Monday, March 2, 2009

South of What We Know

Hello! I am Kimberly Eisler, a sophomore at UPenn, and during the next week and a half I will be traveling to the South with my friends and peers-- Hannah, Sarah, and Adrian. We were sitting around thinking about what we wanted to do during spring break, and Cancun didn't really excite us. We had spoken about going to the Bible Belt to visit the megachurches, and had also discussed going to Disney World. In my mind, it seemed not only possible but logical to combine the two into one trip.

If we can temporarily put all opposition aside, what would it mean if we could compare megachurches and Disney World? What forces are operating in each place, and can connections be drawn between them? If faith in god requires imagination, and in church and theme parks the imagination finds a physical existence, there must be common threads. We discussed this concept at length until it manifested itself into an eight-page proposal-- not that we're all business. It is natural, at this point in our lives, for us to want to travel. Road tripping is a fairly common collegiate practice, a chance to get On the Road and see what it means. Now, here we are: a mere five days away from our odyssey to the south, with the generous support of the Kelly Writers House, and the promise of what cannot become a vacation spent on the couch watching The Real Housewives of Atlanta.

I would like to explain what my outlook is and where I am, so that any changes in purview and location will be better understood as they happen. The trip is no more than five days away and I am delighting in fears of what lies ahead. We have all been speaking to a number of people who have engaged us and contributed their ideas-- our trip seems at this point to be of interest to many, which is encouraging and makes what we are doing seem easier. We have spoken to some people who have at one point or another resided in the south. Some have attended megachurches or rallies for Christ, others have been observers at varying distances and through a variety of modes. What we have unearthed thus far has broadened our knowledge and braced us for the coming weeks.

Some friends spoke personally about a family trip to Disney World during the winter holidays, and remarked on how strange it was that Disney seemed only to acknowledge that it was the Christmas season. It became, in their words, "Christmas Land" where religious services were held, and only those who believed in Jesus Christ could participate in the magic of an otherwise secularly whimsical space. Another friend suggested that the megachurches are less fit to be compared to Disney World than Jerusalem would be. She offered that the crusades geared worshipers for a journey to the Holy Land, the site where the miracles of the Bible are said to have really happened. Disney is similar in that it is the place where "the imagination lives", the isolate region wherein all that can be dreamed can be real. This has peaked my interest especially, as we will be traveling to a theme park called The Holy Land Experience. It is right outside of Universal Studios and maintains a rather unusual calendar of events. Re-enactments of the crucifixion occur twice daily, and when we get there, there will be special exhibit featuring actors playing monks in a seminary. If it is your birthday, you can enter the park for free.

There are counterclaims to our idea, and at present, these provide more avenues of inspection. For example, at megachurches, everyone's attention is pointed toward one central spectacle. Theme parks by contrast are divided into interrelated but distinct mini-spectacles, immersed in thematic lands with distinct features. My companion Nick Salvatore articulated, "The spatial component of theme parks urges the visitor to wander from one location to another in pursuit of satisfaction, whereas it wouldn't be in the megachurches' interest for anything to distract their visitors from the main event." While that does not necessarily corroborate with our initial injunction, it gives us depth!

Another tidbit worth mentioning is that during the meeting at which I proposed this project, I was asked whether or not I feared getting brainwashed. It would be a lie to say that we are embarking without preconceptions, but we are not looking to prove ourselves right. We will hold under the microscope not only that which we find disturbing or that which unsettles us, but also that with which we connect and that which elates us. Perhaps sprituality can transcend and include religion and organized, communal rituals.

We have a car, we have a GPS system, and we have the internet hook up that will take us all the way to Orlando and back. Hopefully we won't come across any nasty suprises, but whatever the case turns out to be, we'll be getting somewhere.


  1. Why aren't you going to Dollywood?

  2. I think you would be very hard to brainwash...

  3. i wish you copious amounts of luck and enlightenment.

  4. I've conceived of a similar trip to investigate American spirituality, for God-knows-when...I'm interested to hear how you got this funded. Make sure to bring some fund(ie)screen

  5. You're doing a great job guys. This is definitely food for thought.