You can read the Bible. You can learn about science. You can live in a world inundated with images. Nothing can prepare you for your first glimpse of the Ark.
There it stands, a colossal hull of wooden planks hulking over trees and fields. The sight falls like an imposition. Yes, you think, that’s a big ship. Yes, you are supposed to think, that’s just how the most extraordinary ship must really have looked as it settled onto a cleansed earth under a spreading rainbow. From your seat inside the shuttle bus which ferries you in from the parking lot you are supposed to marvel at God’s word made visible at a theme park in northern Kentucky.
The Ark is the largest free-standing timber-frame structure in the world. Amish craftsmen pounded together 3.3 million board feet of fir, spruce, and pine (no one is quite sure what kind of wood is meant by the Hebrew word “gopher ”). The length of the Ark is 510 feet, the breadth of it 85 feet, and the height of it 51 feet. Which is to say, it’s half the length of the Titanic, 200 feet longer than the Statue of Liberty laid on its side. Two and a half Ark-lengths would exceed the height of the Empire State Building and easily get stuck in the Suez Canal.
The Ark’s creators proudly cite such figures—but they hasten to add that this is only a replica. A life-sized imitation of the historical Ark, which the patriarch Noah built at Divine command to shelter his family and the fauna of the earth from an all-consuming Flood sent by God to punish sinful mankind 4,370 years ago. This, the builders insist, is a definitive fact. Also, did you know that there were dinosaurs on the Ark? That the Ice Age and present-day global warming are long-term results of the Flood?
Ark Encounter—an evangelical theme park which aspires to be taken seriously as a science museum—is operated by Answers in Genesis, a private fundamentalist Christian apologetics group. In the view of its president, Ken Ham, AiG’s stated mission of “helping Christians defend their faith” entails meeting the evidence-based claims of the “secular worldview” head-on. The Bible, he insists, is not a book of stories, but an accurate historical record. The claims of mainstream science must be refuted point by point, ingeniously reinterpreted, or undermined by radical skepticism. Alternative claims based on the literal truth of the Bible must be put forward and augmented by elaborate constructions—like the Ark. The result is undeniably impressive: an exciting, if somewhat unwieldy, Young Earth creationist account of world history.
In 2007, AiG opened its Creation Museum, which presents the past and future of the universe in terms of “7 C’s”: Creation, Corruption, Catastrophe, Confusion, Christ, Cross, and Consummation. But the goal was always to build the Ark—to justify faith by this most extravagant of works. Ham, a self-appointed latter-day Noah, wants to prove to the world that the other Ark really could have existed—which is supposed to convince us that it did exist. It’s hard to imagine a gigantic curiosity persuading many nonbelievers. Still less does it seem necessary for preaching to the choir; unlike the doubting apostle Thomas, the truly faithful shouldn’t need to poke into miracles with impertinent fingers.
But conservative donors jumped. The $100 million cost of construction poured in through private funding and municipal bonds, separation of church and state notwithstanding. Ark Encounter opened in 2016 to an annual attendance of 1 million visitors, who tour the interior of the Ark’s three decks to see how thousands of animals could have been housed and fed by Noah and his small family. More than Disneyland for evangelicals, Ark Encounter is a full-scale propaganda effort.
Conservative America has long dreamed of establishing a Christian nation. Republican packed courts are now working hard to turn that dream into a terrifying legal reality. But what about the fight for hearts and minds? How will this coming godly nation understand itself? I wanted to find out.
And so it came to pass that I visited Ark Encounter. Alone among the unmasked, I was a stranger in a strange land. And I looked, and behold: two plastic pterodactyls in a wooden cage.
At Ark Encounter, even the parking lot is monumental. Its size disoriented me enough to miss the ticket office. I walked down the access road and was immediately picked up by a private security guard. I had not intended to trespass. Still, the rest of my visit felt furtive. I already stood out as the only visitor wearing a face covering, and I felt I might be unmasked at any moment.
Having paid my entrance fee, I rode the shuttle bus, and soon I was in the presence of the Ark, which somehow feels even more gigantic when you are standing under it. You pass up long ramps which switch back and forth, just like the line for any amusement park ride. But of course, this ride is going nowhere; as the signs remind us, it is a historical replica, and as for the real thing—that ship sailed long ago. Near the entrance, a large placard comes clean about “Ark-tistic License,” the many ways in which the reproduction differs from what its designers believe about the original. For one thing, this one has emergency exits; apparently the Lord takes a more relaxed approach to building codes than does Grant County, Kentucky.
As I took my first steps inside and approached the rows of animal cages, I began to think about the ancient inhabitants of a small hill fort called Jerusalem. What would they think if they could see these exhibits—apart from wondering what in God’s name was a stegosaurus?
Tradition ascribes the Torah to Moses, but modern textual criticism has traced a complex process of multi-authorial composition and redaction culminating in the 7th century BC. Militant priests consolidated various cults into a pure legalistic monotheism. A small tribal society created an exceptional literary character—the God of Israel—whose power over imaginations has remade the world.
The priests relied on earlier mythology—the Great Flood already appears in Gilgamesh—but they rewrote and rearranged these stories to emphasize God’s almighty unknowability. In the oldest Biblical passages we sometimes sense, dancing just out of sight, phantoms of an even older world. Genesis 3:8 finds the Lord “walking in the garden in the cool of the day”—an arresting image, left over from a primitive fable, of an uncanny figure bodily tracing the earth with footfall and shadow. But mostly, the compiled texts have been refined into a unified enigmatic purity. We only get essential action, mute human submission and awe before an ominous abstracted Divinity. As the critic Erich Auerbach pointed out, the Five Books derive a terrible and mysterious power from everything their narration leaves unsaid, which he contrasted to the Homeric epics with their florid sensory descriptions of battles, feasts, sea-voyages, colorful gods, and magnificent heroes.
Whether sumptuous or spare, mythic storytelling captivates imagination. Like our First Parents tasting the fruit in the Garden, the audience of a myth is transformed when it imbibes moral knowledge. The priests assembled the Hebrew Bible to introduce a new political regime centered on temple rites and strict codes of purity, from the tabernacle and the field to the table and the bedroom.
“Which animals are clean and unclean, again?” I overheard an elderly woman ask her son on the second deck of Ark Encounter as they gazed at a placard expounding on this point. He scratched his jaw and gamely tried to recall the Jewish dietary laws. Clearly not every visitor is enough of a Bible-thumper to have memorized even this rather important detail from Leviticus, but it’s possible they know the part about men lying together.
The larger point is that ancient Israel, its rites, and its mysterious stories, all feel quite removed from the decks of Ark Encounter, which are designed to make a great myth crudely visible as modern “fact.” Rows of cages and pens display birds, bats, deer, sloths, triceratops, lizards, hippos, bears, giraffes, caseids, pigs, dogs, dimetrodons, horses, rhinos, frogs, silesaurs, snakes, rodents, and pakicetids. Placards rigorously break down the labor-hours Noah’s eight person family would have spent feeding animals and cleaning cages, complete with diagrams of automatic feeders, ventilation shafts, freshwater capturers, and waste-disposal systems. In this monumental effort of reverse engineering, an enormous amount of scientific information has been carefully selected and skillfully employed to favor an interpretation which is also a grounding assumption: that the story in Genesis is literally true. How did we get here?
Despite priestly ambitions, the mythic way of knowing has only rarely held uncontested sway over human minds. Ancient philosophers worked out competing epistemologies, notably empiricism, which Aristotle pioneered and which medieval Catholic and Muslim thinkers systematized or put into experimental practice. It wasn’t until the early modern period that empiricism really came into its own, developing a corpus of scientific knowledge which proves its value every day by the visible power it confers. Whether we understand science or not, it has changed our world.
To be sure, early modern scientists made their rigorous measurements in a world that was still largely enchanted. Sir Isaac Newton is remembered today for his discoveries in mathematics, mechanics, and optics, and not for his theological writings, his obsession with alchemy, or his speculations on world history after the Flood. But for a mind driven to make sense of a universe whose rational Government had been but partially revealed through Scripture, a theory of gravity might indeed seem less important than a correct belief about the Trinity, and the nature of light might amount to a less engrossing problem than the question of how the false gods of Greece and the Near East had emerged from “the corruption of the religion of Noah.”
By the early 19th century, however, a science once understood as commentary on God’s revelation had begun to call that revelation itself into question. Not only did empiricist criticism undermine the tradition of Mosaic authorship; entirely new disciplines were now literally opening up the ground underneath believers’ feet. Geology and paleontology seemed to reveal that the earth was inconceivably old, that bizarre creatures had once teemed in oceans where deserts now lay or stalked through forests whose piled-up mounds of vegetable life, as beds of coal, now powered industry in a smoky blaze of bygone sunlit eons. Then came Darwin; the rest is natural history.
In the modern world, many of us take the empirical way of knowing for granted. But the reaction against it has been substantial, and vehement. Fundamentalism, by its very name, claims to reject all innovations, preferring to stick to old-book “foundations.” To a certain extent, a refusal to entertain new things under the sun requires that one close one’s eyes. Empirical claims rest on logical arguments about demonstrable evidence; while science is never “objective,” it tends toward falsifiability and self-correction. This means that every time a bit of scientific knowledge is thrown out, a surer alternative takes its place. The total body of knowledge is always getting stronger, more complete, and therefore the whole of science can never be refuted, but only ignored.
It’s hard to account for fundamentalists’ stubborn unwillingness to concede that 2 and 2 make 4 unless we understand the consequences of 4 to lead inexorably toward slackened discipline, breached taboos, and sexual anarchy. Without unquestionable mythic suggestion, religious authority collapses; why should anyone heed the thou-shalt-nots of even the most inspiring Lawgiver, if the truths arrayed around Him are being debunked? In our time, various mutually-distrusting Jewish, Christian, and Islamic fundamentalisms—spiritual descendants of those ancient priests—share a common preoccupation with social, sexual, and political order, the context of their monotextual commitments. If we relax the storytelling, the logic goes—worse, if we let the storytelling itself become discredited—who knows what unspeakable orgies will follow?
At Ark Encounter, the orgies of the sinful ante-Diluvian era have been scandalously imagined. They are displayed in dioramas on the second deck, in an exhibit on the “godless world” which tempted the Lord to send his righteous punishing Flood. One display presents a bacchanal: scantily-clad maenads whirl and twirl their slender limbs as musicians blow reeds and drunkards pass out on couches. It’s the closest thing to porn evangelicals will permit themselves in public—tame, but still amazingly unselfconscious about its deliberate titillation.
The other dioramas are weirder. One shows a human sacrifice before a demonic snake god at the top of a pyramid: the idolaters are offering up innocent babies, for which terrible atrocity God was well justified in drowning every other innocent baby on earth. Another diorama features an arena scene: gladiators vs. dinosaurs. A T-rex roars, lunging out of the gate, as warriors turn from massacring prisoners to face its fearsome jaws. The crowd cheers for blood, and at center a barbarian warlord leers, drinking, as courtesans coo in his ear. The whole thing would make a great CGI spectacular, rated PG-13. I wonder if Disney has made an offer yet.
Despite the exhibit’s explicit suggestion that this fantasy world reflects our world today, we don’t really live in a time of unrestrained brutality or unlimited sexual license. Instead, we have personal freedoms imperfectly protected by ideas of natural rights. Liberal religious reform movements have accordingly sought accommodation with the modern world, embracing science and rationalist discourse while holding onto a core moral tradition. But in a sense, the fundamentalists are right: no one can serve two epistemologies. If you concede the ground by which your worldview is authorized, the rituals you are left performing may come to feel dangerously empty.
This is appropriate. In a modern democracy, traditional organized religion ought to have as much moral and cultural prestige, and as little direct influence on public policy, as live theater. Instead, our politics are dominated by the Supreme Court’s “originalist” rulings, a different brand of textual fundamentalism on the warpath for worldly power.
Yet anyone can sense the weakness of negative arguments (the Framers did not write this, or that—how edifying!). “Beyond a reasonable doubt” is a fine standard for law, but faith lies beyond reason, and true proof would eliminate doubt. How firm a foundation would be a visible miracle—or even just a man-made Ark you could walk around inside as Noah himself might have done?
On the day I visited Ark Encounter, I listened to Ken Ham speak for an hour to an auditorium packed with earnest Christian parents concerned about the “generational exodus from the church.” I sat in the back, right behind a young couple dressed in 19th century farmer costume, the wife in a bonnet and a gingham dress, the husband in suspenders and a flat cap. When their baby cried, I witnessed old-time family discipline at work.
Ham took the stage just after a rock-gospel group finished performing a song about Six Literal Days (“He rested on the Seventh Day / it was His perfect plan…God did it in Six Daaaaaays!”). I was surprised, on a random Friday in July, to have the privilege of hearing from the president of AiG in person. But as Ham—tall, grey-haired, and surly—stepped out to absorb the cheers and applause of hundreds, he seemed to take up their urgent enthusiasm.
His talk began with dismal data: church attendance has declined, LGBT self identification has increased, prayer is banned in public schools, and abortion remains widely available (for now). As he rattled off figures in his Australian drawl, Ham’s disgust was clearly audible. “It’s a mess out there!”
Like many fundamentalists, Ham sees in the 19th century triumph of empiricism the Devil’s handiwork, the latest iteration of a rebellious attack on God’s word which began in the Garden with Eve’s temptation by the serpent (Genesis 3). But if the collapse of Biblical authority unleashed what Ham calls a “tornado of moral relativism ripping through the culture,” he thinks Christians themselves are partly to blame. Too many church authorities, he says, have given up on even trying to compete with science to explain the world. When young Christians, confused by secular education, ask their elders about dinosaurs or carbon dating, they get a weak response, which Ham summarizes with scorn: “‘Don’t ask those questions—trust in Jesus, Johnny.’”
From our patterns of settlement Americans have inherited a favorable cultural environment for both anti-intellectualism and religious zeal. Before and after the Scopes Trial, a robust evangelical bloc has wielded power in American politics by licensing its adherents not to bother comprehending the arguments of empiricism or the evidence on which they depend. If evolution is a diabolical lie, engaging with it seriously would be, at best, pointless—at worst, perilous. Whether or not alternative theories of “Intelligent Design” make it into school curricula, the hard core of American Christians will remain fully persuaded, perhaps all the more so if (as Ham fulminates) their Zoomer children and grandchildren have begun identifying as “‘this-sexual’ and ‘that-sexual.’”
Ham’s background as a former public school science teacher from Queensland, Australia might help explain the distinctiveness of his approach. He sees cowardice in Christians’ refusal to engage, a feckless concession to bad-faith secular arguments which bar the true faith from schools on the grounds of a specious neutrality. “They didn’t throw religion out, they threw Christianity out and replaced it,” he says, with “the pagan religion of evolution.”
This explains the comprehensive, would-be scientific approach of the Ark Encounter exhibits. Ham and his team have seemingly thought of everything, anticipating every objection with ready-made answers. In some cases, they present two contradictory hypotheses at once. Consider the questions of animal diets and food storage. Different creatures eat a wide variety of foods—leaves, seeds, roots, grubs, meat, fish, fruit, bugs, shoots, twigs, blood, nuts, mushrooms, shellfish, carrion—the list goes on. How could Noah have stored enough of all of these different specialized feeds for a whole year? At Ark Encounter, a significant portion of deck space is taken up by model boxes, baskets, sacks, and amphorae, and the display placards describe all the possible techniques for preserving foods, even meat and fish. Though actually, come to think of it—the placards go on to point out—Genesis 9:3 makes clear that humans were first permitted to eat meat only after the Flood. It’s possible, therefore, that before the Flood, even carnivorous beasts were also vegetarians—just like Adam and Eve in Paradise.
But what of the simpler question of how the animals themselves could have even fit onboard? According to modern biology there are millions of species. Here, Ham and his accomplices perform their most clever maneuver yet, bringing down the theory of evolution with its own discoveries. Recall the taxonomic ranks from high school biology class, according to which every living thing is classified: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. Scripture tells us that God instructed Noah to bring a male and a female of every animal “kind”—Hebrew, “min .” The placards at Ark Encounter explain that this word “min ” corresponds to the taxonomic rank of Family—inaugurating, by the way, a new science, “Baraminology,” from Hebrew “baramin,” “created kind.”
As in a controlled demolition, explosive terms such as “natural selection” and “mutation” are carefully deployed in strategic positions throughout Ark Encounter’s presentation materials. The dust clears to reveal a neat account of divergent speciation—not evolution over millions of years. By processes analogous to evolution, Noah’s single pair of, say, medium-sized felids are supposed to have produced Siberian tigers, cuddly housecats, and everything in between, in just a few years. Ark Encounter’s Baraminologists thus estimate that 1,398 animal “kinds” could have given rise to the panoply of species we see alive today. As for the fossil record, it was laid down by the Flood; if creatures we find buried in the earth no longer exist today, God must have let their kinds die out after they descended from the Ark. Next to the cages of such animals, the signs say, “status: presumed extinct”—as if to say, “who knows?”
So much for the animals. What about the Ark’s human passengers? The third deck includes elaborate dioramas of their living quarters. “Noah’s Family: Meet Your Ancestors,” reads one display. The Bible makes clear that all living people are descended from this group of eight: Noah, Shem, Ham, Japheth, and four respective wives. At Ark Encounter, the women have been supplied with names: Emzara, Ar’yel, Kezia, and Rayneh (whether these names are plausible is a question for Hebrew scholars). Another placard justifies this bold interpolation: “Any attempt to represent historical events necessarily involves using artistic license, and we took great care not to contradict biblical details.”
Since we are all directly descended from Noah’s sons and daughters-in-law, the dioramas on the third deck assign these women different skin tones. It’s worth noting how explicitly AiG’s materials denounce racism as un-Christian. All humans are one family, says Ken Ham, descended from two First Parents created in God’s image. Adam and Eve must have had medium-brown skin, and minor genetic differences among their progeny have resulted in the spectrum of skin colors and other superficial variations we see today, characteristics of different “people groups,” not distinct biological races. But the signs go on to explain that Europe was populated by the descendants of Japheth, the Middle East by those of Shem, and Africa and Asia by those of Ham. This same theory gained widespread currency in the 18th century, when Noah’s curse on Ham and his son (Genesis 9:20-27) was used to justify the enslavement of Africans. Where indigenous Americans and Australians are supposed to have come from, we are not told.
To Ken Ham (no direct relation, apparently, to Ham the son of Noah; the president of AiG is a white Australian), the tension between missionary work and the business of running a theme park must make for difficult decisions. For all that visitors have come for Biblical truth, we do expect a certain amount of fun when we shell out for a $49.95 admission ticket (kids ages 5-10 get in for $14.95, youths 11-17 for $24.95). On the second deck, two side attractions amplify the dissonances inherent in this family attraction. “Kids’ Spooky Animal Encounters” has fun little darkened tunnels to duck into, where colored lights and funny animations explore the question, “What do animals do when Noah’s family is sleeping?” The “Fairy Tale Ark” room, on the other hand, displays a collection of illustrated Biblical children’s books in order to condemn their whimsical style. “Warning,” reads a sign, “cute Arks are dangerous. They distort God’s Word and ultimately malign His character.”
But how do you reach the younger generations, said to be fleeing from the church in droves? There’s a petting zoo on the grounds, which, as an unaccompanied grown man, I somewhat regretfully skipped. But you can’t let things get too fun, or impressionable minds might find in the Bible a wonderful story and not a factual account. As I toured Ark Encounter, I tried to see the whole thing through the eyes of my own vanished life as an imaginative kid. One little boy I noticed sat alone in the darkened stern of the first deck, looking bored and somewhat oppressed by the immensity of the planks and wooden columns around him, as his mother hovered eagerly over scale models nearby and boned up on Baranminological data from the huge wall placards. Who, in the end, is AiG really trying to convince?
When, at last, the astonishment at the whole affair wears off—can you believe someone went to all this trouble?—a kind of mental exhaustion sets in. All the mythic wonder has been leached from the story of Noah’s Ark, leaving behind an appalling barrenness. Seeing has corrupted belief. Instead of imagining restless animals and frightened people crouched in a storm-tossed boat, we ponder the timetable for throwing grain to the cattle and salted meat to the tyrannosaurs. Ark Encounter’s tagline reads, “It’s bigger than imagination.” Actually, it’s much smaller, like the difference between reading the Iliad or Aeneid and seeing the movie Troy . Onscreen, no city gates, no wooden horse, can ever live up to what we imagine; handsome and athletic though Brad Pitt may be, he is no Achilles.
Ken Ham and his fundamentalists have let the empirical worldview they claim to despise transform the essence of their faith from within. When did they miss the boat? “Creationists and evolutionists study the same evidence,” insists a placard in the science section on the third deck. “We examine the same rocks, the same fossils, the same world.…Our conclusions are strongly influenced by our worldviews.” Yes, but a worldview that even admits of “evidence” is already playing by empiricist rules, even if it does so in what any self-respecting scientist would term “bad faith.”
The mindset behind Ark Encounter belongs to the transitional stage from myth to empiricism, as when Newton’s friend and student William Whiston proposed that the earth’s passage through the watery tail of a comet had been God’s instrument for raining Floodwaters down throughout the atmosphere for 40 days straight. Before the 17th century, would anyone have even asked about the mechanism for the Flood, much less questioned its historical accuracy? But, then, what was the meaning of “history” to illiterate masses? Even the few who could read the Bible, instead of hearing it from the pulpit, still thought about their world in mythic terms. If the image of Noah’s poor nameless wife shoveling an unthinkable volume of shit for a year even occurred to them, it probably felt subversive or even blasphemous.
Still, even since late antiquity a very few scholars have worried themselves over these sorts of details. On the subject of animal feces, the Talmud records the oral teaching that the entire first deck was dedicated to storing manure. I half wished that Ark Encounter had gone with this interpretation, which suggests a more thoroughgoing familiarity with animal husbandry than I suspect Ken Ham has acquired. A few centuries later, Saint Augustine, citizen of a crumbling empire, wondered how the animals released from the Ark could have gone on to populate remote islands. His conclusion is revealing: God made new animals spring from the earth, while the animals on the Ark served merely as an allegory, “typifying the various nations, thus presenting a symbol of the Church.” Even the most literal ancient minds had quick recourse to mythic explanations.
If I didn’t find him both repulsive and dangerous, I might feel sorry for Ken Ham. He’s set himself an impossible task—though of course, AiG takes in $12 million in profits during a typical year. On this humbler scale, Ham somewhat resembles another misinformation mogul from Down Under, Rupert Murdoch. You can make a lot of money selling the American Right spectacles it didn’t even realize it wanted.
Still, it’s impossible to doubt Ham’s sincerity, especially when he becomes petulant. Clearly he feels he’s been dealt an unfair hand. “When Peter and Paul were preaching, do you think they got asked questions about carbon dating?” he exclaims. “Do you think Martin Luther in the 16th century was asked questions about whether dinosaurs were on the Ark?” Stiff-necked people have been a nuisance ever since Moses struggled to corral the Israelites across the desert, but these days they can bring in so much flummoxing data.
It is a strange feature of our times that everyone, regardless of political affiliation, feels embattled. As liberals and leftists confront the nightmare of post-Roe America and the specter of worse to come, Ark Encounter’s visitors are paying for a different underdog fantasy when they come to playact the Genesis story: whether by earthly law or divine, the culture of “moral relativism” will reap the whirlwind, and soon. “The pre-Flood world was exceedingly wicked and deserved to be judged,” reads a placard on the second deck of Ark Encounter. “Does our sin filled-world deserve any less?” Accelerationist at heart, evangelical America eagerly awaits the Rapture, but its leaders seem happy to erode democracy and collect dividends until the end—which may well come by floodwaters yet again, despite God’s promises in Genesis 9:11.
It strikes me as curious that these people see themselves as pure and devout, their worldview reverent toward creation. It seems to me that a far greater reverence could be theirs if they would only look at it. How many scientists, pondering the enormity of cosmic expansion or the depth of the geologic timescale, feel indescribable awe? How many of us feel it, too, when trying to understand what they have discovered? To comprehend, even imperfectly, may be its own redemption. Who, then, are the true believers? The evolution of manifold lifeforms across fathomless spans of time seems to me a far more stupendous miracle than 6,000 years and a story about a boat, no matter how beautifully told. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.
Or not. “Noah was pretty smart, wasn’t he, boys?” I overheard a dad say to his young sons as I fled from the Ark, worn out. And so I can’t deny I learned something among our fellow citizens, the thousands who throng to Ark Encounter every day, standing around me staring at dinosaurs in cages and soberly nodding, “yes, that happened.” How much less difficult to believe as well that the election was stolen, that pedophiles run the government, or that vaccines do all manner of things other than protect against disease. Strangely, Ark Encounter sheds some light on the sickness in our nation’s soul. But don’t take my word for it—you have to see it. You won’t believe it. ~