Flip to Leviticus 26:1 and you’ll see it clearly states that Christians “shall not make idols for yourselves or erect an image or pillar, and you shall not set up a figured stone in your land to bow down to it, for I am the Lord your God.” But the owners of the Holy Land Experience, a Bible-inspired theme park meant to transport you from its hallowed grounds in Orlando, FL to ancient Jerusalem, seem to have eschewed some crucial parts of the Old Testament in favor of some good old-fashioned fun.
Sprawled across 15 acres, the theme park includes 40 different diorama attractions, interactive exhibits, and realistic reinterpretations of some of the Bible’s goriest scenes, all meant to rouse the Christian spirit. Attendees pass under a stone arch modeled off Damascus Gate that doubles as a security checkpoint. Once inside, you can stroll through the Dead Sea Qumrum caves, wave to a life-size plaster rendition of Moses standing in an aqua-blue wave, or flip through old scrolls in the world’s fourth-largest Bible and manuscript collection. If you arrive at the right time, you can see Jesus staggering through the plastic lanes of the Jerusalem Street Market, arms bound to a plank of wood, robes stained with fake blood. Should you be in need of a period of reflection after this, you can rest and pray in the landscaped tranquility of the Calvary’s Garden Tomb.
The stated mission and purpose of the park is to “demonstrate the greatest commandments of our Lord Jesus Christ,” which initially caused a stir. When the Holy Land opened in 2001, the Jewish Defense League protested that Jewish-born founder Marvin Rosenthal was trying to convert Jews to Christianity. In 2007, Rosenthal sold the park to the world’s largest religious television network, the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), for an estimated US $37 million. The owners of TBN, the Crouch family, added a 2,000-seat Church of All Nations auditorium, the Smile of a Child Adventureland, and the Oasis Palm Cafe.
“Everyone wants to visit Israel and the Holy Land, to walk where Jesus walked and see where He ministered to the multitudes,” general manager Mark Everett said in a 2012 press release. Everyone includes non-Christians, who are, of course, allowed to visit. If you want to work in the park, however, it helps to be a believer. All employees must sign a statement of belief, which clearly states the park’s mission. “Everyone’s description of a Christian is different...but if you don’t understand what we do here, it doesn’t make sense to work here,” a park employee told me.
Though the park makes a general stab at replicating some of ancient Israel’s holiest sites, and some people arguably benefit from the baptisms and live healings, the effect is much more in line with the kitschy splendour of Orlando theme parks like nearby Disney World than the intimate spirituality of the worn streets of Jerusalem. A reviewer on Yelp was dismayed by her recent experience: “I apologized to my family for bringing them and quietly asked God’s forgiveness. Mockery is the word for this place. My spirit is grieved.”
Photo by Paul Jeffers