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.

Holy Lands in the USA: from the Garden Tomb to Noah’s Ark

by Crispin Paine

[part 1 of 2]

Replicas and re-imaginings of the Holy Land have been found throughout the Christian world for well over a thousand years. Today most are to be found in the US: some modest back-garden sites, some multi-million dollar visitor attractions. Last year, thanks to a generous PEF grant, I visited eleven of them.

Typical of the little sites is ‘The Garden of Hope’, a two-acre rather scruffy garden in a suburban back street of working-class Covington, across the river from downtown Cincinnati. In 1938 a Southern Baptist minister, Rev. Morris Coers, visited the Holy Land, and was so moved by the Garden Tomb that he determined to build a replica back home. His Garden opened in 1958; it is now maintained by a local church and used for occasional services and weddings, as well as for informal visits (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: The ‘Tomb of Christ’ at ‘The Garden of Hope’ (photo by C. Paine).

Besides the replica tomb, the Garden contains a ‘Carpenter’s Shop’, with chairs for meetings or services, a mural of a 19th (?) century Palestinian carpenter, old carpentry tools given by Ben Gurion, and an Israeli flag. It contains alsoa small chapel used for weddings, with ‘a stone from the Horns of Hatton [sic]’ on which the couple stands while exchanging vows. Oddly, this building is vaguely based on a 1620 Spanish Mission church. Other Garden attractions include stones from the River Jordan, from Solomon’s Temple, and from the Good Samaritan Inn. The Garden offers a splendid view over downtown Cincinnati; beside the viewpoint sits a statue of Christ giving the Sermon on the Mount, and behind is (a label informs us) a ’30 feet cross put up by angels during the night.’

At the opposite end of the scale is the Museum of the Bible in Washington, opened in November. I was generously given a preview, plus interviews with the Director and senior staff. The museum was founded by Steve Green, a phenomenally wealthy businessman, and costed some $500m. Before the opening it had attracted some very bad publicity, because his company has been successfully prosecuted for illegally importing looted Iraqi antiquities. The museum tried desperately to distance itself, but Green remains chairman of its Board.

The museum’s focus is on the Bible as a book, and tries to engage with its history, its stories, and its impact; I was assured that it doesn’t promote any one religion or doctrine, but every faith community is given its own voice; as the director put it, they “hope for harmony, like a choir.” Certainly Catholicism receives a lot of emphasis, as does the role of the Hebrew Bible in Judaism and Jewish tradition, but it was less clear that its role in Islam is noticed.

There are six floors. The top two floors are devoted to restaurant, theatre, Biblical Garden, meeting rooms and so on, and the ground floor to reception and orientation, children’s gallery, shop and library. Between are three floors of displays. The lowest is the ‘Impact Floor’, focussed on ‘the impact of the Bible on Society, Government and Culture,’ the middle floor is the ‘Narrative Floor’, focussed on stories from the Bible. The highest is the ‘History Floor’, devoted to the history of the Bible as a book, and the most object-rich of the galleries. The Holy Land will appear in numerous places, most notably in the Hebrew Bible Walk-through, and in a substantial reconstruction, ‘The Nazareth Jesus Knew”, with volunteer actors (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2: Building Nazareth at ‘The Bible Museum’, Washington (photo by C. Paine).

Though there are many concerns, the museum – if only thanks to its size – is going to be a game-changer for religion museums. It aims to be the most technologically advanced museum in the world; the budget for technology alone is $42m.

Two attractions on an almost similar scale have been set up by the Creationist ‘Answers in Genesis’ organisation near Cincinnati. They present not the Holy Land exactly, but stories from the Bible. The Creation Museum attracts over half a million visitors a year. It was opened in 2007 as a major theme-park/museum, with the aim of persuading visitors of the truth of fundamentalist Christianity, and that the Earth was created about 6,000 years ago. The museum’s highlights are certainly the Bible Walkthrough, with its elaborate dioramas of the Garden of Eden and the famous figures of Adam and Eve, and of small children playing with baby dinosaurs (Fig. 3), but equally engaging are the animatronic figures of Noah and his family.

Fig. 3: Dinosaurs at “The Creation Museum” (photo by C. Paine).

The second of Answers in Genesis’s attractions opened in July 2016, and received 1.2m visitors in its opening year. There are plans for a pre-flood walled city, first-century village, Tower of Babel and a journey illustrating the parting of the Red Sea, but the main attraction at present is the wooden replica of Noah’s Ark, 510 feet long and 51 feet high. It really is astonishing. The dramatic exterior is matched by the Piranesi-like views up through the three decks, the timberwork created by Amish craftsmen (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4: Inside ‘Ark Encounter’ (photo by C. Paine).

The displays mix up conventional displays on aspects of the flood (and some more widely presenting Creationist theory) and reconstructions of animal cages and the living quarters of Noah’s family (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5: One of Noah’s disaffected workers, at ‘Ark Encounter’ (photo by C. Paine).