Tales From A Jesus Theme Park-A Different Kind of Faith
Last month, my wife Cindy and I got a chance to go to Orlando for a ministry conference. While we were at the hotel for 3 nights with the conference, we didn't want to let a trip to Orlando go to waste, so we decided to go out a day early and take in some of the city.
We went out there on a tight budget and had looked at hundreds of different attractions in that area online prior to our visit-everything from the typical Disney stuff, to SeaWorld, Busch Gardens, Universal Studios, and plenty of other smaller family places like water parks and miniature golf establishments. The fact was almost everything out there was way more than what we could afford and with our renewed commitment to being better with our finances, we were determined to find something in our budget.
So after much consideration, we settled on "The Holy Land Experience"-a sort of biblical theme park whose $30 admission price was very appealing compared with almost $100 at the Disney or Universal parks. Having been in ministry for a while, I must say, I've grown somewhat cynical to a lot of things that are done in "the name of Jesus." I tend to agree with Rob Bell's statement in his book Velvet Elvis, "'Christian'-great noun, horrible adjective." What he means is that sometimes we put things in a box by labeling them Christian-Christian band, Christian T-shirt, Christian business, Christian jewelry, (there are even Christian breath mints) you get the idea. So while Cindy was more excited than I was, I went more out of curiosity than anything.
As we drove up, the sign read "TBN's Holy Land Experience" and I began to formulate all these ideas in my head of big-haired TV evangelists, Benny Hinn pushing people over in the Spirit, and of ladies with make-up running late at night asking people to call the prayer line at the bottom of the screen. There were life-sized 3D depictions all over the entrance area of scenes from the life of Christ-almost like a live nativity without the life and with more scenes. As we entered, we were greeted by people in biblical attire and were handed a schedule of shows and performances. The one that caught my eye was "Communion with Jesus" at 12:30 in the Qumran caves.
The first show we went to was a presentation about the Tabernacle, the Old Testament mobile tent of meeting that preceded the Temple for Israel's worship. A "descendant of Aaron" shared about the importance of the tabernacle and through a well-done light/sound production, they recreated what the Bible describes in worship at the Tabernacle. My cynicism was dying, and the educational aspect of this place was getting to me. As we walked around, we saw a children's exhibit telling the story of Jonah where we walked into the mouth of this whale and listen to an automated Jonah tell his story along with some crazy sea creatures, including an octopus with a thick redneck accent! We also saw a 3D miniature model of the city of Jerusalem at the time of Christ based on the actual layout of the city and historical records. It was fascinating to see where everything was and how it was laid out. Then we went to the Scriptorium-a museum containing one of the largest collections of biblical manuscripts in existence. There were Egyptian papyrus scrolls from the era before Christ, and Greek manuscripts from the 3rd and 4th centuries. They also had hand-written manuscripts from great church figures including Charles Spurgeon and John Wycliffe. As we walked through the tour guided by our automated narrator, I was beginning to really grasp what this place was all about.
Before we left, though, it started pouring down rain. We needed a shelter from the rain. Where could we go? Well, Communion with Jesus was at 12:30 at the Qumran Caves. So what do you think we did? We walked into this large room of stone floors, walls, and columns and sat at a large table, not on a short coffee-table sized one like they probably used back then. A man in biblical attire, complete with sandals and a Britney Spears-style headset mic came and introduced himself as the Apostle John. He told the story of the Scriptures and how the death of Christ was important and what it meant to those first disciples. Then he introduced Jesus who came and recited the familiar passage from John's gospel, in first person. I didn't know whether I should take in the majesty of the moment, or feel like it was all a little too sacreligious...maybe even cheesy? This wasn't an Easter play at a church. This was "Communion with Jesus" at 12:30 in the Qumran Caves and if we hurried when it was over we could see the next show at 1:00. After communion was served in our authentic cups of olive wood from the Holy Land, Jesus led us all in a chorus of Alleluia with the Apostle John chiming in on harmony and "Thank you, Lord"s. Since this was so different from anything I'd experienced, I asked God what I could take from all of it.
This is what I felt like he was trying to show me. Would I have done the same things if I was going to build a park that would glorify God? No. Was I really comfortable with a lot of the things presented? No. Did I feel that having a man dressed as Jesus serving me communion was a little hokey? Yes. But then I realized something and it changed my perspective. Did these people have good intentions in what they did? I think so. Did they do what they felt was best to have a place that honored and glorified God in the largest tourist destination? Absolutely. Do I have to embrace everything they presented in order to be edified in my faith by the Holy Land Experience? No I don't. See, while it was a stretch for me and I was a bit cynical, I could have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. These were people who loved Jesus and were expressing it in a way that was real to them. I enjoyed going to the Holy Land Experience. It was a great way to spend a day in Orlando and still have some money left for some other things.
I hope in the future, when I encounter people whose faith doesn't look exactly like mine, that I am not quick to judge. I hope that I embrace the commonality of our faith and know that we are united by one Lord, one faith, and one baptism.