email from the Ozarks
(Vol. 1, No. 3)
Bradley David Williams
“Hi from Eureka Springs, Arkansas -- the funkiest little town in America and perhaps the entire world.”
September 26, 2007
Lordy, lordy, look who’s 40, indeed… ;p
I had a great birthday and heard from all kinds of people I wouldn’t have if it weren’t for this blog. By the way, I am officially a blog now and you can find current and archived entries at emailfromtheozarks.blogspot.com … Day after tomorrow, I’m off on a big three-week road trip all over the eastern U.S., which you’ll hear all about next time, but I doubt I’ll be blogging from the road.
The big unexpected result of this whole blog thing, for me, has been the instant gratification achievable through blogging. I just have to unleash the blog on the world, and ten minutes later, I already have fabulous ego-stroking emails of praise from friends and complete strangers all over the place. Instant gratification, you may know, is a rare thing when it comes to writing.
Well, I finally submitted to the full Passion Play experience. As I have previously written, Eureka Springs has a Christian theme park of sorts, where they put on “The Great Passion Play” and also boast three religious “museums,” a re-creation of the “Holy Land,” a restaurant, two wedding chapels (weddings are a huge industry in Eureka), a big chunk of the Berlin Wall with the 23rd Psalm scrawled on it in German, two gift shops, and the 67-Foot Jesus, “Christ of the Ozarks.” Last blog, I mistakenly wrote that the mastermind behind Jesusland, ol’ Gerald L.K. Smith (the white-supremecist founder of the fascist organization known as the “Christian Nationalist Crusade”) was buried near the foot (“feet?”) of 67-Foot Jesus. It turns out Jesus has no feet. Second only in size to the Jesus statue in Rio de Janeiro, our seven-story Jesus was supposed to be even taller. But that would’ve required putting a flashing red light on top of his head to keep planes from accidentally crashing into it, so they cut poor Jesus off at the knees.
You can’t really write about Eureka without writing about Jesusland, but it probably would’ve taken me a very long time to force myself to experience it if I hadn’t gotten in for free as a journalist. The all-inclusive ticket, which gets you the whole enchilada, an all-day affair, costs $47.00.
First stop was something I’ve truly been dying to see since arriving here -- the Museum of Earth History, devoted to the insane notion of creationism. Where to begin… Well, it takes almost an hour if you listen to all of the recorded audio tour, transmitted through a wireless hand-held device that you hold up to your ear. The narrator, one G. Thomas Sharp, runs an outfit in Oklahoma called the Creation Truth Foundation, which is responsible for the museum’s content (PLEASE go to their website -- creationtruth.com -- and click on “Museum of Earth History“ and you will see a stupefying TV commercial for this attraction).
You Texans will be thrilled to learn that Sharp is building a similar creationism museum in Dallas (naturally), on the campus of something called the Christ of the Nations Institute. According to Sharp’s bio, he earned a PhD from South Florida Bible College and Seminary “with an emphasis in the philosophy of religion and science.”
With a southern accent and terrible grammar (he talks about things happening “simultaneous” for example, rather than “simultaneously”), Sharp confidently outlines the “facts” about how the Bible MUST be interpreted literally if you want to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, the earth is only 10,000 years old, and humans coexisted with the dinosaurs. I guess they’re trying to lure the young ’uns with the ridiculous dinosaur theme. The museum’s gift shop is called the Dino-store and they sell all kinds of dinosaur stuffed animals and other dinosaur-related gifts and souvenirs, as well as books and videos on creationism.
Amongst the almost fifty exhibits at the museum are several “museum-quality replicas” of dinosaur skeletons (they don’t tell you they’re not real unless you ask), and at one of these, the narration starts like this: “Were dinosaurs on the arc of Noah? This is a commonly asked question. The Biblical worldview on this issue is rather straightforward...”
OF COURSE there were dinosaurs on Noah’s arc, idiot, because the Bible says there were two of “EVERY” animal! Sharp explains that most of the dinosaur fossils that have been excavated, which are nowhere near as old as the evil scientists of the world want us to believe, have been the size of a cow or smaller. And of course Noah would’ve used young dinosaurs that could fit on the arc more easily. I’m thinking even baby T-Rexes could’ve gobbled up the two kitties and the two rabbits, if not ALL the other pairs of critters.
In the interest of full disclosure, my sister and her husband are right-wing fundamentalist Christians who home-schooled their three children so that they could teach them this “Biblical“ view of the world. They have a bumper sticker on their car that says “Vote Pro-Life,” although they are proudly apolitical and, to my knowledge, have never even been registered to vote.
But I digress… At the Museum of Earth History, as described in the brochure, “visitors journey through three epic periods of ancient history: life before the fall of man, the post-fall world and life after the devastating effects of the great Genesis Flood.” But it’s fun for the whole family!
I quickly made my way through the other two “museums” -- the Bible Museum, featuring “over 10,000 bibles in 625 languages and dialects,” and the Sacred Arts Center, a vast collection of mostly contemporary “Christian art.”
Next it was time for the Holy Land Tour, where they take you around in an open-air “tram” (with a “God Is Awesome” license plate), letting you off for “Moses’ Tabernacle,” “Bethlehem,” “The Sea of Galilee,” and “The Last Supper.” Various characters from the Bible, dressed in the traditional robes and Velcro-strapped sandals of the period, explain what these places represent. All the actors, even Mary, have Northwest Arkansas accents and, again, hideous grammar. The tour is two-and-a-half hours, but it goes by like five years. I thought it would never be over.
Now it was time for the extremely mediocre (I’m being nice here) buffet, at which you are forced to endure a hillbilly Christian family singing about Jesus, followed by what we had all come for, “The Great Passion Play” itself. The spectacle, which features camels, sheep, donkeys, doves, and a cast of hundreds of humans (many of them local hippies trying to pay the rent), lasts two hours, but it goes by like four decades.
Performed on a 550-foot-wide, multi-level stage built into the side of a mountain, in an outdoor amphitheater with 4,100 seats, the show goes on, rain or shine (you can buy a plastic poncho with the “Great Passion Play” logo all over it) five nights a week, May through October. This, “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” is billed as “the number one attended outdoor drama in America,” but the show has been struggling for years, with occasional rumors that they might have to shut it down altogether.
Did I mention that the actors in the Passion Play are mouthing the words to a pre-recorded audio tape with movie music in the background? At the end of the two hours, after we have witnessed the excessively gory crucifixion, Jesus (whose voice sounds like that of an average Joe from Fayetteville) is lifted up by barely visible wires, not into the heavens but into the trees.
The entire Jesusland experience seems ultra-tacky to me on many levels, but these Christians EAT IT UP! There is constant ooh-ing and ah-ing about how “just wonderful” it all is. Most of these Christians appeared to be retirees, many of them morbidly obese. I cannot imagine how, with Jesus on their side, these people cannot resist Satan’s high-calorie temptations!
I will say I didn’t detect anything overtly homophobic at Jesusland. Of course this could be a calculated attempt to keep Eureka’s shockingly huge gay and lesbian community from picketing outside the entrance.
Calling myself the “Atheist in the Ozarks,” I feel compelled to explain my atheism and spiritual history here, but I’m running long, so that will have to wait. But according to the frequent admonitions of the Passion Play staff throughout the day, people like me are going straight to the fiery flames of hell on account of us not “accepting Jesus into our hearts.” Believing in a God that you are supposed to “fear” is something I cannot grasp, just like I could never make sense of the whole “he died for our sins so that we could have everlasting life.”
And of course these folks believe the end is coming very soon. I say let’s get it over with. As the bumper sticker says, “Jesus is coming! Look busy!“
But enough about me and Jesus…
Youtube has become my best friend at the writers’ colony, where television is banned. If you are ever having a bad day, just go to youtube.com and type in “ethylina ring” and you will discover an over-the-top Liza Minnelli impersonator named Ethylina Canne performing, at a gay pride event in San Luis Obispo, California, my favorite Liza number, “Ring Them Bells.” I saw Liza perform this at an AIDS benefit in Houston in 1994 with my favorite women in the whole world -- Ann Richards, Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King -- in attendance (the concert was tied in with an “old-timers“ tennis exhibition benefiting AmFAR).
Written especially for Liza by the brilliant Kander and Ebb, “Ring Them Bells” is like an entire musical in one song -- an elaborate farce about 31-year-old spinster Shirley Devore, who lived in Apartment 29E at 5 Riverside Drive in New York and had to “travel ’round the world to meet the guy next door.” It is ten year’s worth of psychotherapy in five minutes! Don’t deprive yourself, kids.
I gave this advice in a recent note to somebody who really needs it -- the international jet-setting socialite and arts patron Lynn Wyatt of Houston. I became friendly with Lynn, and a number of other Houston socialites, partly through my fundraising work at the Houston Grand Opera. Lynn is best friends with Liza and Elton John, and her home in Houston became known as the “Wyatt Hyatt” over the years, as everyone from Princess Margaret to Truman Capote to Mick Jagger enjoyed Lynn’s hospitality. Well, Lynn’s husband, oil tycoon Oscar Wyatt, is currently on trial in a federal court in New York, accused of giving kickbacks to Sadam Hussein in exchange for lucrative oil-export contracts in the U.N. “oil for food” scandal. Oscar is 83 years old (the ageless Lynn is 72 but looks 30), and it is hard to believe they would send him to jail at his age, but he is facing the possibility of spending the rest of his life behind bars if convicted.
Lynn, who has often appeared on international “best dressed” lists, has been arriving with Oscar at court, dressed in appropriately subdued dark suits, but with head held high and flashing her ever-present beaming smile. Even in the eye of this storm, she has insisted on continuing her fabulous life pretty much as usual.
"People are going to think what they think anyway," she told the Houston Chronicle, "and I don't pay any attention to that."
She has, however, curtailed her time on the French Riviera, where until now she always rented a villa in Cap Ferrat for the summer. But she did fly back and forth to Europe this summer, staying with friends in France, attending designer Valentino’s 45th-anniversary celebration in Rome, visiting Lord Jacob Rothschild’s archaeological digs in Greece, and spending personal time with Prince Albert and Princess Caroline in Monte Carlo (Lynn was friends with the late Princess Grace and Prince Rainier). Lynn’s annual birthday party, which she hosted each summer at her villa, became hugely famous, but this year she was treated to a more intimate black-tie birthday party by Elton John at his estate in Windsor, England.
Oscar and Lynn were big Ann Richards contributors, and I had an emotional phone chat with Lynn the day after Ann died. She has Ann’s Texas drawl and star power, and as one of her friends told the Chronicle, “There's nothing Lynn can't handle, nothing she doesn't do gracefully. As so many have said and have experienced here and around the world, she's the best of Houston, a sublime ambassador for Texas.”
I had planned to write about Carry Nation, the crazy hatchet-carrying prohibitionist who spent the last several years of her life in Eureka Springs, but that will have to wait.
October is peak tourist season here in Eureka, as this is one of the hotspots where Americans flock to see the fall foliage. It’s not too late to book a room, and you could combine looking at the gorgeous red and yellow and orange leaves with Willie Nelson’s concert on October 26th (I‘ll be back by then). Of course you shouldn’t miss the Passion Play experience, but if you don’t want to shell out the $47, you can get an exquisite tour of Eureka with the “Atheist in the Ozarks” for a whole lot less. ;p