28 December 2022

The record-breaking TV series filmed at a Salvation Army camp

Emily Bright

A photo from the TV series of Jesus preaching to a seated crowd
Jesus is played by Jonathan Roumie | Credit: The Chosen

The Chosen, a TV series based on Jesus’ life, received a record-breaking $10 million in crowdfunding to produce its first season. Now in its third season, the cast and crew have built a film set at a Salvation Army camp in the US. Liz Tabish, who plays Mary Magdalene, explains the appeal of the show and the bond the series has with the Army.

Mary Magdalene is known as a woman who was living a deeply troubled life when Jesus met her. Yet she was at the foot of the cross when he died and was one of the first of Jesus’ followers to discover his resurrection. Mary’s remarkable transformation and witnessing of these world-changing events are now being reimagined in the TV series The Chosen.

Inspired by Gospel accounts, the US show that sees Jesus through the eyes of his followers has had more than 400 million views worldwide. It plans to run for seven series, leading up to and including Jesus’ death and resurrection.

In the first series – which can still be viewed on the show’s own app – The Chosen creatively retold how Jesus and Mary Magdalene met, and how he delivered her from her demons.

‘I think the portrayal of her in The Chosen is so relevant because everyone relates to her,’ Liz Tabish, who plays Mary Magdalene, tells me. ‘Everyone who has reached out has mentioned, “I’ve been her, I’ve been in a state of despair”, and relates to this before-and-after experience of Jesus having transformed their life.

‘The writers did a lovely job of making her not so black and white, not so good or evil, just a person. And she’s dealing with some really heavy things. In season two, she even goes back to her old vices.’

Liz is referring to fictionalised scenes where Mary Magdalene, overwhelmed by past trauma, relapses into addiction and returns to the drinking and gambling dens that she frequented before meeting Jesus. He is concerned for her wellbeing, so dispatches his disciples to bring her home. Ashamed, Mary struggles to face him. But Jesus gently tells her that he doesn’t expect her to be perfect and that he just wants her heart, however flawed and messy it is.

‘She’s a representation of the idea that no matter what, you’re still loved,’ says Liz. ‘Jesus still loves you. I think that’s what’s clicking for everyone: she is still loved and I can be too.’

Liz believes that depicting the humanity of Jesus’ followers is behind the success of the show. ‘It’s not sanitised,’ says Liz. ‘It’s not one- dimensional. We’re playing real people who really existed, who had real personalities and problems.

‘Sometimes the way these stories are portrayed seems clean and done like a magic trick. But you see in The Chosen what transformation looks like for these characters and what Jesus’ message looks like in action. People see themselves in these characters because we’re all messy in the show, except Jesus. Before the disciples were saints, they were people.’

The Chosen is resonating not only with audiences, but with the actors too. Liz says that, while she was raised as a Christian, she was ‘really cynical and sceptical about religion for some time’ and stepped back from her faith. But since joining The Chosen’s cast, she has rebuilt her relationship with Jesus.

A photo from the TV series of Mary Magdalene looking out of a window
Liz Tabish as Mary Magdalene

‘This show has opened my eyes,’ she says. ‘I’ve returned to the Gospels and what Jesus was actually teaching and doing. And it’s so much cooler and better than the way people might think it was.

‘The reality of these miracles, the reality of his love, is so overwhelming and beautiful. I think I’m finally able to see Jesus as he was, his real message, and the impact that it had on his followers and the masses. The Chosen also portrays the political, social and cultural background to how everything happened.’

A popular misconception of Jesus is that he was meek and mild, given his sayings such as: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers.’ But Liz explains that Jesus had radical teachings that would turn the world on its head.

‘Jesus was so rebellious. He was so defiant. He transformed everything.

‘He was saying things that went against the way it had always been – to love your enemy, to turn the other cheek. Those concepts are life-changing if put into practice. My favourite parts of Jesus are his deep love for everyone, and the peace that he brings, but also this social uprooting of the way things are in the world, and him saying: “There’s more to life than this world.”’

One of the ways in which The Chosen explores Jesus’ transformational ministry is through his countercultural interactions with women. In a society where women’s testimonies were generally considered worthless in court and they were treated as second- class citizens, Jesus showed women that they were loved and valued by God.

‘The way Jesus treated women was revolutionary,’ says Liz. ‘He was a champion of women – in the same way that he’s a champion of all people. He didn’t see gender. He just saw people’s hearts and his relationship with them.’

Liz sees this aspect of Jesus’ ministry reflected through the lens of the show.

‘I think The Chosen has done an amazing job of highlighting and portraying female characters and giving them their moment,’ she says. ‘There were 12 disciples and they were all men, but Mary Magdalene and a group of women were following Jesus as well.

‘In this season we get to see them transition into how we traditionally know them, which is as the people helping finance the ministry. There’s this large scope of women that we’re portraying: mothers, wives, entrepreneurs, ex-addicts and women with real problems. We see how Jesus helps them. It’s an honest presentation of women during that time.’

Transporting viewers to the world of the ancient Middle East is no easy task given that the series is filmed in the US. While the first series used locations across Utah and Texas, the creators of The Chosen later decided on a permanent change of scenery: The Salvation Army’s Camp Hoblitzelle, a retreat and conference site in Texas. Camp Hoblitzelle is now home to a 30,000 sq ft soundstage, as well as a historically accurate recreation of the town of Capernaum.

‘We’ve filmed part of season two and part of season three in the camp grounds,’ says Liz. ‘The home base of The Chosen is now on their property. We get to film every season there from now on, which is incredible.’

A photo from the TV series of Jesus walking with his disciples
The cast of The Chosen

When I ask whether The Salvation Army has been supportive of the TV series, she replies: ‘Every experience I’ve had with everyone on set has been wonderful and sweet.’

The Chosen is keen to support the church and charity, with last week’s premiere of the first two episodes in Atlanta, Georgia raising funds for Camp Hoblitzelle.

In the UK, the first two episodes of series three were shown in selected cinemas. Series one, two and the first three episodes of series three are available to stream for free now on the Chosen app.

Liz feels that The Chosen is a project distinct from any other she has been part of.

‘The connection that I feel with a lot of the viewers makes me feel like this is more than a show,’ she says. ‘It’s opening up people’s hearts and creating hope. It’s hard to ignore that this is God’s work. I feel like this project is a prayer from long ago being answered.’

Written by

Emily Bright

Emily Bright

Staff Writer, War Cry

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