Dallas Jenkins, creator of the streaming faith series "The Chosen," didn't stop at the well-covered depiction of Jesus' birth in a lowly stable during his upcoming Christmas special.
Jenkins literally had Jesus' father Joseph shoveling stable animal droppings to clear the way for his laboring wife Mary in "Christmas with the Chosen: The Messengers," the first episode to herald a special theatrical release.
"That image alone, of Joseph scooping manure to prepare a spot for Mary to give birth, is not only one of the special's defining images but one of the main themes of 'The Chosen' series," says Jenkins, who featured the shovel shot in the special's trailer. "It shows his humanity and his humility. I just think it says so much."
The burgeoning flock following "The Chosen," the first multi-season story of Jesus' life, showed its eagerness to witness this unvarnished truth and message (with Hollywood-style production values), setting a Fathom Events records in the process. The release passed one million ticket sales and $13.5 million at the box office after opening Dec. 1 (and now streams free on The Chosen app).
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"The No. 1 word that we put on our wall, the banner across everything we do, is 'authenticity,' " says Jenkins. "So many past Bible projects telling Jesus' story have been a little stiff, maybe a cleaned up, sanitized version of the story. We desperately seek to pursue a portrayal that's as authentic as possible."
Devotees of the free streaming series already achieved a crowd-funding miracle by raising $37 million to produce two seasons following Jesus of Nazareth's life. Global viewers have multiplied on streaming services such as Peacock, Roku and The Chosen app, which claims total viewership at 314 million.
The keep-it-real approach is built into the theatrical Christmas special and the DNA of the series' main characters, especially the highly-relatable adult Jesus, who can make jokes at the dinner table before enthralling faithful followers.
Jenkins, the filmmaker son of Christian novelist Jerry Jenkins ("Left Behind"), wanted to step away from the "stained-glass window" version of Jesus.
"In some other story presentations, Jesus seemed distant, formal and stiff. Not someone who I believe would have excited and impacted so many people," he says. "One of the must-haves is that Jesus has this immense connection with people."
He found inspiration in actor Jonathan Roumie, whom he had originally cast as Jesus in his 2014 short film "The Two Thieves." After securing crowd-funding for the first four episodes of "The Chosen," Jenkins reached out.
"He said, 'I'm not sure where this series is going. But if you want to put the sandals on again, let's do it,' " Roumie recalls. "I'm an actor in need of work. I said 'sure.'"
With the series now planned for seven seasons, Jenkins and Roumie can flesh out the possible realities of the daily human existence of Jesus and his disciples.
"Many past tellings of Christ's story are condensed into two hours. You get the greatest hits of sermons and miracles, with really no time to get into what Christ's day-to-day life could have been like," says Roumie. "That fully human existence would not be complete without having a sense of humor, without going to parties in his native land's culture. Which might mean – heaven forbid – we see Jesus dancing at a party. Well, it turns out people loved it because they'd never seen Jesus cracking a joke before."
Jesus in "The Chosen" not only cracks jokes (sometimes without getting an apostle laugh), but also dances (period appropriately) and displays everyday human moods.
"Yeah, you're going to show Jesus telling more jokes," says Jenkins. "But we also show him as sad, as angry, we show him as funny and as humored by others. Those shades and personality traits are very important."
Michael Foust, a Nashville, Tennessee-based reporter for the Christian site Crosswalk.com, says that "in 20 years of covering faith-based entertainment, I have never seen anything soar like 'The Chosen.' "
The quality production and the emotional honesty are key, he says. "Watching 'The Chosen' is almost like being a fly on a Jerusalem street post, watching Jesus with his disciples. You really see Jesus' humanity. That element is unique."
The result has been an unprecedented success that has allowed the production team to move from the first-century village Utah set to a permanent home depicting a historically accurate setting on 900 acres in Midlothian, Texas, for the third season (set to start filming in mid-2022) and beyond.
Roumie, a Roman Catholic, fulfilled his "childhood dream" of meeting Pope Francis in August, bringing along his Protestant colleague Jenkins. Roumie asked for papal prayers to continue portraying the globally inspiring role.
At the time, the actor was not aware of the top-secret Christmas special that Jenkins was filming. His services were not required for the Christmas episode, which features a dual storyline of the birth, some 30 years before the era of "The Chosen," and his followers' saga 15 years after Jesus' crucifixion.
"Christmas with the Chosen," which will also stream for free following this month's theatrical run, fills out the episode with soul-stirring performances from faith luminaries such as Phil Wickham, For King & Country, Maverick City Music and the One Voice Children's Choir. Between songs, the story culminates in Jesus' birth in a stable.
"Even though we have this big epic performance of 'Joy to the World' by multiple musicians on our huge set, it's contrasted with the world that Jesus actually came into," says Jenkins. "It's a good reminder that Jesus came for everyone, including the oppressed and those in poverty. And it's a great reminder, lest we ever turn the story of Jesus into something elitist."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'The Chosen' Christmas special sells 1 million tickets, Fathom record