Jesus in Disneyland, the Church of Body Modifications, and Postmodern Religion in America

By Kenny Smith  

Recalling his first encounter with Jesus in Disneyland (2000), author David Lyon explains,           

The scene is Anaheim, California, home of Disneyland. Not unusually, 10,000 people are streaming through the turnstiles. Only today they are heading for a Harvest Day Crusade. In place of the regular attractions and rides, Christian artists perform at several stages throughout the park, and an evangelist… preaches a gospel message.  

At first glance, the blending of Evangelical Christianity and Disneyland may appear wildly contradictory. Evangelicals have frequently objected to the magical worldviews and practices so vividly brought to life in various Disney films, most recently in The Princess and the Frog.(1) Indeed, Disney theme parks represent “the epitome of post-modern culture – [an] artificial, simulated, virtual, fantasy world” in which every attraction is framed by shopping opportunities. When these two realities are “telescoped incongruously into one,” Lyon observes, “they clash.” Nevertheless, the fact that an Evangelical worldview and identity are strategically placed within the gates of the Disney theme park as an attraction for our consumption suggests that even highly conservative forms of religion, which often see themselves as building a wall between believers and pop culture, are in fact participating thoroughly in it. (1-2) 

More recently, the blending of religious and cultural resources within the American landscaped overflows the merging of Disney and Evangelism. The suspension of Ariana Iacono, a North Carolina high school student who wore a nose-piercing to school, for instance, brought to light the Church of Bodily Modification (COBM), to which she and her mother apparently belong.(2)  As the Washington Post reports,(3) within the COBM community, spiritual experience and growth are understood as occurring through bodily piercings, scarifications, and modifications, that is, changing the physical appearance of the body in subtle and sometimes even profound ways, ways that might seem quite disturbing to outsiders.(4) 

We should not be surprised to discover links between bodily modifications and spirituality. As students of anthropology well know, indigenous peoples the world over have for eons marked sacred encounters, as well as major life stages, in permanent (and often painful) etchings and piercings made upon the physical body. 

A link between body piercings and the holy is also evident within some contemporary Evangelical Christian communities. In a graphic manner reminiscent of Mel Gibson’s 2004 film, The Passion of the Christ, web-pages such as “Body Piercings Saved My Life” and “This Blood’s for You” address prospective converts with a sense of cosmic urgency, pointing out that, in his crucifixion, Jesus was extensively pierced for the sake of all humankind:

 The skin on His head was ripped by a crown of thorns; driven deep into His scalp again and again with a rod. His back was scarified by a whip fitted with pieces of metal and glass, tearing off chunks of skin and muscle-tissue with every stroke.  His hands and feet were punctured and pierced with long, iron nails pounded straight through His flesh into a heavy wooden cross.(5) 

From a profound sense of devotion, Evangelicals of this sort work to emulate Jesus (in a very minor and humble way, by heir own admission) by taking up their own piercings, scarifications, and tattoos. As one such thinker explains, 

I currently have a 2-gauge captive-ball earring and a 0-gauge tunnel in my left ear, a barbell through my tongue, a labret sticking though my soul patch, a tattoo on my left arm declaring Jesus is Lord…, a crown of thorns with bloody nails on my right forearm with the Greek for “Greater love has no one than this…” a portrait of Jesus on my right arm and the Hebrew Sh’ma on my right hand.(6) 

The Larger Picture 

While it is tempting to distinguish the “real and authentic” religions and spiritual pathways that just happened to engage in blending some cultural resources from those that are less so, such efforts typically reveal more about the person making the distinction than about the groups studied in this way. Instead, I suggest looking to the larger historical picture into which these instances of religious/cultural hybridity blending might fit, and that might assist us in making greater sense of them.   

As Lyon points out, we live in an increasingly post-modern society. If modernity was characterized by enduring meta-narratives, that is, large-scale stories, myths, and values that organized Western thought and action and gave largely unquestioned authority to social institutions like the church, science, national governments, and so forth, post-modernity has seen the steady erosion of over-arching worldviews and external sources of authority. In their place has arisen the profound conviction that moral and religious authority reside within the self, not outside of it. As the new Mr. Spock teaches in the newest incarnation of Star Trek films, “do what feels right.” 

This emphasis upon individual choice is amplified by advances in communications technologies, which bring previously foreign worlds of all sorts, real and imagined, as close as one’s computer screen. The result has been two-fold. Firstly, religious worlds have morphed even more clearly into competing commodities for sale in a marketplace of culture. The popular YouTube video, “What if Starbuck’s Marketed Like a Church? A Parable,”(7) for instance, might well be flipped on its head to ask, “What if religious institutions marketed like Starbuck’s?” One suspects that many already do. Secondly, a religious landscape that was already quite diverse has become fragmented into a sea of micro-religions, as we select and assemble our own identities and worldviews from the many existential options available, and in so doing bring together disparate cultural resources. 

Given this deliciously complicated state of affairs, it is not at all surprising that Newsweek’s religion editor, Lisa Miller, points to a widespread revival not so much of religion, but of religious studies as an academic discipline in which undergraduate and graduate students are mightily interested.(8)  Larger numbers of intelligent, thoughtful persons, it seems, want to understand the increasingly complex landscape in which they live, and find ways in which to forge livelihoods out of such knowledges and understandings.  



Filed Under: American ReligionFeaturedKenny SmithNRMs


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