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.


Unknown said...

Well, that certainly sounded like a horrible experience. It's scary to think what is out there to try and get people "into the fold". I remember when PTL was huge in the early 90"s before Jim and Tammi got busted by the Feds. Alot of people I worked wih were really into them, sent them money and truly believed in their message. I think if I were a disciple in Jesus day (or today) I would be Thomas simply bcause their are so many people preaching false messages out here. They want to sell me trinkets, religious gadgets and simple answers. They tell me I can be successful and rich because God loves His children and wants them to be happy and successful. Well, I am. I've got a great family, pets and good job, I'm not being foreclosed on. Increasing your faith is a daily task. It requires patience, reading, learning, prayer and learning to accept answers to prayers. Sometimes we don't get the answer we want or the answer is simply "wait". Oh well, you got an experience you'll probably never forget.

Unknown said...

We took our kids there last week and they had a ball. Gayle, I appreciated your detailed write up and your humor. I admit the PTL and TBN flavors were a bit overboard for my taste, but we had an enjoyable experience overall. I think you have to cut them a little slack given the fact that they are in ORLANDO of all places and trying to bring in a wide audience from little kids to old folks. Try to imagine a theme park on atheism. . . Kids could play with primordial soup, watch the big bang on IMAX generated by the uncaused cause followed by a display of 100 monkeys typing on typewriters through out the ages until they could come up at random with a line from Shakespeare "To be or not to be, that is the question!" as an indication of how long it might take for DNA to randomly generate into existence. The next exhibit could a petting zoo with fun and bizarre mutations of animals with extra legs or eyes followed by a release of wolves on them to demonstrate survival of the fittest. Of course, we could educate the little tykes about punctuated equilibrium since there is no longer sufficient support for gradual evolution so we could have holograms of whales sprouting wings and humans growing antennae that sense IR and xrays plus other handy adaptations for their survival. (But make sure we card all critical thinking I.D. scientists or microbiologists at the door.) On the second to last display, we could appreciate a suspended large planet of several million live cockroaches who are destined to rule the planet after we pollute and nuke ourselves out of existence, at least until the sun supernovas. Finally, at the exit, they can walk into a black parking lot where their cars are gone and there is no light representing a universe that has finally converted all possible mass into energy and then whatever cold dark heavy matter remaining continues to expand into nothingness at an accelerating rate (according to current astronomy.) Don't forget to pay all the workers, the light bills and Orlando taxes! But I'm sure people will be lined up to want to get in and see we are only matter and the logic that we are freak accident of chemical processes and lots of time.

Back to the B.L.E. (where there is ample room for criticism that any visitor to any theme park can level) I must say for anyone who appreciates history as well as the unique story of the Bible and its influence on western civilization (or for that matter the whole world) whether you believe in Christ/God or not, the Scriptorium is actually an amazing display well worth seeing. At first, I thought the artifacts were fake, some claiming to be up to 4000 years old. Check it out, these are the real thing! The Van Kampen Collection is on display and even though it's presented in a popular format, the depth, cultural and spiritual richness should not be lost! As you pass a mock-up of Gutenberg's press with an actual Bible printed by the original press, you have to ask the question, what drove men like this? They were running AGAINST the establishment. Why is it that the Chinese, with the invention of the printing press HUNDREDS of years prior didn't have the same impact on their culture, technology and industry? We are fond of looking in the West to Gutenberg's technological contribution as a key to the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, but perhaps it has much more to do to with the words printed on the pages! T.A.I.