Academic journal article Polish Sociological Review

"Authentic Experience" and Manufactured Entertainment: Holy Land Experience Religious Theme Park

Academic journal article Polish Sociological Review

"Authentic Experience" and Manufactured Entertainment: Holy Land Experience Religious Theme Park

Article excerpt

Introduction

Holy Land Experience, a theme park in Orlando, Florida dubs itself a "living, Biblical history museum" (Branham 2009). It was originally created in 2001 by Marvin Rosenthal, a Jew who turned to Christian religion, and became a Baptist minister. According to the founder, the place was intended as a space for Christian education, (Goodheart 2007) but, a newborn Christian critical of Judaism, he was accused of including anti-Semitic allusions in the park. Their message could be boiled down to "murderers of Jesus" or, in a more subtle version, "those who do not realize the Messiah has come." As Rosenthal's proselytizing idea for the park did not bring enough revenue, Holy Land Experience was sold in 2007 to Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN). It is the largest American Christian media corporation and owner of numerous preacher television channels, as well as to other media outlets and real estate. TBN not only quickly got rid of the anti-Semitic features, but refocused the stated educational role of the park to include more pro-Israeli features.

I decided to visit Holy Land Experience-an unusual mix of theme-park entertainment and religious zeal-to explore how today Christianity can be reinterpreted to fit a commercial, entertainment-focused enterprise. After all, strong ties between the state and Christianity, Protestantism in particular, have always been a significant social glue in the United States. Already Alexis de Tocqueville argued in Democracy in America (2000) that in the US religion and democratic principles mutually support each other. Indeed, on the one hand, religiosity has remained prominent in American public life, and at present, too, open references to God are a common feature in US politics. On the other hand, since Protestantism in the United States is not regulated by any single religious institution, it opens space for more diversity and the privatization of religious experience. Furthermore, as Max Weber (2003) famously argued Protestantism, with its focus on individual effort, is sympathetic towards consumption, since it is considered evidence of the success in one's hard work, and, more importantly, a visible sign of Divine Grace. In the United States, material expressions of personal achievement interpreted as signs of God, have been, and still are, considered by many as symbols of ties between religion and the capitalist nation state.

Holy Land Experience religious theme park is a prime example of linking consumption, religion, and the nation. Located in a city famous for Disneyland and other amusement parks, it is seemingly just another commercial entertainment space. Its makers, however, emphasize its role as a space for education on the sources of Christianity. In this sense, the location of Holy Land Experience makes it look like a lone missionary in the center of an entertainment-focused jungle, and in order to attract visitors the park adopts methods similar to those found at the neighboring theme parks. Thus, the use of entertainment to present Christianity makes Holy Land Experience a place where religion can compete with nearby theme parks. At Holy Land Experience it is reformulated to fit the familiar reality of consumption and entertainment. Yet it goes further: by employing well-known contexts from American pop culture it presents a vision of unique ties between the American nation and God, which lie at the foundation of American Christianity (see e.g.: Stevenson 2013).

The Schedule

Holy Land Experience is located not far away from Universal Orlando Resort theme park and a huge 1.2 million-square-foot shopping center, The Millenia Mall. Like other theme parks in Orlando, Holy Land Experience is situated next to a highway and the best way to get there is by car. Located on fifteen acres of land, roughly half the size of the mall, the park welcomes visitors with a ten-feet-tall golden plaster lion and silver horse in front of the entrance to the parking lot. …

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