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Holy Land Experience draws critics, fans

ORLANDO, Fla. (BP)–When Miriam Lineberry leads a caravan of 40 people from College Park Baptist Church to the other side of Orlando, she expects the group will better understand the historical basis of their faith. And that’s exactly what Independent Baptist minister Marvin Rosenthal had in mind when he conceived The Holy Land Experience, a 15-acre “living biblical museum” that opened in February to capacity crowds.

“We have created a wholesome, family-oriented, educational and entertainment facility where people can come to be encouraged, instructed and reinforced in their faith,” said Rosenthal, president and chief executive officer of Zion’s Hope, a not-for-profit evangelical Christian ministry that launched the $16-million high-tech project. “It’s a total immersion experience that offers historical proof of the Bible and dynamically demonstrates that the Bible is God’s Word to man,” said Rosenthal in an interview with the Florida Baptist Witness.

The Orlando-based ITEC Entertainment Corporation was responsible for the design and production of The Holy Land Experience, bringing 15 years of experience with clients that include Disney, Universal Studios and Blockbuster Entertainment. “The challenge of compressing literally thousands of years of biblical history down to an entertaining and inspiring three-to-five hour guest experience has driven our design team to come up with some of the most inventive approaches and ideas ever,” stated Bill Coan of ITEC.

“With scenes of the Holy Land and a depiction of life during that time, I think it will be helpful for Christians to see,” Lineberry said of her church’s upcoming visit. And the $14 admission fee for group members makes it an affordable field trip, she added.

It’s not just the adults who are attracted to the model of ancient Jerusalem and the various multi-media presentations. Old Testament Professor Jerry Lee of The Baptist College of Florida heard positive reports from the teenagers at the church where he serves as interim pastor. “From what I’ve heard, the folks who are behind it have really tried to be as authentic as possible.” A frequent visitor to Israel, Lee expects the local attraction will be a popular destination for Christians who wish they could make the trip to the Holy Land overseas.

Educating Christians is only a part of Rosenthal’s vision. A three-quarter scale tabernacle presents a look at Israel’s ancient priesthood and their sacrificial system. Displays describe historical proof of the Bible, and the “message of the grace of God for sinful men as demonstrated in the death, burial and resurrection of His Son” is clearly presented.

As a converted Jew, Rosenthal studied at Philadelphia College of the Bible and Dallas Theological Seminary, then pastored for six years before directing the Friends of Israel ministry. As executive director of Zion’s Hope, his primary goal is to share his faith in Jesus Christ as the promised Messiah with other Jews. Any profits from The Holy Land Experience will be directed toward evangelistic outreach to Jews.

It’s that emphasis that has a vocal segment of Jewish advocates protesting the new theme park. Critics like Jewish Defense League Chairman Irv Rubin calls The Holy Land Experience an insidious attempt to convert Jews through the guise of entertainment. His announced plan to make “a militant, angry statement” by picketing opening day drew only two other protesters. Once Rubin failed to rally local opposition, criticism of the new park virtually disappeared, according to marketer Ryan Julison.

There’s no reason for park visitors to feel tricked into hearing a Christian perspective of history, stated Charles Nelson, senior adult and music minister at Lockhart Baptist Church in Orlando. “They are up front with the information,” he said, having taken a group from his church. “People know this is going to be about Jesus when they walk in the door.”

He described exhibits as accurate and biblically based and enjoyed a non-denominational Bible study offered to members of his church and other park guests. When Rosenthal wandered into their meeting, Nelson said he answered questions about controversy related to the park opening. “He said it was all a part of the providence of God. What other park opens with news coverage on CNN and every newspaper in the nation. It gave them the publicity they needed.”

Local Rabbi Daniel Wolpe demanded an apology for the 18-minute Wilderness Tabernacle presentation that moves from the life of an Israelite slave during the time of the Exodus to a Jewish priest who wonders if the desert sojourn is just a prelude to a fuller understanding of faith. Orlando Sentinel religion writer Mark Pinsky wrote in Christianity Today that Wolpe found the final image of Jesus, Mary and Joseph offensive “because it is implying that their tradition is the fulfillment of our tradition,” adding, “That is a clear proselytizing maneuver.”

Southern Baptist missionary Jim Sibley observed that many who claim to be champions of tolerance are demonstrating “great intolerance” when it comes to Christians sharing their faith. “From all I’ve read and what I know about those who are behind it, there is nothing that would be contrary to the message of the gospel portrayed in this theme park. If that’s offensive, then it’s an offense that we should not try to avoid.”

Sibley coordinates Jewish ministries for the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. He recommends evaluating whether the theme park’s methods are ethical and compatible with Scripture. While he disagrees with aspects of Rosenthal’s eschatological views, Sibley knows him to be a man who has built bridges with the Jewish community and supported Israel, in spite of criticism by Jewish advocacy groups.

“Some of the tactics of some of these groups is designed to intimidate Christians against any form of witnessing or evangelism and their demands are simply ones that Southern Baptists cannot meet.”

In response to Jewish people who are offended by having incorporated Jewish tradition with Christian perspective, Rosenthal says, “The Bible was written in a Jewish land, by Jewish men, about a Jewish Messiah, who fulfilled Jewish prophecy. It is tacitly impossible to remove the Jewishness from the Bible. The entire Christian faith is based upon the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy.”

The claims that the New Testament makes regarding Jesus stand as the central issue between traditional Judaism and Christianity, a NAMB interfaith bulletin states. “They are denied by the former and affirmed by the latter. Some charge that Christianity’s claim that Jesus is the only way of salvation is a denigration of Judaism. However, Christianity’s affirmation is no more a denigration of Judaism than Judaism’s denial is a denigration of Christianity. We should all be seeking God’s truth regarding atonement for sin and a lifestyle that is pleasing to Him.”

Rosenthal promises that each exhibit and presentation will provide dramatic and factual insights that will bring the message of the Bible into clear focus. “Enthralled by the fascinating exhibits, we believe our guests will find their comprehension of the Bible becoming deeper and more meaningful.”

That is what the visitors from Orlando’s College Park Baptist Church are expecting, Lineberry said. “I’ve heard comments from folks who have been there and felt it was very impressive and meaningful. There’s a lot of enthusiasm from our department about going.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: FLORIDA HOLY LAND and THE KING’S TEMPLE.

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter