The Chosen, a multiseason look at the life of Christ through the eyes of his disciples, has garnered more than 50 million fans in 180 countries with its engaging and affecting storytelling, according to producers. Even viewers initially skeptical that anything good could come out of the Nazareth of Christian entertainment have found themselves hooked by The Chosen’s imaginative scripts and high production value.
Director Dallas Jenkins has raised the bar for the quality of religious-themed entertainment. The show has broken crowdfunding records, raking in $10 million for the first season and attracting $12 million from 125,000 people for the second season, which wrapped up with the season finale on July 11.
But it’s not merely higher-quality filming techniques or the relatability of actor Jonathan Roumie’s portrayal of Jesus that accounts for The Chosen’s power. It comes from its convincing portrayal of each disciple’s transformation of desire. Characters who have small hopes at the beginning of the show evolve into people who want great things. As we watch the disciples change, we are drawn into the mystery of their transformation in Christ.
The French historian and philosopher René Girard experienced a profound Christian conversion when he realized that the greatest novels in history—like Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, or Cervantes’s Don Quixote—emerged out of a conversion experience that pierced the author’s vanity and pride. This experience allowed them to create deeply complex characters truer to life.
From his deep study of history, human behavior, and great literature, Girard observed that we learn to desire by imitation, through a process he called mimesis (which comes from the Greek, meaning “to imitate”). We come to want the things that are modeled to us as desirable and valuable. Girard was not referring primarily to our basic needs—food, shelter, safety—but to the kind of metaphysical desires that people develop to be a certain kind of person.
Girard thought of this as an inherently good thing—a form of radical openness and receptiveness to others—but one fraught with obvious dangers. All of us are more susceptible to manipulation of our desires than we fully understand. We are also in danger of frittering our lives away chasing “thin” mimetic desires that don’t ultimately satisfy, as opposed to the “thick” desires implanted by God that bring happiness and fulfillment.
Christian conversion involves the reordering of a person’s desires through a continual encounter with Christ. The model of divine love that Christ reveals begins to permeate a person’s entire life. Old desires give way to new ones. This reordering of desires—as demonstrated by a divine model—is impossible if a person’s only models of desire are of the world. People consumed by worldly models are condemned to remain stuck in a hamster wheel of sorts—never able to break loose from the tyranny of the age. Only one model in human history had the power to desire differently: Christ, whose greatest desire is to do the will of his Father, shows us the way out.
When Jesus says in the Gospels, “Follow me,” he is not talking about a physical following only, but a following of desire. In other words: “Don’t just go where I go or adopt my habits of speech and dress but want what I want.” What he wants is each person’s salvation. When he interacts with Mary Magdalene and Peter, or any of the other disciples whom he calls, Jesus clearly desires them to be fully alive, free to love wholeheartedly.
To imitate Christ’s desires is to re-order our own—to pattern them on his, where there is a hierarchy. When the Pharisees ask Jesus which is the greatest commandment, he answers clearly: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” In other words: learn to desire these two things above all, and the rest of your desires will fall into place.
When Paul writes, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1 Cor 11:1), he is also referring to the imitation of desire. When he writes, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2), he is talking about the same thing: This world has no models that are worth patterning your life after. If you wish to be saved from this world of sin and death, you need an otherworldly model, and you must find it in Christ, who is able to transform you within through grace.
We become like the things we imitate. And that’s why Christ not only saves us—he also transforms us.
In the imaginative telling of the “backstory” of the first disciples, The Chosen shows the profound tension between worldly and transcendent desires. The ancient Roman world had shaped the disciples’ desires in certain ways, just as the modern world shapes ours. As Jesus becomes their new and primary model of desire, their thin desires begin to fade away in favor of the transcendent purpose he models.
Three minutes into the first episode of season 1, we meet Mary Magdalene in a time where she is unable to imagine an existence for herself outside of the reality of demonic possession with brief periods of lucidity. What does she desire? Anything that will for a moment relieve her intense suffering: alcohol, even death. After Jesus calls her by name, however, we see Mary gradually come to want other things: to live the Sabbath properly, to be generous and serve others, to learn the Scriptures. She says of herself, “I was one way and now I am completely different. And the thing that happened in between was him.” Jesus has become her new model, and she has begun to want for herself what he wants.
We see Peter’s desires change before our eyes in a similar fashion. What does Peter want when we first meet him? The things his culture has modeled: the overthrow of Roman oppression, the relief of his tax burden, to be a successful fisherman. He’s closed to anything else. When his brother Andrew tries to interest him in Jesus, Peter is initially dismissive, but his encounter with Jesus on the Sea of Galilee changes everything. He has a new model placed before him, and thus the trappings of his old life—his thin desires—start to have less hold on him.
In episode 5, Peter tells his wife, Eden, how excited he is to go where Christ goes and learn from him. Like a child, he exclaims, “He said I wouldn’t be a fisherman anymore but would catch men! I don’t even know what that means, but … I want to quit fishing and leave the sea behind.”
These are but two moments. The show (so far) does an excellent job of illustrating the gradual changes that happen as the disciples begin to desire differently after they choose to follow Christ.
Yet to be shown in the series is the ominous ending we all know is coming: the Passion. The Passion is the ultimate moment of hope for a Christian because it is the moment when death is conquered and the doors to a new way of living and loving are opened to us. Taking hold of that new possibility is only possible for the disciples though—as it is for us—after a period of divine preparation in which our desires are transformed enough to see the love of God that was poured out on the cross.
Yes, Peter will betray Christ; he will even try to get Christ to imitate his own desires (which earns him the strongest rebuke in the Gospels when Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan!”). But the transformation will have been sufficient to bring Peter and the rest of the disciples (except Judas) to repentance. They finally desire to live the rest of their lives in service to a higher truth—to the point that nearly all of them will go willingly to their deaths in imitation of Christ, when their transformation was at last complete.
Luke Burgis is entrepreneur-in-residence at the Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship and author of Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life.
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