‘The Chosen’ creator in Utah: What Latter-day Saints asked Dallas Jenkins about his popular show
By Trent Toone – March 3, 2022
LOGAN — The first audience question caught Dallas Jenkins a little off guard, but he recovered nicely as the crowd roared with laughter.
“When are you going to make the episode about Jesus coming to the Americas?”
Latter-day Saints believe that Jesus Christ visited the Americas after his death and resurrection in Jerusalem. Jenkins, the creator, writer, director and executive producer of “The Chosen” series, which features the life of Jesus, is an evangelical Christian. The filmmaker wasn’t offended by the question and even had a little fun with it.
“Not anytime soon,” Jenkins said with a playful grin, prompting more laughter from the crowd. “Just come right out of the gate with that question, would you?”
It was one of several humorous moments during an overall thoughtful and uplifting evening with Jenkins as he discussed his successful, faith-based show and its positive impact on the world in front of a full-capacity audience in the Russell/Wanless Performance Hall on the campus of Utah State University Wednesday. He received a standing ovation at the end of the night.
“It was motivational, inspiring, touching,” said Shannon Erickson, who attended the event with her husband Bryan. “I’m at a loss for words at how good it was.”
Jenkins said he didn’t have an agenda when he felt divine inspiration to begin creating “The Chosen,” but he has watched it bring people of different faiths and religions together in remarkable ways.
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“To me, one of the joys of this project is seeing the religious walls that come down when we’re focused on Jesus himself,” he said. “It’s just been so beautiful to watch.”
The hourlong event was sponsored by the Arrington Lecture Series, the religious studies program and the Logan LDS Institute of Religion and the Q&A session was moderated by Patrick Mason, the Leonard J. Arrington Chair of Mormon History and Culture.
Mason and others appreciated Jenkins’ unifying message during a time of hostility, arguments and conflict in the world.
“One of the main themes that I think emerged tonight was the ways that we can maybe drop our guard a little bit, that we can listen to other people, that we can be interested in what they care about, and we can come together around areas of shared interest,” Mason said. “And certainly the story of Jesus is hopefully one of those things that people can come around.”
Jenkins’ humility and religious convictions left an impression on Lyle Allen, a member of the Logan Institute faculty.
“I am so impressed with his sincerity and his sincere belief in Christianity. He follows what he believes his God … is telling him, and he’s not afraid, ashamed or embarrassed to say it,” Allen said. “That’s what impressed me the most.”
Several times during the Q&A, Jenkins referenced the New Testament story of the lad bringing five loaves and two fishes to Jesus to feed the 5,000. The filmmaker said his only goal is to provide an offering the Savior can use to bless many lives. The message moved Shannon Erickson, who took copious notes on her smartphone.
“It’s very impressive, his laser focus on what I can can bring to the table and putting this complete trust in God to magnify his efforts,” she said. “It’s very inspirational.”
Here are some highlights from the Q&A with Jenkins:
- The idea for “The Chosen” came in 2017 after Jenkins worked with Hollywood producers to make a film that “completely bombed” at the box office. It led him to make a short, low-budget film about the birth of Christ told from the perspective of a shepherd. The short film was used to generate more than $10 million and become one of the highest crowdfunded media projects in history. “I was coming off a huge career failure. The beginning of 2017 was the lower point of my career and one of the lowest moments of my life. In just a couple of hours, I went from a director with a very bright future to a director with no future. In that moment, I was met by God more than any other moment in my life. God laid it on my heart so strongly and so powerfully and so clearly and explicitly that I needed to give my career to him. If that meant not doing another movie, then that was OK. For the first time in my life, I was genuinely OK with never making another movie. God’s presence was so strong in that moment that I just knew all I want to do is be where he wants me to be.”
- Jenkins realized he loved exploring the stories of Jesus more deeply — the cultural context, historical context, the backstory. “All the things that we sometimes skip over. It feels like it’s such a human way into the story, and it worked. I resonated with it deeply and I thought, ‘A multiseason show gives you that time to really get to know the people who followed Jesus and get to know Jesus even better,’” he said. “That was the idea I had, but no one was lining up around the block to do a Jesus show, and certainly not with someone who had just had a massive career failure. Vid Angel (now Angel Studios) saw the short film and they were really moved by it. They said we definitely want to do your show and I got really excited. They said we want to raise money through crowdfunding and I got really depressed.”
- “I didn’t wake up thinking, ‘I’m going to do a show about Jesus and it’s going to be around the world, we’re going to raise the money with crowdfunding.’ I thought all those ideas are ridiculous. It’s just that I was in this ‘loaves and fishes’ position. Loaves and fishes, man, like, I’m just here to do what God has in front of me. I’m going to make sure that whatever I do provide, even if it doesn’t feel like five loaves and two fishes, it feels like half a loaf of bread and a mediocre fish, but I’m going to deliver it and if God deems it acceptable, then that’s when the transaction ends. That’s the truth that changed my life dramatically.”
- Jenkins was asked about his human portrayal of Jesus and why he created dialogue that isn’t found in the scriptures. The filmmaker said he didn’t feel like he was “putting words in Jesus’ mouth,” it’s actor Jonathan Roumie playing Jesus and both director and actor take that very seriously. “On one hand, it’s a heavy responsibility. On the other hand, the train has already left the station,” he said. “I’m just trying to honor God the best I can and portray his son as best I can.”
- Jenkins said he visited Magdala, Israel, the birthplace of Mary Magdalene, four years ago. He was standing in a synagogue that was discovered 20 years earlier and said it was a place Jesus had visited. He felt God’s presence and received a strong impression that told him “in several years, this show, ‘The Chosen,’ is going to be what many people consider the definitive portrayal of my people and I’m not going to let you screw it up.” Jenkins said he will trust that God will not let him “screw up” the show.
- In Season 1 of the show, Jesus tells Simon Peter to “Get used to different” after calling Matthew the tax collector to follow him. Jenkins said the line felt inspired and it has become a model for him and the show. “I think that’s what people are responding to with the show is not that the message is different, the gospel isn’t different, but they are seeing Jesus from a different perspective and it’s unblocking things, for me included, that I think have been in the way before,” Jenkins said.
- One funny moment came when Mason started to ask a question by saying Jesus wasn’t a Christian, he was a Jew. After a pause, Jenkins responded, “Yeah, I wondered where you were going with that. I’m an evangelical in Utah, is this a trick question? ‘Christ’ is in the word.”
- Jenkins was asked why Jesus’ baptism hasn’t been featured in the show. Is that a decision to avoid theological controversy? He said there are many things the show hasn’t portrayed or intends to portray, but it’s not to avoid offending someone. “A show has different needs than the Bible does,” Jenkins said. “Usually the scenes we portray are things that we believe are going to be relevant to the story we’re telling. I also have a hesitation toward scenes that are overtly supernatural in nature because I feel like the audience is watching them just to analyze how we did it.”
- Jenkins knew from the start that viewers from different faith traditions would have strong opinions about the portrayal of Jesus, those who worked on the show, and controversy would abound. “So early on, we made the decision to not care,” he said. “At that point, it was like whoever can help make this show better, and whoever can help bring the show to the world, and whoever can help portray Jesus and the apostles, and even his enemies in a way that honors Jesus and the Gospels is welcome, period. That has proven to be a phenomenal perspective and approach.”
- Jenkins has enjoyed his opportunity to work in Utah and feels welcome in the Beehive State. “It’s been so beautiful to be here in Utah. In many ways, every time I come to Utah, I feel like I’m kind of the token mascot evangelical,” he said, prompting laughter. “Everywhere I go, I get first of all, gratitude, which has been beautiful. Thank you for the show. Thank you for for the portrayal of Jesus. Then, who are you actually? What is this? Tell me about the evangelical side of things. It’s just been beautiful.”
- Jenkins said creating “The Chosen” has allowed him to meet Pope Francis and several leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “It’s just been such a unique and beautiful opportunity to talk about Jesus. That, to me, has been one of the best parts of my experience with the show.”
- Mason said that groups of Latter-day Saint and evangelical Christian students at Utah State have watched episodes of “The Chosen” together. “I think it’s fascinating when you see people gathering together, watching the show, and they are loving Jesus and agreeing on the portrayal of Jesus. That, as it says at the end of “Casablanca,” is the ‘beginning of a beautiful friendship,’” Jenkins said. “Friendship doesn’t always mean agreement. I don’t agree with everything, including some significant things with some of my LDS or Catholic partners on the show, but it’s a beautiful dialogue. I think any time we’re talking about Jesus and exploring the truth of the gospel of Jesus, and even our differences, I think it’s a good thing.”
- “The Chosen” has come about during a time of great religious divide and the rise of secularism in America — how has Jenkins thought about producing a series about Jesus in this context? “I didn’t have any agenda other than I feel like God is blessing us and I want to be part of it,” he said. “When I sit in front of the blank page for Season 3, the blank page doesn’t care about any of that. The blank page just wants me to make sure I continue the work I’ve been doing to honor God and the scriptures. The rest is going to have to be up to him. I love seeing (the response to the show), but I can’t be responsible for it because I’ve got too much work to do just to try to get this to be a watchable show.”
- If all goes well with production, Jenkins is hopeful that Season 3 of “The Chosen” will premiere later this year.
At the conclusion of the Q&A, Jenkins remained to greet and stand for photos with a long line of fans. He was in the hallway for more than an hour and a half, Mason said.
When it was her turn, Annicka Harris, 18, of North Logan, said she thanked the filmmaker for creating a show that has strengthened her relationship and testimony of Jesus Christ.