Pastors Weigh in on Proposed Tenn. Bible Park

Developers of a proposed Bible theme park in Tennessee met with area pastors this week to share information and receive feedback on a project that has met both support and opposition from the local community.

About seven pastors in the Murfreesboro area attended a lunch meeting Tuesday with SafeHarbor Holdings LLC, Terri Sterling, a spokeswoman for the developers told The Daily News Journal.

The closed-door meeting was part of an ongoing effort by developers to garner support for the $175 million Bible-theme story park, which was initially proposed to Rutherford County officials last April.

Although Sterling didn't disclose which ministers attended the meeting, she said the developers are happy to meet with any ministers interested in discussing the park. Since last July developers have met with some 34 pastors in the area, she said earlier, according to The Daily News Journal.

Plans to rezone 282 acres for the Bible theme park were submitted last month.

The Rutherford County Commission will have the final say on the rezoning of the planned unit development but that hasn't stopped local pastors from weighing in their hopes and concerns on the issue with the local newspaper.

Supporters of the park say the attraction would help boost local businesses, raise values of surrounding properties, create new jobs and build lasting infrastructure such as roads for the county.

Associate Pastor Mike Dugan of Calvary Baptist Church, who met with the developers, was impressed with the plans he has seen thus far.

"I think it would be good for the economy," he said. "I think it would be good for the churches around it. I just can't see a down side to it."

Armon Bar-Tur, co-founder and managing director of the SafeHarbor Holdings, said the park would hire 200 to 300 fulltime employees and 500 to 1,000 seasonal employees.

But the Rev. Graham Matthews of Key United Methodist Church opposes the idea of a commercial development benefiting from Scripture, especially when the developers are non-Christian who will profit from Christian faith.

"There seems to be nothing sacred or off limits where capitalism is concerned," Matthews said.

"It's a sad commentary on the Christian faith when Jewish businessmen make money on the religious heritage of our faith," he added. "The question is, would the same theme park be acceptable in Israel, and the answer is no."

Other opponents to the project have also brought up objections to the park, saying it would clog traffic in the community, raise property taxes or even fail to generate the promised boom to the economy.

The brains behind the attraction, which would be dubbed Bible Park USA upon completion, have marketed the park as an "edutainment" experience, a mixed offering of education and entertainment, that will allow visitors to visualize familiar Bible stories and a taste of life in ancient biblical times. Bible stories from both the Old and New Testaments would be depicted in a non-denomination and non-interpretive way.

"We do not teach, preach, convert or explain any of the stories of the Bible," Bible Park CEO Ronen Paldi said during a community open house last month.

"This is a family-friendly place," he said. "The park is open for anyone who wants to come, including those who do not believe in the Bible. No one will be made to feel unpleasant because they have a different belief system."

Some ministers who see the park as an evangelistic opportunity had expressed reluctant support, saying they were worried over the biblical and historical accuracy of the park.

The Rev. Bryan Brooks of Blackman United Methodist Church didn't agree that a non-interpretive version of the Bible's stories was possible.

Also, Matthews said he was also concerned that the park might portray the historical figures of the Bible with inaccurate ethnic characteristics.

"Will the characters look like Europeans or the dark people of ancient Egypt and Palestine?" he asked.

Morris Proctor, a non-denominational preacher and teacher of pastors, said he would be "all for it" if the Bible was portrayed accurately.

"Anything we can do to get the message of the Bible out, I'm all for that."

Developers, who hope to open Bible Park USA by Easter 2010, are scheduled to hold the first of several meetings before county planning officials in April.