A guest post by Don McChesney.
In a seminal treatise, Notes Toward the Definition of Culture, TS Eliot observes, “’The term culture … includes all the characteristic activities and interests of a people; Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes,… the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, 19th-century Gothic churches and the music of Elgar. The reader can make his own list …” And a fellow named Ken Ham did make his own list that included a life size reproduction of Noah’s Ark. Here we have conspicuous example of what makes America great: that no matter how outlandish the dream, the only question that matters is, “Can you do it?” And they did. So on Friday, July 8th, 2017, we loaded up the minivan and went to the Ken Ham, Answers in Genesis, Ark Encounter, in Grant County, Kentucky.
For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven. Everything that is on the earth shall die. But I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. Genesis 6:17-18
The thing is huge: 510 feet long, 85 feet wide, 51 feet high, weighing in around 8000 tons, or similar in size to an Arleigh Burk- class destroyer. Three public decks pack in movie theaters, exhibits, explanations, history, and food. Air conditioning and Pepsi products keep you cool (no Coke ☹). From arrival in the parking lot to departure, plan 3 hours for your self-guided tour. It could be done in 2 hours if necessary and those wanting a close inspection of every exhibit will want 4.
Genesis chapter 6 specifies the dimensions to which Noah is to build the ark. However, the “cubit” is a unit of measure no longer current. Therefore, an early task in construction of Ark Encounter was to determine the proper length of a cubit. It turns out there were several different cubits in use back in the day and the final analysis can be seen here. The parking lot is fair dinkum far from the Ark so bus transportation is provided.
Make yourself an ark of gopher wood. Make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark 300 cubits, its breadth 50 cubits, and its height 30 cubits. Genesis 6:14-15
The thing is beautiful inside and out (not surprising given a production cost of over 100 million dollars). Animal sounds and exotic music follow you throughout the experience. Production values are more or less at the level of a Disney theme park. The only apparent inconsistency in construction is the obvious usage of metal fasteners where Noah almost certainly would’ve used wood (building codes required steel). Exposed hull ribs and tree-trunk vertical timbers lend authenticity and beauty. The only thing missing (from the Disney veteran’s point of view) is a more liberal use of animatronics.
Uniformly beautiful and thoughtful exhibits display bright colors, interesting ideas, and creative video visualizations and explanations. Countless animal exhibits include interesting solutions to the problems of housing so many animals such as food and water provision, waste removal, air exchange, and the need for light. Living quarters, complete with kitchen and foodstuffs, demonstrate what life might’ve been like for Noah and the fam. There is both a small live-animal exhibit for the kids and a small Museum of the Bible exhibit for the adults. Gorgeous. Inside and out.
Young Earth Creationism
Of course, no review of Ark Encounter could be complete without discussion of the major controversy facing the project: the young earth creationism of Ken Ham and the Answers in Genesis organization. Yes, it is true, dinosaurs in cages on the Ark! In one small, but remarkable exhibit early in the tour, we see a colorful, pre-flood coliseum of sorts, where normal people are attacked by a giant-looking human on one side and a dinosaur on the other for the amusement of spectators. Now, full disclosure: I am a Bible-believing Christian, who is, in CS Lewis’ words, a “thorough-going supernaturalist” and someone with a lot of skepticism about the explanatory power of the theory of evolution. But I am not a Ken Ham young earth creationist. Some Christians agree with young earth creationism and some don’t. Certainly, it would seem almost all skeptics would vehemently disagree. So what to do? Is it a visit deal-breaker for someone who believes in an old earth? I hope not.
I hope that the believer in an old earth will still visit Ark Encounter, first, for the spectacle of the thing, which is undoubtedly spectacular, second, for the possibility of exploring a story that arises in many civilizations outside the Judeo-Christian influence, and third, to appreciate the fact that there are people in the world who don’t think like they do. Non-Catholics tour the Vatican all the time and thinking Christians read Thus Spake Zarathustra.
My own view is that since at least the Scopes Monkey Trial, Darwin and his theory have been the primary flash-point between Christians and the broader culture. With an obviously evangelical purpose to Ark Encounter in view (more on that in a moment), it would seem to me that it might not be advisable to be so heavy-handed about the age of the earth. Unfortunately, the effect of the whole thing is to pick a fight over science that will prevent, for many skeptics I fear, consideration of the bigger issue at hand: a God in Heaven who cares about His creation.
And of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every sort into the ark to keep them alive with you. They shall be male and female. Genesis 6:19
Ark Encounter is replete with evangelism and apologetics. Numerous displays highlight theism in general, Christianity in particular, and the reliability of the Bible. An extended, story-boarded comic-strip toward the end of the tour presents a case-study of life with and without God, finishing with a basket of gospel message tracts. The vast majority of the evangelism of Ark Encounter is artful, tasteful, and effective. However, there are a couple of exceptions.
In two movie theaters located in the stern on decks two and three, short films produced by Answers in Genesis lend in one case, a closer look at the life of Noah and in another, a skeptic’s view of Ark Encounter as a project. In both cases, the films suffer from the same maladies afflicting much of contemporary Christian filmmaking: Christians are invariably persecuted and skeptics invariably get saved. Worthwhile ideas motivate both films, but execution is lacking.
And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Genesis 9:12-13
In the end, I give Ark Encounter five stars out of five. Why? For its contribution to Eliot’s definition of culture. It offers visitors of all stripes the opportunity to think, engage in conversation, and talk to their children. Christians should visit in order to enjoy the scale, quality, and thought that went into an impressive representation of a larger than life story. And skeptics ought to visit – not to ridicule that with which they don’t agree, but rather to gain some understanding of a section of American culture with which they might not be familiar. Mortimer Adler would be horrified at the state of the great conversation in our day. We talk at each other but not to each other. We construct echo chambers around ourselves to interdict disparate opinion. We think we have nothing to learn. But TS Eliot would suggest to us that our worlds are greater, not lesser, and richer, not poorer, as we broaden our definition of and appreciation of a widely diverse and thus exceedingly abundant common culture. That, to me, is why Ark Encounter matters. It’s three hours of larger than life, thought-provoking pageant that could restart an important conversation – the one where we listen to each other. You should go!