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The Holy Land Experience.

I. Shalom. Welcome. That Will Be Forty Dollars.

Something I have never done in my life is paint the belly of a life-sized, plastic, baby elephant. I have never loaded up a roller with grey paint, lain on my back in a parking lot less than a mile from exit 78 on Interstate 4, and applied long strokes to the underside of a pachyderm. Yet two workers in matching blue T-shirts and shorts are doing this exact thing outside the gates of The Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida. As one of the men rollers paint onto the elephant, the other man directs the movement, pointing out places that need more coverage. The elephant's trunk is raised like a trumpet, and if I squint I can almost imagine the baby elephant rising from a mud bath on the African Savanna, or joining a two-by-two line onto Noah's Ark, a thirty-foot-long facsimile of which is docked at the end of one of the parking lots. Outside the entrance to The Holy Land Experience, patrons browse plastic dioramas of the Garden of Eden, the "Bethlehem Bus Route" (an AstroTurf traffic roundabout depicting the birth of Jesus complete with a portly innkeeper and plastic angels strung on cables), "Shepherd's Field" (which is described in the park materials as a "Recreation of the angels telling of Jesus' birth"), and the "Face of Jesus Statue" ("Jesus watches over you wherever you go"). As potential enticements, these dioramas all serve as preambles to the ticket booth, which is flanked by two statues of Roman centurions.

"Get my picture," one woman says to her friend as she sidles next to a statue, places her arm around his waist, and smiles broadly as if the statue is her prom date. "Hold his hand," the woman's friend says, and the woman taps the centurion's shield, which makes a hollow, tinny sound like a cheap gong. Behind the plate glass at the ticket counter, a park employee, dressed in what looks like a B+ version of a generic and sensually modest Cleopatra Halloween costume, speaks through a microphone to two customers who are disappointed that the park does not offer AAA or AARP discounts. "Well, we at least have coupons for two dollars off," one of the customers says and hands Chaste Cleopatra thirty-eight dollars and the coupon. These customers have a stack of the coupons, and, perhaps in an act of retaliation for the discount denial, the customers distribute the remaining coupons to the other ten or so customers in line, myself included. Chaste Cleopatra smiles throughout, gladly accepting every coupon.

The park map's description of the entrance to The Holy Land Experience as the "Main Entrance/City Gate" ("Pass beneath the stone arch modeled after the Damascus and Jaffa Gates of Jerusalem") epitomizes what I perceive to be the bifurcated marketing strategy of the park. On one hand, customers should always be mindful that they are entering a theme park (the "Main Entrance" half of the description), complete with attractions, shows, handicapped-accessible bathrooms, gift shops, park security, and kiosks. On the other hand, The Holy Land Experience intends to provide a religious immersion experience (the "City Gate" half of the description). One of the pamphlets I received with my ticket states this goal explicitly: "The Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida allows you to immerse yourself in the most important time and place in history."

A young man who looks like a high school student on his way to a toga party collects my ticket as I step through the turnstile. Instead of projecting sarcasm or irony, the young man brightly says, "Shalom! Welcome!" and flourishes his hand toward the "Jerusalem Street Market" just beyond the arch. A legal disclaimer at the base of the arch states,
    --CROWD RELEASE--By entering The Holy Land Experience, you grant to
   The Holy Land Experience Ministries, Inc. (hereafter HLE) the right
   to film and photograph you, record your voice and likeness, without
   compensation, in connection with the picture and the distribution
] and exploitation and thereof, and you release HLE and
   its licensees from all liability in connection therein. You agree
   and understand that HLE will proceed in reliance upon such grant
   and release. Smoking is prohibited. Shalom! 

Unlike the standard typeface in which the text of the legal release is written, the word "Shalom" at the bottom of the plaque is printed in a typeface that attempts to be generically Hebrew-esque, and the punctuation mark after "Shalom" curves in such a way that I cannot tell if it is an exclamation point or a question mark, which, for me, projects a tone that is part question, part command--a tone not unlike a mafia boss asking, "Capiche?"

2. Experience Jerusalem the Way Jesus Saw It

Although The Holy Land Experience promotional materials advertise that the park enables patrons "to experience Jerusalem the way Jesus saw it," the park feels more like an Aladdin exhibit at Walt Disney World. Instead of brimming with prostitutes, shysters and thieves, the "Jerusalem Street Market" is simply a sequence of innocuous gift shops and kiosks, staffed by smiling employees. The park employees seem to fall into two categories: the maintenance/service staff members who wear khakis and polo shirts (imagine a maintenance employee carrying a plastic mountain lion under his arm as the employee bumbles through the park), and the costumed employees who interact with park patrons. Unlike the actors at most historical theme parks, the employees at The Holy Land Experience are allowed to break character. Thankfully, no employees are required to recoil in feigned shock whenever a patron's cellphone goes off, or prostrate themselves whenever a plane flies overhead. They talk openly about the park, chat about sports and the weather, and then resume their roles by sliding back into character at the beginning of the next show/attraction.

To the right of the market is the "Smile of a Child Adventure Land," which has a kid-friendly rock-climbing wall, a children's theater, and a plastic facsimile of Jonah. Patrons enter through the whale's mouth (which emits a misting spray) to view plastic Jonah, rendered mid-flail as he churns in the whale's belly. Outside the exhibit, children can have their pictures taken recreating Samson's destruction of the temple, which is represented by two six-foot-tall, artificially crumbling plastic columns before a canvas backdrop. Children take turns pretending to strain between the pillars as their parents laugh, saying things like, "Okay, okay, don't hurt yourself," and "Oooh, macho man!" Unlike the biblical Sampson who was seduced by Delilah, blinded by the Philistines, sent to a Gaza prison, and ultimately killed in a quasi-suicide as the temple collapsed around him through his own act of religious vengeance, the young Samsons here snarl for the camera flash, then, laughing, step down from the exhibit, some of them shaking out their arms or wheezing into an inhaler.

To the left of the market, the patrons step from the narrow streets to the center of the park, replete with reproductions of the "Qumran Caves" ("where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered"), "Calvary's Garden Tomb," "Crystal Living Waters" (a "dancing waters presentation" similar to the Bellagio hotel's fountains in Las Vegas), "Temple Plaza," the "Church of All Nations," and, on the opposite side of the lake, "The Scriptorium." When a patron passes into the center of The Holy Land Experience, the underwhelming "Jerusalem Street Market" opens onto the full park, revealing the scope of the "experience."

The first thing that surprises me upon entering the full park is that the majority of the patrons are African American, though nothing about the park seems to be overtly marketed to African Americans. Most of the employees are white, and there are at least three different actors, all of whom are white, who portray Jesus both in the live-action shows and in the park-wide events. Not only is every actor white who portrays Jesus, each one has grown a full beard and hair past his shoulders--no wigs. Additionally, virtually every person is white in the promotional handout about the "Trinity Broadcasting Family of Networks." Among other images, the brochure features a snapshot of Roma Downey--"best known for her portrayal of Monica on the popular TV series Touched by An Angel"--visiting The Holy Land Experience with her husband Mark Burnett, "producer of several hit TV series including Survivor, Apprentice and The Voice." Six of the eight total African Americans featured in the promotional materials are gospel singers, including BeBe and CeCe Winans.

The second thing that surprises me about the interior of The Holy Land Experience is that the park does not overtly engage in cultural and political debate. One of my expectations was that the park would use its platform to promote socially conservative political values. (The only potentially political reference I notice is a sign at the cafe stating, "Now serving Chick-fil-A!") Instead, the social and political references seem to be subordinated to a more ecumenical narrative, one focusing on forgiveness, communion, and the removal of burdens--whether spiritual, emotional, physical, or financial. This emphasis on communion and forgiveness is literally manifested in the first attraction I enter: "Holy Communion with Jesus" at the "Qumran Caves."

3. The Upper Room

The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1946 in caves near the Qumran archaeological site in the West Bank, and the facade of the caves has been recreated here with poured concrete painted to resemble limestone cliffs. On seeing the facade of the "Qumran Caves" at The Holy Land Experience, most children seem to respond immediately to their first impulse, which is to run up and attempt to scale the facade. A small stage/platform containing a life-sized cross extends from the side of the caves. The cross (which is painted with artificial blood) and the small stage/platform are referred to in the park materials as the "Whipping Post" area of the park--the "Recreation of the place Pilate had Jesus scourged." Inside the cave, the park designers have created a "Re-enactment of the last supper in the upper room."

When I enter the cave, one of the costumed employees hands me a wooden communion cup not much larger than a thimble as she simultaneously breaks off a piece of a sacramental cracker and places it in my hand. The sacramental cracker seems broadly Protestant (as opposed to, say, the specificity of a Catholic communion wafer), and the woman presents the cup and the cracker to me without inquiring about my faith (or potential lack thereof). Alone inside the room, I don't know what to do. The cave-like exterior has given over to decor I would call "Vegas Italianate." Faux-marble tiles cover the walls, and a faux-marble arch frames the entrance. Folds of satin extend from above a chandelier in the center of the room to all four walls, forming a satin ceiling that curves like a tent roof. An ornate twenty-five-foot-long table spans the center of the room. Draped in purple velvet and accented with glitter flakes and ruffles, the table seems to be styled more appropriately for the Jungle Room at Graceland than for a recreation of the "upper room" in which the last supper took place.

Feeling a strange mix of piety, irreverence, and disorientation, I take a seat at the long bench on one side of the table. Fifteen or so wine goblets are spread across the table (I can't tell if they are purely decorative or intended for use), and I can see my reflection flicker (the candles are electronic--no actual flames) in the goblet across from me. On one hand, I feel a sense of quietude. The outside world has vanished, and while the setting is absurd, the symbols of communion are meaningful to me (and to millions of people around the world). Christ's teaching through parables and the very concept of the word becoming flesh, are not just central to my aesthetic belief in the power of compassion that is inherent in writing, in metaphor, and in story, but the act of participating in communion is central to my understanding of my own family--the years compiled upon years of my mother passing a communion plate to my father, who in turn passes it to me, and then I to my brother. On the other hand, as I swallow the cracker and the thimble of grape juice, a part of me expects an animatronic band to rise up on the other side of the table and sing a robotic version of "Jesus Loves Me" or "This Little Light of Mine" before asking me to exit to my left.

As I stand up from the bench, three other patrons, looking equally confused, enter the room. They ask me what they are supposed to do, and I shrug, and all three of them lift their communion cups as if to say, "Bottoms up." As they are chewing their communion crackers, one of the costumed employees enters the room and tells the four of us that the communion service will begin in five minutes. The three other patrons stop chewing immediately and, stifling giggles, cover their mouths with their hands. As the employee returns to the door, the three other patrons and I exit. The employee nods and smiles to us (clearly, we are not the first patrons to flub the process of receiving communion), and I try to hand her my empty communion cup. "No, no," she says, folding my fingers over the cup, "that's for you to take with you."

4. Heavens to Mergatroyd

In addition to the exhibits and attractions at the park, The Holy Land Experience also offers several live shows over the course of the day. The majority of the shows take place in the Church of All Nations. After exiting the "Qumran Caves," I decide to check out the half-hour show, "Legna--Where Heaven and Earth Meet." From the outside, the circular Church of All Nations resembles the Roman Colosseum. Inside, though, the 2,000-seat auditorium has retained the same purple and deep blue color palate from the "upper room." Gilt metal scrollwork crowns the proscenium stage. Patrons can enter and exit as they please during the shows. One woman sticks her head into the auditorium, talks loudly to her friend, and then exits. Two high-school-age kids on my row jump up and leave abruptly, their cushioned auditorium seats flopping up and down loudly. Another woman leads her children--she tugs one child who has been trying to play hopscotch on the paisley carpet--up the steps as a spotlight projects onto the apron of the stage where two young men in T-shirts and jeans are sitting at a restaurant table and arguing about whether or not angels exist.

"I don't know, man. It's hard to believe," the dark-haired young man says. "You mean there are like big, shiny butterfly things I can't see all around me that watch out for me?"

"No, that's not what angels are like. That's a Valentine's card, not the real thing," the blond young man says, his chair turned so that he speaks toward the audience as well as the other young man at the table. "Have you ever heard the story of 'Daniel in the Lions' Den'? Before you start judging what an angel is or is not, let me tell you this story."

"Okay," the dark-haired young man says. Feigning indifference, he slouches in his chair, slumps his shoulders, and then, with a practiced expression that is skeptical, yet curious, looks toward the blond young man and says, "I'm listening."

"The story goes like this," the blond young man says as the curtain rises behind them, revealing Daniel sitting cross-legged at the center of an austere stage. The spotlight fades on the young men on the apron, and Daniel looks out toward the audience as three actors in lion suits (the suits resemble the Cowardly Lion's costume from The Wizard of Oz) stride onto the stage, the lead lion twirling the end of his tail like a billy club.

"Well, well, well, what do we have here?" the lead lion says in a voice somewhere between Snagglepuss (I half expect the lead lion to exclaim, "Heavens to Murgatroyd!") and Ralph Kramden.

"Ooooooooooh! Looky!" the female lion squeals and points at Daniel. Her voice, amplified by a headset microphone, is pitched so high that my entire body tenses in response.

"This here is Porterhouse," the lead lion says, pointing to the other male actor dressed in a lion suit. "And that is Rib Eye," he says pointing to the female lion/actor who curtseys and then makes a barking sound at Daniel. "My name," he says, "is Loin." He pauses and then says to the audience, "SIR Loin." No one in the audience laughs, although they do not seem annoyed by the show. The audience smiles pleasantly, chatting to each other throughout the show as if it were a television program playing in the background of their living rooms.

"I'm not afraid of you!" Daniel says as the lions--making growling sounds and pawing the air--start to circle him.

"Not afraid, huh?" Sirloin says. "Well, how about this?" he yells as he leads the other lions in a mock karate demonstration, which goes on for what feels like several minutes until Rib Eye "accidentally" kicks Porterhouse in the crotch, which elicits the first moment of spontaneous laughter from the crowd.

"Nope," Daniel says, unmoved, "that's not going to do it."

"Well, then how about this?" Sirloin responds. "Hit it boys!" A generic rap track blares over the theater speakers, and all three of the lions begin an impromptu rap, the refrain of which is, "What you gonna do with all this fear, up in here, up in here?" Daniel covers his ears with his hands (so does an elderly woman sitting next to me as she scrunches down a bit from the volume, though she continues to watch the show). The lions proceed to breakdance while rapping. Porterhouse attempts to do a backspin as Rib Eye does the robot. When Sirloin starts saying, "Wicka-wicka-wicka-wicka" while scratching an imaginary record on an imaginary turntable, a voice yells out, "Silence!" over the theater speakers, and everyone freezes.

A woman dressed as an angel leaps up from behind one of the blocks on the stage. Lit from above, she extends her arms, and two wings unfurl from her sequin-and-lace costume. A three-foot wand extends from each hand, expanding the gossamer wings from her body. As she speaks, she waves the wands, undulating the wings. (The image reminds me of the way that deep-sea eels will ribbon through the ocean.) The lions recoil in fear, and after they are sufficiently admonished by the angel, the curtain descends, and the spotlight rises on the two young men sitting at the restaurant table on the apron of the stage.

"See," the blond young man says to the dark-haired one, "angels are like an extension of Jesus' love for you. Jesus is always there for you. He'll always save you."

"I guess," the dark-haired young man says. "I'm still not convinced, though."

"Well, how about another story?" the blond young man asks. "Have you heard the story of how an angel visited Peter in prison?" When the dark-haired young man says he hasn't heard the story, the house lights come up in the auditorium, and the blond young man asks the audience members if any of them has seen Peter. A costumed employee, dressed like one of the disciples, sits at the end of a row near the front of the stage. The audience, uncertain if this question is part of the show, doesn't answer. The blond young man steps down into the audience, places his hand on the costumed employee's shoulder, and asks again if anyone has seen Peter. The audience members shake their heads. Throwing up his arms, and with a hint of genuine exasperation in his voice, the blond young man says, "Is anyone actually watching this show?" which elicits the second moment of spontaneous laugher from the crowd.

5. "That Don't Look Like a Goliath Burger to Me"

After the show (which I am relieved to exit--the mix of loud noises, reductive spirituality, bad rap, and high-pitched voices makes me feel like I am trapped inside an over-the-hill marketing executive's interpretation of an adolescent's brain), I head to the Oasis Palms Cafe for lunch. Unlike all of the other sections of the park, the cafe, makes only a perfunctory attempt to blend into the immersion experience. Costumed employees give way to food service workers in hairnets, T-shirts, and jeans. Ordering is cafeteria style, and I grab a tray and take my place in line with the other park patrons. A woman next to me argues with one of the workers about the food. "That don't look like a Goliath Burger to me!" the customer says, pointing to a precooked meat patty between two slices of white bread. The employee doesn't argue, but gives the woman a look I interpret as, "If you don't want it, then don't order it. They don't pay me enough to argue about it." The only menu items that attempt to relate to the park's theme are the Turkey Drum, Smoked Lamb, and "Isreali" Salad. (None of the patrons or employees seems to notice the misspelling of "Israeli.") Everything else is standard fare: Chicken Tenders, Mac & Cheese, Mini Pizza, etc. I order the Gyro (at least that seems Mediterranean), place my tray on top of one of the trash receptacles, and head outside to eat my sandwich.

All of the tables are taken (one kid yells because his father keeps reaching across and eating the kid's fries, which the father continues to do undeterred as the kid shakes his fists at the sky), and I stroll over to the artificial lake to watch the "Crystal Living Waters" presentation. Spouts of water shoot up in rhythmic, preprogrammed intervals, as if a group of synchronized, stationary whales is just below the water's surface. Next to the lake is a modest cross (five feet tall) that is attached to a small pedestal and deck. A sign refers to the area as the "Testimony Cross Garden." Unmarked on the park map, the garden provides a place for patrons to write down their prayer requests and attach them to the cross. A small table next to the cross contains a stack of prayer request forms, pens and thumbtacks. Fifteen or so completed prayer request forms flutter on the cross.

Although I feel a bit uneasy doing so (I feel like I am snooping into people's diaries), I lean in close to the cross and read what people have written. The prayer requests quickly reveal common themes: "Financial stability and husband salvation," "For: Man. In Jail," "Complete healing of heart condition," "Healing of pancreatic cancer," and "For: [Person's Name]. He got shot." After reading just a small sample, I step down from the deck and return to the cafe to dispose of my sandwich wrapper. All of the patrons around me in the park seem to exude peacefulness and contentment--how easy it is to forget the ways (invisibly, in isolation, publically, with and for their' loved ones, financially, physically, optimistically, or despairingly in hopeless situations ...) that other people are suffering. "Do a better job of giving people the benefit of the doubt," I admonish myself. "Don't be so quick to judge."

On the other side of the lake is "The Scriptorium," which the park materials promote as a journey across time: "Take the incredible journey through history of how we got the Bible! See the authentic and ancient artifacts from around the world! Continuous 55-minute automated tours begin every seven minutes." History beckons, and because I forgot to put sunscreen on my bald scalp--which I can feel is starting to sunburn--I shuffle quickly in my flip-flops, doing a kind of mini-jog to the other side of the lake.

6. Where There Is Truth, There Is Suppression

According to the company website, The Holy Land Experience was "born in the heart of a Jewish believer named Marvin Rosenthal. In 1989 he came to Orlando, purchased property on the I-4 corridor to world famous theme parks, and began to put his vision to work. God had given him a two-fold purpose: to proclaim the Gospel to as many people as possible; and to help believers have a better understanding of the Judaistic roots out of which Christianity grew." The park opened on February 5, 2001, and The Scriptorium opened a little over a year later on August 17, 2002.

Because of "a declining economy and inability to advertise nationwide," the Holy Land Experience was sold to Trinity Broadcasting Network in 2007. While Trinity Broadcasting Network focused more on the evangelical emphasis of the park--"New dramas and musicals were developed with an emphasis on presenting the saving power of our Lord Jesus Christ"--The Scriptorium persisted as the primary vestige of Marvin Rosenthal's original vision. As a scholarly archive, The Scriptorium is billed as "the fourth largest assembly of such rare items in the world."

A digital clock on the door of The Scriptorium counts down the seven minutes between the narrated tours, and when I take a seat beside four African-American women on a bench at the entrance to the exhibit, the clock says we have exactly three minutes and twenty-seven seconds until we start our tour. The four women are mid-conversation with a park employee who wears what looks like the same modest Cleopatra outfit as the woman at the park's entrance. One of the women (three of the women look like they are in their fifties, while the older woman looks like she is in her late seventies) asks the park employee if Tammy Faye Baker is dead, and one of the three younger women interrupts, saying, "No, Mother, she's not dead. We just saw her on television the other day."

"I think she actually passed away from cancer a few years ago," the park employee says. While most of the park employees look like they are in their twenties, the employee outside The Scriptorium appears to be in her late forties. A thin braid, woven into her long hair, is tucked behind her ear, and the woman swings her feet from where she sits on a small table next to the door. The four women ask the employee where she grew up, and she says she is from Charlotte originally and that she "followed a boy" to Orlando many years ago. When she says, "And I've just been here ever since," she smiles inscrutably and looks down at her swinging feet. One of the women starts to ask the employee another question, but the employee looks at the digital clock, which has reached the one-minute-remaining mark, and the employee hops up from the table and begins a practiced speech about how we are about to start a journey back in time, which will take fifty minutes to complete, and we should know that there are no bathrooms inside once the tour begins, so we "should go now if we have to go." She concludes her speech just as the clock reaches zero, and the automated doors of The Scriptorium swing open.

Once inside, the doors close behind us. The first room has a domed ceiling and no chairs. The four women and I don't know what to do, so we all sit against a railing underneath the dome as the lights dim and a recorded narration begins over the speakers: "Three thousand years before Christ there was a land called Mesopotamia!" Thunder cracks and the four women and I jump. As the voice explains the history of the "Tablets of Ur" the older woman wanders into the next room. "Mother, wait," the daughter says. "You aren't supposed to go in there yet!" The mother smirks and gives her daughter a look like, "I'm an old woman. What are they going to do to me?" The narrator (whom we have been ignoring) says, "Which brings us to Ancient Egypt!" and the lights come up in the next room, signaling our transition.

Inside the Ancient Egypt room, the narrator explains the history of papyrus while the older woman walks over and tugs on a closed door. "I think they locked us in," she whispers to me. Overhead lights illuminate several display cases as the narrator transitions into the story of the Library at Alexandria. Fire crackles over the speakers as the narrator describes the library's deliberate destruction. "Because," the narrator booms, "where there is truth, there is suppression!" Behind us, the door to the next room opens silently, and when we turn away from the artificial flames, the older woman says, "Wait a minute. That door was just closed!"

The next few rooms direct us through the history of parchment and vellum--there ate renderings of scribes copying the Bible by hand--until we reach the Middle Ages, where a mannequin of John Wycliffe translates the Bible from the Vulgate to vernacular English. As the narrator informs us that Wycliffe's actions made the Bible available to the common man for the first time, the Wycliffe mannequin comes to life. His eyes open, and he scribbles furiously with his quill pen. The sound of galloping horses fills the room, followed by shouts and loud knocks on an unseen door. "Hurry!" Wycliffe yells to us. "My enemies have found me! There, the fireplace, it's your only way out!" On the other side of the room, the back of the fireplace hearth creaks open, revealing a secret door large enough for all of us to squeeze through as the women laugh, feigning fear, and the older woman points over her shoulder at Wycliffe and says to me, "I think he's still talking in there."

The next few rooms lead us through the Gutenberg printing press, the "Matthew's Bible," which was published in 1537 by John Rogers, and the 1611 King James Bible. "Do you see the red splotches on the Matthew's Bible?" the narrator asks as a display case is illuminated. "That's actual human blood from a martyr!" When we reach the Protestant Reformation and the Mayflower, the women sing along with the Doxology as it plays over the speakers above a miniature New England chapel. After the next two centuries--which include an eighteenth-century Bible for the blind with raised letters that predate braille--we enter into another domed room similar to the one at the entrance. As the lights dim around us, the narrator recounts all of the figures from the Bible who helped deliver God's word: Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David, Isaiah, Ezra, Mary, John, Peter, and Paul. As he says the names (in a voice of a revved-up announcer calling out the team lineups before a basketball game) a curtain rises for each name, sequentially revealing ten stylized portraits. "Are you going to join them in their work?" the voice asks, and then directs us into the final room: the "Now" room, which is appointed with a 1950s style couch, a black-and-white television, and shag carpet. The "Now" room is intended to be a reminder of how all of us are supposed to carry the gospel to our homes. Instead, the older woman says, "Finally!" and sinks into the sofa, putting her feet up on the coffee table.

"Mother, you're not supposed to do that! This is just a display," her daughter says as the older woman rubs the arm of the couch and says, "I used to have a couch just like this." Evidently the "Now" room is not the final room because we are required to go through the gift shop before we exit. The three younger women, looking for a bathroom, move quickly past the trinkets, and I whisper to the older woman that I bet we're required to buy something before the final door will open. "Well we'll all be waiting a long time then," she whispers back as the three other women nudge her toward the door.

7. All Things are Possible to He Who Believes

The culminating event of the day is the live drama, "The Passion/We Shall Behold Him--His Agony, Death, Resurrection & Glorious Return." The daily schedule advises arriving fifteen minutes early to the Church of All Nations for the best seats. Outside The Scriptorium, virtually all of the park patrons and employees are heading to the show, and I join the crowd`` Attendance at the park has picked up by late afternoon, and I'm a bit surprised at the buzz of excitement for The Passion. Back inside the Church of All Nations, I am directed to a row midway up the auditorium steps, and the greeters encourage the audience members to continue scooting down until there ate no empty seats in each row.

"Pretty tight," a woman next to me says as she sits down and--while talking to her husband on her left--begins to fan herself with one of the brochures. While the 2,000-seat auditorium clearly will not be filled to capacity, all of the floor seats and the first fifteen or so rows of the stadium seating are taken quickly. Six patrons line the handicapped-seating row in front of me, where an elderly woman in a park-issued wheelchair chats with a girl in a motorized chair. The girl laughs deeply at something the elderly woman says as the lights flash on and then off, and trumpeters rise from two circular balconies flanking the stage. Velvet flags unfurl from the trumpeters' long horns as they herald the beginning of The Passion (I can't tell if the sound is prerecorded or actually coming from the trumpets), and two men stride onto the stage, one of them pushing a blank canvas attached to an easel on wheels. The first man (who functions as the emcee) welcomes everyone to the auditorium as the other man, his back to the audience, produces a brush and begins to paint.

The emcee informs the audience about turning off their cell phones, the need to stay seated for the entire show, and the potential for loud music and sounds. Behind him, the other man paints quickly with bold, broad strokes, spinning the canvas upside down, then sideways, then upside down again. The emcee says that the story begins with the angel Gabriel visiting Mary, who initially was frightened by seeing Gabriel. "But she was comforted," he says. "Because once you have seen His majesty, you long to see Him more!" As the emcee says this, the painter spins the painting, revealing a portrait of Christ, which, the emcee tells us, will be available for purchase in the Jerusalem Street Market after the show. The crowd applauds enthusiastically, and as the emcee and painter exit the stage, a young woman in costume hurries toward the stage down the center aisle of the auditorium.

"Joseph," she calls out, "is that you? Are you there my love?" When Gabriel enters from offstage (his costume is similar to the angel in the "Legna" performance), Mary trembles before him. "Do not be afraid," Gabriel says, reaching down to brush the side of Mary's face with his hand. As she slowly rises, music begins to play over the loudspeakers, and Mary fluidly transitions into dance. The stories of Mary speaking with Joseph, an angel visiting Joseph, King Herod's decree, the denial at the inn, and the shepherds' and wise men's arrival at Christ's birth are all told through choreography. The music, dancers, and lighting/ staging all build in one continuous crescendo until the stage is filled with thirty or so dancers/actors, live horses, and hovering angels. The singer holds her highest note as Mary lifts the infant Jesus (thankfully the baby is only a doll wrapped in swaddling clothes), above her head, and a spotlight frames the infant. The crowd applauds as all of the actors dissipate from the stage. The woman next to me nudges me with her elbow, gestures towards the stage, and smiles. "Pretty impressive," I say. Pointing to my open notebook and pen, she asks, "What are you writing there?"

"Just taking notes," I say.

"Ah," she says, "well aren't you a student of The Word," as a spotlight descends on John the Baptist stumbling alone down the aisle. Resembling a caveman, John the Baptist calls out, "I have come to prepare the way of the Lord!" to two soldiers on stage.

"You smell like a goat," one of the soldiers says and pushes John the Baptist away.

"Is that a locust you are eating?" the other soldier asks. "You have the stench of sin on you."

John the Baptist points to an actor playing Jesus (now an adult) who enters from offstage. John the Baptist asks the two soldiers, "Whom will you serve?" As the two soldiers laugh, music again projects throughout the theater, and John the Baptist races up the center aisle as the lights fade on the stage. Weaving through the audience, John the Baptist climbs the stairs on the opposite side of the auditorium, and a second actor who is also playing Jesus rises from a small platform above the auditorium entrance. With their long hair, full beards, and matching costumes, the two actors playing Jesus are virtually indistinguishable.

"Master," John the Baptist says, "I am not worthy to baptize you." Jesus beckons John the Baptist to come closer, and John the Baptist lowers Jesus' head into an unseen tub of water behind the platform. When Jesus rises from the water, the actor whips the full length of his wet hair out and over his head, dousing several rows of the crowd as, passing through the spotlight, the water droplets glisten. A guitar power chord is unleashed over the sound system as a voice booms, "This is my beloved son with whom I am well pleased!" The audience applauds as the lights transition from the baptismal scene back to the stage, and the first Jesus (hair dry) emerges from offstage.

In one continuous sequence, Jesus heals the deaf, the lame, and blind Bartimaeus. Shrieking and howling, a man sprints from the entrance of the auditorium to the stage as the actors plead with Jesus to heal the man. "Demons begone," Jesus says, and the man, calmed, rises and goes in search of his wife and children. "All things are possible to he who believes," Jesus says, and the audience applauds. "Begone demons," Jesus says again. "Begone depression. Begone breast cancer. Begone diabetes. Begone pancreatic cancer. Broken heart be mended. Broken leg be healed." With each proclamation, excitement builds until many audience members are standing and applauding as Jesus, arms extended, concludes by saying, "May every fear leave you!"

When the auditorium quiets again, the drama transitions smoothly through Lazarus's resurrection (a smoke machine hisses offstage, enveloping Lazarus when he appears from the tomb), Palm Sunday, the woman anointing Christ's feet with oil ("The poor you will always have with you"), and the Last Supper. When Judas and the soldiers surround Jesus in the garden, the audience visibly grows nervous. The woman beside me shifts in her seat as Satan (depicted on stage as a wiry young man in a black cloak and red-lined hood, his eyes ringed with black makeup) leaps erratically, circling Jesus, Judas and the soldiers. The audience murmurs and calls out as Satan hisses at the moment of Judas's kiss on Jesus's brow. After the soldiers arrest Jesus, Judas is left alone on stage with Satan. Satan wraps a noose around Judas's neck as Judas weeps and cries out, "What have I done?" Cackling, Satan pulls the rope as Judas, grasping the noose, is dragged kicking from the stage.

After Pontius Pilate washes his hands of Jesus's fate, the Roman soldiers begin to attack Jesus. Unlike the cartoonish violence in the "Legna" presentation, the violence in The Passion comes off (at least to me) as overwrought, luxuriant. Taking turns pummeling Jesus, the Roman soldiers revel in B-movie cliches: "It's time we show the King some Roman hospitality!" (Jesus receives a gut punch), "There's plenty more where that came from!" (a double-fisted blow lands between Jesus's shoulder blades, dropping him to his knees), and "Time to teach you how to bow!" (a Roman soldier, like a professional wrestler, grabs the back of Jesus' head and throws Jesus to the ground). Every punch and kick is accentuated by sound effects projected over the speaker system. "Now he calls out for Elijah. Well let's see if Elijah can save him," one of the soldiers sneers. Speaking directly to the audience, one of the soldiers asks, "Will none of you testify?"

When the soldiers begin to nail Jesus to the cross--which is flat against the stage--the presentation becomes more impressionistic. The soldiers swing down imaginary hammers to the sounds of railroad ties being struck. When the cross is lifted upright on the stage, a voice begins to sing, "Does he still feel the nails every time I fail? Does he hear the crowd cry 'Crucify' again?" After Jesus's death and the Deposition, Jesus's body is carried from the stage. Satan snarls and runs triumphant down the center aisle. The actors disperse, leaving only a lone centurion on the stage. "Do you want a new life? Do you want to feel the freedom I feel?" the centurion asks the audience and then leads them together in a call-and-response prayer: "Father, I believe that Jesus is the only Son of God. I turn away from my sins. Save me now, My Lord. I surrender my entire life to you."

At the end of the prayer, I assume the performance is finished, but as I begin to stand up, the woman next to me taps me on the arm, smiles, and points at the stage as if to say, "Oh, it's not over yet. Here comes the good part!" The lights come up on the stage, and Jesus, Satan, and a slew of demons all circle each other. "He has to go get the keys from Satan," the woman next to me says. The demons begin to dance in a choreographed routine similar to the "Thriller" music video as the announcer bellows over the loudspeaker, "Are you ready for the Fight of the Ages?" The demons spring on Jesus and he fights them off one by one as the announcer says, "Jesus was dead. He was down for a ten count, but nothing can stop him, for he's always alive!" As Satan charges Jesus, the announcer begins to count backwards from ten to one.

"You shut your face," Jesus says to Satan. "I wrote the book."

"You're dead meat. I'll bust you up tonight," Satan replies.

"Go ahead," Jesus snarls. "Make my day!"

The crowd cheers as Jesus takes Satan in a chokehold. Though Satan breaks free, Jesus grabs an imaginary chair and swings it at Satan, clocking him under the jaw. When the announcer reaches "one," Jesus stands on Satan and a pile of demons. With a fist pump, Jesus raises his right hand, which holds a golden key. "There you go," the woman next to me says. "He's got the key." The audience shouts, "Hallelujah!" and all the lights in the auditorium come on at once, whiting out the stage. As the actors return for a collective encore, a velvet cape, approximately one-hundred-feet-long, is unfurled down the center aisle and draped around Jesus's shoulders. Organ music fills the auditorium. A crown settles onto Jesus's head, and a scepter is placed in his hand. Looking like a combination of Henry VIII and Liberace, Jesus says, "I have prepared a place for you in Heaven." A strobe light pulses as he says his final words, "I am coming soon," and the curtain descends.

8. Reentering the World

In order for a person to have an immersion experience, at some point, by definition, the person has to reemerge into his or her actual life. (Theologians might argue that life itself is the immersion experience--that eternity is the true life.) Passing back through the "City Gate" of the Holy Land Experience, I am distinctly aware that I am returning to the secular world. "Shalom," the employee says again, waving goodbye to me as I exit. The radio station blares as I start my car, and when I pull onto the I-4 feeder road I notice an argument that is taking place in a SuperTarget parking lot to my right. Two women--their faces red and bodies heaving--pull back and forth on opposite ends of a shopping cart. When the woman holding onto the front of the cart lets go, the other woman stumbles backwards, regains her balance, and then turns the cart and shoves it--one wheel wobbling--like a torpedo toward what I assume is the other woman's Camry. The other woman, enraged, hops up and down, and, though I don't hear the impact, I imagine a "womp-womp" sound as the side panel of the car indents, then pops back out.

The other drivers around me on I-4 are already hunched over their steering wheels in the lurching stop-and-start of rush-hour traffic. Breakdancing lions give way to news from Afghanistan. John Wycliffe transforms to Wyclef Jean. For me, what remains of The Holy Land Experience is not so much the artifacts of experience, but the imprint of experience. When the man in the car next to me wails on his horn and screams in his glass cocoon at the woman in the car in front of him (the woman's car has two bumper stickers: "Coexist" written in religious symbols and "Practice random acts of kindness"), I can't help but think of the fluttering prayer requests thumbtacked to the cross. When the woman, without looking back, opens her sunroof and extends her hand, middle finger raised like a lone soldier riding into the Florida sunset, I find myself mumbling a secular prayer: Begone depression. Begone illness. Broken hearts be mended. Bodies be healed. May every fear you have leave you.
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Author:Fink, Jonathan
Publication:Southwest Review
Article Type:Essay
Date:Jun 22, 2013
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