Aboard Noah’s Ark, in a Kentucky Corn Field
By Tim Townsend | August 23, 2016
Noah’s Ark has a great kitchen. Above the butcher block countertops, gleaming knives and a pizza peel adorn the wall. Garlic cloves hang from a ceiling lattice, while loaves of bread sit on cooling racks. A garden of kale, chamomile, and fig trees grows a dozen feet away, planted in dirt that’s actually a mixture of colored sawdust and glue.
It’s opening day at Ark Encounter, a “life-size,” imagined replica of Noah’s Ark constructed, to the precise cubit as laid out in the Bible, in rural Kentucky. The behemoth exhibition opened in July and cost $100 million. The ark is the latest project of the creationist ministry Answers in Genesis and its evangelist-in-chief founder Ken Ham. The group is perhaps best-known for the Creation Museum, an anti-evolutionary attraction it opened in 2007, just 45 minutes north of the ark, at a cost of $27 million.
Ark Encounter retells one of the most famous stories in the Hebrew Bible: a global flood that wiped out most of creation. After a series of events at the beginning of Genesis that distanced God from his creation—murder, lawlessness, sex between angels and human women—God has seen enough. “And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth,” the narrator writes, “and it grieved him to his heart.” He tasks the only moral man left in the world with preserving life in the coming catastrophe, telling Noah to build a ship and “bring two of every kind into the ark.” The rain falls, the waters rise, and everything that’s not on Noah’s boat dies. When the waters recede about a year later, it’s left to Noah, his family, and the animals they saved to repopulate the Earth.
For Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis (AiG), Noah’s flood is foundational. Just as Christians (and Western Civilization) use the birth of Christ as a fulcrum to track history before and after it, Young Earth creationists use the flood as a hinge to explain a post-Eden world spun out of control, righted by God’s rainy wrath, and now spinning, spinning again.
Inside the ark are 125,000 square feet of exhibits, across three decks, that focus on the how and why of Noah’s endeavor. Why did God decide to kill off most of his creation? How did Noah build the ark? How many animals really came aboard? How was the boat ventilated? What did Noah and his family eat?
Visitors to Ark Encounter—which the organization predicts could number 2 million in its first year—arrive to see the largest free-standing, timber-frame building in the world. The Cincinnati Enquirer did the math: From bow to stern, the ark would extend between the legs of the St. Louis Gateway Arch at its base. Set vertically it would be only a bit shorter than the Washington Monument. Gigantic timbers of spruce and fir from New Zealand stand upright throughout the ark and connect to massive wooden rafters and ceiling beams. There are wooden floors, wooden walls, and wooden chandeliers. It smells like a forest. It feels like a dark, medieval banquet hall in the woods.
A sign preempts the question that the ark’s designers know visitors will ask when they wander into Noah’s kitchen: Why are the living quarters so nice? The answer is that “there are many reasons” to think they were.
“As far as we know, the Lord did not inform Noah how long they would be on the Ark, so the family would probably have prepared for an extended time inside the Ark,” we’re told. “Also, they worked hard caring for the animals every day. Having a comfortable place to relax and refresh would be extremely beneficial for keeping up morale and energy for all the hard labor they faced.”
A morale boost, it turns out, is something Young Earth creationists could use these days, and Ark Encounter is part of that push. AiG’s version of the Ark story is not only about an imagined past. It’s about the future—about fundamentalist Christians’ fears that their brand of evangelicalism will perish if the next generation sits out the increasingly contentious battle against secularism. It’s a theological call to save mankind, to restrain the human impulse towards evil that doomed Noah’s neighbors.
The purpose of AiG’s ark is to hammer home the idea that secularism is itself a flood that will one day sweep billions of us away, leaving only a handful of righteous to be saved. It’s a colossal wooden warning in the middle of a Kentucky farm field.
IN THE BIBLE, NOAH’S STORY lasts just 98 verses. You can read it in less than 10 minutes. There’s not enough detail about life aboard the Ark to answer all the questions a modern person might have, even one who believes the flood story to be true. That puts AiG—a ministry that’s continually forced to defend itself against charges of making stuff up—in the awkward spot of having to make stuff up. And admit to it.
In its press materials, AiG proudly asserts the historical accuracy of Ark Encounter. And yet “artistic license” warning signs pop up around the ark. “Since we don’t have a time machine, we can only make educated guesses about the looks, skills and personality” of the Noah family, one sign says.
But the ministry has made elaborate guesses. The Bible only names Noah and his three sons, but AiG has given their wives names as well. It assigned physical features to each of them that coincide with global geography. An Ark Encounter placard tells us that some descendants “ended up” in the Middle East, so one wife’s “appearance mirrors the attributes of people from that area of the world.” Another has been given a mixture of African and Asian features. A third is designed as white and European.
I wondered how that kind of speculation sat with scientists employed by AiG. Near Noah’s kale garden, I met Nathaniel Jeanson, a 36-year-old, Harvard-educated AiG research biologist. “Science is not the best tool for finding absolute truth,” he told me. “You have to be comfortable with ‘this is our best guess.’”
AiG’s use of scientific hypothesis lingo (Jeanson’s “best guess” language) is a strategy of false equivalence which attempts to put creationist thinking on the same shelf as Darwinian evolution. The goal is to portray evolution as just another wacky idea and co-opt the language of an open intellectual society—which lets everyone see and decide the truth for themselves. Only that truth is heavily scripted in AiG’s exhibits.
Many of the creationist theories evident at Ark Encounter can be traced to a 1961 book, The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and Its Scientific Implications, written by John Whitcomb, an evangelical theologian, and Henry Morris, a hydraulic engineer. (When I visited the Creation Museum the day before the ark opened, Whitcomb, now 92, was there signing copies of the book.) The Genesis Flood is a full-throated takedown of evolutionary theory that uses scientific arguments to suggest that the flood that carried Noah and his animals to safety was responsible for the geological history of Earth. The book “showed that there were scientific answers to be able to defend the Christian faith and uphold the Bible’s account,” Ham said after Morris’s death in 2006.
Ark Encounter, like its predecessor the Creation Museum, both employs and dismisses mainstream science. And like other creationists, AiG leaders scorn secular academia but trumpet the secular credentials of their own scientists. Molly Worthen, an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina and author of Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism, points out that early evangelical Christian colleges were wary of even granting diplomas. At times, they belittled the importance of doctoral degrees.*
“But they quickly came to value PhDs and value their credibility,” Worthen said. “There’s a schizophrenia in the evangelical attitude toward intellectual authority. This is a feature of a human problem — we all operate under the influence and demands of authority. But it’s acute in the case of evangelicals.”
“PhD” and “Harvard” appear before Jeanson’s name in his bio on the AiG website. Scientists have established that there was never a global flood that covered the entire planet, but AiG researchers like Jeanson are convinced it happened. He told me that he’s working on a straight science, non-creationist paper on genetics he hopes to submit to a major, peer-reviewed secular journal. His goal is to use the credibility of that research to later promote the work he’s doing for AiG.
“The Genesis Flood was the catalyst for the Young Earth movement, and early on the apologetic focus of the movement took on a defensive posture,” Jeanson said. He speaks quickly and with the cadence of a preacher. He’s enthusiastic about the genetic research work he’s doing at AiG and the possibility that it will change the way we think about evolution.
“Now, rather than rebutting Darwin, much of the work these days goes into trying to replace him,” Jeanson said. “We’re now on the offensive, sitting in the seat they sat in 50 years ago.”
IN BOTH THE CREATION MUSEUM and the Ark Encounter, information is presented in wall placards attached to exhibits with two options: biblical and secular.
The idea here is, “you either accept their presentation of the Bible or you’re with the secular atheists,” said William Trollinger, a professor at the University of Dayton and co-author of Righting America at the Creation Museum, which is critical of AiG. “These are two competing armies. They’ll present both and you’ll know which is true based on the word of God.”
An exhibit at the Creation Museum includes a video narrated by a fictional Christian paleontologist, working alongside a fictional secular paleontologist. “We all have the same facts. It’s our interpretation of those facts that’s different because of different starting points,” the Christian paleontologist says. “I start with the Bible. My colleague doesn’t.”
At Ark Encounter, on Deck One, two models of small brown bears stand in a cage. The placard says “skeptics” often make fun of the Ark story and the number of animals the boat unrealistically would have held, but “when one thinks about the Ark from a biblical perspective, the skeptics’ questions end up looking foolish.”
Creationists have an elaborate system for quantifying how many animals would have been on the Ark. The word “kinds” is central to this creationist biology. It comes from Genesis 6:20 when God is giving Noah instructions about who can board the Ark: “Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every kind shall come in to you, to keep them alive.”
For creationists, “kinds” are the evolutionary borders. Donkeys, horses, and zebras are all members of the same “kind,” which is roughly equivalent to what scientific taxonomists would call a “family.” Natural selection allows for evolution to occur at the species level, the basic unit of classification. But creationists say that while new species can be introduced within “kinds,” species themselves can never evolve into a new “kind.” In their view, these changes over time stop short of evolution.
Creationists describe “kinds” as usually including many species. That helps the math — two of every species wouldn’t have fit on the Ark. So, instead of fitting 2 to 5 million pairs of animals, Noah would only have had to squeeze about 1,400 kinds, according to creationist biologists. “Noah was responsible for fewer than 6,700 individual animals,” one placard at Ark Encounter tells visitors, “most of them small and easily maintained.”
Back at the bear cage, a placard asks: “How did Noah keep polar bears cool?” The answer: He didn’t. A woman next to me turned and said, “I didn’t know there were no polar bears on the Ark.” She pointed to the two brown bears, and repeated, with pleased amazement, what she’d just learned from the sign: “All bears are descended from these two. Including polar bears!”
According to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, one-third of Americans dismiss the theory of evolution, believing living things have always existed in their present form. (Full disclosure: I worked as a writer and editor at the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life project.) Among white evangelicals that number jumps to 57 percent. Those numbers have remained consistent in surveys over the years.
In another 2015 survey, Pew Research asked Americans who said science conflicts with their religious positions to name three beliefs that conflict with science. More than a third (36 percent)—the most common response—came up with the creation of the universe, including evolution.
In 2009, Mike Pence—then a congressman from Indiana, now Donald Trump’s running mate—said creationism should be taught in public schools. “I think in our schools we should teach all of the facts about all of these controversial areas,” he told MSNBC, “and let our students, let our children and our children’s children decide based upon the facts and the science.”
AiG has a long history of trying to make that happen, occasionally gaining access to public school science classrooms. When I covered one of those occasions a decade ago in Missouri, Mark Looy, Ham’s AiG co-founder, told me one of AiG’s “major teaching themes is to encourage kids to foster critical thinking skills.”
“Sadly, public schools offer a one-sided view when it comes to science,” Looy said, “and it’s right for students to ask why they’re only hearing one side.”
On the day Ark Encounter opened to the public, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to every school district in Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, West Virginia, and Ohio, reminding education officials that “public schools may not advance or promote religion.”
In response, Ham and Looy reminded public school teachers of “their constitutionally guaranteed rights as they fulfill their goal of presenting broad educational experiences for their students and, along the way, helping to develop the critical thinking skills of their pupils.”
Then they announced that every public school student on a field trip sponsored by the school could board the ark for $1, and their teachers could get in free.
ON ARK ENCOUNTER’S opening day, Marcas Bradley and his wife Kim—both in their 40s and wearing “FBI (Firm Believer In) Jesus” baseball hats—brought their two teenage boys to Kentucky from Detroit to see the ark. “They’re using information based on the word of God,” Bradley said. “You can read the information yourself and make a decision.” He added, “I can explain this to my sons.”
Youth are at the center of AiG’s efforts at Ark Encounter. Andrew Snelling, AiG’s research director who has a doctorate in geology, told me that the ark is “very, very important for communicating to young people.” He said, “On TV, in museums, in textbooks—they’re being told a different story about the Earth’s past. We’re asking them to think critically, not to have closed minds.”
Most of the Ark’s exhibits are aimed squarely at kids, a group Ham has written about with some alarm. In a book he co-authored in 2009, titled Already Gone, Ham described the phenomenon of young people leaving Christianity as a “tidal wave washing away the foundation of your church.”
An inspiration for Already Gone was a set of surveys by the Christian pollster George Barna, who found high numbers of once-engaged young adults had left the church. In 2011, Barna researchers found that one in four young adults agreed that “Christianity is anti-science” and nearly as many said they’ve “been turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate.” A 2013 Pew Research survey found that younger people believe more strongly in evolution than their elders. The purpose of Ham’s ark is, in part, to counter these trends.
On Deck Two, I meet Maurice Major and Lashawn Harris, who are in their 30s and traveled from Louisville to be among the first aboard the ark. Nearby, the larger two-by-two model animals lounged in their cages. I asked Major and Harris if they were surprised to see dinosaurs on the ark. “Scientists say there weren’t dinosaurs on the Ark, but you can’t always believe science,” Harris said. Major agreed: “Just because I was taught one thing growing up, doesn’t mean I can’t learn something new.”
Indeed, rejiggering how we think about dinosaurs is central to AiG’s pitch—to children and adults. Righting America at the Creation Museum co-author and University of Dayton professor Susan Trollinger said AiG “normalizes” people to the idea that humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time “by having them everywhere.” She said, “It’s not just an obsession, it’s a rhetorical strategy. Take the kids to the Creation Museum a few times and pretty soon, nobody thinks it’s weird anymore.”
And kids love dinosaurs. Early Young Earth creationism tried to disavow their existence, but the fossil evidence became too convincing to deny. The movement then pivoted to fit dinosaur fossils into its flood story, and included dinosaurs on the Ark. After the flood, the surviving dinosaurs begat others, but creationists say that because the post-flood world had less vegetation and a colder climate, the dinosaurs eventually died out.
One AiG theory is that dragon legends were really about dinosaurs—proving they existed alongside humankind. The organization also cites dragon-like creatures in the biblical book of Job—the behemoth and leviathan—to back up their claims. “The dragon-legends story is phenomenally creative,” said William Trollinger. “It’s genius — ludicrous, but genius.”
The Noah story is one many Americans hear first as children. But for AiG, the story of Noah’s ark is not a cutesy storybook fable with bright pictures of animals poking their necks out of the ark to get some fresh air. In fact, one entire Ark Encounter exhibit is devoted to savaging those storybooks for misrepresenting the Bible’s true message.
The exhibit features an entire wall of children’s books about Noah’s Ark. Below, it details “The 7 D’s of Deception” that AiG feels is inherent in such books. A placard titled, “Disregarding God’s Word” is about how artists of children’s books ignore the biblical cubit dimensions of the Ark, which distorts Scripture and makes “the account look like a fairy tale.” Another of the seven, titled “Deceptively Cute,” says “cute things are not necessarily innocent or harmless, and good intentions can lead to disastrous consequences.”
AT ELMER’S GENERAL STORE in downtown Williamstown, a ten-minute drive from the ark grounds, the attraction is a hit. Not just a hit, actually, but a lifeline.
“The store fronts have been empty for so long,” said Julie Fenhoff, Elmer’s manager. “People would drive on through and no one stopped to look. But now people are opening businesses here. Things are changing. You see fresh faces. The ark is good for us.”
Williamstown, the “Gateway to Bluegrass” according to its water tower, sits about halfway between Cincinnati and Lexington. Its population of nearly 4,000 has hitched its economic wagon to Ark Encounter, a for-profit project, managed by AiG, which is a nonprofit.
In 2010, Kentucky’s Democratic Governor, Steve Beshear, helped smooth AiG’s application for a sort of Genesis World theme park. Aside from the ark, the original plan included an amphitheater, a walled city, a “1st Century village,” a Tower of Babel, and an attraction called “Moses and the Ten Plagues.”
AiG purchased 800 acres of land in Williamstown, and the city, along with the county and state, gave AiG significant tax breaks to get the ark built. When AiG ran into financing problems, it scaled back its initial plans, concentrating just on the ark. Once Beshear’s administration learned that AiG would be asking Ark Encounter workers to sign a statement of faith, it tried to revoke its tax incentives. A judge ruled in AiG’s favor, paving the way for about $18 million in state money to flow towards the ark.
Williamstown is now heavily invested financially in the project. Because of the type of bonds it issued AiG, it’s possible that the only return on the city’s investment will come from tourists. Williamstown is betting on a long-term fascination with the Noah story, and on AiG to bring Christians in by the busload.
According to the Faith Travel Association, 50,000 churches in the United States have travel programs. The group estimates that 25 percent of all American travelers are interested in spiritual vacations. But there are signs that religious theme parks are struggling. Two weeks after the Ark Encounter opening, Orlando’s Holy Land Experience, which is owned by the Trinity Broadcasting Network, began selling off some of its props amid declining revenue.
About 400,000 people visited the Creation Museum in its first year. Those numbers later settled at about 250,000 annually, and the museum lost $3.2 million in its 2013 fiscal year, according to tax records. AiG’s $2.6 million in profits on “books, videos, CDs, DVDs” in the same period helped make up some of that financial ground. AiG is hoping the ark can change the Creation Museum’s fortunes. In February, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported that the museum already had a 300 percent increase in group bookings over the same time last year.
Megan McKamey, the 23-year-old co-owner of Elmer’s, said the Ark Encounter would be a popular family attraction in the area. “You used to have to go to Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge,” a four-hour drive south into Tennessee, for some kind of family-friendly diversion, she said. “It’s better than building another sports stadium or an amusement park.”
She described Ark Encounter as “a Disney version, but with science inside. It’s a serious place—you can learn something.”
AT ONE POINT AS I’m checking out Deck Three, Noah himself shows up. Not Noah really, but Ken Ham. He’s shadowed by what looks at first like a Kentucky State Trooper—a hulking person, with a big hat and chin strap, a uniform with lots of badges, black boots, and a gun. But then I look more closely at the badges, and he’s actually an AiG security guard.
The AiG trooper watches from a comfortable distance as dozens of fans crowd around creationism’s big star, taking selfies. Ham looks stiff around adults, but when a mom pushes her kid forward, his demeanor changes. It’s clear that Ham relates more to children. He bends into them, asking how they like the ark. When kids tell him, as they each do, that it’s the best thing ever, ever—he beams.
Then it all makes sense to me. The dinosaurs, the petting zoos, the zip lines, the gargantuan boat. Ham really understands and relates to kids. Adults are annoying and difficult to convince. But a simple message, conveyed using dinosaurs, is perfectly acceptable to children who don’t yet have the reasoning powers to dismiss creationism as silly.
AiG is right to ask us to take the Noah story more seriously. It’s much more powerful than a children’s tale about giraffes and lions living in harmony for a year on the high seas. It’s an ancient fable in which God gives his creation a second chance. But in its determination to portray the flood story as a divine threat looming over modern secular culture, AiG forgets to mention the end of the fable. After the waters recede and all the animals disembark, Noah builds an altar and gives thanks to his savior.
God is pleased, and the flood has taught him something, too. Humans, as Sibley W. Towner wrote, “in our freedom, when confronted with choices between good and evil, inevitably, universally, inescapably, we will from time to time choose evil.” And yet God resolves, despite this inclination and because he sees that his creation is also capable of extraordinary grace, to never destroy humanity again.
But that’s not the flood message AiG is selling, and at Ark Encounter, the ministry is hawking its message well. Like any big attraction in the U.S., this one deposits its visitors in a gift shop before allowing them to leave. The ark’s is called the Souk, after a Middle Eastern marketplace. Sitting there—near all kinds of cutesy stuffed animals of the type that the Ark Encounter’s exhibits themselves just railed against—I found 21-year-old Andrew Bates and 23-year-old Ariel Roberts, from Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, who looked mildly bored.
But they weren’t bored. In fact, they’d just had a meaningful experience walking through the ark. Roberts told me she was raised in a Christian house and taught to “question the credibility of secular museums.” Bates said growing up, he tired of his parents constantly reminding him in museums that nothing could be 35 million years old because—according to creationists—God only formed the universe 6,000 years ago.
I asked him about the dinosaurs. “If you study history,” Bates said, “you know that it’s possible dinosaurs were on the earth at the same time as people.”
Roberts seemed contemplative, almost relieved to be here. She spoke about the ark as familiar, or at least comfortable, for her. “It’s just nice to go to a place that has good science, good history, and not to have to question everything,” she said. “You walk in here and you learn the whole time, and you think, ‘Yes! Finally, a place for us.’”
Tim Townsend is the author of Mission at Nuremberg: An American Army Chaplain and the Trial of the Nazis. Follow him @townsendreport.
*This sentence has been updated to clarify the early evangelical college stance toward PhDs.
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