Magazine article The Christian Century

Authentic Replica. (My Holy Land Experience)

Magazine article The Christian Century

Authentic Replica. (My Holy Land Experience)

Article excerpt

ON A CRISP January morning when most people were straggling with New Year's resolutions or debating whether the Patriots would get to the Super Bowl, I was snapping my fingers to the tunes of the Century Ensemble. The eight-member Christian singing group, decked out in matching red sweaters, stood center stage in a large auditorium as it led an audience in crooning, "I'll Be Home for Christmas." Some might think it strange to be singing carols a week after they hauled their molting Scotch pine off to the dump. But this audience of mostly midwestern retirees stared ahead blankly and intoned, "Please have snow and mistletoe / and presents on the tree."

This was day one of my Holy Land experience--or as I should say, day one of my visit to "The Holy Land Experience." Nestled alongside Interstate 4 not far from Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida, this theme park is a "living biblical museum" set on 15 acres. A nifty attraction, the Holy Land Experience presents, in "elaborate and authentic detail," the history of Israel from 1450 B.C. to A.D. 66. Our Christmas concert was a last-minute switch. Due to rain, managers had canceled an outdoor "historical presentation" at the Temple of the Great King, a half-scale, white-and-gold replica of King Herod's temple. Instead, the ensemble reprised its Christmas medley. "It was a big hit during the holidays," said a female employee in a robe and sandals.

The idea behind the Holy Land Experience is that you enter the park's Jerusalem City Gate and travel 2,000 years back to a "spectacular place overflowing with religious history, rich culture and vibrant activity." The male Israelite characters have real beards and greet you with an authentic-sounding "Shalom!" Less friendly but clean-shaven Roman soldiers stormed past in breastplates and helmets. They seemed pissed off, as I supposed they often were.

Battling with the authentic Holy Land feel are a few incongruities. Music, for example, takes its cue not from B.C. instruments but from Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments, and it is pumped into every corner of the park. Poinsettias native to Mexico are artistically placed among the aloes and pomegranate, fig and olive trees--the latter marked as "indigenous to the Middle East." And on the wall inside Jesus' empty tomb hangs a helpful sign: "He Is Not Here for He Is Risen."

Unlike the real Holy Land, the park makes for a comfortable pilgrimage. The Qumran Dead Sea Caves are only 20 cubits from Calvary's Garden Tomb. To get there you cross the Via Dolorosa, or "way of suffering," the path Jesus took to his crucifixion. But the Holy Land Experience version of the Via Dolorosa is not particularly somber. Pilgrims following the faux-camel footprints can stop for Milk & Honey Ice Cream and Thirsty Camel Coolers at a concession stand along the way.

Another difference from the Holy Land: everyone who works at Holy Land Experience is a born-again Christian. An ordained Baptist named Marvin Rosenthal created the $16 million theme park as a nonprofit evangelical ministry. Born Jewish, Rosenthal converted to Christianity as a teenager, attended Dallas Theological Seminary and became a minister in 1968. He has made it his personal mission to bring as many of his former co-religionists as he can to Christ, and the theme park is one of his tools. He founded Zion's Hope, Inc., which owns and runs the park as "a Bible-believing faith ministry to the Jewish people and the world God so loves."

Jews have not appreciated Rosenthal's attention. When the Holy Land Experience opened in February 2001, the Jewish Defense League picketed it for several days, claiming that the "soul-snatching theme park" was an attempt to convert Jews to Christianity. The New York Times quoted Rosenthal as saying his goal is to "share the troth of the work of God to all people, including Jewish people."

Muslims hoping to see the Dome of the Rock should not come to the Holy Land Experience. …

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