2016-06-30

VANCOUVER, British Columbia--The Stackhouse boys live in a home perched on a hill with a view of the flashing arcades and screaming rides of Playland Amusement Park. But Trevor, 14, Joshua, 11, and Devon, 6, have decided they're not going to buy tickets this year to the Vancouver thrill center, one of the largest in Canada.

They're offended by Playland's "Second Coming" marketing theme, which is trying to entice young customers by toying with symbols reflecting beliefs held dear by many Christians.

Two Playland rides this year are called The Hellevator and Revelation, which is the name of the last book of the New Testament, for example.

A "Second Coming" TV ad campaign features a turnstile clicking sinisterly to "666," which is a symbol in some Christian circles for both Satanic evil and an early Roman emperor who slaughtered Christians.

"We were looking forward to our annual trip to Playland," said John Stackhouse, a noted professor of theology and culture at Regent College on the University of British Columbia campus.

"But one evening, as we ate supper on our deck that overlooks Playland, the boys spoke up and said, `We saw some more of those Playland ads.' Devon said, `I'm not going to Playland because Playland is making fun of God.'

"Even at their age, they know exploitation when they see it. They know the sacred is being profaned. They know the ads are supposed to be nifty and clever, but they also know it's a trivialization of the Bible."

Although some will suggest the Stackhouse family lighten up, John Stackhouse suggests its decision to bypass Playland constitutes a relatively mild reaction to religious offense in this day and age.

After all, Iran's Muslim ayatollahs issued a death sentence against author Salman Rushdie when they felt he satirized the prophet Mohammed in "The Satanic Verses."

A lot of Canadians, and even many Christians, will think the Stackhouse family's evangelical theology and the apocalyptic book of Revelation are odd, even laughable. But it is hard to overlook that the family belongs to a significant minority.

A survey by Angus Reid, one of the country's largest polling companies, shows 30 percent of Canadians believe Jesus will return to usher in God's kingdom in "the Second Coming." Fifty percent believe in hell and 41 percent agree "Satan the devil is active in the world today."

Can you imagine the outcry, Stackhouse wonders, if Playland had fun with other religions? What if it named a chaotic roller coaster "Mohammed's Mania"? Or if some marketing wiz showed real attitude by calling a frightening site "The Holocaust Horror"?

The outrage would be heard across the continent.

Most Canadians believe they stand for tolerance. But some evangelical Christians believe that translates into a double standard when it comes to them. It did last year, they said, when federal government officials ordered Christian clergy memorializing the victims of Nova Scotia's Swissair crash to avoid mentioning Jesus and the New Testament, while Jewish and Muslim clergy were left free to name Mohammed and the Torah.

"Christianity is paying the price for having been a hegemony," said Stackhouse, author of "Canadian Evangelicalism in the 20th Century" and "Can God Be Trusted?" Many Canadians, he said, "think they can beat up on Christianity because it used to be a majority--even though it's now a minority."

The marketing manager for Playland, Deb Marko, says she's received about half a dozen complaints about the "Second Coming" ads. She defended what she called the "edgy" campaign created by Vancouver's Rethink advertising company, arguing that it's based on the horror movie genre, and as such its symbols are part of popular culture.

Stackhouse readily acknowledges Christianity has deeply influenced Western society. But he argues that "666," "Revelation," "The Second Coming" and even hell are not public domain. They carry marketing oomph because they originated in Christianity and still have meaning to hundreds of millions of people.

Stackhouse said he also thinks horror movies approach Christianity a lot more seriously than Playland, pointing to the apocalyptic "End of Days," in which Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a tough cop who realizes he can overcome Satan only through self-sacrifice. Similarly, Francis Ford Coppola's "Dracula" hinges on the hero obtaining redemption at the foot of the Christian cross.

Two Canadian Jewish scholars agree the public has to be consistent if it truly believes in respecting different religions.

The Playland ads sensationalize and trivialize Christianity, said UBC Jewish history professor Richard Menkis and Michael Brown, director of York University's Centre for Jewish Studies. "At best it's tasteless, at worst it's unacceptable," Brown said.

While the Jewish thinkers believe in allowing room to discuss and criticize religions, they also think it's appropriate for Christians to boycott Playland for cheapening beliefs they hold sacred.

They suggest this response is an option that could be applied to other TV advertisers, including computer companies, chocolate candy bar makers and toilet manufacturers who have recently made light of Christian, as well as Buddhist, symbols to sell their products.

While Stackhouse said he doesn't want to see Christians or any other group stifle honest debate or lose their sense of fun, he wonders how crass a message has to be before Christians will make an organization sweat for its insensitivity.

"I'd challenge Christians and ask them, `If you're not offended by this, how sacrilegious and profane does it have to be before you're willing to boycott a pleasure (like Playland) to make your point?' "

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