Only in America would you find a theme park dedicated to fundamentalist Christianity, and only in Orlando, the tourism capital of the world, could that experience be so strange that even now, 3 days after my visit, I’m still at a loss for words. Well, almost. The Holy Land, holy-roller style, is at once a museum, a theater, a Bible store, and a living reenactment of events in and around Jerusalem circa 33 AD.
The brainchild of Marvin Rosenthal, a cradle Jew who is now a Baptist minister, the Holy Land is an over-the-top experience in what happens when evangelism meets show business. Here, you can see Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, anguish over His Passion, and even root for Him as he fights the Devil in Hell (including, and no I am not making this up, a ten-count from the evil “referees”). You can hear a modern day minister praise God or watch a whimsical show about Daniel in the lion’s den. And you can enjoy a fountain/light show set to music, just like at Disney, only smaller.
But the entertainment isn’t limited to the live shows. The kids can enjoy “Smile of a Child Adventureland”, where they can fight with rubber swords and climb rock walls. The adults can enjoy the architecture, which mimics the Temple of Jerusalem, the Bethlehem bell tower, the birthplace of Jesus, and the Qumran Caves. And everyone will be able to partake of the awful food, which is so bland and uninspired that even the birds refuse it. Guests are encouraged to use the greeting “Shalom” by actors in period costumes as they stroll the immaculate grounds.
The crown jewel of the Holy Land Experience is the Van Kampen collection of ancient manuscripts, which is indeed world class. Here, you are herded through different eras of the written word, beginning with Sumerian cuneiform stone carvings and continuing on through Egyptian papyrus to 3rd century Biblical texts written on animal hides. A voice track accompanies you as you marvel at an original Guttenberg Bible and a blood stained manuscript from an English martyr, and wonder at the intricate detail of hand-illumined 12th century monastic text written on cotton leafs. Erasmus, Luther, Wycliffe, and first editions by John Bunyan are represented. Ancient writings in every conceivable language from high Church Slavonic to Latin are here. It’s an amazing collection, and I’m glad to say it’s presented without any of the bizarre showmanship of the rest of the park but rather with a degree of respect and gravity that surprised me.
But there is serious intent with some of the other park events as well. If you so choose, you can be baptized and even take Communion with “Jesus” here as a Last Supper participant. And this is where I have to say I was deeply disturbed. The day I went to the park, “Communion” took place every 15 minutes, assembly line style, for hours at a time. If you think this rite is nothing more than sharing some grape juice and stale bread with fellow believers, then I guess it’s pretty harmless. But that’s not the way it’s presented, and frankly the idea of an actor in a Jesus costume administering this holy ritual in a banquet hall full of tourists smacks of sacrilege rather than fun, and I don’t think it’s a good idea to trivialize the most important Christian ceremony in such a cavalier fashion. Some things should be approached with a degree of trepidation and awe that is missing when you’re a bit actor in an amateur play.
Entrance fees are $40. If you go, and I recommend you do at least once, bring your own food (good advice in almost any theme park) and a sweater. Due to the fragile nature of the books on display in the Scriptorium, they keep it pretty cool. I could actually see my breath at one point.
This place isn’t for everyone. It’s designed for American Fundamentalist Christians for the most part as a sanctuary from the secular entertainment that pervades our culture today, and the other guests, from what I could see, were delighted by it. One man effused (unsolicited) to me “Hallelujah, a place where we can be ourselves”, and a woman confided she’d come to the park every year since she was 5. I myself am off put by too many things to happily come here again. In the gift shop, for example, you can buy a print featuring a muscular Messiah in the boxing ring, on the ropes, wearing trunks. His handsome visage peers out at you with a look of…what? I’m not sure, but I don’t think it’s redemption. Have these people no shame? Jesus, the King of the Ring? All of the baby Jesus’ (and most of the adult versions) were blonde-haired, blue-eyed men, while the oldest icons of Christ show that he, like most Israelites of that era, actually had very dark hair, an olive complexion, and brown eyes. And then there is the Communion issue. If you are orthodox in your beliefs, these things will turn you off….but it’s still worth it to get a glimpse into history. If you are a Sola Scriptura believer, though, you’ll probably have the time of your life. You can “do” this small place easy in one day and it doesn’t wear you out. So go and enjoy, but please…let’s allow Jesus to keep his robe on, shall we?