Friday, September 7, 2018
Selfies with Jesus
Among my adventures during my summer sabbatical, I took a trip to the Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida. My friend the Rev. Sr. Sarah Randall and I had already spent a couple days splashing about in the Volcano Bay water park and riding the rides at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter when we made our way down I-4 to the ersatz Jerusalem. It was everything I expected it to be — a kind of Holy Land version of Epcot, replete with actors in colorful costumes performing song-and-dance numbers that bore about as much resemblance to the real Holy Land — in Jesus’s time or today — as Epcot France does to the city of Paris. The Holy Land Experience lacked the thrill rides that headlined at Universal, but the Temple in Jerusalem and the public square at Bethany had been as loving rendered with as much careful attention to detail as Hogwarts and Diagon Alley had been at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
The Holy Land Experience uses this setting to present a series of stage shows based on various Biblical dramas. These change seasonally, from the Passion and Resurrection at Easter to a “God With Us — Redeeming Love” theme when we visited in May. The audience moves from stage to stage — from the Temple courtyard to watch the woman caught in adultery to a side stage to watch the same woman (who is somehow also Mary Magdalene and Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman) make the decision to cast aside her life of well-heeled prostitution to follow Jesus; then a walk past the two-story high baptismal fountain to the main auditorium, where Christians cower in a darkly lit catacombs and tell stories of courage in the face of persecution, through the tales of Queen Esther and the Three Young Men and the Fiery Furnace. It’s Sunday-School-meets-Broadway-Musical, with dancing Pharisees and Assyrian belly-dancers, and frequent appearances by Jesus, predictably played by a tall, handsome man with shoulder length wavy brown hair. The Holy Land Experience owes as much to Jesus Christ Superstar as the Bible.
All this feels a little ridiculous. OK, a lot ridiculous. How else can you describe the disciples engaging in an acrobatic dance-off with the Pharisees, a la West Side Story, while they waited for Jesus to arrive at the Temple for a day of teaching? And the tellings undeniably perpetrate some of the worst cultural misconceptions around the Biblical narrative, with the Jews as the set-piece villains, European Jesus who is always calm and patient, and Mary Magdalene conflated with the prostitute who washes Jesus feet (and apparently is caught in adultery… talk about lumping all your sexual sins together in one package!)
But as my friend Sister Sarah noted, it also carried the spiritual energy of a place that was prayed in. Scattered around the stages were invitations to prayer — an ersatz Western Wall where prayer requests could be slipped between the “stones” and would be transported to the Holy Land; a wooden cross where thanksgivings for prayers answered could be pinned for all to see; a pocket-sized Garden of Gethsemane where the faithful could kneel at the fock like Jesus and lift up their lamentations to God. It was, Sarah said, “Ignatian theology a la theme park.” Yes, it was tacky. But it was also a place where people offered their heartfelt prayers, and Jesus showed up.
It is easy for those of us with advanced degrees and a passion for historical-critical Bible study to be dismissive of Theme Park Jesus. But the people who bring their whole families, from grandmothers down to the little babies, to the Holy Land Experience instead of spending an extra day at Disney are looking for something — a Jesus they can relate to, a Jesus who, in the words of the Easter hymn, “is no longer bound to ancient years in Palestine.” My sister’s mother-in-law — a lovely Southern Baptist lady from Georgia — had put her finger on it when she described her encounter during a weekend church-sponsored bus trip: “I was sitting in the Garden of Gethsemane when I looked up, and there was Jesus coming towards me!” she said. “Now, I know it wasn’t really Jesus. But in that moment, it was like Jesus was really coming to see me.”
It is the same longing that sent medieval pilgrims on dangerous journeys to walk the Via Doloroso in Jerusalem on Good Friday, and led them to purchase fragments of the True Cross to bring back home. Modern pilgrims come by minivan and take selfies with Jesus, but they, too, are looking for the God who is with us, a Jesus they can see and touch and high-five.Theologians might call it an incarnational theology, And the stories being told — of a love that is not deterred by the secret shames of our lives, of the courage to speak boldly about one’s faith, of a God whose power is stronger than death — are, indeed, ones we need to hear.
Truthfully, the Holy Land Experience isn’t entirely my cup of tea. The militant insistence on scriptural inerrancy, the casting of European Jesus, and the conflation of the woman caught in adultery with Mary Magdalene trigger my preacher's instincts and make me want to explain to passers-by how they distort the Biblical narrative. But given the elaborate vestments I don each Sunday to lead worship, I’m not sure I have any right to complain about over-the-top costumes or Broadway-style music swelling behind the actors as we approach the story’s dramatic conclusion. And in truth, maybe we have all come looking for the same thing, whether we are at the Holy Land Experience or the sanctuary at St. Mark’s — the promise that God is with us, a savior who understands us and still loves us, a concrete reminder that we are not alone. As Sarah says, “And Jesus shows up.”
Posted by Suzanne at 9:46 AM