It is at once humorlessly reverential and supremely trivial. By turns a direct link to a finely tuned spirituality and a transfer of theme park values to the most sacred of relations, it is, depending on one’s ideological tilt, either the most valuable experience of one’s life on earth, or a near-endless slog through the most cartoonish aspects of an already discredited faith. Fortunately, having no inclination whatsoever toward the metaphysical, as well as a keen appreciation of kitsch and irony, my visit to Eureka Springs, Ark. — a town of such stereotypical quaintness that had I not seen it with my own eyes, I would have doubted its very existence — was arguably the most hilariously rewarding of my life so far. I’ve been to both coasts and big cities in between, and never before have I left a community with such a warm feeling toward my fellow man. For all of their bigotry, small-minded provincialism, idiocy, pettiness, greed, and propensity for violence, they are, above all traits and attributes, an almost surreally entertaining species. Sure, reaching the moon, or developing vaccines, or the wonder of indoor plumbing all testify to man’s greatness when left to his own devices of imagination, but until you’ve seen an outdoor Passion Play tucked into a hillside of the Ozarks, you really have no idea of how insanely brilliant we can be. From top to bottom, stem to stern, my hours spent in this little slice of heaven will never be duplicated. Everything following this grin-filled evening will pale by comparison, and now surveying the shape and direction of my life so far, I can say in all honesty that it had, against the odds, been building up to this point. Yes, this place had to be seen. To quote the man so conspicuously on display this glorious night, “It is finished.” How could I ever vacation again?
To start, Eureka Springs is assured of receiving only the hopelessly devoted, for it is reached only after driving mile after mile of winding, terror-filled roads. Once the journey is begun, there is literally no turning back. After what seemed like hours of braking, turning, pausing, and darting, it was a relief to reach a small backwoods convenience store mere minutes from the holy destination. Smelling as if soaked floor to ceiling in cheap tobacco, the shop prepped my mind for the journey ahead, as the shocking display of decency nearly caused a fatal stroke. They all but embraced me as I left with my beverages and pamphlets. Fortunately, the much-anticipated Great Passion Play was featured on Saturday nights (we were still in the off-season), so our endless trip had not been in vain, but the New Holy Land Tour would not be available by the time we arrived. It was a blow to morale (for fuck’s sake, an interactive journey through the Bible, complete with a manger and Jesus walking on water?), but we still had the Museum of Earth History to visit, as well as the largest Christ statue in all of North America. It wouldn’t be a perfect trip, but we’d have enough to quench our near-feverish thirst. Still, the drive from the store held even more miles of hell, as rainbow’s end seemed hopelessly out of reach. The town of Eureka Springs itself, at least that not drenched in the Holy Spirit, was a typical mountain town in many ways, complete with aging tourists, bikers, and row after row of chain motels and tacky souvenir shops. Indeed, it was all too fitting.
Finally, we reached the entrance to the Holy Grail, and entered with slight trepidation, but hearts full of joy. The decaying fossil at the front gate pointed us in the right direction, told us where to buy tickets, where to park, and how long we’d have to wait for both the Passion Play and dinner. At first blush, everything seemed half-assed, as if grand designs had slammed head first into economic reality, and a few cheap buildings were all that could be erected. Of course, we had yet to see the mammoth tri-level stage for the play itself, but first impressions were not kind. Still, like eager kids at Disneyland, we drove a short distance to the Christ of the Ozarks, a 67-foot tall memorial to Jesus Christ, but only after purchasing suitable attire for the occasion. Frantically rushing to the gift shop, I managed to find a 2XL black t-shirt with the phrase “Jesus Rules” on the front. My better half purchased something from the “young miss” collection, which means it was several sizes too small and as tight as if it were painted on. This was deliberate, of course, for how else to enhance the message of Christ’s love than with tits that promised to spring forth into the Ozark air? With a face over 15 feet long and constructed of 24 layers of white mortar on a steel frame, the statue is believed to weigh over 2 million pounds. This seemed a slight exaggeration, but what the hell do I know? With arms outstretched as if waiting to take in all believers, it is an impressive achievement to be sure, but after walking down a short path to view it from the front, it is strangely pagan, and its stature such that sacrifices in its shadow would not seem out of place.
On this day, the sky was achingly blue and the temperature near perfect, and with the sun setting just so, it could be mistaken for a scene straight from those testimonials where the unbelieving suddenly and miraculously give up the drink and turn to God evermore. The stage was undoubtedly set yet again, but in the face of this bloated ode, how on earth could humility be possible? Sure, the bastard is domineering and inescapable, but is it really necessary? What else but an insecure faith would insist on the biggest possible representation of its central symbol? And why the fuck is a piece of the Berlin Wall a few hundred feet away? I’m hardly an impartial observer given my hostility to religion in all of its forms, but I simply could not understand how anyone in any state of crisis could look to inert stone as a source of comfort. Interestingly, fellow travelers seemed to feel likewise, as not a single person dropped to their knees or scanned the heavens for a sign of salvation. Hell, the patrons weren’t even that reverential, and as they stopped, looked for a time, and returned to their cars, they mumbled, grumbled, and took dutiful pictures as if at the Lincoln Memorial or the world’s oldest tree. Was it just a statue after all?
Disappointed at not having witnessed flailing arms and shouts of amen, we drove the short distance back to the entrance, where we could park for both the Museum of Earth History and dinner hall. Having quite a few hours before the start of the play, we eagerly walked in the direction of the “museum,” so named despite having absolutely nothing to do the common use of the term. I suppose a museum could be erected out of a closet or even a cluttered garage, but usually when employed in the context of paying customers ($8.50 per person, no less), some effort is expected, even when converting an old church into what is promised to be a “fascinating” journey through the origins of life. Three miniscule rooms later — yes, three fucking rooms — earth’s history had not only been studiously avoided, but so distorted and manipulated that it would be just as reasonable to leave thinking that Adam and Eve existed on Mars as opposed to the Eden of legend. Armed only with a wand and the world’s most laborious audio tour, visitors are encouraged to be “interactive,” which is their way of asking you to listen to what feels like hours of near fanatical ravings, all without the benefit of changing, or even clever, visual cues. The cheap walls and shoddy displays are dotted with a staggering 47 options, which are to be selected on the audio wand, but as they are heavily weighted towards the final room, this means that even with only a semi-large group, it becomes impossible to maneuver or even breathe while you fight to remain conscious. This final gathering place, conveniently lacking any real space in which to sit, was so crowded that it could have been mistaken for the stateroom in A Night at the Opera. There we were, all three dozen of us, packed like sardines into a dark cavern of plastic skull fragments and displays bearing an almost eerie similarity to third-grade dioramas. What we saw, however, was nowhere near as grotesque as what we heard, though to believe the nods and pleasing looks, everything made perfect sense.
Among the most insipid of lies to pass as truth in this den of deception (funded by a group called the Creation Truth Foundation) was the “fact” that Noah’s Ark could have held each and every species of animal — including dinosaurs — because God had the foresight to take only “the babies” on board. Of course! What’s more, dinosaurs were never as large as science has told us, and at best, these creatures of girth and stature were in fact no more than glorified lizards. As such, all fossils are either fabrications or distortions. Certainly, the process by which they are dated is so flawed as to be worthless. Throughout these ramblings, the narrator also informed us that science is simply guesswork, and as mere “opinion,” holds no more validity than the formulations of you or me. No wonder so many among us seemed so agreeable: How comforting that neither education nor books are necessary to be on par with snooty professors who do little more than make silly little stabs in the dark. The fools! Even more infuriating, these liars and scoundrels spend billions of our tax dollars perpetrating a great fraud on the American people. The fist of self-righteous fury shook with even more hellacious wrath when faced with man’s origins. According to our dear narrator, each and every discovery throughout the years is a falsehood, and through guilt by association, everything from Lucy to Java Man is equated with Piltdown Man, the one hoax we do know about. But don’t you see, if them fancy book-learners could do that, what other crimes could they commit in the name of godless reason? With an air of smug superiority, the audio tour rested quite comfortably with the belief that no one of an educated bent has ever proven a thing, and if such nonsense could pass as truth, why not the biblical account of creation? Still, it is not equal time these people seek, but rather the replacement of science with religious parable, which in their minds has a concreteness found only in the most rigorously tested geometric proof. That is, if geometry weren’t a tool of the devil.
Having been battered by a motley crew of obese Arkansans and their obsequious adherence to the most obscene level of bullshit, we walked next door to the dining room, which looks to have been last decorated during the Eisenhower administration. Taking their cue from the designers of the Jonestown cafeteria, those responsible for this humorless hall have seen fit to place everyone in neat little rows, where eye contact and laughter are as discouraged as actual flavor for the food itself. As a rule, buffet dining is always a miserable experience, but this spread was shockingly bad even by those less-than-stellar standards, managing to be worse than any meal I have ever encountered. And yes, I have dined at Furr’s. For the princely sum of $10.75 per person, the buffet assumes that nourishing the body is not on the same plane as nourishing the soul, so why bother to ship in edible food to such a remote locale? The roast beef, which resembled oven-roasted fat topped by a dash of gristle, failed to contain any actual beef, which was just as well, as I couldn’t have eaten another bite, what with those watery, colorless mashed potatoes and wax like green beans getting ready to come back up my esophagus. There was chicken, allegedly barbecued, that was deemed too risky to eat, as well as enchiladas, which sat in a pan so full of liquid that it was more aptly labeled a cheesy, reddish soup. Desserts were also present, although a whipped, tasteless pink paste was better left in a category all its own. Alongside this unimaginable mess was an assortment of cake, none of which fulfilled the obligation of a dessert in that they were neither sweet nor desirable. Even the Coke was flat.
It bears mentioning that the buffet experience was enhanced by the aforementioned attire my wife and I chose to wear throughout our religious parade. My wife’s decision to wear her somewhat tattered second skin, for example, ensured a host of open-mouthed stares, as I doubt a single one of them had ever imagined that Jesus and enormous breasts were synonymous. As we walked to our table in the dining hall, I paid close attention to the patrons, and nearly all the females took a peek and looked as if they might fall to the ground in utter shock. My wife even added a “God bless you” when the occasion called. My shirt also produced a few inspired moments, as when I was accosted at the drink bar by a French-sounding lunatic with an expensive looking camera, who asked if I would pose for a photo or two. I agreed, but the single shot soon turned into 10 minutes of madness, as he snapped away as if I were a bikini-clad model strolling along a beach. The psychopath even asked if I would pose with my drinks in hand, which then turned into a shot by the Coke machine itself. As I turned back, I noticed a massive image of Jesus, which clearly inspired the budding photographer, though I fail to see how the product placement sent any godly message to the faithful. As I posed, I noticed numerous stares, though unlike the usual looks of pity I receive in the city, these faces were kind, almost fawning. Creeped out beyond belief, I returned to my table and finished what was left of the hockey puck passing as a roll.
With little over an hour before the start of the show, we decided to hit the “Parables of the Potter,” a one-man lecture by some dude with the head of Yanni and the voice of Bill Clinton. During this brief show, the Potter worked on a clay pot before our eyes, pumping the wheel with all the rigor of a man possessed. Using the pottery-to-be as a metaphor, the Potter breathlessly described Christ’s love and how noble was his sacrifice on that mighty, rugged cross. The line delivery was so melodramatic, in fact, that I half expected the guy to burst into tears. No one in the audience seemed moved, but the presence of a few people in wheelchairs led me to believe that there might be an attempted healing by monologue’s end. Alas, the cripples sought only a handshake and a picture, and once again a good laugh was sacrificed in the name of a cheap tourist’s ploy. As with the Christ of the Ozarks, the audience was unexpectedly subdued, though I might have been a bit rash in expecting half-naked maniacs running to and fro, proclaiming the word of God. Still, I was thoroughly entertained, as there is nary a downside to trivializing Christianity out of existence. If it can be reduced to a bizarre, comical ritual preserved on fading Polaroids, then it is but one short step to being marginalized altogether. But surely my wife and I were the only people in attendance who observed everything with a cackling, superior eye? Would anyone else dare travel hundreds of miles to witness the crass commercialization of the messiah? So why the dutiful moping, as if in a trancelike state? Were hearts being changed? Were minds being cleansed; sanitized and purified for the fight ahead? Most assuredly, but in far more subtle a fashion than I had ever thought possible.
At last, the final program was about to begin. Unfortunately, all photography was forbidden during the duration of the show, which made me wonder if at one time there had been a problem with pirating. Perhaps, since DVDs were available in the gift shop (along with books on abstinence and “making money the Jesus way”). Securing a blanket for one dollar, we made our way to our seats and waited with bated breath for a decidedly less bloody version of the Mel Gibson epic. The setting was far too spectacular for the content, what with a glorious moon and clear sky above, but once the booming score enveloped the stage, we were hooked. Built into the hills and consisting of three distinct levels, the stage was a masterpiece of art direction, proving conclusively that those responsible for the creation museum were not allowed anywhere near this set. Within seconds, however, the good cheer turned sour, as it became apparent that the actors were lip-synching to a prerecorded script. Such a decision ensured a near-fatal level of gesticulating and overacting, I’m guessing to distract viewers from the ridiculous line delivery. With all the conviction of 14-year-olds reciting King Lear, the actors “spoke” as if reading cue cards at gunpoint. Some tried to fake an emotional arc — such as the hapless Judas — but such efforts quickly yielded to full-throttle regurgitation, as when Christ’s betrayer yelped, “Noooooo!!!!” as if witnessing the death of his buddy in an ’80s action movie. Alas, this Passion Play failed to include his own death, and we can assume that the humiliated young man kept running about with wild abandon. But as bad as he was, he was still no competition for the midget lady who always stood behind the roaring crowds; out of sync, out of step, yet always, always pointing at some far away object. She was obviously the Waldo of the event, as she strangely appeared in nearly every scene.
Still, as expected, this was Jesus’ story after all, and as played by the Yanni Clinton guy, he was so rugged and masculine as to be pornographic. Muscular, tall, and sporting a killer jaw line, Jesus spoke with all the phony conviction of a defeated Amway salesman, though he looked damn good in doing so. Still, because this was a decidedly family-friendly version of the crucifixion, he was not asked to endure a savage beating, though the pulled punches and girly kicks he did receive were met with violent convulsions and deafening howls of pain. The story, of course, is too familiar (and dull) to repeat, but let it be said that it has never meant so much as it did on this particular Saturday night in May. Nursing a soda and shivering from the unexpected temperature drop, I realized with a start that for all of mankind’s storytelling gifts, it is a depressing reality that they chose one of the least compelling tales on which to found a movement. No wonder so many went Jedi in the late ’70s. Even the David Copperfield-inspired climax, where Jesus descends to hell and steals a set of keys or something, was so inherently underwhelming that it necessitated smoke and lights to give it a boost. It’s obvious these people don’t trust their own tales to do the job anymore. Sure, in the days before electricity, books, television, and porno booths, man was easily amused by the Christ myth. What else had they? Now, when diversions are cheap, plentiful, and often expensively staged, who on earth could give a shit about some guy who got nailed to a board? After all, if this religion is trying to seduce the young people, you’ve got to do better than a Jesus “ascending” to heaven with visible wires, do you not? Even the doves wouldn’t comply, as one insisted on remaining in flight, circling the stage as if intoxicated by the madness, unwilling to return to its cage for a full three minutes.
As the evening faded away, and the play ran into what felt like its fifth hour (in fact, it was only two hours long), I couldn’t help but wonder if authenticity is even possible in these United States. Say what you will about visiting historical sites, theme parks, and assorted roadside Americana, they are most revealing about our fellow countrymen not because they tell the truth, but rather because they best reflect who we imagine ourselves to be. Such attractions are the public face of the American spirit; the scrubbed clean, well-crafted fantasy that keeps reality at bay. Every corner of Eureka Springs upholds this grand tradition, for at no point is the religion on display anything other than a half-baked, oversimplified greeting card version of faith. Because faith is the absence of reason and decidedly idiotic, that’s all it could ever be, but given that so many of our millions live their lives by its precepts, it stands as a subject worth investigating again and again. Needless to say, I’m deathly afraid of the true believers, but at least they’ve altered their brains to fit the tone of their creed. Everyone else — especially those who find it rewarding to travel untold miles to a site with all the inspiration of a velvet painting – is imbibing a Christianity that does little but explain away a few unpleasant realities and provide something to do during the holidays. It is a cheap, tawdry faith; a waxwork amid flesh-and-blood reality that has no essence, no core, and no genuine feeling. It is ritual and clockwork repetition; the very opposite of reflection and examination. And yet, it is so American as to bleed red, white, and blue. We believe as we do for no more compelling reason than tradition, and the rage we express at its challenge is little more than the displeasure of finally hearing our beliefs read aloud for the first time. So why not put behind glass the very one-dimensional nonsense by which we set our watches? It’s what America’s come to be, after all; where our saviors are so disillusioned that they too can’t remember their lines.