. 

It’s a huge risk creating a show when everyone knows how it ends. As we watch, even the early seasons, we know where the narrative arc is going. And yet, somehow, we still want to find out what happens. Because: we are invested in the stories of the Roman Centurion who looks as if he might come over to the light side; we’re keen to find out how Simon Peter and his wife get over their marital difficulties; we’re cheering for the success of the olive oil business set up by Zebedee (that’s James and John’s Dad) along with the help of some shrewd businesswomen who are also numbered amongst The Chosen

When I see a dramatized version of any book I’ve read, I usually get quite angry – “that’s not what he/she looks like! That’s not how they talk!” And dramatizing part of the bestselling book of all time, the four Gospels of the Bible, is quite a risky choice for a TV programme. But I recognise the Jesus in The Chosen as the Jesus I know and love. And there is no higher accolade I can give than that. 

The extraordinary success of the show is that millions of people have watched it and been drawn in. Millions of people have invested not just their time and viewing commitment, but also their own money. The show is entirely crowdfunded, and the show’s makers are deeply committed to building community around what they’re doing. Fans are invited to participate in the crowd scenes (being the 5,000 who get fed, for example) and there is almost as much behind-the-scenes content produced as the show itself. There’s a buzz around what they’re doing and it’s spreading way beyond the homes of a Christian fanbase. 

When Jonathan Roumie arrived for the season four premiere in Leicester Square, it was like a rock star had stepped out of the car, such was the reach and excitement around his portrayal of Jesus in The Chosen. For hundreds of years, Christian artists have used the creative arts at their disposal – stained glass windows, music, fine art – to try to convey the authentic Jesus to the world. In our time, TV programmes are the artform of greatest impact and the digital distribution now available to the makers of The Chosen affords unprecedented access to their material around the world, as they aim to dub it into 600 languages ensuring 95 per cent of people worldwide can watch it spoken in their native language. 

Is it too soon to suggest that The Chosen may be the Sistine Chapel of our age? It’s certainly too early to try guess the impact that this cultural phenomenon will have on the world’s faith journey. But if the reaction on the red carpet at Leicester Square last Monday night is anything to go by, Jesus seems to be making a comeback. 

  

Episodes 1&2 of season four of The Chosen are showing in UK cinemas from Thursday 1 February 2024 - with other episodes being released later in the month. This is the first time ever that a full season of a streaming TV show will be released exclusively in cinemas. 

Review
Culture
Music
1 min read

Beyoncé’s breaking barriers

Cowboy Carter sees the star crack her whip in the temple of the music industry.

Krish is a social entrepreneur partnering across civil society, faith communities, government and philanthropy, He founded The Sanctuary Foundation.

Side by side, two rodeo riders on horses trot toward the camera. One is Beyonce, the other a cowboy
Beyoncé at the Houston Rodeo.
Beyoncé.com

I sometimes wake up in a cold sweat with flashbacks of one terrible swimming lesson at school. I had accidentally forgotten to forget my kit, so was forced to face not only the freezing water, but the spouting of ignorant prejudice from my teacher.  

“Kandiah, you’re useless,” he said, as I heaved myself out of the pool at the end of the lesson. “Although I guess it’s not your fault you can’t float like the white children. Your bones are heavier. Look at the Olympics – you never see black and Asian swimmers, do you?” 

I opened and closed my mouth a few times, like the fish out of water I suppose I was, but inside I was seething.  

Being told I couldn’t do something made me all the more determined to do it. Back in I jumped.  

Last week, in another splash aimed at proving people wrong, Beyoncé’s magnificent album “Cowboy Carter” became the first album by a black woman to top the country charts. 

On her Instagram feed she said: “the criticisms I faced when I first entered this genre forced me to propel past the limitations that were put on me.” 

It was a brave move. Back in 2016, she had received heated and hate-filled reactions when she performed her song Daddy Issues at the 50th Country Music Association Awards with the country music group Chicks, formerly known as the Dixie Chicks. Many country music fans were outraged, calling it an act of cultural appropriation. One response on social media put it starkly: “SHE DOES NOT BELONG!!”.  

But as a Texan who had been brought up around country music, Beyoncé disagreed. She would spend the next five years planning her response. Cowboy Carter proves her country credentials beyond all doubt. It’s not only about the music. It also does three important things that show the world what can be done when faced with barriers of prejudice and ignorance. 

She honours the past

The album is clearly an act of tribute to trailblazing country artists before her. Beyoncé included notable guest appearances and feature tracks and took the unusual step of sending flowers to all who had inspired her.  

Beyoncé sent flowers to Mickey Guyton, the first black female artist to be nominated for a Grammy Award in the Country category. She also sent flowers to K. Michelle and featured Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer and Reyna Roberts on the Cowboy Carter track Blackbird, a song that Paul McCartney wrote as a response to the case of the Little Rock Nine, a group of African-American schoolchildren initially barred from attending a previously racially segregated school in Arkansas. It took the direct intervention of then President Dwight Eisenhower in 1957 to make it possible for these children to attend their school. She also included guest appearances from country music royalty Dolly Parton and Linda Martell, who both introduce songs on the album. Dolly’s introduction to Beyoncé’s reworking of Jolene is particularly poignant: “Hey Queen B it’s Dolly P”.  

The song Jolene sticks faithfully to the guitar riff from the original, but the words and the tone of this song are completely different. Dolly’s original Jolene was begging another woman not to take her man from her. But Beyoncé will have none of that. She is full of threat and menace:

“I’m warnin’ you, don’t come for my man… don’t take the chance because you think you can.”  

As Beyoncé pays her dues to the greats that have gone before, she also offers a very different picture. She can recognise the past, and yet not be imprisoned by it. She can appreciate those who have laid the foundations for a new era, unbound by cruel stereotypes.  

She challenges the present 

We don’t have to look far to see the way that western society is splintering. It is becoming harder to find common ground, harder to move from one tribe to another.  Beyoncé’s album is political in that it is deliberately breaking down a wall and smashing a division. She refuses to accept that there are no-go areas for people of colour. The album feels like Beyoncé’s famous baseball bat from Lemonade, but this time it isn’t smashing cars, but preconceptions and prejudices instead. 

There’s anger in this record. The first song is “American Requiem” and includes the line:  

“They used to say I spoke ‘too country’./ And the reaction came,/ said I wasn’t country ’nough / If that ain’t country / I don’t know what is?” 

Full of confidence and rage she asks over a bed of country music guitar chords:  

“Can you hear me? / Can you stand me?”  

Beyoncé does not disguise the ironies. The fresh anger and challenge weaves into classic forms and tropes of country music. The artist that some wanted to exclude from the genre tops the charts. The pop icon becomes an iconoclast.  The smashing of divisions makes way for the building of something new.   

She opens a door for the future

It is within living memory of many that black people were prohibited from sitting at the front of a public bus or drinking from the same water fountain as white people. Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter is not just a smash hit it is a smash down of the boundaries of genre that had excluded her and others. With this boundary smashed the opportunity is opened for others too.  

For example, there was a recent stand-out performance at the Grammy awards watched by millions around the world – the duet between the country star Luke Combs and Tracy Chapman. Luke, a young white man, is part of a new generation of country singers with a huge following. The legendary black artist Tracy Chapman recently turned 60. The joyful performance was particularly touching as the two of them looked genuinely delighted to be singing together. The video went viral and lead to a huge uplift in Chapman’s sales. The song Fast Car rocketed to the top of the charts some 36 years after it was first released.  
 
Cowboy Carter is Beyoncé using her voice and talent to push back against prejudice and push forward to a new era. She is cracking her whip in the temple of the music industry. She is driving out those who have commandeered the space that rightly belongs to those from any and all backgrounds.  She is righteously angry at the injustice. She is declaring that country music be reclaimed as a meeting place for all nations to enjoy.  

When Jesus unleashed the whip against the tables of the moneychangers in the temple who were excluding the non-Jews the space rightly belonged to, he fiercely declared: “My father’s house is to be a house of prayer for all the nations.” He was not only breaking the barriers of the past but ushering in a new future, a future where everyone could gather together before God on equal footing. Jesus would eventually die on a cross to ensure this free access to God was available to everyone - wherever they were from, whatever they had done and whatever they looked like.  

I welcome this album by Beyoncé in that spirit of challenging prejudices, breaking down barriers, and clearing the decks for a new future equally available to all.  

If only I could have whipped myself into shape, I believe I could have been the Cowboy Carter of the swimming world forty years ago.  

 

Beyoncé in her own words

“Ain’t got time to waste, I got art to make/ I got love to create on this holy night/ They won’t dim my light, all these years I fight.”  

16 Carriages 

“Say a prayer for what has been / We'll be the ones that purify our father's sins / American Requiem / Them old ideas (yeah) / Are buried here (yeah) / Amen (amen) 

 Amen