Holy Lands in the USA: Two Tabernacles and Christmas

by Crispin Paine

[part 2 of 2]

The remarkable use made of drama as a mission tool by US Evangelical Christians has attracted some attention. In Eureka Springs, Arkansas, a Holy Land has grown out of a Passion Play. The Great Passion Play Theme Park was founded in the mid-1960s on the land of his retirement home by Gerald L. K. Smith, an ageing right-wing radio evangelist who hated Blacks and especially hated Jews (he insisted that Jesus wasn’t a Jew, but that Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower were.) Smith was a ‘Disciples of Christ’ minister, but also a very active politician whom even right-wing Republicans regarded as extreme. An active rabid pro-Nazi, after the War he campaigned for the release of Nazi war criminals. (The park today seems to have entirely escaped its founder’s racism: indeed, one of the attractions offered to visitors is an Israeli bomb-shelter, obtained via a colleague of Netanyahu.)

There he created his Sacred Projects, beginning with Christ of the Ozarks, a 67ft hilltop statue of Christ, following it in 1968 with the annual Great Passion Play, modelled on the Oberammergau Passion Play (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: The Great Passion Paly stage (photo by C. Paine).

Smith’s plan was to create another major attraction: a full-size replica of the Old City of Jerusalem. He died when only the East Gate (of stone, and still impressive) had been built, and the project was abandoned (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2: The “East Gate of Jerusalem” at “The Great Passion Play Theme Park” (photo by C. Paine).

Instead, in the early ‘90s, across the neighbouring hills were set up some 25 sites illustrating particular places/stories in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. These are used as foci for the New Holy Land Tour, which is in effect a two-hour mobile sermon. My tour was led by a Texan who, with her husband, spends the winter as a missionary in Mexico, and the summer acting in the Great Passion Play. Seven retired people and two newly-weds were taken round in a mini-bus; all the others appeared to be Evangelical Christians. Not all, however, seemed entirely familiar with their Bibles; an initial prayer, while parked under the East Gate, was followed by a discussion of whether Christ at the Second Coming would enter Jerusalem through the East Gate. One tourist remarked that ‘the Muslims’ had created a cemetery outside the gate in order to discourage Him.

The highlight of the tour was undoubtedly the impressive replica of the Tabernacle, which gets 16,000 visitors a year (the Play gets 50,000) and where the tour-guide’s husband Rob suggested (with huge use of parallels, symbols and numerology) that “everything in the Tabernacle points to Jesus”. At each stopping-point on the tour the guide delivers a little homily drawing a Christian message from the site. Other high points are the Upper Room and the Sea of Galilee (a very pretty lake), where on larger tours actors reenact the Last Supper and Jesus walking on the water.

‘Holy Land’ attractions approached from an archaeological and historical perspective are quite common in the US. ‘Bible History Exhibits’ in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, is a very modest example, housed in a small bungalow on the main road (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3: The “Bible History Exhibits”, Paradise PA (photo by C. Paine).

The simple displays are mostly of museum reproductions of artifacts, inscriptions and manuscripts, collected over the past twenty years and carefully chosen to tell the story first of the Hebrew Bible, then of the New Testament, and then of the Bible’s impact. In the garden is a modest replica of a Palestinian tomb and an olive press. The one-hour tour is led by Dr. Stephen Myers, who describes a selection of the exhibits, following broadly the story of the Bible.

 

Holy Lands appear in all sorts of places. The nearby ‘National Christmas Center’ is the life’s work of Jim Morrison, and includes a very large collection of cribs, a replica of a 1950s Woolworths Christmas display, endless Santa Clauses from a variety of countries, and so on. It also includes a display representing the Holy Family’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. This is a walkthrough combining replica Holy Land buildings and full-size dioramas of market traders in a Caravansarai (‘like a modern truckstop’) and of the birth of Christ (Fig. 4). The dangers of the journey are represented by a pair of stuffed mountain lions.

Fig. 4: Traders in the caravansarai, “National Christmas Center” (photo by. C. Paine).

Not far away is the Biblical Tabernacle Reproduction. This is one of the better-known Tabernacle replicas, though certainly inferior to that at the Great Passion Play theme-park, partly because the quality of reproduction is less, but also because this one is indoors. It was created in the late 1940s as the ‘Moses Tabernacle in the Wilderness,’ by a Baptist minister in St. Petersburg, Florida. Mennonites later purchased the replica and eventually joined it with the Mennonite Information Center. The Tabernacle has partly-open sides, enabling visitors to watch while a Mennonite minister gives an explanation. More straightforward than the presentation at the Great Passion Play, nevertheless he too drew a Christian message from the experience.

In his website http://www.materializingthebible.com, James Bielo of Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, lists 433 visitor attractions worldwide themed on the Bible. ‘Some are educational, some for fun, some for devotion. Some playful, some deeply serious. Some elaborate, some simple. Some controversial, some not. A few are all of the above.’ Were he to extend his list to include other ‘Holy Land’ places, he might include such attractions as ‘Prophet Muhammad Cinematic City’ near Qom, which reproduces Mecca at the time of Mohammed, and even Vrindavan, where ISKCON is building a theme-park to celebrate the birthplace of Krishna.

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