“I Can’t Let My Thong Show at the Holy Land:” Navigating Sacrality, Profanity, and Humor in Ethnographic Research

by Stephanie Brehm

People seem to be conditioned to see humor as the opposite of the sacred. Though a common mantra says that we should “take religion seriously,” and that the “serious” is in opposition to the “funny.” But my ethnographic research taught me otherwise. Sacred and profane exist on a spectrum, with humor somewhere in between the two. One of my interlocutors provided this titular quote during my month-long ethnographic study at the Holy Land Experience theme park in Orlando, Florida.

For my master’s thesis, I conducted participant-observations and interviews at this theme park, exploring the intersection of Evangelical Christianity, popular entertainment, and consumerism. This ethnographic research looked at the blurring of sacred and profane in regard to the space, materiality, and worship practices of employees and visitors.

This particular interlocutor was my former college roommate, a self-identifying Evangelical Christian, who lives in Orlando. She first introduced me to the Holy Land Experience after she accompanied her younger sister’s class on a school field trip there in 2006. During a phone conversation soon after her visit, she exclaimed, “Steph, you have to study this place, it’s crazy!” When I decided to research the site, I asked her to accompany me on one of my trips and she immediately agreed.

Even though she self-identifies as an Evangelical, she told me that she did not see the Holy Land Experience as a sacred, spiritual, or religious place. She was skeptical of the authenticity of the religious experiences people said they felt at the theme park. Even while we watched a Passion play performance, she commented that Jesus was too pretty, a “Pantene Pro-V Jesus.”

While we sat on the floor waiting for the Wilderness Tabernacle performance to begin, she fidgeted. I asked if she was trying to get comfortable. She said, “I’m trying to not let my thong show at the Holy Land!” I laughed hysterically at the time, but later thought about what her statement said about the sacred/profane dichotomy. Even though she did not consider this a sacred space, she still wanted to keep the profane (her underwear) from showing and desecrating the site or the experience for others.

Of course, there are other explanations for her attempt at modesty. As a third-grade teacher, she is acutely aware of the presence of young children and perhaps did not want be inappropriately dressed around them. But she did not reference the children around us; she referenced the name and content of the park. There was something in the way she said “the Holy Land” that changed the dynamic. Regardless of her interpretation of the Holy Land Experience as “crazy,” she still saw something as sacred. Humor exists somewhere between the sacred and the profane.
 

My consultant with the cardboard cutout, “Panteen Pro-V” Jesus.
(a picture of her thong was not included)

 

The “Panteen Pro-V” Jesus and the thong-incident were not the only “funny” moments. To preface the next example, I should explain another facet of this theme park. The Holy Land Experience was lambasted in Bill Maher’s 2008 film, Religulous, when Maher interviewed and mocked an actor playing Jesus and the visitors of the park. Unlike Maher, it was never my intention to satirize individuals who came to the theme park or the employees who work there. Neither was it my goal to debunk anyone’s theological beliefs, criticize anyone’s motives, or somehow reveal the participants as disingenuous. Also, I am not the sole judge of the sacred/profane dichotomy. Like many ethnographers, I have to walk a fine line between differing classifications of sacred and profane in order to create a productive dialogue with my interlocutors.

However, I still found humorous moments of overlap between sacrality and profanity. I noticed that the humorous moments arose from my internal incongruities and those of my interlocutors – the disparity between what we thought should be happening and what was actually happening. One such example can be seen in the picture below. I did not create the scenario in the picture below; the scene was set before I arrived at the ticket booth that July morning.
 


 
 

Let me unpack this image: this is the far left corner of the ticket booth room, immediately to the left of an employee entrance to the park. There are signs surrounding the door that say that visitors are not allowed to enter this way. In this picture there is a cardboard cutout Jesus with his hand reaching out in an inviting manner. He is directly underneath a television playing the Trinity Broadcast Network’s televangelist programming with a phone number scrolling at the bottom of the screen to call for prayers. The cardboard-cutout Jesus’s arm is extended less than a foot from an ATM cash dispenser.

The Holy Land Experience purports to be devoted to the sacred Word and claims to represent the biblical holy land. What I saw before me, however, appeared to be Jesus asking for donations on behalf of the Trinity Broadcast Network. The incongruity stems from the juxtaposition of sacred and profane, of Jesus and money. This visual illustrates a humorous image that had me chuckling for days. Every person I showed this picture drew the same conclusions I did. Is this the profane injecting itself into the sacred through the Holy Land Experience? Can it still be sacred for some people? My research further complicates the relationship between sacred and profane, and where humor falls on that spectrum both individually and collectively.

Those are just two examples of the humorous parts of otherwise “serious” research. Something about the ethnographic methodology brought humor into the forefront of my time in Orlando, Florida. Dealing with humor and finding the funny may just be something I am focused on, a pattern I have been fixated on throughout my graduate research. One aspect of my future work sets out to deal with the question which began at the Holy Land Experience theme park: How do we navigate the sacred and profane of religious studies in regard to the humorous moments we see in ethnographic research?
 

Stephanie Brehm is a doctoral student at Northwestern University. She graduated with a B.A. from Florida State University and a M.A. from Miami University of Ohio.

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One Response to ““I Can’t Let My Thong Show at the Holy Land:” Navigating Sacrality, Profanity, and Humor in Ethnographic Research”

  1. Gerhard says:

    Wonderful article and observations, Stephanie. I would love to read your thesis.

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