Today we spent the morning at The Holy Land Experience, a theme park with religious motivations. Originally constructed by Marvin Rosenthal and his organization, Zion's Hope, The Holy Land Experience was meant to be as close to biblical Jerusalem as possible. This means, prior to the takeover of the park by Jan and Paul Crouch, there were no statues, elaborate costumes, lavish gardens, or dramatic performances. Because statues are condemned by God as idol worship, it was surprising to find hundreds of statues of Christ and other religious figures. As one employee of the park described, the Crouches “fancied it up”. They have now owned the park for eight years, during which time, antiques, fancy furniture, paintings, and Christmas decorations during the holiday season have become staples.
When the park was run by the Zion non-profit, there wasn't enough money to advertise on television. Because the Crouches own the Trinity Broadcasting Network, they can now advertise their park extensively, so the number of visitors has increased. Many churches find The Holy Land Experience to be a perfect destination for group trips. The majority of the rest of the patrons, we learned, is comprised of local and non-native retirees. We were the only people at the park within ten years of our age.
One young woman dressed as a “Jewish woman” approached Adrian and me and asked us if we knew what time it was. We struck up conversation and discovered that in order to work at the park, one must adopt Christ as his or her savior. She said, “I love Jesus, so... I saw that they were hiring. I got the job.” When I asked if her costume made her overheat in the warm weather she said that some other employees made a “big stink” about the fact that her skirt came above her ankles. She said something to the effect of, yeah, I'm a biblical skank-- whatever. Later on she encouraged us to “see Jesus the Messiah. It's pretty cool-- that's a live show.”
The park's largest selling-point is that it enables people to “see” the miracles of Jesus Christ happen right before their eyes, from the miracles he performed to the giving of his life on the cross and his resurrection. Within the park is a Scriptorium, where visitors can view real artifacts from 4,000BC to the present. A prominent family, the Van Kampens, were friends with Marvin Rosenthal and had amassed a number of religious relics during their lifetime. They donated some of their findings and gave their financial support to the park. Going through the Scriptorium takes an hour, photographs are prohibited, and the tour leads you right into the park's gift shop.
In order to work at the park, you must accept Jesus Christ as your savior. When I asked if there were any employees who were not Christians, I was told that there had been a few, but they were discovered and disbanded for various reasons. Some employees were “having an affair” and were asked to leave. One woman commented that this was an unfortunate necessity because, “What would be next? People saying, oh it's okay for me to live with my boyfriend...”
We left before we could see Jesus crucified or resurrected, but we walked away with priceless memories. When we got to Disney's Magic Kingdom, I felt as if the Holy Land Experience had been an extension of Disney World. A religious theme park could be considered the natural next step after history and cities are reconstructed and purified for entertainment. Almost all of the structures we live with have been created by man, and therefore, can be recreated. Everything can be reproduced, everything can be remade, and through reproduction we believe an improvement has been made. The Crouches made an improvement on the Holy Land, and Walt Disney created a world without problems, where every culture and icon fits a readily digestible mold.
Magic Kingdom includes a salon called the Bippity Boppity Boutique that caters to young “princesses and princes” who want to be made up to look like their favorite Disney stars. Disney is also home to 4 championship golf courses as well as a ton of square acreage meant to encapsulate all of Africa, Asia, and prehistoric Earth. Disney's main selling point, like that of the Holy Land Experience, is that during your stay, the impossible is made possible. Well, kind of possible. The longer you stay, the harder and harder it is to remember that everything is a mirage.
The Disney commercials on TV say, “Let's go to Africa! Well... Disney's Africa. But, it's like the real Africa, without all the malaria shots and stuff!” As if Disney had somehow improved upon the African continent, or could have in any way managed to slim down everything that is African to what suits its needs. And whose needs are these, anyway? Does Disney respond to what we want, or do we want what Disney has decided it can do better?
I am not particularly religious, but I have found that the times I pray the most are times that I am scared. Whenever my life, or some essential aspect of my life, is endangered I feel inclined to reach out to some higher presence-- to attempt to tap into the largest, all-seeing audience. Why? Perhaps religious impulses come from an evolved fear instinct. I don't buy into the idea of an afterlife, but I can see why it would wash away any doubts about behaving righteously in this world. In a way, the afterlife means we get to live forever, so all threats are subdued. We also become less menacing to ourselves, in that religious motivations are still motivations. Work hard and the results will be the same whether you're doing it for god or for your boss.
The voice on the Disney tram sermonized, “There is so much in life worth celebrating. Celebrate with us.” Lon Solomon preached, so long as Jesus Christ is your savior “there is always something to rejoice about.” The difficulty here is that everything looks like what it isn't. These are two cases of repeated, misplaced identity, but isn't that the basis of all entertainment? For a moment we can forget where we are, get into the frivolous, worry about what doesn't apply to us, forget what we actually worry about, and take solace in a momentary release from our reality. But, what is our reality that requires such elaborate plans of escape? What is so uncomfortable that makes us take immense pleasure from alternate realities that mimic what we experience, but aren't and could never be? Maybe the illusion of an answer will suffice for now.