WILLIAMSTOWN, Ky. — What’s 510 feet long, 85 feet wide, 51 feet high, and made of 3.3 million linear feet of wood? If you don’t already know, then you’re on the wrong bus. “Ladies and gentleman, I present Noah’s Ark,” says the bus driver when the gargantuan structure comes into view. People onboard clap. A woman shouts, “Wow!” My friend Meredith shoots me a look that says, this ought to be good.
Ken Ham, the man at the helm of the Christian ministry Answers in Genesis (AIG), says he’s built the most accurate replica of Noah’s Ark ever. It’s the centerpiece of what might become a new Christian theme park, maybe a second coming of Heritage USA. Unlike typical theme park attractions, the Ark isn’t landscaped. Not yet, anyway. It hulks, like a pale wooden cruise ship in dry dock, atop a forested hill in northwestern Kentucky, somewhere near Lake Kincaid. Now the largest timber frame structure in the world, it’s instantly become the most conspicuous attraction in Grant County, a rural county near Cincinnati. On the day I visit, July 9, the Ark has been open to the public for two days; attendance has already exceeded expectations. Jimmy Carter has visited. So has Bill Nye the Science Guy. Inside, light pours in from the skylights. There is the smell of fresh cut timber. Replicas of dinosaurs, two by two, stand in cages. A drumbeat pulses. A line of people, many wearing T-shirts advertising their church group affiliations, snakes into an exhibit about the world before The Flood. Everyone is very, very nice.
I have come, with my brother Travis and my friend Meredith, her 14 year old daughter Riley, and Riley’s cousin Molly, to experience the Ark Encounter, the newest attraction from AIG, a Creationist group that believes the world was created in six days. AIG is devoted to Biblical literalism: the Earth is 6,000 years old, mankind was created in God’s image, and dinosaurs roamed the Earth until the Middle Ages. That last bit is a cosmological sleight of hand that sends AIG’s history of the world into the realm of kitsch. I like kitsch. A few years ago, Travis and I went to the Creation Museum, AIG’s answer to the traditional natural history museum and its first attraction in Kentucky. We walked the museum’s route and read the exhibit guides refuting evolution and Darwinism — “Why are there so many different kinds of finches? It’s God’s plan.” — and took in the detailed faux taxidermy and animatronics. The Creation Museum is certainly committed to its vision; it’s like stepping into a fully realized false history of the world. One scene from this false history showed Adam and Eve seated in the Garden of Eden while, in the foreground, something that looked like Steven Spielberg’s take on a velociraptor chomped down on a coconut. (According to AIG, all of God’s creatures were vegetarians until The Fall.) For me, in terms of imagery, this was right up there with dogs playing poker.
That day, Travis and I learned that AIG was planning to build a replica of Noah’s Ark. This seemed like genius on Ham’s part, a large-scale canvas for a spectacle of Salvation. (Dinosaurs and people, living together on a boat!) When Travis called me with the news that the Ark would be opening in July, we each put down $40 for guaranteed admission during the Ark’s 40 Days and 40 Nights promotion (through August 15). Ham and his ark park, as it’s known in Kentucky, had been in Kentucky news since 2011. First, the state awarded AIG tax incentives for building a large tourist attraction that would include the Ark. Then AIG had to scale back the project and that, in addition to its Christians-only hiring policies, led the state’s Tourism, Arts, and Heritage board to reject the incentive package. AIG filed a federal lawsuit and the board, reorganized under a more sympathetic governor, caved, awarding AIG $18 million. (Another $10 million in government support is on the way in the form of road improvements on Interstate 75.) Most recently, an atheist group called Tri-State Freethinkers had to abandon its plan to protest the Ark with a billboard campaign called “Genocide & Incest Park: Celebrating 2,000 years of myths.” No billboard company in Kentucky would rent space to them. In the meantime, AIG started advertising the ark park on national television. This meant that anyone from Kentucky, like me, was often fielding questions about why the hell there was a gigantic Noah’s Ark replica in the Bluegrass. It was too much.
* * *
Is the ark park entertainment or is it religion? This is the question Kentucky has grappled with, and it’s what we’ve come to figure out for ourselves.
We think we’re in the minority. In the parking lot, a nearby Ford F150 disgorged an extended family of Mennonite Christians, prompting Meredith to read Riley and Molly the riot act: this is a religious experience for many of the people here today; we need to respect that. Travis is sporting his Creation Museum hat. He thinks it will keep the more believing Ark-goers from shooting him dirty looks when he involuntarily sniggers at the displays.
The bright, smiling Ark guides — fair-skinned and blond, like so many folks in Kentucky — seem sincere. (They can’t all be AIG believers, but they do all seem inoculated against cynicism.) We learn from them that currently the ark park includes the Ark, a restaurant, and a petting zoo. There are plans to add a theater and what a guide calls a “high-end restaurant” inside the Ark itself. We’ve put Riley in charge of documenting our journey through the Ark. Once we’re there — past the second of two ticketing pavilions, where in the future we’ll be able to buy zip line tickets — she dutifully runs about getting artful images of the Ark’s exterior. Meredith looks dubiously at the anemic pond alongside the Ark. “What they need is some water to rush in and flood the thing periodically,” she says.
Entrance to the Ark is staged. We walk through a crowd control cattle shoot under videos of Noah building his Ark. A heathen woman wearing maroon face paint and her heathen boyfriend scoff at Noah and his gloomy forecast. There are wooden crates and earthenware jugs on the floor around us, as if we’re here for move-in day and Noah’s still unpacking. At the top of the ramp we pose to have our picture taken in front of a green screen. I ask the photographer what exactly will be in the background. (I’m hoping it’s heathens drowning in the waves.) We’ll have a choice, he tells us. The photo will be waiting for us in the gift shop.
And then? We step into the Ark! We walk through a hall lined with racks of small wooden animal enclosures. The first thing I notice is the sound — birds squawk and waves crash. We’re riding the waves of The Flood!
And it’s exotic! I know this because the Ark has an Orientalist playlist. A drumbeat pulses, and then the whine of a flute. Strings soar in a minor key and a voice sings something vaguely “Arab.” “This sounds like the soundtrack to The Mummy,” I say to Meredith. We look up and see speakers at every column meeting the decks. It’s not quite loud, but it’s insistent.
We’re on Deck One. (There are three in total.) There are no windows inside the Ark and no observation deck, but there are skylights that illuminate the center of the structure. Old-timey lamps hang in the hallways between the enclosures along the sides and the central displays. Riley and I agree the space inside is more open than we anticipated. Everything is made of wood or rope or canvas. There’s a sepia-toned sameness to the displays that is occasionally punctuated by red or blue clothing on Noah and his family, or the green plants inside Noah’s living quarters, or the murals and dioramas of the exhibitions. But on Deck One, the animal enclosures are dim, all except the enclosure that contains what resemble velociraptors.
“Is that a raptor?” a boy asks his father. I’d like to know myself. None of the animals are identified by name. It’s a pity; the workmanship on the models is excellent. The Ark’s website showed video of the artists — who are never credited onboard the Ark — making replicas of extinct mega-fauna. And so I was looking forward to learning the names of large animals that had disappeared from the Earth. (The irony is that 25 miles away, in Big Bone Lick, modern paleontology got its start with the discovery of mastodon bones in 1793.) I’m also disappointed. I expected the Ham team to make replicas of all 7,000 animal pairs they claim were onboard the Ark. But the smaller cages are all empty.
“You thought this would be educational?” Travis asks from under his Creation Museum hat. He’s looking at me the same way the heathen’s boyfriend looked at Noah.
Full disclosure: I am a heathen. But I am open-minded. Reading the displays onboard, I learn that Noah didn’t need to take marine creatures on the Ark. That makes sense; they could swim. I learn that God sent Noah juvenile dinosaurs and megafauna, because they would fit better into the Ark. Fine. I learn that Noah only needed a pair of every kind of animal on the planet. ‘Kind’ here corresponds with the taxonomic category of family. So Noah didn’t need to bring wolves, coyotes, dingoes, etc. He only needed two of the “dog kind.”
It seems like a cop-out, but AIG does that. They use the past to explain the present and the present to explain the past in a dizzying scientism all their own. According to AIG, the Ark voyagers disembarked to a vastly different Earth from the one they had known before. Bears went to the poles and became, you got it, polar bears. Riley sums it up best when she asks, “So there is adaptation but not evolution?” Yes, Riley’s a smart cookie. She wants to talk about carbon dating, but we tell her to cut it out.
* * *
The sound of Brendan Frasier fighting off the mummy army lures us to the Ark’s upper decks. Traffic piles up behind the Ark-goers riding mobility scooters. They hang back at the entrances to exhibits, inching forward in a polite yet insistent way. (I hope the zip line will be able to accommodate them.) Like everyone else, they want to get into the Ark’s special exhibits. Textual analysis has led AIG to deduce that Noah must have had a workshop. (Its display includes a very buff Noah sawing wood.) And there was a wastewater removal system. The Ark Technology display is so popular we abandon hope of getting into it. We learn how the Flood affected the fossil record and linguistic history. We learn about other religious accounts of devastating floods; AIG tells us the Bible’s Ark was the only seaworthy vessel among the lot, ergo their Flood is the only one that really happened. The entrance to Noah’s living quarters is marked with a coy note about how the women onboard the Ark aren’t named in the Bible — AIG ringing true, for once — but it seems the ladies were OK with birds. Wooden birdcages line the wall of Noah’s bedroom, floor to ceiling.
We round the corner to find a kind of theosophy nook beside the Ark’s loading dock. A few placards hang on the wall. “How could a benevolent God destroy his creatures?,” they ask. This instantly becomes my favorite place inside the Ark. It’s bleak, and it doesn’t invite lingering. You would think there would be a bench.
After all, the Ark Encounter is about teachable moments. Ham’s reasoning for building the life-size model was to give kids a “real” Ark and not one of the “fairy tale” play Arks that they see in toy stores. Indeed, there is a children’s exhibit in the Ark that displays such offending, “fairy tale” children’s books, which Ham considers “dangerous to children’s spiritual well-being.” The original Ark encounter was not a fun time for Noah and his animal buddies, goes the logic, so we shouldn’t trivialize the event for children’s consumption.
Of course, to many of us a “life-size” Ark is just as make-believe as a small one. It’s a little like thinking that if you build a life-size Magic Kingdom, it will make the creatures of Walt Disney’s imagination real. The only people who might succumb to such fantasies are, in fact, children. And maybe it’s for the children that Ham has built his Ark. Everywhere inside the Ark we see parents and grandparents having conversations with kids about God and the history of the world. “And on what day did God create man?” a grandfather asks a little girl outside The Flood display. “The sixth!” She beams up at him. Elsewhere, I hear a man talking to a boy about the equator and polar shifts. A grandparent points out the vegetables Noah kept in his larder; he shows the boy the light source for the vegetables is the Ark skylight.
Ham’s genius is in creating places where fundamentalist Christians can get together, safe from the moral superiority of liberals and atheists. (A wristband available in the Ark gift store reads “Iamnotashamed.org.”) Bill Nye’s take on the Ark is that what could be a charming piece of Americana is being used as a dangerous tool for brainwashing kids. It’s funny that both Ham and Nye are concerned with what’s ‘dangerous’ for kids. Parents brainwash their kids into their views on politics, sports, entertainment, sexuality, you name it. Growing up means coming to terms with the stories our parents — and people like Ham and Nye — told us. Many people to whom religion was force-fed when they were children walk away from the church as adults. We all pick and choose stories to give our lives meaning. We’re all a little crazy. And religious crazy is an important part of our national project. So get over it.
Is the Ark dangerous? I don’t think so. Let’s assume that having a shared knowledge of science is the most important part of being an informed citizen today — and if you read this site regularly, I think you should take issue with that assumption; the Ark is not asking parents to stop vaccinating their children. Biblical literalism isn’t going to change the scientific consensus on climate change. It might bolster the argument.
How much ignorance can a free society tolerate? Why is it more important to know the name Galileo than Picasso? How many of us can appreciate Western canonical literature and art without googling the Biblical references? Would we prefer for our children be smart rather than kind? These are the questions the Ark raises, but does not ask outright, let alone answer.
Still, the Ark in real-time takes a toll on this non-believer. On Deck Three there is an excellent exhibit on the history of the Bible, but we’re too tired. Somewhere on Deck Two, we lost steam. The mental gymnastics required to read the exhibit displays wore us out. We have faith in our narrator. “I’m done,” Meredith says, and we all agree. We head to the gift shop, where we’re surprised to find a wide selection of Fair Trade merchandise. The Ark soundtrack plays here and in the ladies’ room nearby. Travis buys some T-shirts and a cubit-length measuring stick.
Outside the gift shop, Molly, who has kept her mouth shut the entire time, delivers the understatement of the day: “That was weird,” she says.
The five of us head to the petting zoo, where, as Meredith predicted, they have goats. We have lunch at Emzala’s, a 1,500-seat fast food restaurant that stands opposite the Ark. We line up to order pizzas and chicken fingers to the sound of the never-ending Mummy music. (Don’t get the French fries.) We sit on the outside upper deck and talk about what more the park could add. Riley and I agree the place needs a passion play, a really gory one. What will it be like during the school year? How will attendance wane?
So this is what $100 million and a vision will get you. Whatever happens to Ken Ham and AIG, the ark park is in Kentucky for good — come hell or high water. Will I got back? Probably not. Did we have fun? Not exactly, but we all agree it was an experience.