I'm not a big fan of the "What Would Jesus Do?" movement, but I can't think of one situation in which the answer to that question would be, "Build a theme park."
Yet, just in time to give Vegas a run for its tackiness, a Christian theme park is exactly what we're getting. The Holy Land Experience, set to open in about a year, will be a religious educational theme park, and the controversy already has begun. It's rumored the park will be a subtle prod to convert Jews to Christianity. That's convertainment.
Zion's Hope, a nonprofit, nondenominational evangelical group based here, is putting $10 million in pledged and donated money up for the seven-acre park, to be called The Holy Land Experience. An Orlando Sentinel story on the controversy reported that Zion's Hope, while "not as well known as an evangelical group called Jews for Jesus," has a reputation for lobbying Jews to switch teams. Fears that the park would put a Jewish face on Christian evangelism were misplaced, said the group's founder and executive director. He's a Baptist minister named Marvin Rosenthal. (OK, so Rosenthal converted from Judaism to Christianity. But it's still surprising, like having a Doberman named Snuggles.)
The $10 million being lavished on Cross Country would go a long way toward helping the sick, sad and afflicted people that one thinks of as the recipients of that lovely phrase "Christian charity." But I'm not the most informed person in the world. It could be that all the sick are cured and all the hungry are fed. I didn't read the paper today.
And who's to say that even Mother Teresa, if she'd thought of it, wouldn't have told some malaria patient, "What you need is a corn dog and a hat" ?
Religious tourist attractions aren't unheard of. There are plenty; it's just that most are naturally occurring, like the waters at Lourdes. Man-made places like the Vatican and Chartres have drawn people in for centuries by virtue of their dignified grandeur and emotional appeal. But they aren't theme parks. Catholics have guilt and hell to keep them riveted; they don't need a John the Baptist character walking around St. Peter's Square carrying his fun-fur head and putting it down to shake hands with the kids.
Holy Land hasn't announced any major rides. It will be an educational park, featuring biblical characters telling their stories, and re-creations of sites like Jesus' tomb and the cave where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. That's two dank, dark, confined spaces kids will be thrilled to see after Splash Mountain.
I can't wait to get to Six Flags over Israel because it sounds like the closest thing to being in an episode of "The Simpson's." I want to have a water-into-wine cooler, play Pin the Nose on the Leper, Stone the Heretic and Golgotha Goony Golf ("you have to get the ball up the Hill of Skulls, through the desert and into the Whore of Babylon" ). Just picture the souvenir outerwear: "Jesus died for your sins and all I got was this lousy T-shirt."
There have been no reports that visitors to Splendid China's temple replicas have gone in Methodist and come out Buddhist. How a ShrinkyDink travelogue is going to convert anyone is hard to imagine. Maybe they'll have booths featuring people really enjoying shellfish. ("Mmmm, shrimp ... have a brochure." ) But frankly, it's a concept all religions should look into. After all, it's just for fun.
Tickets to paradise
A Zen Coney Island would comprise an empty lot where a roller coaster should be, and an implication: "That which is worth riding cannot be ridden with the butt."
Santeria, which makes headlines for its followers' practice of sacrificing chickens, has spectacular possibilities for visuals. And free wings.
The Rasta Maker would be the easiest: Get everyone high and bring in some Taco Bell.
The devil's greatest draw is mystery, which you don't achieve through flume rides. Still, a Satanist theme park might serve up orgies, liquor and any conscienceless behavior you could muster, to the piped-in question: "How do you even know you have a soul?"
And if Scientologists set up a virtual-reality display offering you the chance to be in any Cruise/Kidman movie where they're naked, they'd find more convertibles than a used-car lot.
If you believe in any of the aforementioned faiths, don't write me a letter; I'm aware that your faith is more complex than a couple of lines from the local smart-ass can convey.
And it's none of my business, nor do I care, whether you believe in Jesus, Buddha or the Great Pumpkin. I'm sure you put a lot of thought into getting there, or your parents put a lot of thought into hammering it into your head when you were a kid. At any rate, it's nobody's business. So don't go changing.
Especially if the rides don't really kick ass.