The Chosen - a Writer's POV

Jas Lonnquist (San Jose, California USA)

About the presenter

Jas Lonnquist is a writer with twenty-five years of credits in TV, film, video, and print. She and her husband Michael Klebig now work under the banner of 3031 Media, focusing on media and media technology for ministry outreach and spiritual growth. When not at their desks or in the studio, look for Mike and Jas hiking a Northern California trail, skiing, kayaking, or paddling SUPs. They particularly love spending time with their family.

My granddaughter Miley was seven years old when the film My Son My Savior was released. It's Jesus' life story told through his mother and Miley was eager to watch it with me because I wrote the screenplay. At first, as we watched, she peppered me with film-related questions. Then she grew quiet. At the poignant scene where Mary weeps at Jesus' feet as he is dying on the cross, Miley turned away to hide her own tears. I reached for her but she jumped up and stormed from the room angrily shouting "Grandma! You should have remodeled the ending!"

That, of course, was not an option. To Christian screenwriters, sharing accounts from the Bible is more than a job, it's a sacred trust. Film school training, entertainment industry knowledge, and personal ambition take a knee to the imperative "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth." (2 Tim 2:15) It's easier said than done in this difficult industry.

The writers of the acclaimed TV series The Chosen — Dallas Jenkins, Ryan Swanson, and Tyler Thompson — appear to welcome this and other tough challenges. In Season 3, Episode 5 (S3, E5), Simon Peter declares "Being revolutionary's fun!" Is he speaking for himself or for modern followers of Jesus — maybe three in particular?

A bit of revolutionary spirit probably helps with five intense pressures squeezing the writer's room. One, the writers need to correctly handle God's word. Two, they need to create a program that is entertaining, emotionally engaging, and attracts large audiences. Three, they need to work in an industry fraught with jealousy, greed, ego, and competition — an industry not known for pandering to Christians. Four, they need to be thick-skinned because it's just not possible to please or appease everyone. And five, they need financial backing, not just to launch a series but to continue it. People who give big money expect a particular outcome. Usually, the more money, the more fingerprints on the work.

Before the first episode, a disclaimer appears. It's interesting, not only because it informs the viewers, but because it creates a set of guidelines for the writers:

Similar language is used to describe their approach on the Angel Studios website:

So, to summarize the stated guidelines for the series:

      1. The Chosen will be based on true stories and details in the New Testament but viewers are encouraged to read the gospels for themselves.
      2. The writers are free to combine or condense timelines and transliterate names and language.
      3. The writers will use artistic license and imagination to "fill in the many blanks", create backstories, create some characters, and dialogue.
      4. When the writers do use artistic license, they will support the truth and intent of Scriptures and the additions and changes will be "feasible" considering the details Scripture provides.

In the world of television and film, the phrase "based on a true story" gives screenwriters significant leeway. For example, the film Lee Daniels' The Butler is "based on a true story" and blends fact and fiction. Eugene Allen ("Cecil Gaines" in the film) did, in fact, serve as White House butler to eight presidents as depicted. However, his wife was not an alcoholic who cheated with the neighbor as portrayed. The Allens had only one son, a man who served — but survived — Vietnam. There was no second son in the Black Panthers. Those and other facts were added or altered. The real goal of the film was not to tell Allen's story but to contrast his years as butler in the White House with the Civil Rights movement. The two story lines culminate in the election of Barak Obama.

In a similar vein, many of the story lines in The Chosen and nearly all characterizations are entirely invented by the writers to support the overarching story of Jesus' role in carrying out a plan for salvation and, through the invented back stories of his followers, to create modern parallels and avatars for viewers.

As soon as a writer begins scripting the Bible for a visual medium, interpretation and editorializing are unavoidable. Why? Most accounts in scripture are brief and spare. In the Bible, Mary Magdalene's demon possession is addressed in one sentence fragment in Luke 8 and one sentence in Mark 16:9 (now a footnote because it doesn't appear in the earliest manuscripts). Using these verses, an entire plot is built for the first episode "I Have Called You by Name" (S1, E1) and Mary's relapse in "Unlawful" (S2, E6).

"The Rock on Which it is Built" (S1, E4) is based on three gospel accounts relating the calling of Simon Peter, Andrew, and Zebedee's sons, James and John. Matthew's entire account is seven sentences. Mark's, five. The gospel of John doesn't include the account. Luke provides the most information — 13 sentences including Jesus instructing the men to cast their nets again, the huge catch, and Simon Peter falling to Jesus' feet and begging "Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man."

If screenwriters used only those verses, it wouldn't be enough for a 50-minute television episode. Enter artistic license: Screen Andrew is behind on taxes. Screen Matthew is unpopular not just because he's a tax collector but because he doesn't fit in. Screen Simon Peter is a gambler and con artist, punching it out in fixed fights and striking back alley deals with Romans.

Have the writers met their stated guidelines? For example, we know from the Bible that Simon Peter was sometimes impulsive and did rash things that required correction. Does this initial depiction of Peter as a brawling, petty con man meet the guideline of "feasible" and "true to scriptures"? It's subject to debate.

A bigger question, beyond the amount of artistic license, the feasibility, or even the ratio of artistic license to fact, is this: Will the audience discern the difference? Will viewers actually refer to the gospels as encouraged? The disclaimer that appears in the opening seconds of the first episode never appears again, not once in 24 hours of programming. Why? Shouldn't it appear on every episode?

As I binge-watched the first three seasons of The Chosen, I sometimes felt like Mary of Magdala, absorbed and moved to tears by the words and miracles of Jesus. Other times I felt like Shmuel, alerting like a cadaver dog on every potential theological error or perceived violation of the stated writers' guidelines. I took 12 pages of notes which included some questions and concerns. I disagree with the statement on the Angel Studios website that the series "takes artistic license to fill in the many blanks". In my opinion, the series is primarily fiction based on true events and its value lies in providing the viewers with fictionalized characters to relate to in their own search for Jesus or for something they don't even realize is missing from their lives. If my assessment is accurate, the reluctance to admit it may be because it's harder to fund.

As a writer and avid Bible-reader, I admired the writing team's imaginative character development. I was impressed with how skillfully the team wove and juxtaposed disparate Bible accounts, psalms, and prophecies into one fluid, engrossing narrative. I appreciated the production values and evocative performances of the actors — a welcome and refreshing treat in the world of faith films which often look like they had a production budget of $90. I sometimes wondered if details might be too "inside" or the exposition beyond the typical viewer's experience or interest. But then I'd see recorded testimonials from ordinary people (not erudite theologians) humbly saying the series drew them back to Jesus.

There are many things for screenwriters to learn from The Chosen. Here are twelve.

Six Things Screenwriters in General (Secular) Markets can Learn from The Chosen.

      1. There's an audience for moral stories or even just moral-inclusive material. That audience includes millions of intelligent, well-educated people hungry for programs with substance.
      2. Audiences want heroes as well as antiheroes. Instead of antiheroes, The Chosen is full of flawed heroes (and One without flaws) and it's a refreshing change from the current trend.
      3. The Chosen does a good job of naturally including people who are differently-abled and from different races and backgrounds. It doesn't feel self-conscious or mandated as some series do. People rally behind programs in which they feel realistically represented.
      4. The Chosen proves there's no need to swear at the audience. The language on our streaming service is so raw my husband and I call it "F-flix". It's not true that "everyone talks like that". When viewers retreat from hard language, they retreat from whatever message you're trying to share.
      5. A Hollywood cliché for writers is to pitch a project by saying "but what it's really about is redemption". The Chosen truly is about redemption. Redemption stories have power, emotional impact, and, based on the testimonials, for some, spiritual transformation.
      6. Finally, wherever you are, whatever you currently write, know that God really does love you and wants you to be His, just as screen Jesus says. (John 3:16) God bless you as you learn more.

Six Things Screenwriters in Faith Markets Can Learn from The Chosen

      1. There are many approaches to depicting Bible accounts and people (adaptations, reimagining, allegory, modernizations, fan fiction, blasphemy). Writer, be clear about the story you're telling and make sure your audience also understands what is fact and what is fiction.
      2. Characters in the Bible (as well as contemporary Christians) are real people with the same worries, sins, and struggles as anyone else. Don't be afraid to depict those struggles.
      3. Many faith-based projects, not just Bible-based, require alternate financing. Whatever the financing, it cannot influence your message when you're sharing God's word. The Chosen has faced criticism that financing and resources affiliated with the LDS (or a studio helmed by executives who are members of the LDS) influenced the show after its first season. Fuel is added to this criticism by certain script choices. Many have pointed out that screen Jesus seems to quote the Book of Mormon (S3, E3) when he says "I am the Law of Moses!" In the same episode, a rabbi demands "Are you claiming to be the Messiah or are you merely claiming to speak for the Lord as a prophet?" Screen Jesus answers "Yes" — an equivocation. He could be claiming to be either one. Writer, don't obscure truth in an attempt to keep everyone happy. Remember whose story you're telling and "correctly handle the word of truth."
      4. There are some advantages to being independent and working outside of the studio system. The Chosen raised start-up money through crowd funding. That's about as independent as you can get short of bankrolling a project yourself. During the 2023 Writers Guild of America strike, lasting May 2 through September 25 and SAG/AFTRA strike (in progress as of this writing), studio productions shut down. The Chosen was eligible to apply for an exemption to continue filming due to its independent status. They were granted the exemption and production resumed despite the strikes.
      5. TV offers a better opportunity than film when it comes to protecting your message. In film, the writer has no power or influence once the script is sold. The director is considered the author of the film and script changes are expected. This is particularly painful when you've written a faith film. Script changes made by others can hurt your reputation both as a writer and Christian. In television, the head writer is the show runner and has considerable power and responsibility. It's not easy work. I considered my time as head writer of a 26-episode series an "excruciating honor" but the sweet reward was greater script control.
      6. Finally, wherever you are, whatever you currently write, know that God really does love you. May He strengthen you in your work as you serve him.


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Deb Uecker (Professor Emeritus from Wisconsin Lutheran College ) 2023-10-17 7:45:26pm
I wish there were more bold film makers! There is an audience that hungers for such writing for film. The fully developed characters have given me an insight into the people that surrounded Jesus, Jesus himself….as never before. Sure there is quite a bit of artistic license…..but it rings true. I never say ‘ oh, that never happened’….or that is not what the Bible says…..I find it well researched and each episode it engaging and thoughtful.
Jas Lonnquist 2023-10-18 12:34:58am
Yes, definitely bold, well-researched, and engaging and I agree it rings true. My question, up for debate - could that be a problem for some? Because much of what rings true is fiction. What about the person new to the Bible? Could they feel confused or even betrayed when they learn, for example, Simon the Zealot was not the brother of the invalid Jesus helped at the pools (S2, E5)? Or when they learn that much of the episode, including the murder plot, was invented? That some parts were inspired by the Holy Spirit and others skillfully crafted in the writers’ room? I personally enjoyed the fictional story lines but how I wish every episode began with the words encouraging viewers to read the gospels and then provided the Bible texts in the end credits.

Thank you for commenting and for your dedication and work at WLC. May God continue to richly bless you in all you do.

Alex Schroeder (MLC) 2023-10-17 8:04:27pm
Dear Mrs. Lonnquist,

Your article addressed the same struggles I experienced when watching The Chosen. I was moved and entertained by the words and miracles of Jesus and the empathy I felt for the characters; however, I was set on edge by every potential theological error or creative liberty that may have gone too far. Your article helped me to reconcile with how I can enjoy The Chosen while being conscious of the details that “might be too ‘inside.’” I also enjoyed your input and understanding toward Christian writers in this difficult industry as a Christian writer yourself.

After reading your article, I have a question about your view on separating your personal doctrinal beliefs from your work to appeal to multiple people within Christianity. I read another (secular) article in that praises The Chosen’s writer for making it impossible to discern his doctrinal and theological positions. The article attributes part of the show’s popularity to its versatility within different denominations. If the show showed Catholic-leaning doctrine, I would be less inclined to watch it because I’m not Catholic, and I would miss out on its message. My question is: do you think its beneficial to leave out doctrinal disputes intentionally, so you can appeal to a broader audience and avoid conflict? I have difficulty with the aloof nature of The Chosen on some doctrinal points, so I was curious about your position as a Christian writer.

Thank you for contributing your work to this conference. I appreciated the insight I gained from your article and enjoyed the anecdote regarding your granddaughter. God’s blessings on your work in the future!
Jas Lonnquist 2023-10-18 12:38:59am
Thank you for your comments, Alex. You bring up an interesting point about alienating different denominations. First, I think the closer you can stay with Biblical and historical truth, the less controversy. Second, TV is primarily an entertainment medium and many fine points of doctrinal disagreement can be avoided simply because they don’t make good television! But there are also ways to write around a disputed point if your goal is to reach as many viewers as possible. An example - Acts 16:33 when the jailer and all his household are baptized by Paul and Silas. In your script, which members of the family do you choose to show? If you want to remain inclusive to the broadest audience, you might not show an infant which allows you to avoid that controversy. You might show an extreme close up of water running from a baptized person’s forehead without indicating if they were immersed or not. But, while we may be able to write around controversial points, it’s not always possible or beneficial. It’s been reported that many Catholics became upset with THE CHOSEN when Mary the mother of Jesus was not depicted according to their understanding of her. I’m sure the writers anticipated the controversy - they had a Catholic theologian on staff. But they presented Mary as human. Maybe even too human! I didn’t like it in S2, E3 when Mary tells her birth story and expresses that she and Joseph wondered if Jesus really was the Messiah. This, to me, was hard to believe since she’d been visited by an angel, named Jesus as instructed, and given glory to God in her Magnificat! So, yes, controversy may be unavoidable, necessary, and, sometimes, beneficial.

As for my own position as a writer, in faith or general markets, I would never agree to write something that I couldn’t ask God to bless. There’s no audience or paycheck big enough. I need Jesus. Jesus is where my peace and joy begin and end. I’m humbled, grateful, and excited when the gospel torch is put in my hand and do my utmost to never disrespect or drop it.

Alex, I see you’re a student at MLC. Thank you and God bless you in the important work ahead!

Rachel Moldstad 2023-10-18 6:43:01am
Thank you for your article. As a writer, it's often daunting even considering writing something Bible-based. I am wondering, do you have a favorite episode or scene as far as the writing goes? My favorite episodes are Season 3, episodes 4 and 5. Clean. Especially the beginning black and white montage with all the disciples going out to preach and heal.
Jas Lonnquist 2023-10-18 8:53:06am
Yes, many moving images in those episodes. As for the writing, I appreciated when story lines clicked such as in "Sons of Thunder" (S2, E1) when we realize the man screen James and John were sent to help is the attacker from the Biblical account of the good Samaritan. It's fiction not fact, possible not "feasible", but truth is shared in that forgiveness and redemption are available for all sinners, not just those we deem "worth" helping. I also appreciated "Jesus Loves the Little Children" (S1, E3). No big plot points, but a tender look at how Jesus interacts and makes time for the curious children who are naturally drawn to him. We know it to be true from scripture and the episode adds emotional impact. I think a strength of THE CHOSEN is that so many viewers find a character or backstory to which they connect.
Will Costin (MLC) 2023-10-18 3:04:24pm
Ms. Lonnquist,

As a future history teacher, I can understand the importance of retelling an account with accuracy. If I don’t inform my students according to the truth of an event or point them to sources that are faithful to what really happened, I’m hurting them and their education. In the same way, I am thankful that you mentioned how much more important it is to portray the Bible accurately. Inaccurate representations of Scripture in media may either push people away from the Bible or give them a faulty understanding of its truths, both of which are extremely harmful to the well-being of their souls. While media like The Chosen shouldn’t be what people turn to for the whole truth of Scripture, it may be something that draws them nearer to Christ and the Bible. You highlighted the importance of this task and just how essential it is to get it right, thanks for your work!

I thought your lists of things screenwriters could learn from The Chosen was interesting, especially for those in Faith Markets. Within your first bullet point, you addressed the writer, imploring them to make sure the line between fact and fiction is clear. I took this as something The Chosen didn’t do a great job of, so my question is this: How do you make that distinction for the viewer without interrupting the flow of the show or movie? I agree that a viewer of The Chosen needs to know what actually happened and what didn’t, but what might that look like?

Lastly, I would like to thank you for including the lists for General and Faith Markets. While many viewers, including myself, could tell that there was something different about The Chosen, it was difficult to put a finger on what it was. Having an experienced screenwriter analyze it helped tremendously. With your expertise, I was able to realize more about what made the show special, along with things the creators included that I never would have noticed or seen. Thanks for all the work you do and have done, it certainly doesn’t go unnoticed by those who wish to see the truths of Scripture put on the screen. God’s blessings as you continue to live for Him!
Jas Lonnquist 2023-10-19 11:22:19pm
Hi Will,
Thank you for reading and commenting. You asked how to make the distinction between fact and fiction without disrupting the show. I think the slate that appears for a few seconds at the beginning of Season 1, Episode 1 (mentioning that some story lines have been invented and urging viewers to read the gospels) ought to appear at the start of every episode. It’s not unprecedented to have a clarification - shows like Law and Order include an opening slate or narrator voice over to set viewer expectations. They also add a legal disclaimer when an “ripped from the headlines” story is presented. Even some reality show competitions acknowledge in the credits there may be producer intervention. Second, if the program is meant to be an evangelical tool, why not provide the specific scripture texts in the ending credits? In my opinion, these simple, no-cost changes would strengthen the show’s integrity. I went back and watched the opening of S1, E2 twice because I couldn’t believe the clarification was not there. I looked for it on each episode in the first three seasons but it never appears again.

Thank you, again, for checking in and may God richly bless you as you study for your important calling to teach!

Jas Lonnquist 2023-10-19 11:22:19pm
Hi Will,
Thank you for reading and commenting. You asked how to make the distinction between fact and fiction without disrupting the show. I think the slate that appears for a few seconds at the beginning of Season 1, Episode 1 (mentioning that some story lines have been invented and urging viewers to read the gospels) ought to appear at the start of every episode. It’s not unprecedented to have a clarification - shows like Law and Order include an opening slate or narrator voice over to set viewer expectations. They also add a legal disclaimer when an “ripped from the headlines” story is presented. Even some reality show competitions acknowledge in the credits there may be producer intervention. Second, if the program is meant to be an evangelical tool, why not provide the specific scripture texts in the ending credits? In my opinion, these simple, no-cost changes would strengthen the show’s integrity. I went back and watched the opening of S1, E2 twice because I couldn’t believe the clarification was not there. I looked for it on each episode in the first three seasons but it never appears again.

Thank you, again, for checking in and may God richly bless you as you study for your important calling to teach!

Makena Shobe (MLC) 2023-10-18 3:15:58pm
Ms. Lonnquist,

I appreciate your statement that “To Christian screenwriters, sharing accounts from the Bible is more than a job, it’s a sacred trust.” In a similar way, I was thankful to hear how the writers of The Chosen have seemingly taken an oath to stay true to God’s Word. I think this fidelity gives enormous credibility to the program but also reflects the responsibility to give their viewers the truest version of these Bible stories they can.

When reading your article, I paused at your statement, “But then I’d see recorded testimonials from ordinary people (not erudite theologians) humbly saying the series drew them back to Jesus.” It got me thinking about the effectiveness of this show in our outreach (as I’m sure you are also very interested in.) Do you think “The Chosen” would prove interesting and engaging to unbelievers, or is the primary audience probably limited to those who already have background knowledge and interest in Christianity? It's hard for me to imagine what the viewing experience would be like for someone outside the church, but it seems like an important issue to consider.

Thank you for using your unique view as a writer to share your thoughts on The Chosen and its potential for outreach. My prayer is that more writers take what you’ve said and apply that criteria to their own work. God’s blessings on your future endeavors.
Jas Lonnquist 2023-10-19 11:55:55pm
Hi Makena,
Yes, I agree the writers seem very sincere and passionate, not just in the scripts but in interviews they’ve provided to the press.

Your question is a good one - will The Chosen appeal to viewers who aren’t currently interested in Jesus? I don’t know that most would seek it out and there’s a lot of fact and history embedded into the show that could be baffling or odd to someone with no background in the Bible - throw away lines about Absalom and low-hanging branches or John the Baptist “your bug-eating friend” for example. It might help if a Bible-reader is there to provide the “Cliff notes”! But that doesn’t mean a person wouldn’t find the show, become engaged, and become interested in Jesus through watching. I think that actually happens very often in television and radio. My own mom learned about Jesus from a radio program when she was 13. (How I thank God for the unknown people who wrote, produced, and paid for it.) I think the very best scenario for people who don’t know Jesus would be a friend inviting them to watch and discuss together. I could also see The Chosen being used very successfully in a small group that began or ended with reading the scripture accounts. A small group would work better, I think, than a Sunday School class because the episodes are too long (most are about 50 minutes) to allow adequate time for reading and discussion.

Makena, thank you for your comments and I especially thank you for your prayer that my work might help others. That means more to me than you know. I pray the same for you.

God bless you!


Lily Zimpelmann (MLC) 2023-10-26 4:09:53pm
Dear Ms. Lonnquist,

When my family and I first began watching The Chosen, we were wary of what artistic licenses the writers may have taken throughout the series. As you admirably emphasized in your article, it is easy to “fill in the blanks” with a Bible story that is comprised of minimal verses (especially when looking to create quality/worthwhile episodes). I was particularly engaged by your emphasis on maintaining scriptural truths in Christian screenwriting. It is dangerous when writers become flippant with their “source” (the Bible) in the process of creating audience-engaging content, which may result in distorting a viewer’s perception of fundamental doctrinal truths.

After reading your article, I found myself more curious about your experiences as a Christian screenwriter. Regarding the difficult balance between effective writing and maintaining the purity of the Scripture, have you found a reliable process through which you can write entertaining Biblical narratives? I can imagine that it is a significant undertaking to accurately portray Jesus’ story with limited critical details. While God has provided us with sufficient information for the means of faith in his Word, for the sake of screenwriting, it proves difficult. I am curious about your personal process of writing about the Bible, and if this process has improved through constructive criticism on your work.

Thank you sincerely for your evident mindfulness of maintaining clear doctrine when writing. It is both refreshing and reassuring to see clear prioritization of God’s Word, and that writers are thinking critically about other Christian media that is put out. May God continue to bless your writing and allow the Holy Spirit to work in the hearts of the viewers.
Jas Lonnquist 2023-10-30 2:16:04pm
Hi Lily,
Thank you for reading and asking about my experience as a Christian screenwriter or, more accurately, a Christian who is a screenwriter. I clarify because the vast majority of my professional work has been for general (secular) markets. I’ve won awards for my original screenplays (comedy/dramas) which aren’t specifically faith films but are what I call faith inclusive – they’re heartfelt, funny stories that don’t exclude people of faith as many films do. Sadly, those scripts remain unproduced! Most of my produced credits (short films, TV shows, and hundreds of videos) are about complex, non-fiction topics (inventions, biographies, medical and scientific breakthroughs, technology) that are based on extensive research (with content experts) and delivered with humor and emotional impact. That’s my brand and it’s actually a very good fit for faith projects: I know and love the Bible and read it every day. I’ve had wonderful experiences working with theologians as content experts. The Bible is intensely emotional and has transformed lives for millennia. It’s sometimes a matter of knowing where and how to place the spotlight so the viewer feels the story. I jumped at the opportunity to write my first faith film in 2015 because it was a good fit professionally, personally (an opportunity to share my faith), and spiritually (epiphanies and insights through the research and writing). Outside of my career, I also write and produce to support ministry as a volunteer. I committed in 2004 to “tithe on my career skills” and, with intention, dedicate a minimum of four hours a week to ministry. I recommend this. When you ask God (be brave) “What would You like me to work on for You today?” expect a response and be ready! (Hint: It probably won’t be a six-figure film deal.) Suffuse your work with love. Be faithful in small things as well as big. Expect challenges. Expect joy.

You also asked about constructive criticism. Revisions and rejection are part of the professional writer’s landscape and you'll learn to take them in stride. But two important points: Who is providing the criticism? What is their motivation? You need to listen to many people - directors who are considered the author of the film, content experts correcting your course, producers paying your fee, lawyers or marketing people designing or protecting a brand, and others. The sole motivation of everyone at the table – including you - should be creating the best product possible for the target audience. It’s perfectly okay to challenge a note when you disagree but don’t be defensive or combative. Come up with a better idea (that’s why they’re paying you) or say “got it” and make the change. In pre-professional circles such as writing critique groups or even the classroom, again, consider the source and motivation. Listen carefully, respectfully, and without defensiveness even if you feel a comment may be motivated by something other than a desire to help you improve. But make your own best choice. Ultimately, it’s your voice, your brand, and your responsibility.

Thank you, Lily. I deeply appreciate your prayer for blessings on my writing. God bless you in your future serving Him!

Liza Bornschlegl (MLC) 2023-10-26 4:24:27pm
Mrs. Lonnquist,

When I first watched The Chosen, I was torn between loving the characters as they were portrayed and also being uncomfortable with the amount of added backstory that there was to the Biblical accounts. After reading your article, one line that stood out to me was “... many of the story lines in The Chosen and nearly all characterizations are entirely invented by the writers to support the overarching story of Jesus’ role in carrying out a plan for salvation…” and this line gave me a sort of peace in that regard. I appreciate how you highlight sharing the Gospel message as the main goal and point out how the supplementary backstories and characterizations work to support that message.

One question I had after reading your article and exploring the balance between staying true to the Bible stories and adding details to flesh out the stories for the show is: how would one best describe/advertise this show to those who haven’t seen it yet? Is it wrong to say it is a “dramatization of the Gospels,” or would one call it a “show based on Jesus’s life?” What is the best way to describe how this show tells the story of Jesus, and yet warn that it does add fictional elements to the true story?

Thank you for providing a unique writer’s perspective on the show! It was enjoyable and enlightening to hear your thoughts and read through the tips you provided for other Christian writers. God’s blessings on all your future projects!
Jas Lonnquist 2023-10-30 3:59:27pm
Hi Liza,
Thank you for reading and commenting. You ask an excellent question: “How would one best describe/advertise this show to others who haven’t seen it yet?” You mentioned “dramatization of the gospels”, “show based on Jesus’ life” or “fictional elements added to a true story” as some options.

I think if you want to promote The Chosen to others, don’t categorize it, just say what you enjoy about it:

YOU: “I’ve been binge-watching a series called The Chosen. It’s thought-provoking. Maybe we should watch it together or do a book-club thing where we watch an episode and meet to discuss.”
FRIEND: “You mean that Bible show?”
YOU: “Well, it’s based on true events from the Bible with stories woven around those events. I like the way the stories come together. And there are lots of interesting characters to follow. I think you’d like it.”
FRIEND: “You know how I love historical stuff like The Crown.”
YOU: “I’ll bring snacks.”

But, back to your question on how to categorize (which, by the way, would be a GREAT one to discuss in a literature or film class), let’s look at a few possibilities:

Adaptation: One literary form faithfully converted to another.
Example: the film The Godfather, screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola based on the book by Mario Puzo.

Modernization: Classic tale in modern setting.
Example: Amy Heckerling’s film Clueless based on Jane Austen’s Emma.

Re-interpretation or Re-imagining: Actual events, motivations and interactions change in a “what if?” or alternate universe telling of the story.
Example: Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood based on events surrounding the 1969 Manson murders.

Historical Fiction: Actual world events, but invented characters and story lines.
Example: The film Gone with the Wind, screenplay by Margaret Mitchell, Sidney Howard, and Oliver H.P. Garrett based on Margaret Mitchell’s book surrounding events of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Blasphemy: Twists the facts or invents themes to mock, titillate, or blatantly blaspheme.
Example: Charlie Hebdo cartoon mocking Muhamad resulting in the massacre of 12 people at the French satirical newspaper.

Fan Fiction: Unauthorized fiction in which fans use their favorite characters, created by another author, in a story they want to write.
Example: Spockanalia.

Does The Chosen fit in one of these categories or is it something else? As mentioned, I disagree with the Angel Studios website description - based on true events with “artistic license to fill in the many blanks”. My reservation is based on the sheer volume of “blank-filling”. The addition of fiction is fine, enjoyable, and (I believe) beneficial to viewers, but I feel the clarification is too important to not state it on every episode. When the series focuses on Jesus, it’s usually true and accurate. But does the series focus primarily on Jesus or is the focus on his followers whose story lines are almost entirely fiction? The balance of fact to fiction shifts between episodes. So, if I had to categorize it, I’d describe it as fiction based on true events. And I’d offer to bring the snacks.

Again, you asked an excellent question. Thank you and may God bless you in your work now at MLC and in the future as you serve.

Eric Bartsch (MLC) 2023-11-02 9:22:19am
Mrs. Lonnquist,

My sister in recent years has completed her master’s in directing film, and reading your perspective as a writer was very thought-provoking. It brings me great joy to hear that someone such as yourself with the position as a writer has such a faith, as well as your stance on other faith films. I have been talking others for a while, lambasting how many faith films are fairly biblically accurate yet embarrassing to watch.

After reading your article, I have one question about some of the statements you made when describing the role of fact and fiction in movies during production and filming, as well as something screenwriters can learn from The Chosen. Early on in the article, you talked about how many of the backgrounds of characters are based in scripture, yet have embellishments at the writer’s behest to create support for Jesus’ role in the plan for our salvation. This fit in with the phase, “based on a true story,” and the subtleties that come with that. Are there limits to creative freedom when it comes to “filling in the blanks”? Understandably a writer won’t change basic fact, such as Jesus being male. I’m wondering if there are hard or soft limits to what details can be added, or if some should downright be removed when it comes to producing a movie that would interest the majority of a given audience. (If this is a question/issue you've already addressed as part of this presentation, I apologize in advance. I read through the conversation but may have overlooked something along the way.)

Thank you for the time and energy that you’ve given to write this article, as well as responding to others in light of God’s Word in film from your perspective as a writer. Lord’s blessings as you continue your work as a writer.
Jas 2023-11-03 11:09:22am
Hi Eric,
You asked “Are there Limits to creative freedom when it comes to ‘filling in the blanks’.” Thankfully there are no creative limits and, in my opinion, there shouldn’t be. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 9:22b “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” I believe this can apply to art, music, worship, and storytelling. One person may find a Christian song maudlin but, for another, it’s their battle cry. One might enjoy a contemporary casual style of preaching, another prefers traditional pulpit preaching. In the 1920s, some felt sermons shouldn’t be shared on the radio. What a tragedy if we failed to use every type of media available! The primary goal is to relay the message. To do that well, it’s essential to understand the target audience and share the message in a way that is relatable. Jesus gives us many good examples in his parables – interesting, relatable, entertaining stories, but with a definite point and purpose. But, remember, Paul continues in verse 23 “I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” When the goal is to share the gospel, message first, creativity is just the wrapping paper.

To be true to scripture, study it intently and when you have the facts, use them accurately. Second, be true to the facts you have. In other words, the characters won’t behave contrary to what we know factually about them. But that’s broad territory because even the most devoted and passionate Christian is just a redeemed sinner. Consider the man known as “doubting" Thomas - he also resolutely rallied the rest of the disciples “Let us also go (with Jesus), that we may die with him.” (John 11:16) Third, occasionally you need to rein it in - be clever, funny, or provocative if it’s your voice, but never at the expense of the message.

Thank you for your blessing and God bless you in your work, too.

Eva Doebler (MLC) 2023-11-02 9:28:59am
Mrs. Lonnquist,

I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. So many categories of writing appeal to me – I’ve attempted to write novels, poems, songs, and yes, even film and television. My siblings and cousins have frequently been recruited to perform renditions of the short movie/television scripts I’ve written. Because of this interest of mine, I’ve always been fascinated with the decisions writers have to make. From the time I was very young and writing stories in journals, one struggle I always had was with whether or not I should include Christian faith in my characters. In one way, how could I not? Faith is such a huge part of my life. But even then I was aware that mixing faith and fiction wasn’t an easy task. Doing so in a way that attempts to portray actual Biblical stories is, as you put it, “a sacred trust.” Your article about the decisions that the writers of The Chosen had to face intrigued me right from the beginning. I was especially interested in the idea that writing for TV offers more protection for a writer’s message than writing for film – thank you for sharing that!

In your list of things screenwriters in faith markets can learn from The Chosen, you wrote that it is important to depict worries, sins, and struggles in characters, which I agree with. Audiences can relate to and learn from the characters they see on screen, and that can be especially beneficial in a faith-based film. However, it seems like it can be hard to balance authentic characters and wholesome content at times. For example, you mentioned earlier in your article that it is not necessary for characters to swear, which is probably true in many cases. Could there be cases, though, where depicting a character’s realistic struggle with sin could include swear words or other unwholesome talk? Do you have any advice for a Christian writer when it comes to making decisions about the purity of their content?

Thank you again for sharing your fascinating perspective on The Chosen and its application to media in general!
Jas 2023-11-03 12:15:29pm
Hi Eva,
You make me smile with your memories of recruiting family to perform in your plays. I was the same way. I remember my sister and I pasting a brown paper beard on our 3-year-old brother, placing him on a rocking horse, and handing out tickets to our Passion play. While our little brother patiently rocked on the horse, my sister and I piously sang “Ride on, ride on in majesty.” Unfortunately, our older siblings ruined everything with rude, irreverent laughing. Even our parents seemed to be overcome by a sudden coughing spell. We were so mad we forgot to take the collection!

As for your question about adult content – I think it’s perfectly acceptable and there’s always a way to depict or imply it without being salacious. It’s actually more emotionally powerful when you’re subtle. Use a metaphor or a reaction – the aftermath which is where the real pain usually lies anyway. Show the revulsion of other people toward the evil act or villain. Revealing how others feel about a character is powerful. With swearing, ask yourself what’s motivating it. Are you trying to show someone is extremely angry? Are you trying to show someone is a profane, disrespectful person? Are they supposed to seem modern and cheeky? Once you determine the motivation, ask if there’s another way to depict it. Look at older films or look again at The Chosen for examples of adult stories without the modern trimmings of extremely vulgar scenes and clouds of profanity. I doubt viewers even notice the absence of profanity or vulgarity when the story is absorbing and resonates with them. Another reason I personally don’t include swearing, whether in faith or general markets or, is that I believe some people who grew up in abusive homes retreat from cursing as a defense mechanism. I would no sooner swear at them than slap them.

God bless your writing, Eva. Be bold. College awards and credits can be an important on-ramp if it’s to be your career so, start now!