Let's All Meet at the Mahalalel Mall

Righting America at the Creation MuseumbookcoverBy Susan L. Trollinger & William Vance TrollingerJohns Hopkins University Press, 2016On November 12, 2015, Ken Ham, the Australian-born president of the American “para-church” Answers in Genesis, enjoyed another in an unconscionably long series of triumphs experienced in his adoptive homeland of America. In front of a crowd of TV reporters, Ham announced the official opening date of July 7 for “The Ark Encounter,” an enormous duplicate of Noah's Ark from the Book of Genesis. The Ark Encounter will be located in Williamstown, Kentucky, just off the Interstate, about an hour's drive from the 60,000-square-foot “Creation Museum” in Petersburg, Kentucky.Visitors to the Ark Encounter (the opening date was chosen because it's at Genesis 7:7 that Noah and his family board their own ark) will be treated to the same blend of high-tech special effects and 6th-century Biblical literalism that's been on display for a quarter of a million visitors every year at the “Creation Museum” since it opened in 2007. Ham and his quasi-ministry at Answers in Genesis claim to be Biblical literalists: they profess that the Earth was created in six 24-hour days roughly 6000 years ago, and that this creation conformed precisely with the account given in Genesis. They consequently claim that when God became wroth with wayward humanity in the days of Noah, He unleashed floodwaters across the whole of the Earth, drowning every living thing except for Noah, his family, and two (or in another account seven) of every animal species, which trooped obediently on board and refrained from eating each other or their human caretakers while Noah's Ark bobbed on the water for about a year before the waters had receded enough for a good landfall – after which the animals all wandered off, and God promised Noah that He would never again use a flood to destroy all life on Earth (we're not told whether or not Noah had insisted on this, but I would have).The Ark Encounter is therefore a gigantic flight of fancy (and gigantically expensive: over $70 million was required to build the thing, the huge majority of which came from Kentucky business loans underwritten by taxpayer money, which is one of the many reasons the Ark Encounter was challenged in Kentucky courts, to no avail), a monument peter spierto delusion every bit as absurd as building a life-sized duplicate of Mount Olympus on a prairie in Nebraska, or stretching a paint-and-plywood Rainbow Bridge across San Francisco Bay.But the aims of Ham and Answers in Genesis are anything but fanciful. Ham has repeatedly told his thousands of followers that they're in the midst of a full-blown culture war, and that the rising tide of liberalism, atheism, evolutionism, gay marriage, and secular schooling is no less dangerous than the rising tide that threatened Noah and wiped out all the animals, plants, babies, and fetuses that had been so displeasing in the eyes of the Lord. Since Ham maintains the complete inerrancy of the Bible, he isn't just an advocate of Scriptural literalism. He's also, necessarily, one of the world's foremost science-deniers. His Earth is flat and stationary, orbited by the sun and moon; his universe is six thousand years old. His world and everything in it was created by the magic of an invisible super-being in the sky.This world will be on full display in the Ark Encounter, but its heart will always be the “Creation Museum.” And that “museum,” condemned by scientists all over the world as nothing more than a farcical right-wing religious indoctrination camp and visited by 2 million people since its founding, is the subject of a new book by Susan and William Trollinger: Righting America at the Creation Museum takes readers on a virtual tour of the place, room by room, display by display, diorama by diorama. They show their readers the “7 Cs” of Ham's Creationist credo: Creation, Corruption (the fall of man and the expulsion from Eden), Catastrophe (the Flood), Confusion (the Tower of Babel), Christ, Cross, and Consummation (at the last of these, naughtier-minded audience members are sobered with the following placard: “One day the Creator will remake His creation. He will cast out death and the disobedient, and dwell eternally with all those who trust in Him. Earth will be restored to a perfect place – as it was before sin”).And they acquaint their readers with a dark and luridly-lit space called Graffiti Alley, in which faux brick walls are plastered with “pages torn from newspapers and news magazines about such topics as stem-cell research, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, euthanasia, abortion, gay teens, Islamic terrorism, evolution, gay marriage, school shootings, and the decline of Christian America.” The “museum” apparently never draws any explicit connections between these things and anything even remotely connected to science, much less the scientific consensus the “museum” was built to reject; as our authors somewhat phlegmatically put it, “Not to put too fine a point on it, the viewer creationism1who takes a critical view of the reasoning on these placards is likely to be bewildered by the science in the Creation Museum.”The slow-dawning and all-pervasive realization in the pages of Righting America at the Creation Museum is that virtually none of the place's paying customers ($29.95 per adult) actually take that critical view of reasoning. The “Creation Museum” is for them exactly what it was designed to be: a refuge from critical thinking, a haven for simple, blind faith in fairy tales. Science, even grade school science, would teach such people that the Earth is billions of years old, that no worldwide flood ever occurred, and that if it had, there would have been no plant life left on land when the floodwaters receded, meaning the herbivores would have had nothing to eat and the carnivores would have had nothing to eat except the herbivores. Grade school science would teach these “museum” patrons that even an ark the size of the one Ham's construction crews have built in Kentucky (using steel, plastics, and gas-powered winches presumably unavailable to Noah) wouldn't have been big enough to house the allosaurusesand stegosauruses and Tyrannosauri rex that Ham's literal interpretation of the Bible uneasily compels him to claim lived alongside humans.The “Creation Museum” wants none of that to matter. Ham and his followers take their cue from Henry Morris, one of the founders of modern-day “young Earth” Creationism, who espoused a kind of literalism even the Inquisition would have considered doltishly unworkable:

A literal interpretation is not an interpretation at all, for it takes the words at face value, assuming that the Holy Spirit was able to say exactly what He meant to say, using the thoughts and abilities of the human writer whose words He inspired. Any kind of allegorical or figurative interpretation of those words (unless directly indicated as required in the context) assumes that the interpreter knows better than the Holy Ghost what He should be saying, and such an attitude is presumptuous, if not blasphemous.

creationism2Instead of using allegory to strengthen faith (and of course instead of pouring that $70 million into Kentucky's public school and child support programs), the “Creation Museum” carefully imitates actual natural history museums in order to create the illusion that paying customers are being presented with a viable Biblical alternative to the worldview scientific investigation has painstakingly uncovered in the last two hundred years. The Trollingers give readers a quick history of the natural history museum as a public institution and a quick analysis of how such museums package and present information to the public. Ham's con artist warehouse naturally can't actually do the same thing, since it has no true information to present – dinosaurs did not co-exist with Homo sapiens, the Tower of Babel and the Garden of Eden and all the other landmarks of Hebrew mythology from Genesis never really existed any more than the Land of Oz or Superman's Fortress of Solitude really exist, and if there was ever a world-drowning flood, several ancient record-keeping civilizations of the time weren't informed that they were living, trading, eating, and laughing under water for an entire year. The “Creation Museum” therefore can't be a real museum except in straining simulation. In place of dated and verified artifacts, it has lots of assertion-making placards and official-looking charts; in place of fossils or records, it has eye-catching dioramas depicting Old Testament scenes in its “Bible Walkthrough Experience,” including one of a cast-out and clothed Adam industriously tilling the soil while his little boys Cain and Abel look on, all of it watched over by Eve, in a tableau the Trollingers rightly find quietly revolting in its implications:

In the process, the museum and AiG offer up an extended defense of incest as part of God's divine plan. Such an argument is disturbing for all sorts of reasons, including that the museum and AiG place such great emphasis on men ruling over their families, and given that much incest involves fathers (and uncles and brothers) taking advantage of and exerting power over their daughters (and nieces and sisters). The placard becomes even more disturbing when one looks back at the diorama of the First Family, at Adam, Cain, Abel, and … the pregnant Eve. The very logic of the Walkthrough … strongly suggests that the curators have created a diorama with a mother (Eve), who will soon give birth to her son's sister and future sexual partner. As museumgoers learn from the placard, not only was this just fine, but to question the propriety of the impending incest (and the millennia of incest to come) is to place oneself in opposition to Almighty God.

As any of the millions of people who watched Ham's stage event with science popularizer Bill Nye in 2014 will recall, Ham espouses a particular brand of nonsensically schismatic thinking that divides “historical science” from “observational science,” with the latter placing a childish onus on the things science can assert: if you haven't seen something happen, you can't say it ever did happen. If you haven't actually seen an organism evolving, you can't claim that evolution ever x-rex-on-main-streethappened. Nye, clearly blindsided by the sheer mulish stupidity of such thinking, flounderingly called it “extraordinary” throughout the event, infuriating fans who were waiting for a more resounding condemnation of Ham's dangerous brand of ignorance.Readers of Righting America at the Creation Museum will know exactly how those fans felt. This is a thorough book, a measured book, a calm and reasonable book. It examines the young Earth Creationism of Answers in Genesis from both a social and a historical perspective, pointing out the gaping flaws in its own internal logic (for instance, placards warning that the physical process of the Flood was unlike anything else in history and placards comparing it to rain washing out a gully are about ten feet away from each other in the same room) and rounding things off with a mild admonition about how far such lunacy strays from the true essence of contemporary Christianity:

But in the end, the ideological and politicized young Earth creationism of the Creation Museum and [Answers in Genesis] has little to do with the Jesus of the Gospels. It has little to do with the Hebrew prophets. It has little to do with Christianity's rich intellectual and social justice tradition, little to do with Augustine and Aquinas, Barth and Bonhoeffer, Day and King. It has little to do with faith and hope and love.

And such rational, balanced perspective is perhaps essential for the kind of book the Trollingers intended to write, a comprehensive you-are-there overview of the center of what Ken Ham clearly hopes to be a network of such faux museums. But the “Creation Museum” is a profitable business (profits are in the millions of dollars, and facilities beyond the Ark Experience are already well into the planning stages) in large part because it's an indoctrination business. It cares nothing for having its ideological flaws pointed out with sad, scholarly precision; it wants to reassure adults and teach children, through lively animatronic dinosaurs, that hundreds of years of testable, verifiable scientific advancements are just the graffiti-wall allurements of debauched gay Darwinists intent on destroying the Christian faith. In short, Ham and his ministry are indeed engaged in a culture war – but they're the aggressors, not the victims, and they're steadily gaining ground with every passing year. Righting America at the Creation Museum might have traded a little of its careful perspective for some good old-fashioned fire-and-brimstone condemnation.The Trollingers might have remembered the days, not too distant historically speaking, when people exactly like Ken Ham would have cut their writing hands off in the public square for writing such a book. Graffiti Alley doesn't deserve anybody's courtesy.____Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston. His reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, and The Christian Science Monitor. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.