A Species of Origins

By  |  June 30, 2014
Photograph by Dean Jeffrey. Photograph by Dean Jeffrey.

The dinosaur billboards start appearing around Chicago: THE BLAZING BRACHIOSAURUS, THE SWIFT PTERODACTYL. We see them throughout Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio. The illustrations are vintage comic book: colorful, muscular animals bursting out of the confines of the frame. Sauropod necks stretch down toward the street. A triceratops bolts headlong into the blue, ready to pounce on an oncoming car. Their names are stamped in block text, bold and bright and selectively alliterative. THE MIGHTY MASTODON, THE SUPER RAPTOR.

“Why not the Rapacious Raptor?” asks my boyfriend, Barrett, who is along for the ride. “Or the Rapturous Raptor?” It’s ninety-eight degrees outside, and we’re driving my Lincoln Continental, windows down to supplement the lukewarm air-conditioning. Both of us are starting to get a bit batty from the heat.

“Or the raptured raptor,” I say.

“Raptured?” he shouts over the wind.

“Taken by God. Raptured.”

He absently tugs at his beard and says, after a moment, “So that’s what happened to the dinosaurs.”

Imagine the Ark in all its glory: an ancient ship, built of pine, fir, and cedar, rising out of the hills of Northern Kentucky. It will be taller than the Giza pyramids, longer than an American football field by a good one hundred feet, and shaped like a cargo ship, with a cambered roof and a small stern projection like a rudder. On board, there will be animals: zebras and monkeys, alligators and ostriches. The robotic beasts will appear incredibly life-like, with roving eyes and real fur and iridescent scales of molded foam rubber. The ship will sit on 800 acres of bluegrass near I-75, the busiest North-South interstate in the nation, but it won’t be visible from the highway. This is intentional. Ken Ham, the Australian visionary behind the Creation Museum, claims that the whole point of the Ark Encounter is for people to encounter it (as the name suggests)—to have an experience with the historic truth it represents. This can’t happen if commuters are just gawking at the ship from the their cars during rush hour gridlock. The Ark is a boat that can change lives, a boat that has the power to prove God’s word is the truth. It’s also a 73 million dollar project, slated to open in 2016, with construction beginning this year.

I’ll be the first to acknowledge there are few things more odious than the marriage of evangelism and big-budget productions. But when I first heard about the Ark Encounter while surfing around the Christian blogosphere (as we former believers are apt to do), some atavistic part of me was fascinated with the project. Ken Ham used to be a celebrity to me. Back in the ’90s, long before the Creation Museum came into being, my homeschool group would get together to watch videos of his seminars for the Institute for Creation Research: lectures about how the dinosaurs became extinct (humans killed them) or why the platypus sinks the whole theory of evolution. This was when he was in his early forties, sporting overgrown Abe Lincoln chops that made his face seem remarkably (and unfortunately) simian. He managed to strike us kids as a trustworthy-enough source, delivering factoids in his cool Aussie accent. He was an avuncular science guru—the fundamentalist response to Bill Nye, minus the bowtie and the zany fun. Incidentally, Ham faced off against Nye earlier this year, in a webcasted debate about the merits of creation science. Many commentators noted that the debate was over long before it started, citing Nye’s willingness to engage with creationism as a legitimate scientific position. As one writer noted in The Daily Beast, “Ham won this debate months ago, when Nye agreed to participate.”  

My siblings and I were your typical young-earth creationist kids. Our parents homeschooled us so that we wouldn’t be exposed to things like evolutionary biology, and took us to summer camps where we were taught how to debate “secular science.” I wasn’t allowed to see The Land Before Time because it alluded to the earth being billions of years old. By eight, I had memorized ocean salinity stats to persuade unsaved kids that the earth couldn’t possibly be more than 6,000 years old. By twelve, I knew to raise my hand whenever someone mentioned “millions of years” and say, “Excuse me, Sir/Madam: Were you there?”

Noah’s Ark is the story most frequently ridiculed by opponents of biblical literalism, and the Ark Encounter is designed to demonstrate that it was indeed possible for a ship of this size to hold two of every kind of animal living today, plus those that are now extinct, like the dodo and the quagga—not to mention the Blazing Brachiosaurus, the Mighty Mastodon, and the Super Raptor.

My parents, who’ve visited the Creation Museum many times since it opened in 2007, have been urging me to visit the museum for years, suggesting that I might find it “interesting” (read: conversion-inspiring). And my Facebook feed is perennially littered with posts from my old Moody Bible Institute friends claiming the museum is “powerful” and “faith-affirming.” But it wasn’t until the Creation Museum announced it would be holding an information session on the Ark Encounter and that Ken Ham would be there in the flesh, accompanied by the ark design team, that I finally got up the courage to head South for a few days and see what all the fuss was about. 

The museum is less than a mile off the exit, on an otherwise empty country road. It’s a low, militant-looking building, with the smoke-tinted windows of a corporate office park. Security guards in aviators and khaki uniforms stand outside each of the entrances.

“I thought this place was supposed to be huge,” Barrett says.

“Maybe there’s more buildings,” I say, gathering my things.

“What kind of museum has armed security outside?”

“They’re not armed.”

“He’s got a gun on his hip.”

“It’s probably a Taser.”

“He’s got a Taser and a gun. Look.”

It’s Saturday morning, and I have Barrett drop me off at the back of the parking lot, mostly because I need a few minutes to mentally prepare myself for the museum. Already, there are the bumper stickers (“Even Jesus Had a Fish Story”), and the church buses, and the fifteen-passenger, converted cargo vans favored by families with more than six children (my folks had one throughout my teen years). Already, there are kids in those t-shirts—the ones emblazoned with familiar logos that, upon closer inspection, turn out to be evangelical knock-offs. (The Hunger Games is actually “Hunger for God.” One girl’s shirt has the Apple logo, but the caption reads “iTrust.”)

Legacy Hall, the museum’s main auditorium, is a sleek windowless room that seats about a thousand. On this day it’s not quite at capacity, but it seems overflowing with humanity. All around me, there are men with fresh crew cuts, women with self-tinting prescription glasses, and teenagers so behind mainstream fashion they could be mistaken for hipsters in their high-waisted jeans and Ukrainian crown braids. When Ken walks up to the podium, there’s no applause or cheering, but the sound of conversations dissolves to whispers. After welcoming the crowd, he says he wants to begin with something that’s kind of difficult to say. It’s difficult to say because America has been the greatest Christian nation on earth. We have the largest number of churches, Bible colleges, seminaries, and Christian bookshops in the world. “But it’s true that when you look at the structure in America,” he says, “it’s becoming less and less Christian every day. We’ve entered an era of cultural relativism.”

The first part of his talk is a ballistic CliffNoted version of a speech I’ve heard pastors give hundreds of times, the gist of which is that the advent of postmodernism in America has destroyed the authority of God’s Word. Ken’s special take on this dilemma is that relativism has gone so far as to infiltrate Christianity itself: just as the secular world has taken liberties with absolute truth, so the church has found creative loopholes within scripture, in order to believe whatever they want to believe.  

Ken looks down and shifts through his notes. “People say to me, ‘Ken, why Noah’s Ark?’ Well, the Ark continues to capture the imagination of the general public. In fact, the Flood is one of the few historical events which is well known in almost all cultures and religions.” (Much of the Ark Encounter’s publicity materials contain similar references to the “worldwide flood myth.” It’s the kind of strategic faux-pluralism commonly used by evangelical organizations in public discourse). The Ark also happens to be the perfect tool for evangelism. In addition to the story being a literal event that took place here on earth, Ken says, the flood was also intended to be a metaphor about salvation. I vaguely recall this interpretation from my Bible college days: In John 10, Paul refers to Christ as “the door” through which we pass to salvation. Noah and his family were saved by walking through the door of the ark. We too can be saved through faith in Jesus Christ.

Ken shows some video clips that use sweeping CGI shots to give us a better sense of the scope of the ark, then puts up a colorful illustration of the entire park, which looks like nothing so much as a page from Where’s Waldo?—the cartoonish Boschian chaos. The Ark is merely the first stage of the project. Plans have already been made to phase-in future attractions, event venues, theaters. There will be a parade of live animals outside the ark, where an actor playing Noah will lead the menagerie on board while his pagan neighbors heckle and ridicule him. There will also be a Tower of Babel, a Ten Plagues Ride, and a recreated Noah’s village that will include “live pagan entertainment.”

Ken introduces the Ark design team: Pat Marsh, the art director, used to work for Universal Studios, where he designed the Jaws and King Kong attractions. The head illustrator John Taylor did projects for Mattel, Fisher Price, and Milton-Bradley. For the most part, this is the same design team that helped develop the Creation Museum. As a way of praising his designers, Ken notes that a number of secular visitors have been disturbed by the quality of the museum. “One of them went home and wrote an article,” he says. “And he said in that article, ‘That place is dangerous. It’s so well done; kids are going to believe it!’”

The auditorium erupts in applause, hooting and hollering more emphatically than they have all morning. I glance around the theater to see if anyone else is baffled by this response. According to Ken’s anecdote, the visitor was making an observation about the design quality—a specious sleekness that might succeed in fooling a child. But judging by the tenor of the cheers (the exasperated eye-rolls, the muttered can you just believe that?), the crowd is applauding the triumph of creation science itself. It’s as if everyone is tacitly agreeing that there’s no distinction between truth and the quality of its presentation.

The Lord’s Day vibe at the Creation Museum is remarkably different from the Saturday crowds. When I come back on Sunday, the place is near-empty. Noah’s Coffee and the ice cream stand closed early in the afternoon, and there are fluffy harp hymns piped into the exhibits, like an apology for the silence. The museum workers are visibly relaxed, joking with one another and eager to talk to guests. And Barrett, bursting with confidence, poster-product of the American public schooling system, is wandering up to complete strangers and starting conversations. Every time I leave his side—to go to the restroom, or wander off to the next exhibit—I come back to find him chatting up the staffers. We meet Joyce and Greg, a fifty-something couple wearing the museum uniform of khaki excavator vests and safari hats. They’re originally from Portland, Oregon, but moved out to Kentucky just “to be a part of all this,” including the upcoming Ark Encounter. Years ago, they worked for the Holy Land Experience in Orlando (“before it got bought out by TBN,” Joyce is careful to add), and did some work with Campus Crusade. “We think Ken is just great,” Joyce says. “He’s like a modern-day Josiah, getting people back into the Word.”

One of the central exhibits of the museum is a series of tableaux about the origins of the world. The much-hyped Garden of Eden turns out to be an explosion of fake greenery that, like most biblical utopias (Heaven, the promised land, the millennial earth), seems suffocating in its unmitigated perfection. The animatronic Adam and Eve are swarmed with friendly animals, while a T-Rex looms in the corner, chomping on leaves (since there was no death in the pre-Fall world, it goes without saying that all animals were originally herbivores). Barrett wants to know why, if Adam and Eve were not ashamed of their nakedness, the mannequins’ private parts are strategically covered by apple blossoms, and I have to explain that even though the silicone Adam and Eve are sexual innocents, the museum patrons are regular old fallen humans who might be more than a little aroused by extremely life-like nude animatronics. The exhibits are somewhere in the ballpark of Disney-caliber, but they’re also odd and campy (there are exhibit signs that read, Thou Shalt Not Touch, Please!).

According to the exhibit, the Fall ushered in not only death and suffering, but such specific phenomena as genetic mutations, excessive cell reproduction rates (leading to cancer), and parasitism. Once sin entered the world, animals began overproducing in order to replace the ones killed off by diseases and predators and, as a result of this, even horticulture changed. In the Garden of Eden, plants produced only the amount of food necessitated by animal diets. However, after the Fall, when animals proliferated, God introduced overproduction of plants, resulting in weeds. In fact—this is something I hadn’t heard before—even human intelligence was tainted, over time, by the Fall. Adam and his descendants had a brain capacity that surpassed that of any human living today. This explains how Noah was able to use ship-building technology that wasn’t around until centuries after the flood.

As I browse the exhibits, it becomes clear that in the decades since I was a kid, creationists have evolved into a more sophisticated species, particularly in their efforts to reconcile scripture with empirical, observable evidence. Their methods are far from scientific, but there’s a willingness to compete with legitimate science that wasn’t present in the past. It’s not so much anti-intellectualism as it is intellectualism conceived on another planet, by scientists stoned on hallucinogens, watching reruns of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. Creationists now have their own research institutes and their own peer-reviewed journals that feature articles like “Emergentism and the Rejection of Spirit Entities: A Response to Christian Physicalists.”

As someone who grew up immersed in creationism, I never thought about whether it was an attractive worldview—it was simply the Truth. Ironically, it was only after I stopped believing in God—for unrelated reasons—that I began to regard creationism as a deeply seductive belief system. After I dropped out of Moody Bible Institute, I read Richard Feynman and Stephen Jay Gould, and as I confronted the specter of a universe determined by phenomena as bizarre as virtual particles and Boltzmann brains, I often felt a pang of nostalgia for the elegance of the Genesis narrative. The truth is that even when it’s dressed up in pseudo-scientific jargon, creationism’s appeal lies in its delicious simplicity. It presents the kind of tidy framework physicists dream about: a unified theory of everything—and one that hasn’t been revised in 6,000 years. By the time I got around to the books of Brian Greene, by contrast, people were already debating whether string theory had been debunked by the Large Hadron Collider.

Real science is mind-bogglingly complex and beginning to sound more and more like science fiction (multiverses, spiritual machines). The pressing questions about the origins of the universe have moved from the realm of biology (user-friendly, fun) to that of physics (arcane, counterintuitive), and this shift is coinciding—at least in this country—with shortening attention spans, at a time when truth often gets confused with the most pithy sound-bite. Creationism, which relies on oversimplified, passionate appeals to common sense, might actually have an adaptive edge in this climate.

One of the museum’s most recent additions, the Lucy exhibit, is designed to provide a creationist perspective on the famous bipedal hominid unearthed in 1974—one of the most definitive pieces of evidence that humans descended from apes. Up on the wall, there’s a large plaque with the title STARTING POINTS SHAPE OUR INTERPRETATION OF THE EVIDENCE. On the other side of the room, under a glass box, there is a reconstructed skin-and-hair model of the creationist version of Lucy. Instead of standing upright, as she’s normally shown, the model is hunched in the classic knuckle-dragging pose and covered in hair. When you step to the side of the box, ghostly blue holographic bones appear beneath her skin, showing how the skeleton that was discovered was incomplete. The point is that researchers use significant “artistic license” to put flesh to the bones of their discoveries.

I turn back to the exhibit hall to look for Barrett and find him cornered by a tall gangly man in a green t-shirt. The two of them are standing beneath the STARTING POINTS plaque.

“So you’re operating from the premise that Christianity is a bias,” Barrett says, gesturing to the text above them.

“I don’t admit that it’s a bias,” the man says. “I said that it’s a starting point. Those are two very different things.” He’s wearing a crew-neck shirt bearing the ill-advised Bob Jones University acronym: BJU. He has deeply bronzed skin and a smile that looks catalog-bought. I hang back, pretending to look at the Lucy model, hoping to eavesdrop on their conversation.

“Well, what’s your definition of a starting point?” Barrett asks.

“Listen,” the guy says, in a low, but measured tone. “You and I, we both have the same evidence. We live on the same earth, correct?”

Barrett seems to pause for a split second, then says, “OK.”

“But how we interpret that evidence differs based on our worldview.”

“That’s relativism.”

The man gives out a low laugh. “No, sir. That is not relativism.”

“If truth is dependent on—”

“Listen, listen, listen. You’re confusing my argument.”

“I don’t think I’m confusing it at all. The Bible is one starting point, Darwin is another.”

At that moment, something happens that isn’t, I suppose, all that surprising. I forget which side I’m on. “The Bible is from the Creator, though,” I say.

The man turns around and barely registers my presence before pointing at me. “Bingo.”

Barrett looks at me like I’ve just shown him a heretofore concealed swastika tattoo.

“He’s not saying there are no absolutes,” I tell him. “He’s just saying that your interpretation of physical evidence is going to be incorrect if you don’t accept the Bible as the truth.”

“So your starting point is the Truth,” Barrett says, looking slowly from me to the man, then back again. “You’ve already decided what reality is.”

“We didn’t decide,” the man says. “God decided. He’s the Creator. He was there, in the beginning. Were you there in the beginning of the world?”

“No,” Barrett says. He keeps looking at me with the deflated gaze of the betrayed. I turn toward the next exhibit, hoping he’ll follow me, but instead he launches into what I can already tell is a doomed line of argument: questioning the veracity of scripture itself. He points out that the Genesis story was based on Egyptian creation myths.

The man winces. “Come on, now. You honestly believe that?”

“It’s not what I believe,” Barrett says. “It’s the truth. Read any historian—”

“Any secular historian.”

“These are people who’ve devoted their lives to studying primary sources and publish their results in peer-reviewed journals—”

“I have my sources too.”

“—and have advanced degrees and work for research foundations that—”

“So do my sources.”

“—are known around the world . . .”

The man smiles at me with a kind of long-suffering good-humor, as if we’re the only two reasonable people in this conversation. He squeezes Barrett’s shoulder and I realize suddenly in this gesture, in its assured familiarity, that he’s a pastor. He glances at me as he turns to leave. “Try and talk some sense into this guy, will you?”

After picking at a Fossil Cake (the museum’s version of funnel cake), Barrett and I find ourselves veering into the lobby theater to see a showing of Global Warming: A Scientific and Biblical Exposé of Climate Change. It appears to be a pretty traditional science documentary, like something that might have been shown on the Discovery Channel circa 1995 (before the slogan changed from “Explore Your World” to “Entertain Your Brain”). Interviews with scientists are spliced with pedestrian footage of flowers blooming, waves crashing on amber sand. The scientists are, at first glance, more credible than I expected them to be. Most have a “Dr.” in front of their name, and belong to institutions that, while obscure, sound like more than mere degree mills. One of them, Dr. Roy Spencer, is a former NASA climatologist who claims, “There isn’t anybody I know today that doesn’t agree that we are unusually warm right now.” Just as I’m beginning to wonder if perhaps the filmmakers misunderstood the word “exposé,” the shot of Dr. Spencer stalls in a freeze-frame, and the narrator’s ominous voice says, “But that’s where the agreement amongst scientists ends.”

“That’s right,” whispers one of the women in front of us. Barrett and I are seated behind a row of about a dozen fifty-something women clutching Vera Bradley. These women are incredibly vocal throughout the film, offering Pentecostal-like affirmations after every sound bite.

The scientists argue that the current warmth has nothing to do with human culpability and take turns providing alternate theories: sunspots, changes in the ocean circulation, and fluctuations in our wind systems might all be culprits for the warmth. “There’s something going on with sunlight that we don’t understand,” says Dr. Spencer.

Many of the scientists take jabs at An Inconvenient Truth (one refers to it as a “Al Gore’s crockumentary,” which receives a gleeful round of applause from the Amen Corner) for its “doomsday scenarios” and its use of “dramatic footage” of glaciers melting and rising sea levels. Climate change, in other words, is mere media hype—a sensational narrative news networks play up in order to keep eyeballs locked on their product.

Then the video takes an unexpected turn. There’s footage of Cambodia, South Africa, Albania—canvas tents and dung-fires and ectomorphically bloated children. The narrator informs us that one million Africans die each year because of lack of access to electricity. The reason? Western environmentalists have convinced their governments to prevent the construction of hydroelectric dams. “We’re sacrificing the poor on the altar of radical environmentalism,” says one of the scientists. The film ends with God’s promise to Noah in Genesis 8:22: “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat and winter and summer, day and night, shall not cease.”

As the theater lights come on and people begin filing out of their rows, Barrett and I just sit there, blinking away the brightness, listening to the dwindling voices of the other patrons.

While the earth remains.

As we sit in the emptying theater, I realize what was missing from the film—not the beginning, but the end. After all, believers know that a worldwide catastrophe is, without a doubt, coming. It’s not preached much from the pulpit these days, but my Christian friends and family members often remind me that God will return to destroy the world. The gospel of Luke says, “Just as it was in the days of Noah, so too it will be in the days of the coming of the Son of Man.” Of course, evangelicals believe that by the time the apocalypse hits, the followers of Jesus will have been raptured, taken away to heaven. Like Noah and his family, they will be plucked out of the chaos and allowed to watch from a safe distance as God destroys the earth: the plants and animals, the mountains and the seas, the rivers and the deserts. All of it consumed by fire. If this is how the world ends—if God has such little regard for his own creation—then why should his followers bother trying to preserve it? Perhaps this is why creationists can so breezily dismiss the realities of climate change.

Still, it seems like a stroke of cosmic irony that Ken is building an ark—a symbol of global catastrophe—at a moment when our seawaters are rising and environmental disasters of a biblical scale are becoming a real possibility. 

Outside the Creation Museum, dark rafts of cumulous clouds are amassing in the distant sky, threatening a storm. We get in the car, and Barrett slumps in the passenger seat, dejected. As we pull onto the highway, we drive past parched farmland, fields gone sallow from the recent drought. He flips through some of the museum’s promotional brochures before tossing the glossy pamphlets into the backseat. “I don’t understand why Ken is even bothering to build the ark. Why does he need to spend all this money and waste all these resources to prove something he already knows is true?” 

“It’s not for him,” I say. “He’s making it for people like us. So we’ll come here all skeptical and be converted by the truth.”

“You think that’ll happen?”

“To me?”

“To anyone.”

I’d like to say no, but I’m not so sure. Ken is fond of ranting against the evils of postmodern relativism, where opinion carries more weight than fact, and evidence is subject to interpretation. Yet this is precisely the environment that allows pre-Enlightenment thinking like creationism to thrive. If Ken Ham’s worldview is considered a viable product in the marketplace of ideas, it’s because ours is a culture that has lost faith in objective authority—one where opinions are swayed not by the integrity of the argument but by the pyrotechnics of its presentation.

When I was a kid, the church saw itself in opposition to this sort of relativism—an island amid a sea of shifting truths. And I suppose that in coming to the Creation Museum, the backwater fringe of evangelicalism, I’d expected to find some remnant of this older, near-extinct form of Christianity—one unconcerned with passing fashions, one that was secure in the mysteries of scripture. Instead, I found the church’s latest attempt to bewitch unbelievers with glitzy multi-million-dollar productions. Evangelicals like to claim that theirs is a religion of immutable absolutes, and yet attractions like the Ark Encounter belie the church’s increasing willingness to engage in the kind of market-driven natural selection that increasingly determines “truth” in our culture—call it the survival of the slickest. It’s a worldview that precludes the very possibility of inconvenient truths.

As we head north, I roll down the windows. The sky has gone black, and the air possesses the damp coolness of the hours that precede a storm. But as we continue our drive home, the sky clears, and night falls, and days pass before the rain finally comes.

Meghan O'Gieblyn lives in Madison, Wisconsin. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Guernica, Indiana Review, and The Point, and was selected for Longform's Best Essays of 2011.