Jesus is now a roadside attraction

Having spent the last three weeks in London, I’ve discovered that a significant portion of its attractions are places of worship, built to glorify and celebrate God. While they do carry some importance to the evolution of some Christian beliefs and practices today, they don’t give a lot of insight into the beginnings of Christianity. Where did the Bible come from? What was Jesus’ life like? What did he do?

Roman Guards stand watch at the Holy Land Experience in Orlando, FL

Leave it to the Americans to turn Jesus into roadside attractions. Faith-based “theme parks” like the Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida are proving quite popular amongst a growing number of tourists. Debbye Turner from CBS’s The Early Show recently reported (VIDEO) on some of these attractions and they seem to be increasing in popularity. According to research by the National Tour Association in 2009, religious trips are up 10% in the previous three years. It’s definitely a growing trend.

Adam hangs out with his animal friends in the Garden of Eden at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, KY

The Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky is a high production value attraction that illustrates the origins of our world based on a “young earth creationist” interpretation of the Book of Genesis. While this is not the most popular understanding of how humans got their start on Earth, it certainly shares some common elements and would provoke critical thought from many of the museum’s visitors.

In the creationist understanding of the Bible, dinosaurs existed alongside humans, and were even present on Noah’s ark.

The museum features elaborate walk-through dioramas of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, depictions of Noah’s Ark and the Great Flood, and a creationist-correct planetarium. Despite its more controversial interpretations of the Bible, it has been an immensely popular attraction since it opened, greatly surpassing projected attendance figures. The museum’s mission is to glorify God, educate Christians and inspire them to share their beliefs with the world. While I think the museum does this very well for Creationists, it leaves many other Christians with a weird taste in their mouths.

A less controversial attraction, The Holy Land Experience allows visitors to step back in time to experience Israel in the time that Jesus would have been there. The experience is truly immersive, featuring a bustling Jerusalem street market, the Calvary Garden Tomb where Jesus’ body was laid to rest, a Last Supper Communion (dine for the last time with Jesus!), and daily crucifixion re-enactments.

Jesus is crucified daily at the Holy Land Experience in Orlando, FL

The Holy Land Experience has the advantage of location, being just a few miles away from other top Orlando destinations including Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, and Sea World. Vacationers may come for the larger attractions, but may be persuaded to spend a day at the HLE. The attractions and shows with in the park do a great job of bringing stories from the Bible to life. But does that enhance one’s beliefs? One could argue that understanding the stories and struggles of people in the Bible help a believer to empathize better, and have a better understanding of where their faith comes from. Whether it strengthens visitors’ beliefs of not, it’s always comforting to be vacationing with a crowd of like-minded people, regardless of faith.

West London Synagogue- An Outsider’s Brief View into the Jewish community




I never thought I’d find myself walking through a Jewish temple, sitting in their seats, listening to personal experiences of an attending Jew, and attempting to read their holy Torah. There we were absorbing Jewish life in London and spending time in one of their places of worship. I felt a little out of place and almost disruptive as we walked through their holy grounds, which goes back to the religious tourism aspect of traveling.

Last week our class visited the West London Synagogue and experienced their sanctuary, walking through their facilities. I was very intrigued by the trip- getting a chance to gain an inside perspective, especially since I’ve never had any type of exposure to Jewish culture and practices. Besides what we learned in class lecture, everything I absorbed was news to me.

I understand that there is a full range of versions and interpretations of Judasim and the ways a temple chooses to practice, just as there are in other religions. I learned that Jews can identify anywhere from Orthodox/Conservative all the way to Liberal/Reform, just as Christians in my faith communities can identify anywhere from Catholic or Conservative all the way to Pentecostal/Evangelical. For this temple specifically, it was eye-opening to see and hear their own ways of practicing their faith on a regular basis. West London Synagogue is a Reform Jewish congregation and their facility was founded in 1840, making it the oldest Reform synagogue. It is one of the oldest among the 409 synagogues in the UK. Some highlights from my observations of this experience include:

• Hebrew readings and writings

• head coverings

• the uses of the Torah

• symbolism on their walls and ceilings

Anne, our “guide” for the morning, explained how if you were to chisel on stone with your right hand, it would be awkward to go left-to-right (how we are used to reading), and that carving/chipping right-to-left (how their books and documents are written out) would’ve been much easier. Once realizing this, we see why their Torah and Hebrew texts are written and documented this way. This temple still maintains the tradition of head coverings in their sanctuary even when a service is not going on- so the males were asked to wear a kippah for our time inside. I was surprised to learn that no one may ever touch the original Torah copies, which are kept in scrolls with protection and adornments, up at the back of the stage. Lastly, different symbols painted and carved onto the temple walls and ceilings almost all had complex meanings or symbolized something. Anne pointed out the three stars of David (layered over one another) and explained how Jewish festivals and events start the night before the day of the event, after the first three night stars are out in the sky.

These are only a few of the things I saw and learned at the West London Synagogue but they were very interesting for me to experience. I see this class’ quick view into the Jewish culture as a snippet of what there is to learn from this community.