The main entrance to "The Holy Land Experience" theme park. Photograph: Kevin Wisniewski/Rex Features

The Holy Lando: Unpacking the Modern and Medieval Passion Play

In Chapter IV of The Confessions, Augustine introduces a story concerning his former student Alypius. After being dragged to the gladiator games, Alypius protests by covering his eyes, as to not bear witness to the violent event. Eventually, Alypius “yielding to curiosity” opens his eyes at the cheering noises of the crowd (Augustine, 121). In this passage, Augustine depicts curiosity as a precursor to sin. The condemnation of curiosity is a recurring theme present throughout Christian theology in Biblical stories like the Tower of Babel or Adam and Eve. Alypius’ curiosity makes him culpable for contributing to the spectacle of violence. He is as much of a voyeur as those who never even dared to cover their eyes. However, is this condemnation of curiosity revoked when the violence is not unfolding, but is rather being recreated? Since its origins in the Middle Ages, the passion play has served for centuries as a public reenactment of Christ’s death and ultimate return. This spectacle attempts to distort time by allowing observers to personally bear witness to the Crucifixion. Through individuals becoming spectators, passion plays complicate our understandings of violence and its connection to spectacle.

If you ever found yourself in Orlando between the years 2001 and 2020, with the monetary price of $35 (and the mental price of being in Florida) you could have experienced the Holy Land Experience. The Holy Land Experience was a theme park depicting Evangelical Christian reconstructions of 1st century Judea. One of the most notable attractions, “Behold the Lamb”, allowed guests to become spectators to the Crucifixion through the park’s resurrection of the medieval passion play. The show enabled visitors to become both witnesses and accomplices in the Crucifixion. A Roman soldier demands the audience to “Clear the path!” as the actor playing Christ, doused in fake blood, carries a wooden cross on his back (Braham, 25). A YouTube video, with over a million views, captures a brief snippet from the 45-minute-long show. As Christ is stationed on his cross alongside the other prisoners, another Roman soldier tells the audience, “Your king is on his throne, bow to him now” (2:20 – 2:26). Through both examples of dialogue, the tourists are not merely viewers. Their actions and participation create the spectacle. They move, they bow, they stare, and their curiosity is rewarded.

This modern depiction parallels the customs of medieval productions. In Defaced: The Visual Culture of Violence in the Late Middle Ages, Groebner notes that medieval passion plays also contained the urgency of modern portrayals such as in the Holy Land theme park. In Medieval Germany, a common tradition among productions was to preface the performance by stating it was occurring “right now” (Groebner, 100). Both the medieval and modern performance entangle the viewer with responsibility for the violence. The productions implicate the audience through their viewership. In Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag explains “Perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering of this extreme order are those who could do something to alleviate it” (Sontag, 42). In the case of both passion plays, if the audience witnesses Christ’s suffering, they must attempt to absolve themselves of it. By forcing people to watch the suffering of Christ, the production makes participants active witnesses; It challenges the viewer to make amends through reaffirming the importance of their faith in Christianity. 

However, the message is not exclusively about reaffirming religion. These passion plays can also become bogged down by bigoted or deeply political beliefs. Groebner notes that depictions in later Medieval passion plays made the Antichrist, or other people who betrayed Jesus, Jewish to propagate antisemitic beliefs (Groebner, 112). In the modern passion play, Holy Land was founded and funded by the organization Zion’s Hope — an Orlando based ministry with the mission to convert Jews to Christianity (Pinsky). Jewish leaders in Orlando protested the park’s opening, arguing that the mixing of Jewish and Christian theology erases Jewish history while the theme-park atmosphere trivializes it (Canedy).

 In 2007, the park was bought from Zion’s Hope by the Trinity Broadcasting Network. TBN incorporated more explicitly political themes into the theme park. This included the creation of “The God Bless America Show” — which centers pro-war ideology including a soldier proclaiming it was “god’s will” he lost his leg and the playing of the national anthem alongside standing veterans (Hamett). The theme park is a reconstruction of the past, but its themes and messages serve as a present day agenda. The same actor for Jesus in “Behold the Lamb” switches roles midday to play a soldier in “The God Bless America Show” (Hammett). Viewing these shows together merges political ideology with religious ideology. The crossover of the actors and locations recontextualize the Crucifixion through a political Evangelist lense. These productions function as propaganda. The purpose of these reenactments is deeply political. Reconstructions of crucifixion imagery cannot be witnessed outside of their intended contexts. They serve not only as a history but also as a Christian fundamentalist fantasy that harms the preservation of knowledge it proclaims to preserve.

Passion plays are events built around our curiosity for violence. It wants the viewer’s attention in order to incite action. Alypius’ curiosity at the gladiator games translates to the modern day. Buying a ticket to Holy Land Experience is still financing the spectacle. Standing in a crowd watching “Behold the Lamb” is still financing the spectacle. Engaging in the spectacle upholds the spectacle. The violent event occurs, and all later recreations serve to uphold a narrative about the event. While the Holy Land Experience is not physically harming others, like in Alypius’ gladiator games, the messages inundated throughout the park still cultivate questionable ideas. For the passion play, its origins in the medieval era parallel its use in the present day. With more singing and glitter, the modern passion play in Orlando recreates the violence of the Crucifixion to uphold outdated beliefs originating in the medieval ages. The fraught history of the passion play cannot be severed from its modern uses. Understanding how it weaponizes the witnessing of violence allows us to understand the spectacle and not yield to our own curiosity. 

(Featured Image: The main entrance to “The Holy Land Experience” theme park. Photograph: Kevin Wisniewski/Rex Features)

Branham, Joan. (2009). The Temple That Won’t Quit: Constructing Sacred Space in Orlando’s Holy Land Experience Theme Park. CrossCurrents. 59. 358 – 382. 10.1111/j.1939-3881.2009.00085.x.

Canedy, Dana. “A Biblical Theme Park in Florida Begets Ill Will.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 3 Feb. 2001, https://www.nytimes.com/2001/02/03/us/a-biblical-theme-park-in-florida-begets-ill-will.html#:~:text=The%20Holy%20Land%20Experience%20has,the%20theme%20park%20on%20Monday

Hamlett, Melanie. “Falling for Hot Jesus at a Christian Theme Park in Florida.” The Daily Beast, The Daily Beast Company, 8 Dec. 2018, https://www.thedailybeast.com/falling-for-hot-jesus-at-a-christian-theme-park-in-florida. 

Pinsky, Mark I. “New Theme Park Has That Old-Time Religion.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 20 Jan. 2001, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/2001/01/20/new-theme-park-has-that-old-time-religion/c0a9b17c-e5c6-412d-b798-aea0a86d6ff0/.

“The Crucifixion’ Good Friday April 14, 2017, The Holy Land Experience in Orlando, FL.” YouTube, uploaded by donutcookiepie, 17 April 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oBzOhH29JAs

3 thoughts on “The Holy Lando: Unpacking the Modern and Medieval Passion Play

  1. I really appreciate you bringing the Holy Land theme park to our awareness! Your comment that “engaging in the spectacle upholds the spectacle” is particularly insightful. The pressures of capitalism/commerce certainly change the dynamics of witnessing in a ways that I hadn’t considered as fully before your post. I also like your comments about how the theme park is rewriting/exploiting religious stories in antisemetic ways–it reminded me of the Museum of the Bible/Hobby Lobby smuggling scandal, which culminated in perhaps the best-named civil forfeiture case of all time: “United States of America v. Approximately Four Hundred Fifty Ancient Cuneiform Tablets and Approximately Three Thousand Ancient Clay Bullae.” Anyway, the museum of the Bible has been critiqued for rewriting/condensing centuries of Biblical scholarship to make it culminate in American evangelism and being a strange amalgamation of entertainment with dubious “history.” I wonder what is so persistently attractive about these (in my mind) cheesy cash-grab portrayals of religious violence–especially for Americans?

  2. The questions you raised about curiosity are really interesting! I’m curious about how curiosity translates across fields. Is all curiosity a problem in Christianity, especially Medieval Christianity? I suppose curiosity about God would be acceptable but does the thing one is curious about have to be a pre-determined good?

  3. That sort of patriotic-religious syncretism has always been interesting to me––– American civic religion. The back to back broadcasting of “The God Bless America Show” and the passion play perhaps draws the believer to view fighting for America as a form of Christian martyrdom.

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