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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Bringing the Holy Land to Orlando

 

Standing before a crowd of dignitaries at groundbreaking ceremonies for the eleven acre model of Jerusalem at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, Madame Lydia von Finkelstein Mountford patiently explained various "Orientalisms"—rituals, dances, prayers, chants—that were being performed for the occasion. (Fig. 1) Mountford was a tall, amply-figured woman, and internationally known for her dramatic monologues on biblical life. And she never missed a theatrical opportunity. Sweeping a gloved hand toward the audience and summoning a practiced stage voice she exclaimed, "You cannot go to Jerusalem, so Jerusalem comes to you. To American energy all things are possible." [1]

 

Madame Mountford spoke to Victorians who were giddy with America's new industrial and military prowess, fascinated by the "Orient," and accustomed to seeing the Bible and other historical themes staged as extravagant ancient world enactments. (Fig. 2)



A century later, Americans are still energetically re-creating bibles and holy lands in public places. [2] Having long since supplanted those Victorian open-air pageants, Hollywood and Christian media enterprises remain active purveyors of cinematic bibles and holy lands. "Palestine Park," a large scale model of biblical Canaan built in the late 1870s by the Chautauqua Institution (Fig. 3), is today a venue for self guided tours of Christianized biblical history and geography, though much diminished from its earlier glory. At the "Great Passion Play and New Holy Land" park in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, one may marvel at a seven-story high "Christ of the Ozarks," (Fig. 4) attend an extravagantly staged passion drama, and tour re-created biblical sites. "Palestine Gardens" in Lucedale, Mississippi (a "good place to visit" states the printed brochure), offers a scale model of biblical Palestine at the time of Jesus (with "entrance" to the little park written in Greek, Hebrew, and Latin). "Holy Land USA," a 250 acre nature sanctuary, gives visitors a "pilgrim's map" and sets them off to trace Jesus' journeys and deeds in the rolling hills of Bedford, Virginia. Among the most recent roadside attractions, "The Holy Land Experience" in Orlando, Florida, (Fig. 5) offers re-created biblical sites and high-tech venues for evangelistic films, lectures, and Christian musical drama. That's to name only a few American holy lands, and none of those that have come and gone since the days of Madame Mountford.

Whether grandiose or miniature, these flavorful extracts of nostalgia, as Umberto Ecco observed, are "instances where the American imagination demands the real thing and, to attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake." [3] The models give material form to cultural values and ideological commitments, particular interpretations of the Bible, personal piety, evangelistic mission, popularized scholarship, entertainment and, in some cases, plenty of show biz savvy.

You can sense something of this mix when visiting "The Holy Land Experience," a $16 million theme park that sits on fifteen acres of reclaimed swamp land in Orlando, Florida. Nearby is the Millennia Mall, featuring upscale retail stores, gushing fountains, miles of waterways, and ninety-six theatrical projectors. A few miles further west are the sprawling theme parks, resort hotels, and 24-7 entertainment of Universal Studios. The idea of the Holy Land Experience, however, is that a visitor to central Florida's crowded tourist corridor can leave behind all that frantic America-at-leisure activity, at least for a time. Passing through the "Jerusalem City Gate," the Visitor's Guide exclaims, one immediately plunges into an ancient biblical world that is "overflowing with religious history, rich culture and vibrant activity."

It takes a bit of doing to make the transition. First, a robed attendant (wearing Teva sandals) takes your ticket and runs it through a modern electronic reader/counter. (Fig. 6) There is also a security check. A scrubbed up Indiana Jones look alike gingerly pokes a stick into your opened backpack. Clearing the gate, at last, you walk into old Jerusalem—public restrooms, guest services, and ATM machine on your left, "Jerusalem Street Market" directly ahead. Costumed pedestrians, shopkeepers, Roman soldiers (who will occasionally stop and pose for tourist photos) mingle with visitors. From time to time, a man wanders into the area, blowing a shofar and announcing that the wilderness Tabernacle performance is about to begin. Ambient background music softly floods the space.

This holy land may be insulated somewhat from its Florida neighbors, but it satisfies a first requirement of tourism anyway. It's a place to go shopping. (Fig. 7) Arab dresses, made in Israel, hang from roof timbers and stone walls. Yusef, a Christian Arab who, like all park employees "has a relationship with Jesus," greets visitors with a cheery "Shalom." He answers questions and offers encouragement to look inside the souvenir shop. There, clerks offer trinket mementos, postcards (of the park and the actual Holy Land), religious paintings, clothing, Jewish religious items (good sellers, I was told), recorded lectures on Bible prophecy, Messianic/Hebrew Christianity, and millenarian theology. You can purchase items related to the on-site scale model of Jerusalem (said to be the largest such model in the world), as well as books on Holy Land travel and biblical archaeology. One very popular item, I was told, is a fold-out chart, whose spread-sheet display compares "seventeen religions and cults" with the gold standard, "Biblical Christianity."

Described in publicity materials as a "living biblical museum," The Holy Land Experience opened in 2001. In part, planners try to enable a fantasy of visiting biblical sites (Fig. 8; map of grounds): Jerusalem at the time of Jesus, Moses' wilderness tabernacle, a Qumran cave (its connection to the Bible now overshadowed by "The Scriptorium" Bible museum), the "Calvary Garden Tomb," (Fig. 9) Herod's temple (called the "Temple of the Great King"). However, visiting biblical sites is secondary to encountering in each one of them lecturers, actors, singers and dancers who proclaim the Gospel theme of universal salvation through Christ. To that end, many of the outdoor areas have been modified with staging and lighting to accommodate an expanded schedule of dramatic performance, including Christian musicals.

"I like to think that all the exhibits point to Christ, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world," park founder Marvin Rosenthal, a Baptist minister, told me with the practiced air of a man used to giving interviews. Rosenthal, a convert from Judaism who has made it his life's work to convert Jews to Christ, wants visitors "to get all you can get from a good church and far more, but in an exciting way that is fun, that is educational, that is spiritual, that merges all these attributes." Director of Ministry Facilities Chris Wallace sees the Holy Land Experience as a "full fledged bringing to life [of the Bible] from the [musical and cinematic] shows to the [lecture] presentations that you get—reaching people that you never would be able to reach."

 

Perhaps. But most who walk though the grounds (they sometimes arrive on church buses) seem to be inside the Christian fold already. They find a theme park that provides a familiar theme of evangelism, though perhaps more theatrically packaged than expected. Larry Sampson, Director of Guest Services, explained that the crowds on Saturdays are generally church going people. "They know the Lord," Sampson said. "We'll do 'The Passion' and we'll do 'The Centurion,' and they are just—well, they're just engaged in what we're doing..." (Fig. 10).
On weekdays, Sampson added, visitors are "far less likely to be so engaged and moved by the dramas." Searching for an appropriate way to put his feelings, he continued, "Scripture says some will be blinded...you know they're yappin', they're talkin' you know, and they're movin'. But on Saturdays, it's a different crowd."

 

Sampson may have exaggerated a little. Yet, The Holy Land Experience indeed strives to be a utopian place for Christians, and staffers may indeed have idealistic expectations. The programs aim at "reaching people" with the real Holy Land, a rightly interpreted Bible, and fundamental Gospel truth distilled into twenty-minute presentations that are educational, entertaining and colorfully upbeat. I was told that very few are disappointed with what they find. Most discover a world emptied of conflict and filled with praise songs, reaffirmation of Christian commitment, and friendly shouts of shalom.

"I love it here," a young T-shirted and tatooed Marine told me in the spring of 2004. We were sharing a table outside the Oasis Palms Café, not too far from the Garden Tomb where the jasmine was in bloom. I picked at a dry version of Israeli falafel; he was conquering a Marine-sized "Goliath Burger." A frequent visitor, Bryan was ambivalent about the war in Iraq, but took comfort in his belief that the breakdown in public morality, the "absence of natural affection" as he put it (Rom 1:29-31), presaged the return of Christ (Rom 1:29-31). "It's like being with the community of saints," he said, meaning church people he presumed to be in the park that day and those who at the end of days would be gathered to Jesus (Rev 19:5-8).

But like many idealized re-creations of history, Orlando's Holy Land Experience has trouble keeping messier bits of reality from seeping into paradise. As I reflected on what the young Marine had told me, I thought of America's heated, sometime vituperative discord over patriotic credentials, and the theme park's uncomplicated Fourth of July celebrations of a God-blessed, Christianity-imprinted nation. The "Old Scroll Book Shop" reiterates the message by selling neckties inscribed with "In God We Trust" and "One Nation Under God"—testimonies, as the official web page asserts, "to your faith in God and love for your country every time you put them on!" I recalled the struggle, mentioned by several staff people, to keep the line between entertainment and ministry sharply etched—and the problem the City of Orlando has with that stance when it comes to assessing taxes on Orlando's prospering theme parks. (The issue is still tied up in a Florida court.)

I thought of park management's intervention in divisive debates over abortion, most publicly during its "Celebrate Life Week." Co-sponsored with a Christian witness radio station, the event mixed a tour of Orlando's holy land with events that helped raise funds to support pro-life service agencies in the area. And I sensed a polite, but unyielding commitment to specific doctrinal and moral principles (for example, park employees are prohibited from belonging to any church that is affiliated with the National Council of Churches or the World Council of Churches). This stance protects utopia inside the "Jerusalem Gate," but is less useful in encouraging a generous exploration of difference across some of the cultural divides that mark public discourse these days. "We just walk with soft shoes," Larry Sampson told me. "There're certain ministries we just don't want to get involved in. We want to be tactful with them. We love you, and it's a 'not where we are' kind of thing."

The most evident source of tension involves Jewish-Christian relations. The Holy Land Experience opened to protests by local rabbis and the Jewish Defense League, whose picketing members called the place a "soul snatching theme park." [4] On my visits, I saw no proselytizing of Jews. Apparently very few Jews attend anyway. It is not difficult to understand the reasons. Profits from gate receipts and sales go to support the Jew-specific missionary activities of the theme park's parent organization, Zion's Hope, Inc. (also run by Marvin Rosenthal). Visitors can subscribe on site to the ministry's publication, Zion's Fire: A Christian Magazine on Israel and Prophecy, which reports regularly on pre-millennial missionary efforts in Israel and runs opinion pieces supportive of Israeli hard line nationalist politics. According to one historian, since 9/11, Zion's Fire has increasingly demonized Muslims and Islam. [5]

Exhibits at the park reiterate age-old supersessionist Christian theology and make it easy for Christian visitors to believe, if they did not already, that Jews, especially, need what the Gospel offers. "There's nothing political" here, Mr. Rosenthal professed. "We've just followed what's in the Bible" (New York Times February 25, 2001). To be better informed of their faith, "Christians must understand the reality of Jewish culture out of which Jesus came," Mr. Rosenthal explained to me. Chris Wallace, Director of Ministry Facilities, was more forthright. The Holy Land Experience is "a ministry based on reaching Jewish people....Zion's Hope supports missionaries in Israel....[the park does its part because] we're bringing all the Jewish heritage to life."

 

However, that "heritage" has no independent Jewish vitality. It is a de-Judaized construction of historical Judaism that has been perfected in later Christian understanding—which of course leaves a lot of Jews out in the cold, at least for now. Visitors to the park encounter costumed Christians enacting a fantasy of biblical Jews. A robed "priest" walks around using a shofar more like a stage prop than a Jewish ritual implement. Jesus, who according to the park's interpretation fulfilled all that was unsatisfied by Jewish spiritual striving, is an American-styled, charismatic figure. He strolled down the middle aisle during one performance, shaking hands somewhat like a politician working the crowds. But by design he is also presented as the de-localized Jew, the worshipped Savior of the World, who slips away quickly so as not to be drawn into posing for tourist snapshots. And the casting office must have found the actor, Les Chevaldayoff, among the look-alikes for Warner Sallman's Head of Christ. (Fig. 11).

 

A lecture, "Ancient Festivals of the Biblical World" celebrates the Feast of Trumpets, Day of Atonement, and Feast of Tabernacles as prophecies of Christ's second coming when "Israel repents of her sins and turns to the Messiah for salvation." Another lecturer begins an explanation of the Passover Seder by confessing, "I was born Jewish, but thank God I was introduced to Jesus Christ, Our Savior." [6] The show at Moses' wilderness tabernacle similarly carries a tone of self-congratulatory gratitude at overcoming Jewish deficiency. The dazzling multi-media dramatization of wilderness tabernacle rituals ends with a narrator's musing question, "Could it be that God had more in mind?" Immediately, a scrim image of the Holy Family lights up in the darkness. Nearby, in the open court of Herod's temple, a dynamic lecturer faulted Jewish leaders from the time of Jesus for "missing their Messiah" while reassuring everybody that God has not abandoned the Jewish people. Although "presently under national blindness" as the Zion's Hope Doctrinal Statement, Here We Stand puts it, the unrepentant and unconverted Jews will have a second chance when Jesus returns in glory.

 

A century ago, producers of open air biblical spectacles created popular versions of the Bible and the Holy Land as mass, for-profit entertainment packaged as populist education and moral uplift. Their bibles and idealized fantasies of the "Orient" and Holy Land were commodities in an increasingly consumerist society, which valued economic productivity and systematic generation of capital. The John Forepaugh Circus, which produced The Fall of Nineveh, (Figs. 12 and 13) and the Ringling Brothers, who produced many versions of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, spent lavishly on their shows. Owners and producers boasted of their sizeable investments and moral respectability, like dueling tycoons competing for a spot in a Hall of Fame dedicated to heroes of business success and christian virtues.

 

 

Something of that turn-of-the-century ethos is still evident behind the scenes at Orlando's "The Holy Land Experience." Besides shaping its activities as Christian ministry, the park testifies to widely-shared American values: free enterprise, free exercise of religion in public spaces, and the virtue of big money in today's consumer driven economy.

 

Management speaks of growth, ingenuity, efficiency, and mass appeal without, however, releasing many specifics. Officials claim that about 250,000 people have attended each year since the park's opening four years ago. Marvin Rosenthal, like countless others, is an energetic CEO presiding over a sprawling business with substantial capitalization, much of it coming from Robert van Kampen, a wealthy financier and fundamentalist Christian. One reporter speculated that millions of dollars more of Van Kampen's fortune are possibly on the way. [7] Mr. Rosenthal explains the park's evangelistic mission while exuding feisty ebullience in going head to head with the likes of Universal Studios in a sophisticated marketplace. "All we've done is condense everything that's in the real Holy Land....[There] you'd have to go about thirty miles to get from the Western Wall of the Great Temple to the Qumran caves, but we've got it just about seventy-five yards away." [8]With the help of ITEC Entertainment Corp., a major theme park design company, Rosenthal built his American holy land with production values worthy of the over-sized competitors in the neighborhood. "We're going where nobody's gone before, he told USA Today. "We're using high-tech methods to communicate the Bible."

Well, somebody's Bible, at least, and sold as a genuine, made-in-America product: Protestant evangelical preaching; capitalist enterprise; mass entertainment; socially conservative politics; utopian biblical fantasy with kitsch. Steve Massey, pastor of Hayden Bible Church in Hayden, Idaho, had his doubts about what he called the "sea of consumerism." But he hoped, with Marvin Rosenthal, that the "real draw" would be the park's "presentation of the gospel: short, simple, and life-changing." [10]

Burke O. Long, Bowdoin College, blong@bowdoin.edu

NOTES
[1] World's Fair Bulletin 4, no. 10 (August 1903).

[2] Burke O. Long, Imagining the Holy Land: Maps, Models and Fantasy Travels (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003).

[3] Umberto Ecco, Travels in Hyperreality: Essays (San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986), p. 8.

[4] The Independent, February 6, 2001.

[5] Nancy Stockdale, " 'Citizens of Heaven' versus 'The Islamic Peril': The Anti-Islamic Rhetoric of Orlando's Holy Land Experience Since 9/11" American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences 21 (Summer, 2004), pp. 89-109.

[6] As reported in The Central Florida Future, January 26, 2004.

[7] Sunday Mercury, Birmingham, UK, May 8, 2005.

[8] New York Times, February 25, 2001.

[9] David Johnson, "God and Man in Orlando" Entertainment Design, July 1, 2001.

[10] Steve Massey, "Look Beyond Kitsch to Message of Biblical Theme Park" Spokesman Review, Spokane, Wash., January 17, 2004.

ILLUSTRATIONS AND CREDITS
Fig. 1 Jerusalem Exhibit at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, St. Louis, 1904. Stereograph photo by the H. C. White Co. Courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress.

Fig. 2 Cover illustration, The Fall of Babylon, a program guide for the "Colossal Open-Air, Historical, Scriptural, Musical, Martial, Spectacular Creation" produced and directed by Imre Kiralfy, 1890. From the author's collection.

Fig. 3 Palestine Park located on the grounds of The Chautauqua Institution, Chautauqua, New York. Postcard view by George V. Miller and Co. for the Chautauqua Press, c. 1910. From the author's collection.

Fig. 4 Christ of the Ozarks, part of the Great Passion Play and New Holy Land Park, Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Photo by Burke Long.

Fig. 5 Temple of the Great King (rear) and Qumran Caves (right foreground), Bible tour sites that double as open-air performance spaces at The Holy Land Experience, Orlando, Florida. Photo by Judith Long.

Fig. 6 Jerusalem Gate, The Holy Land Experience, Orlando, Florida. Photo by Judith Long.

Fig. 7 Jerusalem Market Street, The Holy Land Experience, Orlando, Florida. Photo by Judith Long.

Fig. 8 Visitor's Map, The Holy Land Experience, Orlando, Florida. Used by permission of Zion's Hope, Inc., Orlando, Florida.

Fig. 9 Calvary Garden Tomb, The Holy Land Experience, Orlando, Florida. Photo by Judith Long.

Fig. 10 Dramatic finale to the Passion Drama, The Holy Land Experience, Orlando, Florida. Photo by Burke Long.

Fig. 11 Les Chevaldayoff in his role as Jesus, The Holy Land Experience, Orlando, Florida. Photo by Judith Long. Image of Mr. Chevaldayoff published by courtesy of Zion's Hope, Inc., Orlando, Florida.

Fig. 12 Front cover illustration, The Fall of Nineveh, a program guide for the spectacle drama by John Rettig and produced for the Adam Forepaugh Shows, 1892. Courtesy of the Witte Museum, San Antonio, Texas.

Fig. 13 Rear cover illustration, The Fall of Nineveh, a program guide for the spectacle drama by John Rettig and produced for the Adam Forepaugh Circus Shows, 1892. Courtesy of the Witte Museum, San Antonio, Texas.

Fig. 14 Front cover illustration, Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, a program guide for the show produced by the Ringling Brothers, 1915. From the author's collection.

Citation: Burke O. Long, " Bringing the Holy Land to Orlando," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited June 2005]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=410

 
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