Christian Tourist Attractions, Mythmaking, and Identity Formation

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Editor(s): 
Erin Roberts, Jennifer Eyl
Critiquing Religion: Discourse, Culture, Power
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , November
     2018.
     232 pages.
     $100.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781350006232.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Christian Tourist Attractions, Mythmaking, and Identity Formation, editors Erin Roberts and Jennifer Eyl have brought together eight stimulating essays that examine the presentation of various Christianities at a variety of Christian tourist attractions (CTA). In addition to focusing on CTA, each chapter examines these attractions as sites of mythmaking that serve the construction and maintenance of modern Christian identities, specifically evangelical and fundamentalist identities. The general approach to the CTA studied is ethnographic, but the analyses of each are either historical or anthropological depending on the training of the author. The writing is dense in places, but the vivid descriptions of the CTA in each chapter make the book accessible to a non-specialized audience.

The book begins with a brief introduction by Roberts that outlines the theoretical underpinnings of the book, as well as recurring themes and chapter previews. The eight chapters are united by a social theory of mythmaking influenced by the works of Roland Barthes, Bruce Lincoln, Burton Mack, Russell McCutcheon, and Jonathan Z. Smith. Roberts defines mythmaking as an “intentional human practice, a specific type of discourse that does things, and the things that it does and the situations in which it does them are neither trivial nor without consequence” (13, italics original). Roberts then identifies three recurring themes discussed in the preceding chapters: authority (chapters 1, 2, and 3), interest (chapters 4 and 5), and concealment (chapters 6, 7, and 8). Roberts’ introduction to the main theories and themes in the book clearly frames the volume for the reader.         

In chapter 1, Stephen L. Young examines the promotion of biblical exceptionalism at the Museum of the Bible (MOTB). Young argues that the curation of the MOTB is an exercise in material mythmaking; the museum uses exhibits to present the Bible as a uniquely positive force in American history. Looking specifically at the “Impact floor” (a section of the museum devoted to the Bible’s impact in North America), the curation of the space presents the Bible as an exceptional force for societal change, specifically the “progress” of America and the spreading of Christianity, and downplays or erases the Bible’s role in colonization, the destruction of American First Nations people, and in slavery.

In chapter 2, James S. Bielo examines the materiality of mythmaking at the Ark Experience. Bielo’s primary interest here is understanding the poetics of the Ark Experience and to do so he reads the museum exhibits against the hermeneutic of suspicion exemplified for him by a review of the museum written by paleontologist Dan Phelps. Rather than read the Ark Museum as an anti-museum where the scientific facts of evolution are countered with faith-based creationist accounts, Bielo looks for the ways in which Ark Encounter advances creationism by materializing the Bible and asking visitors to accept its legitimacy (56). Bielo’s approach highlights the political stakes of the Ark Experience and takes seriously the attempts to present a creationist history that also makes sense of and in the present world.

In chapter 3, Steven Watkins examines the practice of “screening” at the Creation Museum (CM). Screening is a strategy of presentation wherein two competing ideas are presented side-by-side in such a way that one idea (here, creationism) is clearly superior to another (evolution). This is presented in several ways throughout the CM. Evolutionary scientists are the objects of ridicule for not having answers that creationists can easily provide, and the current fallen state of humanity is presented as the result of people turning away from the Bible and turning to theories of evolution. The CM radically opposes creationism and evolution, with the former leading to light, goodness, and moral order, and the later leading to darkness, evil, and moral chaos (76).

In chapter 4, we leave the museums and embark on a Christian Zionist tour of Israel. Sean Durbin looks at the ways in which evangelical and Israeli tour guides assert Protestant and Israeli claims to land and authenticity in Israel/Palestine at the expense of Catholic and Palestinian claims to truth; the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is presented as inferior to the Garden Tomb, and Palestinians are written out of their own histories and lands.

We stay in Jerusalem for chapter 5 where Katja Vehlow describes the celebration of the Feast of the Tabernacles with Charismatic and Messianic Jews. Throughout the chapter Vehlow examines the various strategies deployed to ensure that the “pilgrims/delegates” could proclaim their love of Israel while eliding modern Jewish practices and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In chapter 6, Jennifer Eyl examines the use of anachronisms at the Bible Walk Museum. Eyl argues that the presentation of Jesus throughout scenes and stories from the Hebrew Bible serves to render a theological claim—that Jesus was a part of all of cosmic history—as an historical claim.

In chapter 7, Roberts looks at the ways in which the Holy Land Experience (HLE)  attempts to bridge the gap between biblical past and present through a process of inquiry she calls “embodied mythic formation.” Through the material presentation of Herod’s Jerusalem, the performance of Jesus’ crucifixion, and other displays and practices found at the HLE, the visitor experiences a specific process of mythmaking that allies God’s will with Protestant Christian Americans. The volume concludes with a summative/exploratory chapter from Craig Martin. Martin argues that the idea that religion is a unique form of discourse is itself a myth supported by scholarly mythmaking.

Christian Tourist Attractions, Mythmaking, and Identity Formation tackles the important theoretical idea of categorizing “religion” as a product of mythmaking and does so through eight fascinating and clearly described examples. The vivid descriptions of CTA (along with several photographs and maps) help to ground the more complicated theoretical work done in each chapter. In addition to commenting on identity formation among evangelical Christians, several chapters also comment on the erasure of people who disrupt evangelical narratives, in particular Indigenous people in North America and Palestinians. These comments are important as they expose the violence done against colonized peoples through Christian mythmaking.

I would highly recommend this book to instructors teaching theory of religion, religion in America, and Christianity classes; its engaging case-studies and mostly accessible theoretical reflections make it an excellent addition to the classroom.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ian Phillip Brown is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Regina.

Date of Review: 
September 22, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Erin Roberts is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of South Carolina.

Jennifer Eyl is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Tufts University.

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