Saturday, July 07, 2007

Disneyland Jesus

My son gave me a copy of Arthur Ferguson's Land of Lincoln for my birthday this summer. It makes for some interesting reading as Ferguson delves into contemporary presentations and perceptions of the "Great Emancipator." He points out how contemporary history reinterprets Lincoln making him a mere mortal with feet of clay.

I think we all knew that. After all, Christians know that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," (Romans 3:27).

I grew up with a Lincoln who overcame poverty and numerous setbacks to become one of our nation's greatest leaders. I learned he was determined in defeat and generous in victory. My mother, a school teacher, always emphasized that Lincoln permitted the defeated Confederate soldiers to keep a mule and their weapons as they returned to their farms in the South. He was the man whose leadership freed the southern blacks from the tyranny of slavery. In most ways the Lincoln Memorial typified the man -- solid and larger than life.

Today history and historians seem to downplay Lincoln's determined leadership, his integrity and character, to present the "real" Lincoln. It is rare to find much written about his greatness. Ferguson points out that the dioramas portraying great moments in Lincoln's life were removed from the Chicago Historical Society. Instead, the Illinois Historical Society decided to build a presidential library and museum dedicated to Lincoln in Springfield, IL. The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is filled with special galleries, theater spectaculars, and says it gives you an opportunity to experience the days of Lincoln.

To put all this together, the ALPLM committee hired BRC Imagination Arts to design the museum. Bob Rogers, who Ferguson says heads up BRC, designed some of Disneys wondrous displays for Disneyland, Disneyworld, and Epcot. His goal for the Lincoln Museum was to provide "an experience" for the visitor. There was little concern on his part for verbalizing the facts behind the presentations. In fact, he wanted little or nothing in print. It was enough to put the visitor in the middle of the events even though the presentation may have little resemblance to the actual events. Everything was "historically accurate," but little of it related to Lincoln's importance as his leadership shaped a nation. Rogers designed everything to appeal to the "seventh grade mind" and to "emotions." Ferguson asked Rogers if that didn't result in "dumbing down" Lincoln? Rogers replied that today's seventh graders were really sharp and to aim at them was to hit everyone. About emotion he said, “Get their hearts and their heads will follow.” He went on to say, “You lead with the emotions rather than the intellect. And remember, it’s not just any emotion—the emotion they feel is the one we want them to feel. With Lincoln, we are hooking them into a specific cascade of emotions. Then, if they want to follow up, they can find the intellectual part, read a wall plaque or buy a book or whatever.” (pg. 102)

Take note of Rogers' statements. The Lincoln presented in the ALPLM isn't the "real" Lincoln, it is the Lincoln Bob Rogers wants the visitor to accept. The emotion Rogers wants the visitor to feel isn't their own reaction to Lincoln the man; it is the feeling he wants the visitor to feel. It is manipulation taken to the n-th degree! And, according to Ferguson, the Lincoln one comes away with from the ALPLM isn't the great man; it is the hen pecked husband who couldn't control his children and who was hated, villified, and ultimately assassinated. Everyone who goes to the ALPLM has "fun" and they have a wonderful "experience" but they really don't learn much about Abraham Lincoln.

I read all of this with some concern. Many of our church leaders are reading Andy Stanley's books on Visioneering. Visioneering derives from Disney's methodology just like Bob Rogers and BRC Imagination Arts. Church leaders read The Disney Way to learn the secrets of the success of Disney's theme parks and other ventures. When building new buildings, churches hire designers once employed at Disney to create a children's wonderland where kids can "have fun" and a great "experience." I'm not downplaying the lessons that churches can learn from such things but quite often the emphasis gets misplaced. When there is more emphasis placed on "making everyone's dreams come true" than the Gospel something is wrong. When the emphasis is on management rather than mission things are "out of kilter." When the emphasis is on making people confortable the Gospel, which usually makes people uncomfortable, is being short changed. What is worse, the Jesus portrayed in such situations is an unreal plastic Jesus who makes life meaningful and solves problems rather than the beaten bleeding ugly Jesus hanging on the cross paying for my sins and your sins.

I fear all this emphasis on emotion, or feelings, or experience is getting the cart before the horse. Listen to what's being said today. "People come to church to experience Jesus." "They want to have an experience." "Church attenders want to go away moved and feeling like they've come into contact with Christ." So, we carefully plan, rehearse, and develop services to do exactly what Bob Rogers did at ALPLM: we manipulate the hearers and participants to have an experience that is unreal and one we design for them. Hear me: it is one thing to desire to do things with excellence; it is another to manipulate people toward meaningless decisions built on the foundation of a Jesus who never existed instead of the one who trudged Palestine's dusy roads. It is one thing to "take up a cross to follow Jesus" and quite another to experience the dusty roads in an artificially created setting. I say this gets the cart before the horse because a real experience with Jesus comes after acknowledging him as Lord and becoming his disciple.

The Gospel has never changed! It doesn't take an experience with Jesus or an encounter with Jesus. We're not saved by feelings! We're saved because we believe the biblical testimony about who Jesus is and, as a result, are willing to entrust ourselves to him in obedience.

Think about it!