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On Ohio Flatland, a Megachurch’s Eye-Catcher Dominates

New York Times, USA
Nov. 17, 2005
Chris Maag
www.nytimes.com

ReligionNewsBlog.com • Thursday November 17, 2005

Jesus first appears in a flash, a white statue rising from the flat cornfields 40 miles north of Cincinnati. Then he is gone, hidden behind a gas station.

Drive another quarter-mile up Interstate 75, past the billboards for Bristol’s Strip Club and Trader’s World Flea Market, and suddenly the image appears in all its full dimensions. Jesus, depicted from the waist up, is six stories tall and seems to burst from the ground, as if he might gather a tractor-trailer in his Honda-size hands and lift it to heaven.

After dark, the figure is illuminated by spotlights from below. ”It sort of looms out at you, especially at night,” said Aaron Andrews, a trucker from Milwaukee.

The statue, erected in 2003, was the inspiration of Lawrence and Darlene Bishop, evangelical Christian pastors of the 3,400-member Solid Rock Church here, which spent $250,000 on a project that did not go smoothly.

The image’s steel frame was built in nearby Lebanon, Ohio, and the body, made of Styrofoam and fiberglass, on the beach in Jacksonville, Fla. The body was then trucked north. But when workers started installing the statue on an island in a man-made reflecting pool behind the church, they found that the head and arms were too small for the chest.

The builder, James Lynch, then spent three months ripping the fiberglass apart and recasting the outstretched arms and upturned face. The completed figure weighs 16,000 pounds and, at 62 feet, stands 20 feet taller than originally planned, though its skin is so thin that it bends to the touch of a finger.

Some congregants say the statue keeps watch over a section of freeway that was once among the most dangerous in Ohio. Twelve people died along that 15-mile stretch of I-75 in the two years before the image was erected, eight of them killed after cars jumped the median into oncoming traffic. Since the statue went up more than two years ago, there have been no such crossover deaths.

”Can’t too much go wrong next to a big statue of Jesus,” said one member of the church, James Nelms, 23.

Officials at the Ohio Department of Transportation attribute the improved safety to a $1.1-million high-tension cable that the department built in the freeway’s median about the time, coincidentally, that the statue was erected. Cars have hit the cable 183 times since then, and in three of those cases, crashes have occurred within three-tenths of a mile of the church.

There is also a running disagreement over the statue’s name. Postcards for sale in the church’s gift shop refer to it as the King of Kings. Many locals call it Touchdown Jesus, since, a bit like the famed mural at the University of Notre Dame, it resembles a robed and bearded referee signaling a score at the goal line. Others call it Super Jesus, MC 62ft Jesus (for the technomusician of a similar name) or simply Big J.

The Bishops’ original idea was for a sculpture of Jesus that was no larger than life-size. That it turned into something much bigger than envisioned was entirely apt, given the couple’s own lives.

Mr. Bishop, now 63, was born in the Appalachian village of Zag, Ky. He bought his first horse for $25 at the age of 10 and, though it was blind, sold it for $250 and went on to become one of the nation’s biggest quarter horse dealers.

He opened Solid Rock Church with 12 members above a fire station in 1978. Together with his wife, he built it into a megachurch on a 100-acre campus with its own Bible college and music amphitheater.

Four years ago Mr. Bishop wrote his first song, for church. Now he has recorded five hits. On Nov. 10, he went to Nashville to perform at the Christian Country Music Awards Show. He was nominated for three awards, and won one of them, as music evangelist of the year.

As for Mrs. Bishop, who dropped out of high school at 17 to marry him, she now has her own Christian talk show for women, called ”Sisters,” which appears nationally seven days a week on various cable television channels.

Solid Rock Church, with its atmosphere of unplanned gigantism, is one of the few places where a 62-foot statue of Jesus could fit right in. In March, the Bishops squeezed a 1,000-seat balcony into their worship hall to accommodate all the new members who have joined their rapidly growing church in the last two years.

”God ordained all of this to happen,” Mr. Bishop said. ”I never even wanted to be a preacher.”

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