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Medill Belief and Public Life

The Holy Land Experience: Who Shall Inherit the Kingdom?

Employees at a troubled Christian theme park find hope—and God—in their new partnership
By Brad Flora, August 23, 2007

UPDATE-August 28, 2007 9:14 p.m. CST: Holy Land Experience chief resigns 10 weeks into TBN takeover

ORLANDO -- The Holy Land Experience, where actors in centurion garb crucify Christ every afternoon, opened its doors Feb. 5, 2001. For most it was just another theme park near Universal Studios filling the once-swampy gaps between the highways, fighting for its share of the 50 million tourists trekking to Florida on pop culture pilgrimages.

But founder Marv Rosenthal calls the Holy Land Experience “a blessing,” the culmination 12 years of what he described as God-driven "miracle" encounters with wealthy Christians who shared his vision of recreating Holy Land sites in the U.S.

Disney and Universal draw from their greatest film hits. The Holy Land Experience has its own source text: the Bible.

Rosenthal built it, and thousands came. But within a year, Rosenthal, who resisted compromising his park’s “basic, evangelical” message to bring in tourists, said he found himself praying for God to intercede financially as his dream plunged into debt.

The miracles had stopped.

The Jewish convert and Baptist minister left in 2005, replaced by a financial manager and a new board with theme park experience.

Now, the new bosses have brokered a merger with the Trinity Broadcasting Network, the largest religious broadcasting network in the world.

Run by Paul and Jan Crouch, controversial figures because of their reported extravagant lifestyle, the TBN makes its money by soliciting donations from its viewers, who are told that God will make them rich and powerful if they give. Theologians call that approach prosperity gospel.

"The TBN is a house of cards. It’s probably financially stable, but I think some [U.S] Senate agency or government group is going to look in on it eventually and how it misuses funds."
-Ole Anthony, President, Trinity Foundation Inc.

But at least one watchdog group, the Dallas-based Trinity Foundation Inc., labels TBN's approach a perversion of biblical teaching and has spent years investigating the network's finances. It alleges finding instances of for-profit use of donor funds. Rosenthal, too, calls prosperity gospel a far cry from the Baptist theology that initially guided the Holy Land Experience.

Many employees around the park sigh relief at their newfound security but are cautious about a future that entails turning the park into a soundstage for TBN productions. After years of comparing themselves to David, they’ve now seemingly teamed with Goliath. And scholars see trouble ahead for this “forced marriage.”

“It may work simply because TBN is an 800-pound gorilla and they may enforce their will,” says Randall Balmer, professor of American Religious History at Columbia University in New York. “But in terms of a true merger between these two traditions, I’d say it’s doubtful.”

Physically, not much has changed at the Holy Land Experience since it opened six years ago. There’s still the recreations of Herod’s temple, Jesus’ tomb and a Jerusalem marketplace. There’s still the Baptist minister dressed like Indiana Jones to guide guests. Staff still work the gift shops and dining areas in robes and sandals and mingle, in character, with visitors. Tourists sing and clap along, hands raised, to choreographed Gospel musical numbers. Actors even reenact Jesus’ miracles, flogging, crucifixion and resurrection.

Disney and Universal draw from their greatest film hits. The Holy Land Experience has its own source text: the Bible.

The park’s genesis dates to 1989, when Rosenthal came to Orlando to start Zion’s Hope, an evangelical ministry to Jews. Having led numerous guided tours of Israel, Rosenthal said he was convinced that “building some biblical artifacts in America would be of interest.” He had no money, but that didn’t stop him. God, Rosenthal says, always stepped in to pay the bills in the early days.

God often took the form of well-to-do Christians.

There was Robert Van Kampen, an Illinois investor and long-time Rosenthal supporter, who reportedly paid the $1.2 million needed for the park’s land, a foreclosed, 19-acre plot just up the road from Universal Studios. Then, as the minister detailed his vision of building a Jerusalem in central Florida to rapt audiences at Bible conferences, other private donors stepped up. One man unexpectedly pledged $1 million over lunch, Rosenthal says.

God, he says, also provided the tourists. The former president and CEO’s emphasis on converting Jews riled such groups as the Jewish Defense League. Major news outlets trekked out on opening day. Though protestors mostly stayed home, plenty of others showed up.

Nearly 300,000 visitors passed through the turnstiles by year’s end, Rosenthal says.

“Nobody was prepared for that sort of thing,” he says. “We didn’t have enough staff, enough parking, enough silverware. We didn’t have enough anything.”

After the first year, attendance dwindled, from thousands daily to just a few hundred. Donations also slowed. Rosenthal blames the low attendance on less media coverage. Zion’s Hope had only one marketing tactic—word of mouth—and the Holy Land Experience was old news.

Debt swallowed Rosenthal’s park. According to park financial filings, it posted deficits of $2.18 million in 2005 (pdf), $503,254 in 2004 (pdf) and $509,260 in 2003 (pdf). An expensive dispute with the Orange County Property Appraiser over the park’s tax-exempt status didn’t help matters, though the park eventually won that entitlement in 2006.

“I have tremendous respect for Marv, and really feel like if some of the business things had been put in place earlier, this would have been wonderful for him.”
-Tom Powell, current president, Holy Land Experience, about his predecessor

The Holy Land Experience split from Zion’s Hope in 2005, coinciding with Rosenthal’s own departure. He has had no connection—except, perhaps, emotionally—to the park since then. Still, Tom Powell, the park’s current president, says the minister’s original vision of “bringing the bible to life” continues to steer the park today.

“I have tremendous respect for Marv, and really feel like if some of the business things had been put in place earlier, this would have been wonderful for him,” Powell says.

New leaders have come in, attempting to fill the void—both in terms of leadership and spiritual guidance—left by the park’s founder. Powell was hired and quickly cut $2 million in expenses, reduced staff and improved the park’s Dun and Bradstreet credit rating so it could secure better terms with vendors. A group of employees, led by a park cashier, meanwhile, began meeting to pray for financial assistance.

Things looked bleak. But Powell searched for larger ministries who might be interested in “coming alongside” the Holy Land Experience.

One of his calls went to the Trinity Broadcasting Network.

Founded in 1973 by the Crouches, the Trinity Christian Center of Santa Ana is a non-profit whose assets exceed $1 billion. Comprised of six networks, including the TBN and the Church Channel, the corporation claims its telethons and programming reach 92 percent of U.S. households and a massive global audience through its 12,500 television stations and cable affiliates and 65 satellites worldwide. The network sells airtime to ministries that run the gamut of Christian belief. Former rap artist M.C. Hammer has a show on the TBN, as does 1980s teen actor Kirk Cameron of Growing Pains fame.

It seemed Powell’s timing was perfect.

In September 2006, the TBN acquired local Orlando UHF station WTGL, and was looking for land to house it. The Holy Land Experience had just the spot: an undeveloped plot across the street from the park. After months of discussions that almost stalled when the park’s board rejected an early plan, the two non-profits announced their merger June 9 of this year.

In the accompanying press release, Paul Crouch Jr., the TBN founder’s son and TBN’s vice president of administration, said he hoped to turn the park into a “smaller, faith-based version” of Universal Studios Orlando, a sharp shift from Rosenthal’s original effort to “graciously share truth with Jews.”

Partnering with the TBN has meant fresh cash and new TV marketing for the park. Powell says he’s been able to raise some salaries and has seen attendance double, from 300 to 600 visitors daily, since the network began promoting it on air in mid-June. Though the exact details of the partnership have not been made public, statements made by Paul Crouch Jr., Powell and park employees imply that the TBN has covered the park’s $8 million debt.

Around the park, employees say prayers have been answered. Steve Bleiler, who plays Jesus on Saturdays, said he believes the park has been “raised up to another level” by God through the partnership.

But the agreement also puts the Christian non-profit in a difficult situation, one that some employees are unwilling to acknowledge. Its new partners, now occupying four of the Holy Land Experience’s five board seats, are controversial.

In 2004, the Los Angeles Times reported the Crouches used $32 million in TBN funds to prop up the film career of their youngest son Matthew and that Paul Crouch Sr. paid a former employee $425,000 to keep quiet when he threatened to talk about an alleged 1996 homosexual encounter he had with the network founder. The TBN denies the encounter, but the company confirmed it made the payment.

Powell dismisses any notion that partnering with the Crouches will compromise the park’s ministry and shrugs off such reports as “second hand information.”

“I know that a lot of things are reported,” he says. “I’m from the school where I believe none of what I read and half of what I see.”

In interviews with members of the park’s teaching, production and administrative staff, employees claimed they were unaware of the controversies.

That may seem improbable given the wide coverage. But Ole Anthony, president of the Dallas-based Trinity Foundation, a ministry to the homeless that has also has helped such programs as 60 Minutes, Dateline and 20/20 investigate televangelists, including the TBN, says it’s not impossible.

“Nobody knows much about the TBN,” he says. “They just manage to fly under the radar and remain a mystery.”

More difficult to ignore, however, is the divide between the park’s Baptist and Presbyterian underpinnings and the TBN’s controversial trumpeting of “word of faith” teaching, or prosperity gospel.

Put simply, prosperity gospel is the belief that, with enough faith, people can get from God whatever they want—namely riches and physical health. Though this idea is thousands of years old, scholars call its current iteration a synthesis of evangelical themes with roots in post-World War II America.

“It represents a kind of fusion of ostensibly Christian theology and American middle class materialism,” says Balmer, of Columbia University.

Scholars like Balmer say prosperity theology results from a particularly “tortured” reading of the Bible. Others say it has no less scriptural basis than any other doctrine. But many see a sharp contrast between its optimistic outlook on the world and the traditionally bleaker evangelical perspective.

Count Rosenthal among them. “My bible teaching would not endorse the prosperity gospel,” he says. “I think some of the choicest servants of human history have suffered, have been persecuted, have been killed—I don’t see that [teaching] anywhere in the bible.”

There is conflict inside the park, too. Bill Jones, the park’s Senior Bible Teacher, says he won’t teach prosperity theology. Powell says he disagrees with it and takes issue with some TBN programming.

That said, neither man sees a problem joining with the TBN, despite its role as a major broker of media access for prosperity gospel preachers. Jones doesn’t believe the Crouches themselves advocate prosperity gospel and has no qualms about partnering with a network that sells airtime to ministers who do. Powell says the two non-profits share a “core Christianity,” which creates more commonalities than differences.

“We have a particular mission and a particular thrust,” he says. “TBN has a broader spectrum, but certainly our mission and thrust fits into that and basically we agreed to operate with a similar look and feel for a going forward of a few years before making any significant changes.”

Management at the Holy Land Experience has told employees that the TBN likes the park the way it is and no immediate changes are planned, but the park’s main book store was reorganized overnight in July with Paul Crouch Sr.’s autobiography and TBN coffee mugs emerging as the big winners for shelf space.

They occupied two full, prominent display racks the next day.

The cashier said more TBN merchandise is on the way. When asked for comment, Powell confirmed the TBN was shipping merchandise to the park.

Televangelist watchdogs have been keeping an eye on the developments in Orlando since the June announcement. Among them is Rodney Pitzer, managing director of research for Ministry His group tracks the finances of more than 500 Christian non-profits.

Pitzer voices frustration at the TBN’s decision not to announce the exact financial terms of the “murky” deal. Yet he was not surprised. In April, his group dropped the TBN’s financial transparency rating from a ‘C’ to an ‘F,’ based on its unwillingness to release its overall numbers. Twenty-eight other ministries share the failing grade. Ten of them have shows on the TBN.

When potential donors ask him about the TBN these days, Pitzer encourages them to give elsewhere. He says employees at the park should take a second look at their new partner.

“I would have a concern that they’re not open and transparent,” he says. “There are hundreds and thousands of open and transparent organizations. It’d be up to them to prayerfully decide if that’s where God would lead them.”

Anthony, of the Trinity Foundation, has even stronger advice for park employees. After years of pulling financial records from the trash of prosperity gospel preachers and decrying their "heretical" views and lack of accountability, he sees a reckoning coming for the TBN.

"I would tell them to enjoy the ride; it might be short lived," he says. "The TBN is a house of cards. It’s probably financially stable, but I think some [U.S] Senate agency or government group is going to look in on it eventually and how it misuses funds."

Still, the park’s employees appear upbeat. Longtime workers in fact give thanks for the tough times, saying their struggles made them more dependent on God. Having survived layoffs, anemic attendance and colossal debt, the Holy Land Experience sees divine providence in the TBN’s deep pockets—and hope that their message of Christian salvation will continue to reach Orlando tourists.

But in an organization that speaks in biblical allusions, one employee, who did not wish to be named, offered a less comforting possibility, based on an Old Testament story about someone who prayed to God and got an answer.

A prophet named Habakkuk was distressed by the injustice and strife of his day. So he petitions God to intercede. God answers. His plan? To raise up the Babylonians to “devour,” “capture” and enslave Israel so they will learn the error of their ways.

“Just because you got what you prayed for doesn’t mean you’re going to get the final result you were thinking you were going to get,” he said.

UPDATE-August 28, 2007 9:14 p.m. CST: Holy Land Experience chief resigns 10 weeks into TBN takeover

Steve Bleiler, 40, plays the role of Jesus at the Holy Land Experience on Saturdays. He says God is using the Trinity Broadcasting Network to raise up the park for future ministry efforts. Photo: Brad Flora
Rev. Michael Saunders argues for the authenticity of the Bible to tourists gathered around the Holy Land Experience's 45-foot scale model of Jerusalem circa. 66 A.D. He is one of four researchers and lecturers on the park's Bible teaching staff. Photo: Brad Flora

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