IN A CERTAIN YEAR, some time before the birth of Jesus, a descendent of Adam by the name of Noah was given a commission by God. "Make thee an ark of gopher wood: Rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch." It was kind of a big deal, 300 cubits by 50 by 30, and it had to protect breeding stock of every extant species for seven days of waiting, 40 days of raining, and 150 days of flood.
In January of the year 1995, God gave out a considerably larger commission, to a man named Robert H. Joyce Jr., founder of Rejoice Ministries. His commission includes building not only an ark, but also the Garden of Eden, the Tower of Babel (a 3-D replica based on Pieter Brueghel's painting), the city of Jerusalem, a 4,000-seat theater for performances and preaching, an Omnidome (to show the creation story), a 3-D movie theater, a virtual reality Ezekiel's Chariot ride, and oh yes, a reenactment of the entire life of Christ, from stable birth to high-tech Ascension. In other words, Robert Joyce and his wife Rita are to build God's Own Amusement Park. This place of wonder -- "The First Comprehensive Exposition of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, with 190 Biblical Events," according to its website -- is to be called the City of Revelation.
The City is huge, and, guessing from cryptic clues on the City of Revelation's website, is planned for somewhere in the undeveloped Eastside -- where Rejoice Ministries keeps its office (also its founders' home), in the cul-de-sac wilds of Renton. From a modest two-story house there, the Joyces have worked on their project for the last four years. According to a consultant who worked on the project, its anticipated budget is somewhere between $250-280 million -- a lot of money by anyone's standards, and a tremendous fundraising endeavor for a non-profit organization that claimed no assets and an annual income of around $1,700 in papers filed in 1995. However, the Joyces did find enough money to retain consultants from both Jack Rouse Associates and Economic Research Associates, two top companies in the theme park field, for initial consultations.
Jack Rouse Associates, a major design and production firm located in Cincinnati, which has designed everything from Universal Studios attractions to Atlanta's new baseball stadium, was hired to provide master planning and conceptual design for the City of Revelation last summer. The resulting sketches are just about all the information one can easily discover about the City. Through a spokeswoman, the Joyces declined to be interviewed or to provide any information about their work. The City of Revelation's website (www.cityrevelation.com), which matches the Jack Rouse sketches with brief paragraphs and Bible verses, is both useful and confusing -- it doesn't say where the park's located, for example, but it does tell you how they're going to retell Jonah's story: "Remember the Claymation dancing California raisins? Claymation has been used for years to tell stories from the Bible, like the David and Goliath series. That same technique will be used to fashion Jonah and the great fish."
Do you mind if I keep quoting? I just love the vague yet passionately edifying tone of the website's writing. "There are people who run from God and shake their fist at Him! Jonah was one of them. Yet God, in his kindness and mercy, showed Jonah how much he cared for the people of Nineveh. His Divine providence is shown to both Jew and Gentile, extending even to animals! Kids and adults will relate to this fun yet instructive lesson."
Ah, the Jews. The City of Revelation loves the Jews, especially Jews like Zola Levitt, whose website is linked to the City's. Levitt, from his time slots on the Fox Family, Trinity Broadcasting, and New Inspirational networks, "inform[s] our Gentile viewers and listeners of those principles of the faith which will be most helpful to them in understanding and witnessing to their Jewish friends." Specifically, Mr. Levitt would like his fellow Jews to recognize the error of their ways in not worshipping Jesus.
But none of that kind of proselytizing is planned for the City of Revelation. According to Brian Donohue of Jack Rouse Associates, the park "needs to tell the stories of the Bible in a way that is engaging and educational, open to everybody...." This is reflected in the website's description of the division between the two Testaments. "There will be a portal between the Old/Hebrew Testament, and the New Testament. So, on your walking tour, if you wish to take a break, or not go into the New Testament at that time, you may exit. You are invited to continue with us on the New Testament walking tour because here you will observe and interact with the life and times of Jesus and the apostles."
In other words, it's okay to be a Jew, and we'd love to see you, but you're really gonna miss out on some cool rides if you don't accept Jesus as your personal savior. He walks on water! He cooks up some loaves and fishes at the Feeding of Five Thousand restaurant! He dies, is buried, and rises up to the heavens, where he sits at the right hand of God! Not only that, but if you can get all the way through that wordy Apostle Paul, and climb a path, you'll see "the New Jerusalem, a glowing vision given to the Apostle John. It will be compelling imagery! All around you (like surround sound) will be the voices of a triumphant chorale singing the sacred words of the Bible."
The scale of the City of Revelation -- if it's built -- will dwarf that of any current local amusement park, not that that's saying much. Seattle, due largely to its regular rains and fleeting summers, is not prime amusement park territory. There's a reason we don't have Six Flags over Renton. Anticipating this problem, the conceptual drawings show most of the City sheltered under flat roofs with air conditioners peeping out the top. The exterior areas, modeled on the streets of ancient Jerusalem, are glass-covered. Even the Garden of Eden is in a greenhouse. As you progress through the Testaments both old and new, you'll be sheltered from that nasty instrument of God's retribution on his peoples--the rain.
The City is planned to serve both as Biblical instruction and a re-creation of life in Biblical times. The scene amid the cute false-front façades of the city will include a farmer's market, "authentic" artifacts -- many of them for sale -- and, um, many "quality fast food areas." Think Disneyland's Main Street, but with "salable quilts and other craft projects based on Bible stories" instead of Mickey Mouse ears. Oh, the mind reels at the thought of the many merchandising possibilities: Salome's seven veils! Lot's wife salt shakers! Natural myrrh-based lube straight out of the Song of Solomon! Stick-on stigmata! Water-into-wine magic tricks! Let's face it, quilts are a high-fixed-cost, low-margin business, and the Joyces had better get cracking on some better ideas. They're welcome to any of my preceding suggestions.
A brochure from Jack Rouse Associates calls the City of Revelation "America's first major biblical theme center," which is apparently true. But that's not to say Christians are unserved by the amusement park industry. I got a brief overview of the category from John Robinet of Economic Research Associates, the other major firm signed up by the Joyces. Economic Research Associates has crunched numbers for just about every major theme park in the world since they cut their teeth on Disneyland in the mid-'50s. Robinet, senior vice president at ERA, did some work on the City of Revelation (his colleague Steve Balgrasky, who was more involved with ERA's work on the project, was in Korea working on another project and couldn't be reached for an interview). Their consultations with the Joyces were off and on over the course of four years, and had reached only preliminary stages before being suspended.
Asked about the general category of religious theme parks, Robinet said, "You'd be surprised, there's quite a few biblically themed -- I should say modestly scaled -- attraction [parks]."
Most of these do not explicitly present themselves as religious. The theaters and amusement parks at Branson, Missouri have some religious themes, as does the Precious Moments Chapel, about two-and-a-half hours away from Branson. The most ambitious project is Heritage USA, founded in 1977 by since-fallen televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker in Fort Mill, South Carolina. I couldn't find much about this park, though a curious listing in an online children's encyclopedia at letsfindout.com says it was dubbed "a spiritual Disneyland," has a ride called "Jonah in the Belly of the Whale," as well as an odd lot of facilities including a broadcasting studio, a halfway house for former prisoners, and what was then the world's largest wave pool.
The Bakkers' travails damaged Heritage USA; Robinet mentioned the park, though not by name, and said only, "That one had problems which were well publicized. I wouldn't say that was because it was Christian-themed. We as analysts don't draw super-strong conclusions from it."
Robinet then pointed out that the very origins of tourism are religious. Pilgrimages of the sort used by Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales were the foundation of the idea of tourism. This sort of pilgrimage exists to this day: Uncounted hordes walk, sometimes hundreds of miles, to reach Santiago de Compostela in Spain (and a healthy contingent of hostels and eateries has grown up along the route in the past 1,000 years).
Israel has seen an immense tourism industry grow around Christians bent on seeing the Holy Land in person. A huge list of tour operators pops up under the tourism/Christian page on Yahoo. Every site from the Gospels has been "identified" -- even some that appear only in parables -- and in many cases rebuilt, allowing tourists to visit everything from the place of Jesus' birth to the "Good Samaritan Inn" -- as well as two competing Gardens of Gethsemane and two tombs where Jesus was buried. Some of these inauthentic structures date back to the Byzantine Empire, giving them more history than even authentic American tourist spots.
You could see the City of Revelation as the convergence of two trends. One, obviously, is the continued debasement of religious observance to the point of a tourist-oriented theme park in Renton; the other is the raising of the carnival -- also an old, rich tradition -- from its early American incarnation with freaks, strippers, and other seedy delights, to a cleaned-up, family-friendly, spiritual place. Disneyland is a bit too tolerant for the Bible-thumpers, allowing homosexuals to openly patronize it and all. The City of Revelation surely wouldn't stand for such a thing. This single place represents the trivialization of one of its influences -- religious faith -- and the ruin of the other -- the fun park, with most of its fun firmly removed. But I think the idea has legs: Whether this particular place is built or not -- and I'm guessing not -- something like it will spring up somewhere. I can't say the idea thrills me.