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Biblical wax museum rewards seekers of kitsch and true conviction

The display of Jairus' daughter at BibleWalk on Sept. 28, 2018. RNS photo by Paul Vernon

MANSFIELD, Ohio (RNS) — At the BibleWalk wax museum in Mansfield, Ohio, visitors will find Jesus, Moses, Paul and other biblical figures.

They also may find Tom Cruise.

BibleWalk, a collection of more than 300 wax figures, is perhaps best known for resurrecting used celebrity wax figures as characters from the Bible, including “King Solomon John Travolta” and “Tom Cruise Jesus,” according to RoadTrippers.com.

But there’s more to BibleWalk than just a roadside attraction.

It’s a self-described “labor of love” for the volunteers from Diamond Hill Cathedral who built BibleWalk and operate it on church grounds. Those volunteers lead tours, create costumes for each figure, paint wall murals and record music and narration for each of the 80 or so biblical scenes at the museum.

Ann Nelson and her husband Tim, of Hilliard, Ohio, view the Adam and Eve display during a tour at BibleWalk, in Mansfield, Ohio, on Sept. 28, 2018. RNS photo by Paul Vernon

“More than an attraction, it is a ministry,” said Julie Mott-Hardin, director of BibleWalk.

The idea for BibleWalk came to Diamond Hill Cathedral Pastor Richard Diamond and his late wife, Alwilda, in the early 1970s while attending a crusade in Atlanta, Ga. While there, they toured what the BibleWalk’s souvenir booklet described as a historical museum that ended with a scene portraying Jesus ascending into heaven as described in the Gospels.

That tour gave Diamond an idea.

“Honey,” he told his wife, according to the booklet, “wouldn’t it be great if one day we could build a Bible museum?”

The Living Bible Museum opened in 1987.  Now known as BibleWalk, it has several guided tours of its figures spanning three buildings, including the hour-long Miracles of the Old Testament and Life of Christ, as well as the Heart of the Reformation, the Museum of Christian Martyrs and Amazing Grace — The Journeys of Paul, each a half-hour long. A sixth — Kingdom of God — is scheduled to open in summer 2019 and will depict Jesus’ teachings and parables.

There’s also a “Dinner with Grace,” a Bible-themed dinner theater on the grounds.

Many of BibleWalk’s wax figures come from closed wax museums across the country or were bought from wax figure manufacturers that had a surplus, usually at discounted prices.

A variety of the versions of Jesus used at BibleWalk. RNS photos by Paul Vernon

Organizers found wax figures of reformers like Martin Luther at Potter’s Wax Museum in Florida, the first wax museum in America, according to Mott-Hardin. The Last Supper on display in the Life of Christ came from Madame Tussaud’s, she said.

Yes, some are celebrity figures, according to the director.

The museum got a boost of publicity in 2015 when the Daily Mail ran an article identifying a wax Prince Philip being resurrected in a scene of the Last Judgment. Mott-Hardin recalled hearing Jimmy Fallon joke about it on late-night television.

People are correct about some of the wax celebrities they claim to have spotted at BibleWalk and wrong about others, she said. Some the museum doesn’t even own.

“That wouldn’t be the kind of publicity I would want, but there’s not enough money to buy that kind of publicity,” she said.

Mott-Hardin describes herself as “one of the original hippies” who became a Christian in 1971 at Diamond’s first church, Faith Revivals. She said she’s turned down requests to take people on tours of the museum’s born-again celebrities.

But she doesn’t care what gets people in the door at BibleWalk.

Once they’re inside, she said, she’s seen people moved to tears by the experience of seeing the Bible scenes on display. She and the volunteers who lead tours at the museum are quick to ask if anyone needs to talk or needs prayer or simply a hug.

“Deep down, we believe that God sends each person here, so I want to make sure — as much as it’s in me — that they’re getting out of their experience here everything that God wanted them to get,” she said.

On a sunny Sunday afternoon in late September, about 40 visitors toured BibleWalk.

As a group of four adults walked through the Life of Christ, they whispered in recognition as a robed tour guide illuminated each scene with the push of a button.

Lightning flashed across the backdrop in the scene depicting Jesus’ crucifixion. Jairus’ daughter’s chest rose and fell as Jesus commanded the dead girl to get up. Children dressed to represent “all races, creeds and nationalities” surrounded Jesus in one of the few scenes that has remained relatively unchanged since the wax museum opened more than three decades ago.

There are a number of religious roadside attractions like BibleWalk, according to Timothy Beal, chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Case Western Reserve University and author of “Roadside Religion: In Search of the Sacred, the Strange, and the Substance of Faith.”

They were popularized in the 19th century, when a reproduction of Jerusalem covered 13 acres at the World’s Fair in St. Louis and many churches laid out similar reproductions on their properties, Beal said.

“There was this real focus on educating Christians to know that geography — to know the story and to know where it took place,” he said.

BibleWalk director Julie Mott-Hardin in front of the Jesus and the Children display at the religious wax museum in Mansfield, Ohio, on Sept. 28, 2018. This display is made of museum quality fiberglass and is one of two scenes that have remain unchanged since 1987. RNS photo by Paul Vernon

Before Beal visited the first such site for his research, the now-shuttered Holy Land USA in Bedford County, Va., he thought it might be hard to keep a straight face. But he quickly learned to take them seriously.

He was struck by the sincere beliefs of the people who run the sites, he said.

“Even if it’s kind of corny- and kitschy-seeming from a distance, you’re aware of being a guest and that this person is not only hosting you in this space, but they’re kind of letting you into their own personal religious experience and lives,” he said.

It also was moving for many of the guests he encountered at those sites.

That was Paula Baker’s experience when she visited BibleWalk from North Ridgeville, Ohio, with a friend after a non-Christian co-worker was impressed by his visit weeks before.

Baker, who is Catholic, walked through the tour about the life of Paul, an early Jewish follower of Jesus who wrote many of the letters in the New Testament and whose story is recorded in the biblical book of Acts. She’s read those stories and letters countless times, she said.

“But to see it — it feels like you’re right there. It puts you in the moment,” she said.

The Ascension display at BibleWalk in Mansfield, Ohio, on Sept. 28, 2018. RNS photo by Paul Vernon

About the author

Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.

33 Comments

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  • I suppose the Ascension is as close as they can get to what the Resurrection looked like, especially with the numerous eyewitnesses watching. It would have been awesome to have a series of wax displays of the Resurrection appearances over a period of a month and a half. And Matthew, written to the Jewish community, describes some of the eyewitnesses as skeptics!

  • skepticism is a good word here. outside the bible there is no evidence any of that happened. they dated the tomb of jesus when it was opened recently and it dated to 330, not the 30 it should have if it all were historical.

  • The good news is all the museums that closed do to lack of interest. The tomb of jesus was opened recently and they dated it using several methods, it dated to 330, three centuries after jesus lived. The time constantine’s mother went to jerusalem and “re-discovered” those sites and opened them for tourism. It re-invented the events and energised Jerusalem’s economy around tourism and saved the village from abandonment. The locals laugh at the gullibility of the christian tourists and gladly take their money, just like the owners of this wax museum do now.

  • I would rather see real people dressing up and doing the passion plays than see fixed renderings.

  • Wayne – you don’t know that there were numerous eyewitnesses – you believe the account that says so.

    Wouldn’t you expect contemporary diarists to have recorded the story – whether as eye-witnesses or by report?

    Believe what you will but please don’t misrepresent belief as fact – people can get seriously harmed by such “terminological inexactitudes”..

  • Greetings dog! Thanks for your comment. Your point is well taken. Yes, it is my belief, but I am referencing the text that claims that it happened.
    1 Corinthians 15:5-8
    5 and that he (Jesus) appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

    I wouldn’t claim it as fact because I wasn’t there. I only have the extant documents and the writings of the early Church Fathers to go by. I have no difficulty believing the Gospels are accurate because of the genealogies, numerous cities referenced, many skeptics and critics against Jesus publicly, and I recognize the numerous supernatural events in the presence of stubborn skeptics at that time. Matthew 28 describes skeptics struggling to suppress the Resurrection event.

    Dog, I certainly don’t intend to mislead anyone or to misrepresent the facts. I take it by faith that what they wrote was accurate. At that time, there were too many of them contributing their experiences into the accounts.
    BTW, Dog, thanks for your courtesy in your communication. I hope this clarifies the matter a bit better.

  • Hi Wayne

    I understand that one’s belief, one’s conviction, seems so important that the enthusiasm to share leads to “simplification”.

    If I had a £ for every time I’ve been told that someone “knows there is a God” I’d be quite well off! Whenever possible I ask how they “know” – and, of course, it always comes back to “I know in my heart”, “something happened that I can’t explain” (therefore God), my prayer was answered (forgetting a) all those that weren’t and b) that a perfect God isn’t going to create imperfection because you asked for it).

    Perhaps it’s because I was a fairly high-level salesperson – perhaps it’s because I grew up in a proselytising environment that I’m very careful about blurring the line between faith and knowledge. I know the power of words – tell people what they want to hear and they’ll believe the most catastrophic nonsense (and worse – sometimes do the most terrible things)..

    I once heard a “highly-regarded” (locally at least) youth evangelist claim that “faith is easy – we all use it every time we turn on a tap.” The implication being that believing in a deity is as rational as believing that water will appear when we turn the tap (faucet?). Even in my teens I knew he was making a false comparison. When one has turned a tap on several times a day for a dozen+ years and water has flowed 99.99% of the time one is entitled to expect that water will appear next time; I’d tried God once and the tap was dry. Whilst that was not the beginning of my exodus from religious belief it encouraged me to think that when revered evangelists couldn’t sell the product straight scepticism was justified.

    Some religious salespeople specifically target vulnerable people (children, the elderly, the recently bereaved, the hungry and lonely etc.), others try to make the normally sceptical drop their defences (yes – in the 1960s I went to a Billy Graham concert!).

    I fully accept that you believe and that you do not intend to mislead; but your “too many of them contributing their experiences into the accounts” sounds as though you know how many were supplying input to which accounts and I don’t think you do – you simply believe the accounts’ claims; claims that are unsubstantiated at best and fraudulent at worst.

    And yes – thank you for your civility; it’s a pleasant change from some of the inarticulate ranting, refusal to address another’s points and childish name-calling that goes on in some others’ posts.

  • Dog, your accounts of your experiences are quite fascinating and enlightening. A high-level salesperson! You DO understand the power of words! And, yes, I try to be careful of my selection of words and their meanings. Yes, I am a strong believer in Jesus Christ and I long for others to share my joy and peace. But, most people around me, and those with whom I communicate, do not share my views, my faith, my understandings.

    Your statement is quite insightful!
    If I had a £ for every time I’ve been told that someone “knows there is a God” I’d be quite well off! Whenever possible I ask how they “know” – and, of course, it always comes back to “I know in my heart”,
    That demonstrates how poorly the vast majority of churches are training their people. That is excessively existential at the expense of historical. Objective, if you will. I have also found that to be very common.

    BTW, just to explain a bit more, Luke’s opening paragraph that states the eyewitnesses he checked into, I believe those are the many short stories, about 2, or 3, or 4 paragraphs in length, throughout his Gospel. You know, the many subtitles throughout the chapters. None of the scholars that I know of see that connection, but I do. Anyway, I don’t see anything outside of the early Bible manuscripts that call anything in the Gospels into question. I like the way you challenge my thinking.

    Yes, Dog, I agree with you that too many postings are mean-spirited, uncivil, and childishly insulting. Perhaps similar to what is going on in our communities these days. People who are a bit better educated, should have a bit higher standards, and a bit more civil courtesy. But … that’s not the real world these days. At any rate, differences notwithstanding, you are a pleasure to dialog with. Have a great day, Dog!

  • Many of the relics etc., Christendom worship are not always accurate. A classic example is the “Shroud of Turin” is very inaccurate. But as for “no evidence”, how many writings, scrolls codex’s would have survived 2000 years til now? The only things that are close to that age are Bible manuscripts for which thousands exist in museums. So eyewitnesses could have written about seeing the resurrected Jesus, but the writings could have long, long ago perished. Nevertheless, the scriptures say in; 1 Cor. 15:3-8 that upwards of 500 saw the resurrected Jesus at one time along with his 11 faithful apostles, many women, his brothers and many more.

  • and you believe that and that is what makes you christian. by definition ‘faith’ means belief without proof. stop saying you have proof, it’s enough for you.

  • “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” sounds the same to me.

  • Wayne – It seems to me that the difference between us is that you are able to accept on trust things that I cannot. Even your view of Luke’s checking has problems for me.

    1 – I don’t think any neutral scholars actually think that “Luke” was the writer of the Gospel that was marketed under his name.
    2 – Just because the writer claims to have checked doesn’t mean
    a) that he did
    b) if he did check – that those he checked with were truthful about what they thought happened and
    c) even if he checked and was given answers that the people thought were true they may have been mistaken.

    We know a lot about false memories, that memories can be implanted and manipulated very easily. We even know that memory is not like a video recording – the brain doesn’t have the capacity to store and/or recall everything. Memory works by keeping and recalling a few points – rather like bullet points in a presentation – and, having recalled some reference points our brain, when called upon to “remember”, constructs a story which seems to link those points in a rational way. That story may be accurate – it often is less than perfectly so leading experienced law enforcement officers to conclude the eyewitness testimony is the least reliable form of evidence they can have.

    Unfortunately, this is what goes wrong with some forms of ageing – memories are constructed from unrelated points leading to stories that are real to the teller but obviously false to the listener. It’s not deceit – it’s just the short cuts we’ve evolved to rely upon getting disrupted by improperly functioning cells.

    And hey – why stop at today – have a great life Wayne!

  • I agree with your reasoning that many “Christians” seem to have a blind faith, but that reasoning is never promoted in the scriptures. If you carefully read the rest of chapter 11 of Hebrews, you will see why people had concrete faith based on solid evidence. There is more to that expression “conviction of things not seen”.

  • Dog, your points are well taken. Your summarized descriptions of memory problems are quite correct. I see the answers to these problems in a two-fold explanation. First theological, then second communal.
    In John 14:26 Jesus of Nazareth promised the Holy Spirit would help with their individual and collective memories. So, this was not just personal memories they were working with, but the Holy Spirit prompting and clarifying their memories. The Holy Spirit made himself known in Acts 2 on the Day of Pentecost by supernatural manipulation of human capabilities. Several thousand people, from a dozen different countries, heard of the words and deeds of Jesus in their native languages at the same time, thereby ensuring common knowledge of Jesus.
    In John 4:1-30, 39-42 Jesus conversed with the woman at the well. She went back to her neighborhood immediately to tell her neighbors of her experience. Her neighbors came out to meet Jesus and check him out for themselves. This was a collective story among her neighbors. This was group recollection, not individual recollection. Even if one or two of them had memory problems, the others would correct them. Converted priests and scholars, such as Nicodemus, would document the account soon from both the woman and her neighbors.
    In Luke 9:10-17, 5000 people experienced Jesus’ power and told their stories to others. A few may have remembered the experience inaccurately, but at least dozens or hundreds of others would have corrected them who were also there and saw what happened. Again, converted priests and scholars, such as Nicodemus, would document the account soon from the many people who were there.

  • These are not individual accounts as such, but group accounts focused on individual experiences. Most of what Jesus said and did was done in open public settings where large groups of people experienced together. Keep in mind that almost always, bitter opponents of Jesus were present and intensely argued with him.
    This is also why the Gospel accounts became alternative historical narratives because opponents of Jesus and natural history writers wanted nothing to do with the supernatural works of Jesus. Many saw them but ignored and rejected them.
    The Gospels originally did not have titles because they were mostly used by local churches who knew the authors of them. Church tradition, from the beginning attributed the Gospel to Luke. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.4.6 says Luke was by race an Antiochian, and a physician by profession. Because Luke traveled with Paul, his Gospel was received as having Apostolic endorsement.
    Dog, your explanations are provocative and challenging. I may not have answered your points to your satisfaction, but I gave it my best shot, at least at this time.
    Dog, I think you are enjoying your life as much as I am enjoying mine! Aint it great! Dog, have a great life & a great day!

  • Good day Wayne

    When I was about eight/ten years old I believed.

    I mean really believed – I knew no other option.

    Had someone said to me “God didn’t make the world” I would have immediately responded with what I would have regarded as a killer reply.

    “If God didn’t – who did?”

    You see – I had fallen for the mistake of not verifying first principles.

    I now know that “who did?” is only rationally permissible once one has demonstrated that “someone did”. That “someone did” is not demonstrable – therefore the question is moot and not worthy of either asking or response.

    With much respect, and with as much humility as I can muster, I suggest that you are where I was as a child. That is not intended to put you down – I had the (as I see it) advantage of teen years that taught me to think critically and to demand evidence.

    It seems that every time I question your belief because it is based on assuming that the Bible is a valid source of information you simply use the Bible to support your initial statement.

    I don’t think that any book can be validated by quoting said book – it needs reliable, independent corroboration; and whilst a few places and names found in the Bible are confirmed elsewhere none of that confirmation relates to the belief in the existence of god(s), the deity of Jesus of Nazareth or the (often incompatible) dogma proclaimed by the words attributed to Jesus, the prophets and the apostles.

    None.

    That matters to me.

    That said – isn’t retirement great – everyday is effectively a public holiday.

    Live well – Dog

  • Wayne – I understand your thinking – I don’t see any reason to accept it.

    There were many “diarists” in the area at the relevant time – none mention the miracles (or reports of the miracles), they don’t mention the claimed “rending of the temple veil etc.; they don’t even mention Jesus.

    What you suggest is possible but unsupported by evidence. There are alternative explanations that might seem more likely to a non-believer.

    I remember being a believer – the effect on my mental abilities that belief brought with it were exhilarating and challenging. How to justify/interpret the evidence-based/logically valid knowledge that I was absorbing at senior school whilst maintaining a conviction that there was a benign/jealous/loving/murderous God became more difficult until something had to give.

    In my case it was the belief that gave.

    I read a lot of science fiction in the early 1960s (I still think the Foundation series may be the greatest sci-fi writing ever) at a time when writers were speculating about Earth being computer controlled – Multivac/Univac come to mind. One school lunchtime I was passing through a short but wide corridor known as the Lower Vestibule when I was struck by a thought. There is no material existence – merely a limitless capacity for thought – which, with thirteen year old modesty, I assumed to be me.

    This “super brain” was bored so, as human brains do, it invented a game to while away eternity. The game took the following form:-
    the brain organised itself into halves with equal capabilities.
    the first half thought up a few criteria (say hot/cold – up/down – wet dry) and the second had to imagine an environment in which these concepts co-existed rationally.
    Once done the first half would introduce a further concept (say light/dark) which forced the second to accommodate the most recent addition within the previously imagined scenario.
    and so on

    It is not difficult to imagine that such a game would lead to imagining a universe, a world, life, atoms and molecules etc. etc.etc..

    I, as I recall, spent a few minutes working through the idea and then was faced with the need to deny it. I couldn’t – whichever way I tried to invalidate the concept simply became another first half’s attempt to throw a spanner in the works.

    The concept, it seemed to me, was not capable of being either proven or disproven.

    So I rejected it and went out into the grounds where I joined my fellow students kicking a football around.

    Looking back nearly sixty years I can draw parallels with my struggle with religious belief – rightly or wrongly.

    What it does tell me is that, at the beginning of my teens, the need for rational confirmation was in place – it still is.

    Perhaps we both see the other as “the first half of the brain”?

    I wish you contentment – Dog.

  • Your welcome, Mark. I have high respect for dog, differences notwithstanding. And thanks for your comment.

  • Greetings, dog! Your reasoning is impressive, and your character is commendable. When I was 23 yoa, the turning point in my thinking, as an agnostic because of several other books I read, was when a minister showed me a copy of the Greek New Testament. In the Intro pages, I saw pages and pages of extensive lists of early GNT manuscripts (MSS), locations, and paleographical dates. That stunned me! Without getting into the numerous complexities of textual variants, I will briefly describe what changed my mind.
    P1, P4, P5, P22, P28, P39, P45, P52, P53, P64, and P66 are manuscript fragments before the Fourth Century. The extant MSS are, more, or less, the size of a post card. The texts of each of these accurately match the Bibles we now have. This suggests the missing texts likewise match what we have now. The rest of the text is missing, or long since worn out. During these centuries, there are no texts that I am aware of that call any of the remaining texts into question for accuracy. These extant texts are viewable online on the website Center For The Study Of New Testament Manuscripts (CSNTM.org), Executive Director, Professor Daniel B. Wallace.
    The early transmission of the MSS is not at all like the telephone game. The scholar who promoted that view years ago, has since abandoned that view after a professional debate that debunked that theory. The multiple early documents indicate it was transmitted more like the vine and the branches, or the tree trunk and the branches and leaves. From one, original MSS, multiple copies at a time. From another original MSS, also multiple copies at a time. In this way, the story does not change, except for copying errors discovered a bit later and corrected. The majority of copying errors and additional statements were inserted into the texts between the 5th and 12th Centuries. It was the MSS of the early centuries that convinced me of historical textual integrity, and the lack of texts correcting the apostles and their second-generation disciples. The provenance of these early MSS make collusion virtually impossible. Hence, why I believe the accurate transmission of the NT texts down through history, textual variations notwithstanding. There were geographic influences, and language translation variations that partly explain the difference among the MSS.

  • I am not a scholar. I read voraciously (at least, I used to). The best scholars in the world are sharply divided amongst themselves. Absolute certainty may be unachievable. One of the reasons I am strongly committed to Jesus Christ is the dramatic, beneficial change He caused in my life when I was 23 yoa! WOW! What peace, power, and joy! And, thanks dog, for sharing your early experiences with me. I know you didn’t experience Jesus Christ the same way I did, but thanks for explaining.
    Dog, thank you for respectfully challenging me to explain my reasons for belief, other than simple Faith. I don’t think near-absolute certainty can be achieved in these matters at this point in history. But the first four or five centuries of MSS harmony is quite impressive to me.
    Yes, dog, retirement is very different and very enjoyable. We share much enjoyment of our days. You, likewise live well & put a smile on your face!

  • Thanks Wayne – as I suspect you are anticipating I’m not going to doubt the factual accuracy of what you say.

    It just, as I see it, doesn’t make any difference.

    Whilst you make a good case for the texts being true to the original that, in no way, validates the early text’s veracity. It just means that people copied accurately – not that that which they copied was true.

    For all I know the same may be true of the Muslim/Hindu/Buddhist/$cientologist/LDS sacred writings – I doubt you’d think it validated their content.

  • Mark – Wayne’s beliefs are genuine and sincere – I have no doubt. He is honest enough to accept that they are beliefs rather than certainties.

    I suspect that Wayne is, by all reasonable definitions, a good person, it’s just that we disagree about whether that goodness is due his belief being founded on reality.

    If all who call themselves Christian were like Wayne I suspect the world would be a far, far better place than it is – and even better were all believers in other religions as decent, within their creed(s), as he.

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