Let’s get this out of the way first: I’m an unapologetic fan of “The Chosen,” the series about the life of Christ that went from a crowdfunded upstart to an unexpected worldwide phenomenon; its fourth season is about to hit movie theaters in February before being released to streaming in March. I think Jonathan Roumie’s performance as Jesus in the series is staggeringly good. I’m also someone who’s worked in the entertainment industry for much too long, often with those magical creatures we call actors (not, for full disclosure, with Jonathan Roumie). So, I acknowledge I’m not the most objective viewer of the newly released “Jonathan & Jesus” docuseries.
Yet I admit when I initially learned about “Jonathan & Jesus,” I had a moment of “oh, dear.” My first thought: How does this, even when made with the best intentions, avoid looking like an ego trip?
I’m happy to say that “Jonathan & Jesus” doesn’t play at all like an ego trip. It’s not an easy watch – that’s not criticism, that’s praise – because it is a journey through the life-changing nature of Roumie’s experiences, from deeply blessed to personally overwhelming to just plain cool, during the early days of the ascendency of “The Chosen.” It’s also an interrogation of the meaning and impact of Jesus, not only on the actor playing the role, but on everyone in our world.
While the burgeoning of “The Chosen” phenomenon and Roumie’s landing a lead in “Jesus Revolution” between the shooting of seasons two and three of “The Chosen” serve as an ongoing throughline, each episode of the docuseries has its own focus, roughly sketched as (1) Jesus as God and historical/cultural touchstone, (2) Christianity, division, and unity, (3) celebrity and humility, and (4) control versus surrender. “Jonathan & Jesus” is ambitious and immersed in big questions throughout, touching on subjects both complicated and diverse.
A journey through the meaning of Jesus as the Incarnate Word of God, the primary cause of Western Civilization, and a pop culture motif took me on an emotional rollercoaster. First, I felt vaguely uncomfortable seeing some of the more mundane depictions of Jesus portrayed in pop culture, from “Family Guy” to the Buddy Christ image from Kevin Smith’s “Dogma.” That gave way to a sense of the transcendent as a historian standing in the shadow of the Roman Colosseum considered that at the time the Colosseum was built, it would have been ludicrous to think that the Roman Empire would soon be ruins, but a nascent faith beginning with Jesus and a small group of followers in Judea would survive, thrive, and be, millenia later, the largest faith in the world.
Discussions between Roumie and preachers and influencers of various Christian denominations reminded me how we’re so unfortunately quick to criticize each other, focusing on the things that divide us as Christians instead of the God who unites us all. Interviews with scientists, ministers, writers/podcasters, human rights campaigners, and musicians revealed the pivotal moments in which these people chose to surrender their lives — expectations and illusions of control included — to God in faith and the monumental results of that choice. Given my own constant struggle with surrender and what it really means in practice, seeing these stories is a nudge to keep on trying. (If you’re like me, you regularly turn your eyes heavenward and say, “Is this it, God, am I surrendering right yet? Because I don’t think I am!?!”) And yes, you will come away from this doc wishing that Jonathan Roumie, Sheila E., Brandon Flowers, and Alice Cooper could tour as the world’s most unlikely supergroup.
With all these matters raised and considered, the series is in some ways a choose-your-own-adventure; which parts of it stick with you will vary significantly from viewer to viewer. At the close of the final episode, the person who watched with me said, “The things some of those Christians he interviewed were doing…feeding migrants under bridges and saving trafficked women…how am I ever going to get to heaven?” Meanwhile, I was most affected by the unflinching honesty of the life-of-an-actor segments, which take the viewer from the dire situation Roumie was in just months before “The Chosen” came along to interviews with his sister, Olivia, and Dallas Jenkins (creator of “The Chosen”), discussing how both fame and the conflation of a human actor and the Son of God in the mind of fans can be disorienting, scary, and exhausting—even for a grounded person with a deep faith to sustain him. In my professional life, I’ve seen both actors eking out a living juggling acting gigs with low-paying survival jobs and actors dealing with sudden fame due to one big role (never mind the role of Jesus, which adds knotty moral questions to the already complex issue of fan adulation). These segments felt painfully real and raw to me, a look behind the curtain that we rarely get about the challenges of life as an actor.
Does the docuseries fully get its arms around all these subjects? Not precisely, but to my eyes that’s exactly the point. These subjects can be explored, dissected, studied, grappled with, and prayed over, but as Anthony Bova, Roumie’s acting coach, says in the plainest way possible: “…the whole Jesus Christ thing, that’s tough. Because…I mean, whadya do with that?” That statement works as both an acting coach throwing up his hands at the challenges of a role (the job of playing the perfect human is restricted to exactly one role in all of literature, and it’s this one) and a person questioning how much any of us can represent Jesus, even if we’re mandated as Christians to try. So fair enough, Anthony. That’s a question millions have asked over the ages.
But along comes a scene near the end of the docuseries to show us what we do with the “whole Jesus Christ thing.” It takes us back to 2018, to a part of Jonathan Roumie’s personal story of surrender that many “Chosen” followers have heard about but not seen. I’m not going to go into detail; it is a losing proposition to try to find adequate words to describe someone at the end of his rope encountering the ineffable, and in any event, the powerful moment deserves to be experienced, not described. I’ll just note that if you want to see God starting to lift up someone who has fully surrendered after a long struggle in the wilderness, well, there it is.
So no, none of us can get our arms fully around these subjects. Not you, not me, not Jonathan Roumie. Three hours of screen time (or two thousand years of Anno Domini) cannot unlock the unfathomable. What “Jonathan & Jesus” shows us, viscerally and in multiple different testimonies, is what we can do: surrender to the unfathomable. And then the one who is the ultimate subject of this docuseries – the one whose credit is larger, in bold and after the ampersand in the title treatment of the trailer — can get his arms fully around us and take us on his journey.