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I was not surprised to see that Jesus was, once again, played by someone who looked like my old college acquaintance Rick Brody. Christians never like to imagine that Jesus looked too Jewish; the savior couldn’t have had that Jewy-Jew look, like Jackie Mason or Woody Allen. But Rick Brody, that’s the right look: light-haired, blue-eyed, with the pacific smile of someone who has smoked enough dope to forget which government he was going to overthrow. So there he was, Rick — or else a guy who really, really looked like him — playing the historical Jesus in the musical numbers that spontaneously erupt every couple of hours on the streets of the Holy Land Experience, a fifteen-acre New Testament theme park in Orlando, Florida. You might be minding your own business, on your way to the faux-marble, sixty-foot-tall recreated Second Temple, eating a Centurion Salad purchased at the Oasis Café, and suddenly find yourself surrounded by actors in Birkenstocks and Bjorn Borg–style headbands.
“Rabbi Jesus is coming!” says the headbanded rabble. “I hear he raised a man from the dead!” Then come the apostles. A Holy Land Experience employee, wearing the khakis and ranger hat of first-century theme park guides, clears two high school boys in starched shirts and polyester pants off a rock beneath some palm trees. “We need this for the blind man Bartimaeus,” she says. Bartimaeus gropes his way to the rock, followed by a bearded man who may or may not be my former college pal and an entourage of cripples and other people generally spurned by the wider community. “It’s Jesus! Praise Jesus!” The actors (and some of the spectators) herald the arrival. “It’s Jesus! Hallelujah!”
His hair is a beauteous mélange of salon highlights. He stops and holds up his hand, his palm facing us. “Children, come close,” he says, and parents with video cameras shoo reluctant children to the front saying, “Go to Jesus. Go sit by Jesus!” Jesus leads Bartimaeus up onto a stage built into the side of a terra-cotta hill, and stopping near the “Cast Only” sign painted on the hillside, dramatically tears the rag from Bartimaeus’s eyes. “I can see!” Bartimaeus shouts.
It’s eighty degrees in November. The tops of eighteen-wheelers are barely visible beyond the walls encircling the Holy Land Experience, but inside, properly enraptured, the audience may almost block out the sound of airplanes and car alarms and SUVs in fourth gear, that general aural stench of highway arteries, theme parks, and strip malls.
The Holy Land Experience, this combination of theme park, community center–style theater, and tent revival, opened in Orlando in 2001. It is the centerpiece of the ministry of the sixty-nine-year-old Marvin Rosenthal, who, before becoming an evangelist, was a United States marine and, before that, a Jewish kid living in a Jewish home in Strawberry Mansion, one of Philadelphia’s more Jewish neighborhoods. “My grandparents were Orthodox; my parents were modern Conservative,” Rosenthal says. “We had a big, old-fashioned luncheonette in the city, mostly Jewish customers. One day, a woman walked into our store, got something to eat, and talked to us about Jesus. She came back week after week, month after month, for several years. My mother liked her, and she would talk politely with her.” Rosenthal’s mom began to talk to rabbis, too, asking about “this person Jesus.” “My mother came to believe that … Jesus was the one the prophets of Israel spoken about. Some time later, I invited Christ into my heart as my savior.”
After high school, Rosenthal joined the Marines. He got out of the service at age twenty-five and took work as a dance teacher. It was then that he decided to study at Philadelphia Bible College. He was ordained at age thirty-three, and then received a doctorate from the Dallas Theological Seminary. He moved to Orlando in 1988 and, from his rented home, launched a magazine, Zion’s Fire, and began producing videos and books with biblical themes. In this period he also began planning his theme park. After raising $16 million “from Christians throughout North America,” Rosenthal opened the Holy Land Experience, to the annoyance of a local rabbi, whose protests against what he saw as a form of untoward proselytism helped win the park more publicity than Rosenthal could ever have paid for.
Last month, the park received its millionth visitor. “I don’t want to sound pious or superficial, but I’m a person who has committed his life to spreading the word of God,” says Rosenthal. “I believe [God] raised up this ministry at a crucial time in history.”
In other words, in time for the Second Coming. Jesus, many evangelical Christians believe, will return — soon — to rule the earth and judge the nations. According to some believers, the signs are all around us: in Iraq, in the ashes of the World Trade Center, even in the tsunami that killed so many in South Asia. When Jesus returns, they say, we must be ready to face him and be deemed worthy for a place in his kingdom on earth. And so we must repent. A visit to the Holy Land Experience, Rosenthal hopes, could be a first step, bringing about in its visitors the kind of reflection that might lead to a conversion to “the way,” to born-again Christianity, which alone can save our souls.
Pastor Rosenthal’s Holy Land Experience is not the first religious amusement park. Jim Bakker once ran a Christian theme park, although it was more famous for having the world’s largest wave pool than for making converts or spreading doctrine. Silver Dollar City, in Branson, Missouri, which aims to create “memories worth repeating … in the manner of Christian values and ethics” is not overtly evangelical, but nondenominational services are held every Sunday in the Wilderness Chapel.
The Holy Land Experience is, however, the first Christian theme park to make any claim to biblical inerrancy: the fundamentalist’s dream of infallible truth. “It’s been two thousand years since the world’s seen anything like this.” Not until Marvin Rosenthal had anyone attempted to build the Second Temple, Golgotha, and Christ’s tomb, all on a swatch of land the size of two city blocks and steps from a petting zoo featuring a miniature horse.
Before his half-hour act is over, Jesus has picked up and cradled a trembling lamb (eliciting a big “Awwww” from the crowd), produced from somewhere a real dove (which he releases above his head), and healed the woman who was bleeding for twelve years without cessation.
You can read about her in the Gospel of Luke, just after the healing of the demon-possessed man and right before the raising of Jairus’s daughter from the dead. Reading Luke is actually of some interest here. If you do, you will find that Marvin Rosenthal, founder of the Holy Land Experience, convert to fundamentalist, pre-millennialist, dispensationalist Christianity (for the layman, that means he is hard-core), a man who presumably takes the Bible literally, has entirely rewritten this bit to suit his dramatic purposes. And it’s not the only instance in which this literalism espoused by Rosenthal’s brand of Christianity falls by the wayside for the benefit of a really good show.
Facticity isn’t really what the Holy Land Experience does; it’s not its thing. Depending on which corner of the promotional material you read, it’s a re-creation of Jerusalem either three thousand or two thousand years ago, a place where people spoke Hebrew (the theme park staff are continually greeting you with a warm “Shalom!”) or Greek, but apparently not Aramaic, which is what the real Jesus spoke. In Rosenthal’s Holy Land, Arabs nosh on “Arabian chicken wraps,” and black performers sing soul-stirring gospel tunes. The employees must agree to the theme park’s articles of faith, but they don’t exactly have to have a theology.
It’s an interesting place for Jew to be. A certain kind of evangelical Christian is schooled, in a rudimentary way, to think of Jews as immature Christians: that Jews expect the messiah to come, not realizing he already has; that they read the Old Testament but fail to see how many of its predictions come true in the New Testament. To judge from my conversations with them, the actors, park rangers, and Italian-ice vendors at the Holy Land Experience seem to think of Jews as players in a trans-historical drama, not as people who walk the earth now as then.
What they do know about historical Judaism is that it had three ancient rituals: the Feast of Trumpets, the Feast of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles. These are the holidays Jews might know better as Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. At the Holy Land Experience, these holidays are all celebrated in a musical medley in front of the Second Temple, which staff like to call “The Temple of the Great King,” something King Herod may have quite liked, but a term I had never heard before. The three-act extravaganza comprises about twenty hoofers doing their best horas and “Walk Like an Egyptian” Bangles choreography. Glory be to the high-Christian camp, irony-free moment when the Tabernacles part of the program concludes with a parade of four men in white robes holding aloft a giant red satin cross, while doves swoop skyward in perfect V-formation like Blue Angels. After the show, I spoke with a man from Providence, Rhode Island, who comes to the park every year with his wife and two friends from their Pentecostal church back home. “We like learning and having fun at the same time,” he said. And who was I to rain on his educational parade by telling him that, for the sake of historical accuracy, it might be best not to refer to Yom Kippur as the Feast of Atonement.
About five years ago, I took a tour through the new Mormon temple outside Boston for a newspaper article I was preparing for the Hartford Courant. The guide proudly showed me every corner of the place, from the locker rooms where worshippers change before being baptized, to the social halls decorated with “authentic reproductions” of oil portraits that hang in the Mormon tabernacle in Salt Lake City. The Boston temple had a soft, lush, quiet feel: it was the most carpeted house of worship I had ever seen, bearing a decor that seemed to strive for a deliberate avoidance of sublimity or grandeur. In the article, I wrote that the temple achieved the “aesthetic of a first-class businessman’s hotel.” The next day, I got a phone call from a very friendly Mormon church lady. She had called to thank me: “What you said about it looking like a nice hotel,” she gushed. “That was so kind of you!”
Just as some people think God looks like George Burns and others think he’s more like Morgan Freeman, some think God’s home is a Marriott. It’s a testament to the human imagination, but it makes the shortcomings of something as literal as the Holy Land Experience all too clear. If you think about it, it might not be healthy for one’s religious faith to know what the Holy Land looked like — not with so much certainty. I want God to be unimaginable. Think of the despondence if we discovered he really did look grandfatherly; some of us don’t like our grandfathers. In the same vein, the Holy Land Experience may lose a great deal of its target audience — that is, everyone who is not already a born-again Christian — through its aesthetic particularity. The only people who will ever be moved by it, the only unbelievers who will start to believe, are those already inclined to think the best vacations are spent at theme parks.
It didn’t have to be this way. I’m an open-minded guy, and I’m a sucker for good narrative. Catch me at the right time (after a fight with my mom, or after a really bad sermon by a dim rabbi, for example) and I might see the appeal of batting for another team. If, at such a moment, Pastor Rosenthal could get me to a Holy Land Experience where I’d see some historical authenticity, some lovingly re-created period masonry — basically, something to appeal to the effete antiquarian in me — I bet I’d cock an ear. If the Jesus actor had actually spoken some Aramaic (or faked it, because I wouldn’t have known the difference) and had looked more like a true-to-life Semite, perhaps with a serious, old-school Jew-fro, well, at least I wouldn’t have come away chuckling.
Which begs the question of whether something like the Holy Land Experience is good evangelism. Pastor Rosenthal says that half the people who come to his park are already born-again Christians. Some of the born-agains, of course, might be struggling with their faith, and the park may help shore up or deepen their commitment. “If,” the pastor says, “we can, in some small way, help evangelical Christians understand the biblical context of their faith, or help out a Christian who’s been away from the church, whose Bible has become dusty, if we push a button that says ‘read again,’ ‘pray again,’ then that’s wonderful.”
But the other half of the park’s visitors, according to surveys taken by the staff, are not born again. “They might be ‘religious,’ or ‘have a God consciousness,’” the pastor says, “but they have not been born again in their faith in Christ alone.” And these doubters, skeptics, and pagans are evangelism’s real quarry. It seems likely that Rosenthal would rather make new Christians than help the existing ones become more devout.
Pastor Rosenthal says he has received “hundreds of letters from people who said that as a result of being here, they’ve trusted Christ as their savior.” I believe him. As for me, I know what I’d have said if someone had asked me to drop to my knees and welcome Christ into my heart there in Orlando. Confronted with Jesus, I would tell him about my people, and about the prayers we chant in a language most of us don’t understand, the impossible-to-sing hazzanut that even good cantors sometime massacre, prayed in postwar buildings most of us can’t stand. I’d tell him about my grandfather Walter, who never goes to synagogue, preferring to sit in his falling-apart chair reading the musings of atheist Jews in The Nation and listening to old Jascha Heifetz violin recordings on his hi-fi. I’d tell him thanks, but I know who my people are, and they don’t look like Rick Brody — but then again, I doubt Jesus did, either. &