After Jordan Bloom tells the tale of the $5 million animatronic zoo cum children’s chapel for a San Antonio megachurch, Rod Dreher points out that it’s not the cost that staggers ($5 million for these churches is relatively pocket change), but the purpose—cultural relevance. The idea is to compete with theme parks and pizzerias for the kids’ attention so they’ll stay for the Word of God.
John Hagee is your average megachurch the-end-is-nigh, bless-Israel-so-you-may-be-blessed prosperity preacher, with an aging choir, a corpulent belly, a multimillion dollar TV ministry, a son groomed to take over the empire, and a massive retirement package. He needs your pity more than anything.
With room for 850 boisterous children cascading over the room, it’s hard to imagine those wonderful toys surviving long, but it’s not all bad. The model Noah’s ark is at least a rudimentary architectural symbol of the congregation’s theology, which is more than can be said for the main stadium, which only says that the guy standing down at the bottom middle with the mic is really important and you’d better listen to him.
But it’s a skin-deep symbolism. The electronic elephant symbolizes…a live elephant. It was important to the ark designer “that it really feel more real than just a playground.” “We never wanted a curtain to look behind. No place where it gave it away,” he said. Of course there is a curtain, the plastic which covers the hydraulic innards. A kid who can’t find the curtain (and they will try) is impressed by the design quality, but that’s more reason to believe in the ingenuity of technicians than in the providence of God. That’s why pastor Hagee acknowledges that their real value is entertainment. We wonder how long it will be before the kids get bored and start demanding to see pterodactyls nesting on the church rooftop. The cleverer ones will have overthrown the entire enterprise as soon as they ask “so how did all the animals on the earth fit into this ark? And didn’t the animals come in two by two?”
The power of sacred architecture is in the fitting combination of its beauty and its meaning. Hagee’s chapel is gaudily commercial and theologically spare, powerless to move the soul to God. His church has nothing to say, and no idea how to say it. The larger story here is that the parents and retirees who paid for the building are raising children who are bored with church, and a pachyderm playground is their best idea to get the little ones’ attention.