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.