Photos of the Holy Land Experience by the author
On a sunny afternoon in September, I sat with 12 tourists inside a plastic-looking cave at the Holy Land Experience, a 16-acre biblical theme park in Orlando, Florida, watching a man dressed as Jesus reenact the Last Supper with His 12 disciples.
“This bread is my flesh,” the man dressed as Jesus said. “This is my blood… poured out for you.”
I bit into my individually packaged sample of Jesus’ flesh, and then washed down my wafer with grape-flavored “blood.” The sugary shot’s terrible aftertaste stayed with me as I wandered around the park, which is owned by the Trinity Broadcasting Network and boasts attractions like the fourth-largest collection of Bible artifacts in the world along with dozens of replicas of biblical settings. I was particularly disturbed by the park’s replica of the whipping post, which played sound effects of the trials of Christ on a loop.
But I wasn’t here to sightsee. I had come to learn more about a man who plays Jesus for a living at the park—Michael Job, a 40-year-old evangelical from Brooklyn.
Job has worked at Orlando’s most infamous homage to God since 2004. (He mostly performs as Jesus, he told me, but occasionally he takes a turn playing “the soldier dude.”) Growing up in a Catholic household in Brooklyn, he studied music, and in his early 20s, he says, he found relative success as an actor in TV shows and plays. When we spoke on the phone, Job told me he had acted in order to escape the dark thoughts that controlled his life.
“Outside, I looked like a nice guy, maybe a nice shy guy. I never really talked too much,” Job said. “On the inside, I was depressed. I hated myself. I had suicidal tendencies.”
Pretending to be someone else on stage temporarily fixed his problems, but when the performances ended, he felt miserable. He tried church as a solution, but after almost every service, he would hop on the subway to go clubbing.
“I was in church and said it with my lips, but I wasn’t living that with my heart,” Job said.
That changed when Job became a born-again Christian in the middle of Manhattan in 2003, when he was 28. He got saved at Times Square Church, climbing out of his depression and into the love of the Lord.
“Man, it was like blinders came off of my eyes that day. I started crying and everything,” Job said. “For 28 years, I was in the driver’s seat. I’d take Jesus out of the back trunk. I’d have church or prayer, but I was the one driving. I had to surrender the control of my life to him and say, ‘Jesus, be the Lord, be the focus.’ If your life is like a car, you’re going to put Jesus at the driver’s seat.”
Job let Jesus drive him to Orlando, where he worked as Gaston (the villain in Beauty and the Beast) at Disney’s MGM Studios.
Though his parents were Christian, they were not evangelical, and they were shocked by his transformation.
“When you grow up and you have religion, you just do it on a Sunday,” Job said. “And if you do it more than that, you’re called radical. They said I was overboard, they thought I was crazy, out of my mind, brainwashed.”
In 2004, Job decided to merge his professional and personal life and work as Jesus Christ Himself at the Holy Land Experience before TBN purchased the theme park.
“I never even went in the park other than to audition before I started working, so I had no idea what I was getting into,” he said.
Jew-turned-Baptist evangelist Marvin Rosenthal opened the park in 2001. Rosenthal promoted the park as a museum, urging asceticism and sobriety, though the park also drew protesters who claimed the project’s ultimate goal was to convince Jews to accept Christ as the Messiah.
“There was no glitz or glamor—it was all more of the authentic,” Job said about the park’s early incarnation. “You couldn’t have anything 20th-century on you. You couldn't have a watch, you couldn’t have a cell phone.”
These policies changed in 2007, when the park was bought by TBN, the televangelist juggernaut that boasts it broadcasts to 92 percent of US households and airs on every inhabited continent. Ticket prices surged from less than $20 to $50 per person, and the park undeniably got tackier. When I visited the park a cardboard Jesus sat on a motorcycle near the park’s entrance, and rhinestones covered the Virgin Mary in the Nativity exhibit. Like at other amusement parks across the country, obese families ate turkey legs and took selfies at the Baptismal Pool.
Many of park’s performers are happy with TBN’s changes. One actress, Whitney Lynn Rivera, stood with me in the Dead Sea Qumran Caves and said that the network helped her promote her music career. While working at the park over the last two and a half years, she’s recorded songs like “Holy Holy” and “Goliath.”
“I sold 400 albums in 30 days,” she said. “I was like, ‘That’s so God.’”
Rivera went through a process similar to a TV audition to score her job. After submitting a few headshots and a resume, she auditioned in front of production managers, including TBN CEO Jan Crouch herself.
To the network's loyal followers, Jan Crouch and her signature poof of pink hair are as iconic and worthy of respect as, say, Barbara Walters. Viewers donate millions of dollars annually to support TBN (they gave $93 million in 2010), which is classified as a nonprofit. She founded it in 1973 with her now deceased husband Paul, a televangelist who was dogged by a series of scandals in his later years. In 2000, Paul was sued for plagiarism by author Sylvia Fleener, who said he ripped off her material for his novel The Omega Code (the suit was settled out of court). He was also forced to deny allegations of a homosexual encounter after former TBN employee Enoch Lonnie Ford told the Los Angeles Times in 2004 that Crouch paid him a $425,000 settlement to keep him quiet about the tryst. And in 2012, the couple’s granddaughter, Brittany Koper, accused her grandparents of misappropriating millions to fund their lavish lifestyles (TBN in turn accused Koper and her husband of stealing $1.3 million).
When I asked Job about all that, he said, “I don’t know a whole lot about fraud. Personally, I believe God is our provision, and I believe He supplies for our needs. It is good to give to God, and if there are evangelists on TV who are just wanting money, are just money-hungry, I don’t really agree with that.”
Job loves TBN’s improvements to the park, especially the Church of All Nations, a bejeweled 2,000-seat auditorium where often bloody plays recount Jesus’s life and teachings. According to Job, before the Church of All Nations, he performed outdoors and four to five people would pass out in the middle of each performance.
“It’s a very nice theater that Miss Jan had a vision for,” Job said. “[Before the theater] you would have the EMT, in the middle of [a play], going in and carrying out this person because they’ve passed out because they’re dehydrated. And then, he would go back in and get the next person who passes out. One really, really good benefit [of TBN’s management] is the air-conditioned theater.”
Job mostly loves TBN because the company welcomes the presence of the Holy Spirit. During our phone conversation, Job asked me, “Do you have any pain in your body?” I told him I didn’t, but that I have occasional aches in my knees. He immediately started appealing to the Lord for a patella panacea: “Lord God, I ask all arthritis be cast out in the name of Jesus. Her new cartilage, her new tendons, her new ligaments, new meniscus, all things be new in the name of Jesus!”
My legs have yet to improve, but Job insists, “We see healings. I can send you some videos from my phone if you want. I see people get healed every day—the blind see, the deaf hear, those who can’t walk, walk.” Although I never received those videos, Job assured me he performs up to eight faith healings a day.
He also performs up to five crucifixion reenactments a week. At 4 PM, Tuesday through Saturday, Job or another Jesus impersonator writhes in pain as Roman soldiers whip him on the cross, splattering viscous, beet-red stage blood toward the audience of the Passion of the Christ Live Drama. The 75-minute play is the most realistic event at the Holy Land Experience, and Job’s performance feels horrifically believable.
Some Holy Land staff members never want to play Jesus, though. As he ushered tourists near the baptismal pool, an actor dressed in first-century garb told me he has his sights set on Judas. It’s more of an art, he explained.
“It’s easy to be Jesus,” he said. “You can suck and everyone still loves you.”