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  Tourist Traps Ahoy!

Christus Gardens

by Adrienne Martini

Last Sunday, I tried to explain Christus Gardens to my father, a lapsed Catholic (as playwright Christopher Durang said, "I don't know any Catholic adults") who has little patience for kitschy tourist attractions. In fact, as a kid, even though I remember quite a few trips to historical monuments of all size, shape, and significance, I can't recall any trips where the gift shops contained snow globes or seashell sculptures. Selective memory on my part, perhaps, but I don't think I even ate a corn dog until I was 25. Consider it a childhood more Mount Vernon and Fort Pitt than anything-o-rama. Downright un-American, I know.

The conversation started benignly, with Dad asking what I'd done over the past couple of weeks. Nothing major, I told him. Gardening, yelling at the cats, pondering home improvements—the usual stuff. And then, I told him, yesterday I went to Christus Gardens.

"You went to what?"

"Christus Gardens," I said, finally pronouncing the place name correctly, which would be with a short "i" like the y in "tryst" instead of a long "i" like the i in, uh, "Christ."

"Which is what?"

"It's a tourist attraction in Gatlinburg, Dad, built by Nashvillian Ronald S. Ligon after he made a pact with God while he [and by this I meant Ligon, not God] was on his deathbed in the late 1950s. After Ligon recovered, he flew around the world to gather ideas for such a monument, finally deciding two things, more or less. One, Gatlinburg was ideal for such a devotional space and, two, that 10 dioramas filled with wax figures would be the best way to portray the life and teachings of Christ," I explained. "They say it's non-denominational."

"I doubt they get many Jews," Dad said, covering his confusion about the whole idea behind the Gardens with a light joke.

"The brochure says 'indicative of its universal appeal is the fact that many of its visitors have been from non-Christian nations.' Can't argue with a brochure, Dad, can you?" The other end of the line was silent. "Well," I blundered on, "all of the folks who were there on the day I visited looked awfully white and awfully Christian. Some Mennonites were walking in as we were leaving. But you can't judge a book by..."

"Why would you make the life of Christ into a series of wax figures?" Dad interrupted, after starting to wrap his mind around the idea.

"I don't know. They're really good wax figures, though. Kind of like a Madame Tussaud's for the WWJD set. You almost expect them to breathe as they pose. And Christ himself looked as benevolent as the day is long, his Willie Nelson red hair flowing down his shoulders even when he was a kid." I continued, not entirely sure there was an answer to why one would create such a monument to their chosen faith. "It was, I admit, fairly dramatic and all. Voice-of-God-type narration that led us through the exhibit. Soaring choirs. Dynamic lighting. Quite engaging, really, until a bored 12-year-old boy wearing a WWF black T-shirt decided to open the emergency exit during Christ's ascension. Kind of wrecked the mood."

"I can imagine."

"The outside of the building was neat, though, a monument to low, white marble buildings that look like low, white marble non-denominational churches. The garden was a bit of a let-down. Full of mostly plastic plants."

"Plastic plants..."

"Yeah. And the voice-over tape must have warped or something. It randomly sped-up and slowed down, like it was possessed. Andrea [a friend of mine who almost got us kicked out of the Alamo—a long story that I'd already told him] had to visibly restrain herself from leaping up onto one of the marble benches while screaming 'get thee behind me, Satan.' Fortunately, she decided that might be a bit rude. But there was a marble carving of Jesus whose eyes followed you around the room, which was a neat trick of optics."

"I've always liked Andrea." Dad was really just kind of babbling now, latching onto a topic with which he was more comfortable. I knew it was time to give the Gardens a rest. After all, he's at that age where new topics, like weird tourist traps that have no historical significance whatsoever, unnerve him.

"You'll be happy to know that it was Andrea who found the Christus Gardens shot glass in the gift shop," I concluded. "And I also got this great snow-globey thing filled with a thermometer, some blue flowers and stars, and a pair of praying hands."

"A shot glass in an attraction devoted to Christ?"

"Sometimes it's better to not ask questions, Dad."

"Tell me again why you went there?"

"It's my job. I do bizarre things so I can tell people about them. I've been nibbled by an alpaca. Hit on by drunken musicians. Called all sorts of filthy names. All for our readers. It's what I do, Dad," I explained. "Besides, it also gave me a chance to ride a ski lift up to the top of Ober Gatlinburg."

"I didn't think you all still had snow."

"We don't. I rode up there to listen to a three-piece string band and watch people clog."

It was at this point, I think, that he wished me a good week and hung up.

June 8, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 23
© 2000 Metro Pulse