Friday, October 10, 2008

Jesus Park: The Holy Land Experience

"If any of you are visiting from outside of Orlando, you may have noticed that there are a few amusement parks around. Amusement comes from the Greek word, "muse," meaning, "to think," and adding an "a" to the beginning negates the following word. So, an amusement park is a place where you don't think. This isn't an amusement park, this is a musement park." - A presenter at The Holy Land Experience
As atheists, why would we ever waste the time, not to mention, the money on visiting a place called, "The Holy Land Experience?" Simple, history is always fascinating, no matter the subject, and while The Holy Land Experience does feature such elements as a Passion play, it is promoted as a place anyone can enjoy, and I wanted to see how well the educational elements were.

As you walk into The Holy Land Experience, after you have paid Trinity Broadcasting Network for the privilege, you walk into a replica of an ancient Jerusalem street. Along with sights of a made up market, you'll see a basket of fake tomatoes, a fruit native to the Americas, and not present in Europe or the Middle East. While walking through the small market, which sits next to a modern market, the gift shop, you'll hear playing over and over again, Hava Nagila, a song which wasn't written until the 20th, and maybe 19th century, but does a good job of solidifying that this is a Jewish market, after all.

Next, the place opens up to a handy set for a Passion play. For those not familiar, a Passion play, at its simplest, recounts Jesus talking to God in a garden, getting sold out, having a mob of Jews condemn him, the Roman governor washing his hands of the episode, followed by much whipping and beating, the hauling of a cross to a hill, hanging on a cross, forgiving people because they are being silly, the only time, "It is finished," is actually the intro to an intermission rather then the end, a poke in the side with squirting water, a disappearing, reappearing presto change-o vanishing from the tomb, then usually an rise to Heaven preceded by some inspiring words, and a reminder to go tell everyone about Jesus.

The Holy Land Experience features a Passion theater, which are a series of concrete posts with cushions on them, a garden with handy tomb, a hill with crosses on it, a nook for whipping, and the top of a building for inspirational speeches. This play featured live music being sung by one of the actors. Normally, I like singing with a play, however, it wasn't the lyrics which were bad, it was the accompanying electronic keyboard which gives a multimillion dollar "musement park" the feel of a back lot of Joe's country church feel to it. This Passion play was the only one I've seen with realistic whipping with blood across the back. This was achieved by whipping Jesus with bits of hose which had fake blood in them. That's a good tip for Halloween parties. The rest of the play continues as normal, until the spear in the side. In true Orlando amusement park fashion, the water squirts out, almost to the audience, like it's a water effect on a ride.

How would I make a better Passion play? Better music. Less emphasis on Jews as being wicked little tricksters. The crime Jesus was tried for in this play was for, "being evil," and not refusing to pledge allegiance to Cesar and Rome, which I think would add a better sense of the under dog fighting the establishment. But, who cares? Passion plays aren't about realism, or even necessarily Biblical accuracy, because the Gospel stories differ on a few elements on the events. The play is meant to remind Christians, who shouldn't have forgotten the story so easily, of why they should be Christians, and why everyone else should too. So, when your neighbor mentions he's a Muslim, or an atheist, you can clearly visualise Jesus being beaten and suffering to forgive the sins of mankind, and that will compel you to tell your Muslim or atheist neighbor the story of Jesus.

Next, we sat in a mock temple. There was a presentation to see here, and the first minute was educational. The presenter explained the three architectural elements to be found, Roman, Greek, and Jewish. This ended the educational portion of the presentation. For the rest of the 20 minutes, he preached about how important it is to teach your children a catechism. This is after the bit about the "musement park." So, we're supposed to think, but we must think only within the truths told to us through a catechism? Anyway, he told the crowd about the first statement of the Westminster Catechism, which reads, "What is the chief end of man? The chief end of man is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever." He then went on to explain that everyone wonders what the meaning of life is, and that hardly anyone would give that answer the that question. As a hit to atheists, if this life is all there is, life is pointless and meaningless, was his next message. His sermon continued by explaining how great it was to be Christian, but it's a great responsibility too, because it's your job to get everyone else to be Christian too. Then he told a story about symbols and meaning. He used an example of a wedding ring to demonstrate that you can wear a wedding ring without being married, but that's dishonest. Why, it's just like a Christian who doesn't have a relationship with God proclaiming to be a Christian. Golly gee. Just because you're surrounded in Christian imagery and the symbols of the faith, that doesn't mean that you are a Christian. Although, both situations are good at keeping people away. In one case, it's guys looking for a date, and in the other, fundamentalist missionaries.

After the temple, we walked by some fiberglass animals. Strangely, they were in pairs, and figured this must be the kids portion. Kids love the story of Noah's Ark, because there are always fun animals to look at, at least the lucky ones. Kids usually don't ask about the animals and people who God thought didn't make the cut in his "Big Do Over." This part of the park was empty, despite being brightly painted, and including a goofy voice mentioning that, "You can look like you're walking on water, just like Jesus!" This was done by standing on blue paint.

Having sat through a sermon, I wasn't in the mood to walk through the Scriptorium, a collection of Bibles. Jeannette thought we'd be getting our money's worth by going through the hour long presentation, which guides you from room to room showcasing the miracle of the Bible being exactly the same everywhere, despite being translated over and over, it remains inerrant, and flawless. Here's the basics of the presentation: Show papyri which has no significance next to a Middle Ages Bible in Latin, and a Hebrew Bible. Talk about the Library of Alexandria, and make the reason for its destruction about destroying Scripture. Next, explain how difficult it was to copy books by hand, and that monks sat in a scriptorium to do so. Mention that John Wycliff was the first person to create an English version of the Bible (which isn't true) and begin the anti-Catholic start of your presentation by turning Wycliff into a hero, complete with a heroic mock escape through a hidden passage through his fireplace. Get to the Gutenberg press and mention a token bit about Martin Luther and John Calvin in the same display. Show a destroyed press and again expose the Catholic church for being intolerant of Bibles other then the Vulgate. Flash to the Mayflower passengers who were seeking religious freedom, but don't mention why, with their Geneva Bibles in hand. Then, enter a dramatic presentation featuring portraits of characters in the Bible, including a booming God voice, and fiber optic lighting effects on fake stone tablets, with God writing the ten commandments, in Hebrew, of course. Mention again how miraculous it is that the Bible has gone through so much, but hasn't changed, despite the last hour long presentation showcasing many different versions, even in the same language, but never discussing their differences, or why there were different versions produced. Then, finish up with a mock living room with, "all the distractions of modern life," and ask the group, "Where is the Bible in your life." The answer to this question by someone in the group was, "If you came into my house, you'd see at least three Bibles, because I like to have different versions." Then, play some contemporary Christian music to drive the group into the gift shop. Step 2? ... Step 3, profit!

So, how are the gift shops? Well, not horrible. You won't find a copy of The Passion of the Christ here, TBN is too interested in promoting their own products. You will find lots of shelves of anointing oil, olive scented candles, and incense of the Bible, like cedar. Cedar? We also saw Ken Ham's "My Creation Bible," which teaches kids that Adam and Eve rode dinosaurs in Eden. In a city famous for a park with a talking mouse, this makes more sense. One interesting thing we hadn't seen before, was a line of Christian supplements, including Valerie Saxion's colon cleanser line to, "rid your body of parasites," and His Water Advanced Clustered Water, with two versions, one for underweight people, and another for overweight people. One is Cat's Claw, the other is mainly ginger. It is not cheap. Four bottles of the Cat's Claw stuff will run you $150. Among the trinkets you can buy, there are Roman shields and swords for children. Is this a Christian version of cowboys and Indians, or just poor marketing? "Aw, come on, you got to be Jesus LAST time!" You can even find a mascot of sorts. Bearnardo the Scribal Bear can be had for only $13.

So, what is the verdict? I got the sense that the park is set up to proselytize, but to whom? Would a Christian who was weak in their faith go to an event all about their faith? Are all Christians in need of affirmation that they aren't alone? Is it for people who have doubted the authenticity of certain parts of the Bible and want to learn the history of the text they are reading, only to be let down by the "museum," which offers no Biblical criticism, mention of early texts, does not date anything except the pieces on display, mentions nothing of the Marcionite texts and how formative they are in creating the Bible people read today. Perhaps that is asking too much, a scholarly approach from a place which treats Jews as some prop for Christianity, can't provide authentic fruits for their market, and sells stuffed bears dressed as monks while simultaneously damning the Catholic church. I can see why this effort has failed. TBN bought the park from its owner, including 8 million in debt, laid off 100 workers, and is trying to turn a profit after dumping 37 million into the park in 2007. I would like to see real Biblical criticism and history, more of a history of Christianity, and less gimmicks. But, of course, this experience isn't for me.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

What is the fastest way to ruin someone's vacation?

The fastest way to ruin someone's vacation is to take your crying child. I don't think I've been anywhere on our vacation where there haven't been children screaming and crying. I just about lost it when there was a child screeching next to me on the Kennedy Space Center tour.

I know children cry. It's the parents that anger me, definitely not the children. When you have children you obtain certain responsibilities, like not being able to do the same things you did when you were childless. Taking a young child on a trip where they can't do anything and lugging them along in the heat is just selfish. It's understandable that parents are just trying to make family memories, but it's a waste of money when the kid won't remember any of it. Vacations are expensive for everyone. When your belly fruit is crying, it not only bothers you, but effects the experience of other paying customers. A tour at KSC is about $60. When I drop that kind of money, I crazily expect to hear the tour I just paid for. Much of what the guide had to say was obstructed by a screaming child, that was only quieted when the mother popped her boob out. I was then distracted and honestly made uncomfortable by the sound of a toddler breast feeding.

My parents waited to take my brother and I on vacation until we were about six. The first couple vacations I went on where sans Bryan. If you can afford to go on vacation you can afford a sitter.

I know I'm going to come off as sounding like a scrooge, but there are appoppriate places to take an infants and toddlers. Infants do not belong in loud places like sporting events and movie theaters. It's not good for their hearing, and it's a very disorienting experience for them. Toddlers to not belong in large amusement parks, and R rated movies. It's boring for them, often frightening, and they usually get cranky from walking and the heat. Bjorn and I have decided, that when we have kids, they won't be going on any vacations until they are at least 5, and staying far away from Disney, until we can take out a second mortgage to pay for tickets, food and merchandise.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

10 Things Christians Do Better than Atheists - #2 Giving Money

Inspired by suggestions from Hemant Mehta.

Ten percent. Ten percent BEFORE taxes. Now, that's tithing. Mormons, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and Protestants, they all have a rich tradition of giving money to the community, or to the religious institution that they belong to. The religious will give on a regular basis, and step it up a notch for special projects, such as a new building, or aid relief. Having been raised in a religious tradition, I can tell you that not everyone who attends a church will contribute financially to the organization, but will donate time. There are still those who will do neither. The last statistics I remember hearing about the church I last attended, was that half of the membership gave every week, a quarter gave about once a month, and a quarter gave nothing. Still with these statistics, the church was able to build large facilities with class rooms, meeting centers, and worship areas, as well as paying a large number of full time staff. The weekly attendance was around 2,000, which is far greater then any atheist organization I have ever seen, but I have seen churches with membership around 300 who have a building to worship in, pay a pastor and usually a secretary, and still participate in community events.

Are the faithful better at giving money? I think the example provided proves that at least the religious are more focused in their giving. I've known many generous atheists since I've been active in the community. Some feel the need to support atheist organizations, and others spread their money to organizations who actively help the poor by providing shelter and food. There are still others who give most of their money to animal shelters, research organizations for the cure of diseases, and places that help battered women. By the time the local or national atheist organization comes around, they are already worn thin. This is a minority of people, however.

Why don't people feel the need to give money to atheist organizations? Part of the reason, I have seen, is that atheist groups don't do much other than provide a social community. As long as someone brings the cookies, you don't need to raise any money, right? Atheist organizations can be much more than just a group of friends who get together. There are a lot of atheists out there who feel that they are alone. There are atheists who see separation of church and state concerns, but feel like there is nothing they can do. Still others want to help the community by volunteering or donating to a cause, but don't want to sit through another patronizing prayer before getting to work.

When I think about supporting an atheist organization, I want to see them doing something. Even if it is as simple as publishing their position on issues, or writing letters of concern to schools which may be treating the non religious differently. I want to feel like the money I give is going to be used for something helpful. That is why I support atheist organizations who do charitable work. It may be a small part of what the organization does, but I feel that the money I have given has gone to a good cause.

Why don't atheists contribute more to atheist organizations? Part of the blame is on atheist organizations themselves. The local atheist andfreethought groups in the Twin Cities have been shy about asking for money. Minnesota Atheists went over a year without sending out a fund raising letter. When we speak to the general public, we rarely speak about membership and how people can support us. Part of it, I think, is because of the personality types atheist organizations seem to draw. Members are more introverted, and don't want to feel too pushy.

The other reason atheist organizations have trouble raising funds, is that atheists generally see themselves as being independent. I've heard a number of times while working in the public for Minnesota Atheists, "Since when does having a lack of belief in God cost money?" Then, I have to try to explain that renting table space at an event costs money, printing fliers and sending in speakers all cost money, but they still don't get it, and don't find value in supporting an organization which is actively engaged in making the community more welcoming for atheists.

Atheist organizations need to make it as easy and as automatic to contribute as possible. Public media has been very successful at promoting small monthly donations, and offering token gifts to contributors. While more and more organizations do have regular monthly giving options, it needs to spread more. More incentive, even it it's something small, like a book, would help inspire more people to give regularly. Ask a student, for example, to donate $60 to the local atheist student group, and they'd laugh at you. But, say, "Hey, would you miss $5 a month?" After a year, the donation is the same. Most people, no matter how down on their luck, or small their income stream, $5 a month is doable.

As long as atheist organizations make it clear what your money is used for, are not shy about asking for funds to keep them operating, and make it as easy as possible to automatically donate, atheist groups will be able to do more than they thought possible.