I was 12 years old the first time I heard John Hammond (the late Richard Attenborough) exclaim, “Welcome to Jurassic Park!” You know the scene: Paleontologist Alan Grant (Sam Niell) and paleobotanist Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) have just seen a real live Brachiosaurus. John Williams’ iconic score swells to soaring heights and the camera pans over the impossible — a valley full of live dinosaurs.
I’m far from the only kid who was obsessed with dinosaurs. Thirty years after the release of the Steven Spielberg film that brought T. Rex to the silver screen and turned velociraptor into a global superstar, I sat in the theater watching Jurassic Park again. But this time, it wasn’t the giant dinosaurs that captivated me. It was a small, intimate conversation between Hammond and Sattler. Their exchange is the film’s clarion warning about the seductive illusion of spectacle. Perhaps spectacle-obsessed churches in the U.S. should have heeded this warning 30 years ago.
In that intimate conversation, Hammond tells Sattler that the first attraction he ever built was a flea circus — a miniature, motorized three-ring experience where the automated performances were alleged to be performed by fleas invisible to the naked eye. But there were never any fleas. Despite the façade, Hammond explained, people would insist they could see the fleas performing their death-defying stunts. Then, referring to the dinosaur preserve descending into chaos around them, he says, “But with this place, I wanted to show them something that wasn’t an illusion. Something that was real … An aim not devoid of merit.”
Initially, it’s hard to argue with Hammond. Even experiencing the dinosaurs as a film, they are a breathtaking spectacle. There’s an irony that’s only apparent 30 years later: Jurassic Park’s decades-old dinos more than hold their own against last year’s sequel Jurassic World Dominion, and look considerably better than those in 65, the prehistoric adventure film from earlier this year. That’s due to the innovative work of the special effects team at Industrial Light & Magic, whose work on the film revolutionized CGI. The film is a story of science delivering dinosaurs so real they stagger a skeptical paleontologist like Grant; the film gave us special effects so realistic they staggered even the most jaded moviegoer.
The church has never shied away from spectacle; just picture Notre Dame in Paris or St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. But the ’90s and 2000s saw a mainstreaming of spectacle. Think of the Power Team — athletes who could have faced off against Hulk Hogan in the ring, but instead toured the country tearing phone books in half while declaring that even they weren’t strong enough to conquer sin.
Consider the megachurch — (mostly) suburban churches with weekly attendance of more than 2,000 people, with worship that integrates video, music, dynamic speaking, and elaborate production that could rival a Broadway musical. In 1990, there were only about 300 megachurches in the U.S.; today there are about 1,800.
And consider the prosperity gospel movement, where pastors insist that God rewards faithfulness with material wealth. While they first found widespread popularity on television, by the ’90s, the televangelists gave way to the megachurch, with pastors like Joel Osteen using books and the internet to bring millions of new believers into a religion that promises a health and wealth — the same type of wealth that affords the preacher’s alligator leather shoes and private jets. Today, as PreachersNSneakers demonstrated, the line between prosperity preacher and megachurch pastor is all but dissolved, as preachers all over the country can be spotted in designer everything. Is it all for the sake of reaching those uninterested masses? Incarnational theology for late-stage capitalism? Maybe the right question is, “Does spectacle create faithful disciples?”
In Jurassic Park, the only character who’s not captivated by living dinosaurs is Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), a “chaotician” who insists that the park’s spectacle is not ethically neutral. He sees what Hammond has done as a crime against nature, one nature won’t tolerate. “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should,” he says, chastising Hammond and the company lawyer for their unbridled enthusiasm.
John’s gospel warned us against the danger of spectacle. John presents only seven of Jesus’ miracles, calling them signs. On the shores of the Sea of Galilee, after preaching to a crowd of more than 5,000, Jesus feeds them all using a single serving of bread and fish. The next day, the crowd demands more food. Jesus calls them out: “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you” (John 6:26-27).
The crowd continued to insist they need a sign so they can believe. Were Jesus a prosperity preacher, keen to keep this mega-throng of thousands hanging on his every word, he’d have cued the music drop and delivered some more miracle bread.
Instead, Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53). He continues, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” (John 6:61-62).
John’s Jesus is being intentionally obtuse. On this side of the resurrection, we recognize his reference to the Eucharist meal. Similarly, Jesus’ language of ascension in John refers not to ascending to the throne of heaven, as in the other gospels, but to his crucifixion, where he will be “lifted up.”
In this passage, Jesus roundly rejects a spirituality grounded in spectacle. He’s not dealing miracles; he’s offering signs that point to deeper truths about his messianic mission. Those who refuse to see through the superficial spectacle are going to abandon Jesus sooner or later. If the crowds follow him for the magic tricks, they won’t make it to the cross. The spectators want a conquering messiah, not a dying messiah.
This is the real danger of spectacle: At best, it’s sacramental, pointing us to deeper truths. But the spectacle itself is hollow, whether it’s magic bread or living dinosaurs.
Hammond can’t accept this. He’s strangely childlike, sitting in Jurrasic Park’s darkened dining room, eating ice cream that is melting because the park has lost power, insisting that his noble intentions cover his sins. As he blusters about how he will perfect the park’s next iteration, Sattler tries to shake him out of his delusion, insisting the whole park is “still the flea circus. It’s all an illusion.”
Thirty years on, it’s even easier to see what she meant. While the dinos of Jurassic Park look realistic, they’re nothing like our current best guess at what dinosaurs really looked like. At the time of the film’s release, the theory that dinosaurs had evolved into birds was still a controversial theory in the scientific community. Today, that theory is common knowledge, with a wealth of fossils that show how closely T-Rex is related to chickens and how dinosaurs millions of years older than T. rex and velociraptor had feathers.
In Jurassic World, geneticist Henry Wu (BD Wong) — the scientist who created the technology to clone the dinosaurs, defends his work: “Nothing in Jurassic World is natural … If their genetic code was pure, many of them would be quite different. But you didn’t ask for reality. You asked for more teeth.”
Those of us captivated by Jurassic Park’s dinos bought into the illusion. We believed because the dinos looked as we expected. So we ignored or forgave the inconsistencies, even preferring the spectacular version on the big screen to the more natural, realistic versions made available through actual scientific advancement. Jurassic Park and the first Jurassic World film warn that we don’t want reality; we want spectacle that conforms to our previously held ideas about the world.
This is a particular danger for religion, which has the capacity to be genuinely revolutionary, but far too often becomes a tool of the powers of the day. We should beware the pastors whose silver tongues promise reward without sacrifice. Let us not forget the Jesus we follow was crucified by the powers, not given a seat at their table.
Spectacle isn’t always bad. There’s nothing inherently wrong with strobe lights zeroing in on the worship leader as she sings the final words of “How Great Is Our God.” But is the spectacle pointing us to something essential, true, and revolutionary? Or is it bread and circuses, fleas and teeth, designed to entertain us into a numb stupor? Spectacles are good at generating a sense of awe. But when the power goes off, we lose the lights and are left with what’s really real.