Nearly two years ago, plans were announced for a theme park in the Holy Land on the shores of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus is said to have miraculously fed 5,000. It was to be a project undertaken by American evangelicals with the assistance of the Israeli government. Theme parks seem to be distinctively if not exclusively American inventions. It is richer than a mere ‘amusement park’ and typically involves aping some aspect of real life – the town square or other urban landscape is a favourite – in the setting. The result is a parody of the real world, but safe, secure, sanitised, shorn of any rough edges or real life beyond the time of business hours. No one is homeless; no one is oppressed; no one protests; no one lives there; no one is born, suffers, dies there. It is nowhere. It isn’t reality – in all its messy, heart-rending, wonderful, rough around the edges, glory. The theme park is a bid to control an unruly reality.
Now, of course it is just a theme park – a place of recreation to escape. That no one lives there is quite to the point: it is like an embodied drama in which we can assume certain roles and consider certain options. No one lives in Shakespeare’s Verona just as no one lives in Disney World. There is a necessary air of stylized unreality about it all, which is of the nature of the thing.
The problem becomes when the theme park substitutes for the reality – or when we can only think of the reality in terms of a theme park.
I have a friend who went to Jerusalem a year or so ago, and he remarked that he was disappointed that it was so cluttered, and that there were so many people there hawking religious tchotchkes. He didn’t remark on the religious tensions and strife there, but he might well have. We can develop a notion of Jerusalem and other biblical locations as idealized locations, a sites so hallowed and sacred that they must be ‘pure’ in some way, unsullied by litter and congestion and strife and souvenirs. Or as a Rabbi friend of mine said to me in a slightly different context, ‘so this is the Holy Land?’ We can be tempted to find the real thing anticlimactic – maybe a little too real to be convincing – and wish we had something a little purer, a little more set apart. A theme park would suit this nicely.
It seems to me that the shed (or, more likely, a cave) we will find ourselves gathered near in 11 days is rather particularly like that. We have heard the story for roughly two millennia, and we have had children re-enact it for us for nearly that long, and it can become pretty idealized and well-scrubbed in our minds.
But it was a stable, used in a desperate moment by people worried about taxes and unable to find room among the throngs in Bethlehem. An unanticipated place for an unanticipated birth of an unanticipated child, in a place which might have been tidy but still smelt of animals and oats and shit. It wasn’t prepared; it wasn’t ideal; it wasn’t special; it was just a place.
But the impurity of it all, the unruly reality of it all, that if we saw it today might make us wonder ‘so what’s the big deal?’, that is good news: because that’s our world, the world that God created and – despite our best attempts to live elsewhere – is determined through Christ to redeem. It might not be tidy or safe, but it’s all we’ve got.