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Replicating the Holy Land in the U.S. (a ‘Materializing the Bible’ Road Trip)

James S. Bielo analyzes a practice of religious replication: re-creations of Holy Land sites in the United States. Such replications invite visitors into an experience of sensorial and imaginative immersion, marshaling indexical techniques for materializing the Bible. Replicating the Holy Land is a strategy for actualizing the virtual problem of authenticity, a problem that animates any and every lived expression of Christianity. To explore this phenomenon, we indulge another national tradition: the great American road trip. This essay emerges from a larger project, Materializing the Bible, curated by Bielo.

MLA citation format:
Bielo, James S.
“Replicating the Holy Land in the U.S.
(a ‘Materializing the Bible’ Road Trip)”
Web blog post. Material Religions. 30December 2015. Web. [date of access]

 

Holy Lands 

Edward Robinson – an American Bible scholar – penned the first major account of Holy Land geography: Biblical Researches in Palestine in the Year 1838. That same year, the SS Great Western initiated the era of commercial trans-Atlantic steamship travel. In this new era a particular journey became both more possible and more attractive for a mass middle-class public: American Christians seeking the sites made famous by scripture and Robinson. The historian Stefanie Rogers neatly captures this evangelical esprit in her study of Protestant travel narratives: “The ‘fifth gospel’ (i.e. the Holy Land) became a way to skip centuries of ecclesiastical corruption and excess…to return to the basic, original, and undeniable truths of the Gospel.” [i]

Realizing that not everyone would be able to take that Holy Land trip, pastors, missionaries, and entrepreneurs decided that the revelatory power of biblical places could still be felt by those at home through material acts of replication. These building projects on American soil had the added effect of linking two Promised Lands: scriptural and national. There have been at least 15 American Holy Land replications, dating to the late 19th century (see Appendix A). They range in scope from single sites (e.g., the Garden Tomb) to topographic models and Jerusalem cityscapes. Why have American Christians been so prolific in replicating the Holy Land to and for themselves, often with significant expenses of time, labor, finances, and energy? I argue that the imperative to re-construct, re-create, and re-present Holy Land sites at home is not merely a teaching tool (though, the sites do teach) or a performance of biblical commitment (though, it usually is). The imperative to replicate is a way to express an organizing problem that is constitutive of Christianity itself. To glimpse the work accomplished through Holy Land replications, we can plan a road trip to visit a few of these sites.

Figure a: Screenshot of American Holy Land replication locations. See Appendix A for corresponding numbers.

 

Get your kicks… 

America’s first Holy Land replication was sculpted from, and into, the earth; just south of Lake Erie in New York’s far southwestern corner, on the shores of Chautauqua Lake. In 1874 the Chautauqua Institution created a 400-foot model of biblical Palestine, part of the Institute’s broader project to train Methodist Sunday School teachers. In the model’s re-created landscape, Chautauqua Lake was transformed into the Mediterranean Sea. Visitors were taken to the model by boat, encouraged to see themselves as stepping off onto scriptural territory. Biblical scholars presented lectures to audiences who looked out onto miniature representations of mountains, rivers, seas, and, of course, cities.

Figure b: Early 20th century souvenir postcard of Palestine Park. [ii]

Chautauqua’s landscape model establishes two important themes. First, the explicit goal of Holy Land replication is pedagogical. It is, and always has been, a kind of Bible study: learning the land promised a better learning of the text. Second, the strategies used in this learning marshal materiality to simultaneously engage the senses and the imagination. By inviting audiences into a re-created landscape, Chautauqua capitalized on the immersive impact of role-playing in a themed setting. Emplacement was the goal, and the material environment, natural and human-shaped, was the means. The intellectual and affective force of immersion was furthered by Chautauquans’ use of clothing, often attending lectures dressed in Middle Eastern cloaks and robes. As the religion scholar Burke Long described it: “Realism was the driving aim, fantasy the enabling impulse.” [iii]

Waterbury, Connecticut is a small de-industrialized city 435 miles east of Chautauqua. Here, from 1955 to 1984, an 18-acre park, Holy Land USA, featured miniature replications of Jerusalem and Bethlehem sites. Holy Land USA was built amid the post-World War II boom, one year before the Interstate Highway system began construction, and experienced 40,000 annual visitors during its peak years. It closed amid the rapid decline in manufacturing labor that swept America’s northeastern Rust Belt. The park sat dormant, corroding and overgrown, until local business interests purchased it in June 2013 for $350,000. Their aim is to restore and reopen, as the buyers’ Mission Statement describes it, “an historic, cultural, and educational landmark honoring religious and spiritual traditions.” [iv]

Figure c: Holy Land USA, external view, (Waterbury, Connecticut) [v]

 

Figure d: January 2003. “Ruined” CC BY-ND 2.0 Image Credit.

One hundred and fifty miles south of Waterbury is Ocean Grove, set on New Jersey’s Atlantic shore. In 1869 a Holiness Methodist movement developed a camp meeting in what was a sleepy seaside town. The camp was intended to be a site where leisure, escape from the city, and spiritual regeneration would meld together. In 1879, five years after Chautauqua’s debut, Ocean Grove added a scale model of 19th century Jerusalem to its attractions. Audiences were led on virtual tours, mimicking the Palestinian tours that became immensely popular following the American Civil War. A 1919 description by an Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association trustee boasted that the model has 1,200 miniature trees, cost $2,500 to create (~$57,000 in today’s money), and was, “So accurate in the reproduction that scores of travelers who have visited Jerusalem have found keen delight in identifying its different sections and even individual buildings.” [vi] This emphasis on material and historical accuracy is crucial for the intended immersion. Historian Troy Messenger writes: “The experience of ‘awe’ at a visual representation of the holy sounds distinctly un-Protestant. But because the model was an ‘exact’ representation, to visit it was somehow to visit the real city, not just because it was the educational equivalent but because it was also the spiritual equivalent.” [vii]

Another Holy Land USA opened in 1972 in the rural Blue Ridge Mountain town of Bedford, Virginia – 400 miles south of Ocean Grove. Family owned and operated, the sprawling 245-acre farm featured re-creations of Bethlehem’s nativity scene, Nazareth, the Jordan River, the Sea of Galilee, Jericho, the Dead Sea, Gethsemane, Calvary, Joseph’s Garden Tomb, and the Mt. of Olives. To heighten the immersive experience of transportation away from the here and now, Virginia’s Holy Land used tactics like importing sand from the Negev Desert. Interestingly, this sand was not scattered on the ground for visitors to walk on, it was displayed with signage for visitors to view and consider. In this immersive act, the sand was more a venerated object than a natural element for purifying the landscape. Much like Connecticut’s Holy Land, economic solvency has (at least temporarily) won out, and the Bedford site closed to public tours in 2009. [viii]

Nine hundred miles west of Bedford, nestled in the Ozark Mountains, is the Great Passion Play in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Opened in 1968, the grounds feature several attractions in addition to its Passion Play theatre, including the Holy Land Tour: a 2-hour “interactive experience.” The Holy Land Tour site invites visitors to “explore the ancient Middle Eastern culture in which Jesus was raised and meet characters from the time of Moses to the time of Christ.” The Holy Land Tour offers measured assurances that all exhibits “have been researched for historical accuracy and have been recreated as authentically as possible.” [ix]

Figure e: The Last Supper display at the Great Passion Play’s Holy Land (Eureka Springs, Arkansas) [x]
The Explorations in Antiquities Center (EAC) in La Grange, Georgia lies 650 miles southeast of Eureka Springs. [xi] La Grange is a small city of ~30,000 people, one hour drive southwest of Atlanta. The EAC was founded in 2005 by a theologically trained archaeologist who has worked on excavations in Israel-Palestine since 1973. The Center sits on the city’s western edge, nestled amid a light industrial corridor, and receives ~12,000 visitors per year. The site’s self-described mission is to “help people encounter the ancient biblical world through its history and culture.”
Figure f: Inside the “Typical Goat Hair Tent” at the Explorations in Antiquities Center (La Grange, Georgia). Photo by author.
Figure g: Main corridor of the “Archaeological Garden” at the Explorations in Antiquities Center (La Grange, Georgia). Photo by author.

The EAC’s main display (“the archaeological garden”) emphasizes household and agricultural aspects of “ancient biblical” life, including a goat hair tent, grape stomping vat, sheepfolds tombs, threshing materials, olive press and crusher, watchtower, underground grain silo, and vineyard. Each replica is explained on a self-guided map and posted signage, and each is linked with an Old and/or New Testament text. Other features include an archaeological showcase of over 200 “ancient artifacts” from biblical lands. These artifacts are on loan from the Israel Antiquities Authority and are housed behind glass in a separate, tornado-proof enclosure where photographs are not allowed. In the main building visitors in groups of ten or more can arrange a 90-minute “biblical meal” in rooms that replicate a first century dining experience. [xii]

The archaeological garden is thoroughly sensorial. The area is mostly outdoors (with partial covering and a few covered replicas), which means visitors feel the day’s weather conditions. As you progress on the self-guided tour you walk on loose, sandy gravel. You are surrounded by varieties of Middle Eastern plants and trees, lending the aroma of native flora. Roosters call from an enclosed cage and flying birds chirp. There are numerous interactive elements: ascending a hill to stand in the watchtower, descending down steps to the bottom of the grain silo, pushing the olive crusher, touching the coarse and firm goat hair tent. The next addition was in the making as of summer 2015. EAC’s founder purchased acreage adjoining the current site, where he plans to construct a walking map of the Holy Land – from the Negev north to the Galilee. The idea of a walking map reprises the primary strategy of America’s first re-created Holy Land, Chautauqua’s biblical Palestine.

America’s most (in)famous Holy Land replica resides 430 miles southeast of La Grange: Orlando, Florida’s Holy Land Experience (HLE). Built on 15 acres, 11 miles northeast of Walt Disney World, HLE opened in February 2001, struggled financially, and was purchased in June 2007 for $37 million by Trinity Broadcasting Network: the thriving, transnational Pentecostal media corporation. Among the park’s many attractions and exhibits, is a floor model of Jerusalem circa 66 AD. HLE claims it is the largest indoor replica of Jerusalem in the world. [xiii]

Figure h: Jerusalem floor model at the Holy Land Experience (Orlando, Florida). Photo by author.

Several dominating features arrest your attention as you walk through HLE. A continuous soundscape of upbeat Christian music plays from overhead speakers: alternating among contemporary, gospel, and traditional hymns. The multi-cultural, multi-lingual crowd is equally striking: even casual eavesdropping recognizes varieties of accented English, from West Indian to North African, and a significant presence of Latino Spanish. Then, there is the dominant aesthetic of gold coloring and, seemingly everywhere, mirrors (which accomplish the triple effect of enlarging the feel of space through illusion, eliminating the need for backdrop designs, and forcing visitors to confront their reflections).

The Jerusalem Model room is more purple than gold. The model is situated by cardinal direction and a replica of the Western Wall is to the model’s east, complete with artificial weeds sprouting from crevices. The floor on the east-west sides incline slightly, enhancing the bird’s eye view when circling around the model. The wooden floor creaks beneath the worn, yet plush, purple carpet.

Four 30-minute guided presentations of the model are performed every day at staggered times. The first begins promptly at 10:30am. Dr. Bill, a pilgrimage guide to the actual Holy Land in his early 70s, steps onto a tiny square of a speaking platform atop the model. He jokes in a literalist register when first stepping up: “The Bible says there were giants in the land, and here I am.” Speaking with a headset mic, Dr. Bill uses a flashlight to highlight exact locations on the model throughout his presentation. Crowds listen attentively, sitting in chairs or leaning against the model’s sides, periodically snapping photos with iPhones, point-n-shoots, and more professional cameras. Dr. Bill’s presentation was a mix of historical claims, identifying the locations of biblical scenes, and scripturally relevant, Protestant-inflected anecdotes. For example, visitors learn: this was Jerusalem at its population peak of roughly 90,000 people, four years before the Roman invasion; Herod was as architecturally gifted as he was morally wicked; Satan tempted Jesus to jump from the temple’s highest point; the location of the Last Supper’s Upper Room in the city; and the temple steps where Peter and Jon healed a man in chapter three of the Book of Acts.

Visitors also learn that today’s valley is 42 feet higher than that represented in the model. This mimics anthropologist Jackie Feldman’s description of an erasure that regularly occurs among Holy Land pilgrimage groups, in which earlier periods are ignored as “oriental clutter” that obscure scriptural truth. [xiv] Dr. Bill closes his grand historical narrative with a modest ambition: “I hope the scriptures come a bit more a live with the model in your mind,” then invites his audience to purchase a laminated model map to enhance Bible study back home.

Replication as Actualization 

American Christians have invested incredible time, energy, money, attention, and enjoyment in re-creating Holy Land sites. Why? Why might this practice – characterized as it is by partiality, multiple mediations, and imaginative leaps – have such cultural continuity and purchase? An obvious response is an appeal to evangelical Biblicism: as Dr. Bill said, it’s about making the scriptures come alive. This answer is not incorrect, but perhaps it is incomplete. I want to venture another answer, one not grounded in evangelical textual ideologies. Re-creating the Holy Land is a strategy for actualizing a problem that animates any and every lived expression of Christianity.

The terms “actualize” and “problem” have particular theoretical import. They derive from anthropologist Jon Bialecki’s attempt to theorize how we can meaningfully differentiate among the dizzying pluralities of global Christianity while still maintaining a coherent, identifiable notion of a shared Christianity. [xv] He borrows from French philosopher Gilles Deleuze to argue for an understanding of Christianity in virtual terms; that is, as existing in a state of not-yet-actualized potential. As a virtual object, Christianity is not defined by beliefs, practices, or institutions; each of these are already kinds of actualizations. Instead, virtual Christianity is defined by problems that require resolution. Ultimately, the dizzying pluralities of global Christianity (and their attendant beliefs, practices, and institutions) are all attempts to resolve a shared bundle of problems.

One such problem is what we might call the problem of Christian authenticity. All Christians must reckon with an irreducible fact: they are separated from the original version of their faith – all temporally and many geographically, linguistically, and culturally separated. The historian Paul Conkin, in tracing the development of new religious movements in America, articulates the problem this way: “In some sense, almost all new Christian movements have advertised their return to an early or pure New Testament church.” [xvi] Theologian John Milbank observes it another way: “the history of Christianity is, unsurprisingly, the history of the failure to live up to the radicalism of ‘incarnation’ from the very outset.” [xvii] As a core virtual problem, there are any number of ritualized, experimental, and institutionalized practices that are strategies for resolving this dilemma of authenticity. Holy Land replications, oriented as they are toward maintaining a sacred memory, are one such strategy. But, again, why? Why is this particular strategy equally attractive to Methodists in the 1870s and Pentecostals today?

To begin, replications are about constructing and asserting historical claims. They are statements about how things were and what really happened. They highlight that defining the true past is what is up for grabs in the field of history-making. As the historian Raphael Samuel wrote: “History is not the prerogative of the historian, nor even, as postmodernism contends, a historian’s ‘invention.’ It is, rather, a social form of knowledge; the work, in any given instance, of a thousand different hands.” [xviii] Our remit is to understand whose hands are doing what and that those thousand hands do not work in concert. The present is a horizon of multiple historical narratives competing for cultural authority. The past, then, is the object of struggle, not merely a site where struggle once took place. The anthropologist Ed Bruner forwards a similar argument in his study of American national memory at the Abraham Lincoln living history museum in central Illinois: “the issue of authenticity merges into the notion of authority. The more fundamental question to ask here is not if an object or site is authentic, but rather who has the authority to authenticate, which is a matter of power-or, to put it another way, who has the right to tell the story of the site.” [xix]

Figure i: Hilltop view at Fields of the Wood Bible Park (Murphy, North Carolina). Note the replica of “the Garden Tomb” in the near front semi-circle. Photo by author.
Figure j: Close-up view of “the Garden Tomb” at Fields of the Wood Bible Park (Murphy, North Carolina). Photo by author

Replicating Holy Land sites highlights how material registers promise particularly potent actualizing potential because they construct historical claims to authenticity through indexicality. Marshaling naturalized connections suggests an unmediated connection to the biblical past. The most pervasive indexical strategy is the use of natural materials from biblical lands to construct Bible-based sites. Recall Bedford, Virginia’s Holy Land USA and the use of Negev sand. The Explorations in Antiquities Center makes numerous indexical appeals. Their biblical meals are comprised of foods native to Israel-Palestine, such as “fruits, dates, nuts, [and] pita bread.” [xx] The archaeological garden is scattered with flora named in scripture, trees and shrubs offering biblical aromas and textures. There are also trickster indexicalities. Walking through the garden you notice white stone scattered throughout the space, conjuring the image of biblical landscapes. This is illusion. All of the site’s white rocks are Alabama limestone, which very closely approximate the hue of Holy Land geological material. Illusory or not, the indexicality at work in stones, flora, and food operates through embodied registers, establishing natural connections to the biblical past through sensory experiences of taste, tactility, and smell.

Replications thrive on making the immaterial material. Chautauqua produced a biblical landscape to be walked; the Holy Land Experience produced a model to be consumed directly at close range. Immersive tactics and techniques are at work. Chautauquans approached Palestine Park via boat on the lake-cum-Mediterranean Sea, and guests arrived to biblical teachings dressed in Middle Eastern garb. Chautauqua and Virginia’s Holy Land imported natural elements of Dead Sea water and Negev sand. Through Dr. Bill’s narration, visitors to the Holy Land Experience envision the precise location of biblical events. Across these sites immersion works toward authenticity in multiple ways: engaging the human sensorium, triggering imaginative capacities, and transporting an audience from the here and now to the there and then.

Historical immersion – unlike its sibling, fantasy immersion – must confront the problem of erasure. To remember an actual place in time can only ever be a partial remembering. In the case of Holy Land replicas, the partiality is tense: eliminating Jews and Muslims from the landscape is politically, ideologically, and racially charged. Forgotten in most writing about the Holy Land Experience is that other erasures are performed in service of historical immersion. After visiting HLE, I reflected on the fact that the culture war issues dominating contemporary evangelicalism and fundamentalism (such as same-sex marriage) are absent from the site. This is quite different from other Christian leisure destinations, such as the Creation Museum in Kentucky, where the culture wars play a dominant, organizing role. [xxi] At least in the most public spaces of Orlando’s Holy Land, the logic of immersive entertainment trumps other cultural commitments. Inciting abortion activism threatens to disrupt the imagining of first century Jerusalem.

Whatever else acts of replication are – entrepreneurial ambition, evangelistic fervor – I understand them as a strategy for actualizing one of Christianity’s constitutive virtual problems. Viewed in this way, it is little surprise that HLE’s Jerusalem model is structured as it is. The art historian Annabel Wharton captures this well in her analysis of the park: “[Herod’s] Jerusalem was the Christian city in its purest apostolic form, untainted by the decadence of the Eastern Christian Empire or the excesses of the Catholic crusades.” [xxii] Framed by purple walls and carpet, led by Dr. Bill in safari gear four times a day, six days a week, the purest apostolic form is remembered and retold, and an authoritative claim on the past is made.

Appendix A: List of U.S. Holy Land replications, past and present

 

Fig. 1 No.
Site
Location
Year Opened
1
Palestine Park
Chautauqua, New York
1874
2
19th century scale model*
Ocean Grove, New Jersey
1879
3
Oasis of Peace
Washington, DC
1899
4
Ave Maria Grotto
Cullman, Alabama
1934
5
Fields of the Wood Bible Park
Murphy, North Carolina
1944
6
Holy Land, USA
Waterbury, Connecticut
1955
7
Garden of Hope
Covington, Kentucky
1958
8
Palestine Gardens
Lucedale, Mississippi
1960
9
Great Passion Play
Eureka Springs, Arkansas
1968
10
House of Mary Shrine
Yankton, South Dakota
1971
11
Holy Land, USA*
Bedford, Virginia
1972
12
Holy Land Experience
Orlando, Florida
2001
13
Explorations in Antiquities Center
La Grange, Georgia
2005
14
Garden Worship Center
Belleview, Florida
In progress
15
Ghost Town in the Sky
Maggie Valley, North Carolina
In progress

 


Endnotes
  • [i] Stephanie Stidham Rogers, Inventing the Holy Land: American Protestant Pilgrimage to Palestine, 1865-1941 (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2011). Cf. Hillary Kaell, Walking Where Jesus Walked: American Christians and Holy Land Pilgrimage. (New York: NYU Press, 2014).
  • [ii] Source: http://isabellaalden.com/2014/10/16/a-tour-of-chautauqua-palestine-park/
  • [iii] Burke O. Long, Imagining the Holy Land: Maps, Models, and Fantasy Travels. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003); cf. Erin L. Hasinoff, Faith in Objects: American Missionary Expositions in the Early Twentieth Century (New York: Palgrave, 2011) on other immersive uses of native clothing.
  • [iv] http://holylandwaterbury.com/index.php/features/articles/47-mission-statement
  • [v] Source: http://www.messynessychic.com/2013/10/04/holy-land-usa-before-after-the-abandoned-christian-theme-park/
  • [vi] Troy Messenger, Holy Leisure: recreation and religion in God’s Square Mile (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999): 106.
  • [vii] Messenger 1999: 111-12.
  • [viii] Timothy K. Beal, Roadside Religion: In Search of the Sacred, the Strange, and the Substance of Faith (Boston: Beacon, 2005).
  • [ix] All quotes in this section are from: http://www.greatpassionplay.org/holy-land.html#.VmCnUI_BzGc
  • [x] Source: http://www.greatpassionplay.org/holy-land.html#.VmCnUI_BzGc
  • [xi] This description is based on the author’s field notes from the site in May 2015. The site’s website is www.explorationsinantinquity.net/
  • [xii] Cf. Amos S. Ron and Dallen J. Timothy, The land of milk and honey: biblical foods, heritage, and Holy Land tourism. Journal of Heritage Tourism 8(2013): 234-247.
  • [xiii] This description is based on the author’s field notes from the site in March 2014.
  • [xiv] Jackie Feldman, Constructing a Shared Bible Land: Jewish Israeli guiding performances for Protestant pilgrims. American Ethnologist 34(2007): 351-374.
  • [xv] Jon Bialecki, Virtual Christianity in an age of nominalist anthropology. Anthropological Theory 12(2012): 295-319.
  • [xvi] Paul Conkin, American Originals: Homemade Varieties of Christianity. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997).
  • [xvii] John Milbank. “A Closer Walk on the Wild Side.” Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, edited by Michael Warner, Jonathan VanAntwerpen, and Craig Calhoun. (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2010).
  • [xviii] Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory. Vol 1: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture. (London, New York: Verso, 1994).
  • [xix] Ed Bruner, Abraham Lincoln as Authentic Reproduction: A Critique of Postmodernism. American Anthropologist 96 (1994): 397-415
  • [xx] Ron and Timothy 2013: 9
  • [xxi] For an analysis of Kentucky’s Creation Museum see: Ella Butler, God is in the Data: Epistemologies of Knowledge at the Creation Museum. Ethnos 75(2010): 229-251; and, James S. Bielo, “Creationist History-Making: Producing a Heterodox Past.” Lost City, Found Pyramid: Understanding Alternative Archaeologies and Pseudoscientific Practices, edited by Jeb J. Card and David S. Anderson. (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, Forthcoming 2016).
  • [xxii] Annabel Jane Wharton. Selling Jerusalem: Relics, Replicas, Theme Parks. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).

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