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Let me say it right from the beginning — I have always enjoyed Disney movies and characters. From my infancy, when mom and dad took me to Disneyland, to my childhood when I swam the churning ocean with Pinocchio to escape Monstro the Whale, to the days when we and our young girls enjoyed The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast together, to today, when I am introducing my grandchildren to what are now deemed “classic” films, Disney has been a part of my experience and my family life.
But I know what Disney is and what they do — They take classic stories and make cartoons out of them.
Disney does not fool me into thinking what they do is great art containing profound insights into life and the human experience. I accept and enjoy them for what they are, no more. Their artists and animators are first class and what they do, they do well. But whether you are talking about their films, their theme parks, or their pervasive merchandise, the bottom line is that Disney is an animation corporation. They take stories that are classic because of their universal themes and dumb them down so that the kids can enjoy them with mom and dad. They remove all the messiness, complexity, nuance, and grit from these tales and sanitize them for a G or PG-rated modern entertainment audience. They are enjoyable, but as subtle as a punch in the face; as deep as the puddle in my driveway after a light rain.
Unfortunately, many American Christian leaders seem to think the Disney way is the way forward for the church. I could write a long book about all the examples of this across our land, from the many ways we market Jesus in books, music, and media, to the kistchy excess of the televangelists and the corporate “excellence” of the megachurches, to iconic monuments like the Crystal Cathedral. So much of it represents the “Magic Kingdom” mentality.
In the cartoon world of contemporary American evangelicalism, it’s all about bigger, better, and simpler. Help folks think their dreams can come true. Create “moments” for people in the congregation that they will never forget, that will “bless” families in safe and sanitized settings. Remove the messiness and reality of day to day life. Instead, put a sentimental, heart-tugging version of life up on the screen and make people feel it. Embrace the possibilities.
Evangelicalism has become “Disney-ized.”
For example, enter the Mickey Mouse world of Ken Ham and his theme park vision for the Christian faith.
IM’s ever-vigilant Ohio correspondent, Jeff Dunn, reported in yesterday’s Saturday Ramblings that Ken Ham and company is at it again. The Creation Museum near Cincinnati has decided to expand and build an 800-acre theme-park style complex featuring a replica of Noah’s Ark. The project will cost an estimated 125 million dollars and is scheduled to open in 2014 in nearby Williamstown, KY.
Some have questioned whether it is legally permissible for the state of Kentucky to fund a religious theme park. I raise another question: Is it appropriate for Christians to “Disney-ize” their faith like this?
One critic termed the project a “particular confluence of faith-based fantasy and place-based entertainment in which the usual laws of physics, taste, or logic will obviously not apply.” May I add, an informed reading of the Bible does not actually apply here either.
However, I’m sure that doesn’t matter to the folks behind this. They are not really concerned about promoting a serious study and careful understanding what the Bible teaches, any more than the Disney corporation was truly interested in a thoughtful reading of Hamlet when they created The Lion King. They know what they believe already. And believing, they have set out to shape reality according to that image and make a new “dream come true.”
When you believe in a thing, believe in it all the way, implicitly and unquestionable.
• Walt Disney
According to The Ark Encounter web site, this mammoth “themed attraction” will include nine areas:
- A Walled City. This is where guests will enter and gather. It will include “period shops, restaurants, and venues that bring to life the city and times in which Noah lived, including his house.” According to planners, the city will depict “the lifestyle of the people of Noah’s day.” Considering the Bible says this about life in Noah’s day — “Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually,” and “Now the earth was corrupt in the sight of God, and the earth was filled with violence,” (Gen 6:5, 11) the possibilities stagger one’s imagination. I wonder what characters will represent the “Seven Deadly Sins”? “Please, mommy, I want a hug from Envy!”
- Noah’s Ark. The Ark will be the park’s central attraction. Guests will take a tour of the structure so that they may “gain an understanding of how it could have been built, and how Noah, his family, and all of the representative kinds of land animals were cared for, and then survived on board for 370 days of the Flood and its aftermath.” Given the fact that Scripture says nothing about any of this, one wonders about how “Biblical” these “themed presentations” will be. The highlight of each day will be a spectacular show “featuring the ‘parade of animals’ and the dramatic ‘eruption of the fountains of the great deep.’” Will there be re-enactments of sinners drowning and crying out in hysteria and panic? Carcasses of dead, bloated animals floating on the surface of the lake? A nearby ravaged landscape? Will the greatest historical example of God’s wrath being poured out on the earth be “fun” and “exciting” or will it communicate anything at all about the actual fear of God and the reality of Divine judgment?
Noah’s Animals. According to the site, “This area will be similar to a petting zoo, complete with barns, a petting animal area, an open grazing area, a stage for daily live animal and bird shows, and lots of meet-and-greet areas for close-up encounters with unique animals and birds.” Why sure, because that is what the story of Noah’s Ark in the Bible is all about: lots and lots of cute animals providing squeals of delight for the kids. I never could understand why the Flood story was so popular in Sunday School literature and children’s books and toys. I can’t think of a more horrifying narrative! (What’s next, a Sodom and Gomorrah theme park? “Enter over there, by the pillar of salt, ma’am.”) When it comes to the Flood, nothing tells the story of God destroying the land and creating absolute chaos, mayhem, and universal death like a parade of cute little baby animals frolicking two by two up the Ark’s ramp.
- Children’s Play Area. Another “fun-filled” and family-friendly area, this part of the park will “be highly themed with bridge nets, climbing areas, slides, and zip lines.” Maybe if the kids in Noah’s day had some of these cool things, they could have escaped the destruction. Quick! to the zip line!
- The Tower of Babel. Ironically, the motivation for those who built the original city of Babylon and its tower was, “so that we may make a name for ourselves” (Gen 11:4). ‘Nuff said.
- Journey through Biblical History. Not content to give answers from Genesis, the park will depict “the formation of Israel, Moses and the ten plagues in Egypt, and the parting of the Red Sea.” They give no details here, so perhaps these will mostly be portrayed in trailers for coming attractions.
- The First Century Village. Their description of this part of the park is so subtle that one can only conclude this is the area where the “Gospel Presentation” will take place. Can’t have a Christian theme park without an altar call. The clue is “First Century.” Fast forward to the time of . . . you got it — Jesus. In their words, “The experience culminates with a visit to the Performing Arts Theater where a combined live and video-based show shares the summary of what guests have seen at the Ark Encounter.” You’ve seen the presentation, now it’s time to buy the condo.
- Aviary. A bird and butterfly sanctuary. Why? Well, presumably because of the birds that directed Noah to dry land after the Flood. Or, perhaps it is because so many people have asked, “What happened to birds during the Flood?” Apologetics is important, you know. Gotta be able to give a reason for what you believe, even down to a question like this.
- Special Events Area. I love this one. Note their description: “An area where large groups can have private outings away from the main guest areas will showcase some of the Leaders in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) building techniques used to construct the Ark Encounter. These techniques feature LEED standards in the use of wind and solar power, renewable resources, and preservation of the land. This will attract many educational groups and be positioned outside of the actual walled areaâ€”allowing for large group meetings and private events.” What? Nothing says environmental concern like a theme park about God destroying the world! The emphasis here on being “green” certainly sounds like a departure from the usual conservative party line. Oh wait, educational groups coming to learn about this will be “outside the actual walled area.” They will be consigned to the “Court of the Gentiles,” where the unwashed put a high value on such questionable concerns as environmentalism and the fact that humans might be able to do something to protect the natural world.
How can any thoughtful Christian support a project like this? I know some of you are going to write and complain that I’m being judgmental and why can’t God use this to bring others to Christ and teach people about the Bible? Please. I will respond as clearly and directly and forcefully as I can — this project has nothing to do with Biblical Christianity.
This is cartoon faith. It represents the “Disney-ization” of the Biblical story. I mean, seriously. Christian people are going to waste $125 million building this travesty, and then undiscerning American believers will spend countless millions more to be indoctrinated, wowed by spectacle and a thoroughly sanitized version of the Biblical story. Bus-loads of young people from entertainment-seeking youth groups will be “educated” in a “Biblical” interpretation of the Flood that had its “genesis” not in the Torah but in the visions of Ellen G. White, whose “inspired counsels from the Lord” guided the 19th century sectarian Adventist movement.
Those visions will come to life in true Disney-like fashion — with overwhelming kitsch, mawkish sentimentality, a thin veneer of credibility, and, most importantly, the absolute conviction of unwavering belief in spite of any contrary evidence or countering interpretations. This project is fundamentalism at its creative worst. It doesn’t lead us to the real Jesus, the Jesus of the Bible. It leads us to the cartoon Jesus, the Disney Jesus, the American sanitized version of Jesus, the Jesus who entertains us and keeps it all safe for the whole family to enjoy (at 50 bucks a pop). The Jesus they give us is Jesus the Hero who lived and died on the screen in all his glory, not the “Man of Sorrows” who suffered and died on the cross in shame. This Jesus has been drawn and brought to life for us by purveyors of spiritual technology, not shared with us as true apostles like Paul did — through a humble daily life of suffering and loving in Jesus’ name. There’s the Jesus way and there’s the Disney way, and the gap between them is vast.
I don’t know about you, but when it comes to the faith, I want the real thing, not a Disney caricature.
I’ll say it again. This project has nothing to do with Biblical, Jesus-shaped Christianity. It is promotion of an ideology, plain and simple. It is small-minded “wish upon a star” fundamentalism, exhibiting an approach to faith that allows for nothing subtle, nothing mysterious, nothing human. No doubts, only certainty. The kind of certainty that has enough chutzpah to ask people to pony up $125 million to build a pretentious propaganda park. At least Walt Disney had enough character to learn a trade, go to work, and build a business to fund his dreams.
Even though this is a supposedly “Christian” dream, the creators of the Ark Encounter evidently agree with Walt about the true bottom line:
Disneyland is the star, everything else is in the supporting role.
â€¢ Walt Disney