In the Commonwealth of Kentucky, the construction of Ark Encounter, or “Ark Park” as it has become informally known, has commenced. Marketed as “edu-tainment,” the theme park, based on the Noah narrative in the Hebrew scriptures, will be, according to the website, “the largest timber-frame structure in the USA.” The first phase of the construction promises a three-tiered ark structure with multimedia technologies, live mammals and birds; and will present a number of historically accurate events. (I italicize historically accurate simply to denote the complexity and controversy of such statements.) The park itself is the new project of Answers in Genesis, the organization famous for the Creation Museum. The president/CEO of Answers in Genesis, young earth creationist Ken Ham, garnered nation attention when he and Bill Nye televised a public debate early this year.
The planning of the park is not without its controversies, especially within the separation of church and state debate. Americans United has questioned the legality of tax incentives granted to the park by the Commonwealth of Kentucky. They have available quite an extensive listing of blog posts critiquing the tax breaks. And Ken Ham has taken to twitter and the Ark Encounter website to publicly address the concerns. The dialogue has gotten somewhat nasty with Ham blaming atheists for many of the challenges, financial and legal, which the venture is facing.
Dr. James Bielo has conducted ethnographic research with the planning committee of the park and wrote a new post at The Imminent Frame describing the park and the marketing intentions. The article is well worth the read, as Bielo examines the park through the lens of “religious publicity.” I find the idea of religious publicity interesting in understanding the Ark Park at multiple levels. In a previous blog post, I discussed public displays of religiosity, focusing most of my attention on billboards with religious messages. Within the post, I referred to the religious messages as non-contextual theology due to the fact that many of the billboards largely quote partial texts. Additionally, I questioned whom the billboards targeted with their messages. Bielo acknowledges the public nature of the large wooden structure and the fact that the construction of such a formation displays a public message against competing scientific theories and notions of a secular society. But beyond simple religious publicity, I think that the public nature of the Ark Park, the tax incentives from the Commonwealth, the final product, and the success or failure of the venture contributes to the legitimization or validation of the overall message of young earth creationists.
In many ways, the entire venture is a “if you build it, they will come” project. Like the flood narrative, the planners seem to sincerely believe that they have received a divine call to construct the ark. The rhetoric on the website to describe the initial construction is posited as an ancient biblical narrative: “The earth about to be moved for the ark” has a cosmic echo and “massive earth moving equipment is descending” gives the impression that that construction equipment has been provided by the divine. Like Noah, the planners are trusting their calling, planning the ark, fundraising, and starting the construction processes. Thus, just stepping out on faith to even attempt such an enterprise will be envisioned as success.
But think about how “success” will be further defined in such a building project. The first realm of true success will be the completion of the physical structure. The presence of the physical structure lends legitimacy to the biblical narrative for it now exists. After years of young earth creationists, who read the biblical narrative literally, have searched diligently for the actual remnants of Noah’s ark, the ark will be “discovered” – all the while in the hills of Kentucky. I mean to imply that the physical reality of the ark will actually exist in the contemporary world, but, for many of those who believe in the literal reading of the flood narrative, the reality of the ancient story will also fully exist, providing validation and permanency to the young earth creation theory and another level of appropriation of the story. Further, the physical space, the land near the interstate and the construction materials, will be Christianized or sacralized.
Another next level of success is financial validation. For if young earth creationist adherents did not “buy into the product,” does the product (the message, the (educational) theme parks, the religio-scientific theories which are all packaged together) fail or cease? This leads to multiple questions. In what way is capitalistic competition used to validate religio-scientific theories? In what way is patronage to such a religious publicity a pilgrimage for adherents? Most fundamentalist Christians typically disavow an individual prosperity gospel, which is usually perceived as an incorrect form of divine validation. Yet, if I am correct in the determinations of successes for the Ark Encounter venture, there seems to be a corporate prosperity gospel at play (although this would be largely unarticulated as such). Religious success will thus be validated by financial success. Moreover, the young earth creation theories will also receive legitimization by the financial contributions. And these successes might define who owns the narrative (at least in the perspective of young earth creationists).
We have witnessed a resurgence in the Noah narrative of late. The recent movie production proved successful at the box office, grossing over $300 million globally. Some were pleased with the the movie presentation on the big screen while others harbored frustrations at certain elements. But for young earth creationists, their opportunity to physically construct the ark, fashioning it in their understanding, is in the nascent stages. No matter what your opinions are regarding young earth creation theories or Ark Park, the level of agency embedded in religious fervor has to be assessed as remarkable.
Photo Attribution: Artist: Kaspar Memberger (I), Construction of Noah’s Ark circa 1555-1618. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons