On Kentucky's Christmas List: Noah's Ark

At the beginning of the month, a news story appeared that went viral for about 72 hours regarding the state of Kentucky, a rare occurrence in the national media outside of college basketball season. The story concerned the governor of Kentucky, Steve Beshear, granting about $25 million in tax credits to a religious ministry constructing a Biblically-based theme park in Grant County, Ky. that will include a replica of Noah's Ark. The ministry behind the project, Answers in Genesis, is led by Ken Ham and is also responsible for the notable Creation Museum that also resides in Northern Kentucky, drawing almost half a million visitors according to its website. The current project known as 'Ark Encounter' will not only feature a Noah's Ark replica but also a Tower of Babel and assorted Biblically-themed attractions (The website states that the project will open in 2014 and even allows patrons to purchase a "plank" or a "peg" of the Ark in prices ranging from $100 to $5000).

The story was widely circulated for arguably two reasons: first, it serves as a conversation piece regarding the separation of church and state in this country. While it seems as if the line between the two entities is blurred, Gov. Beshear defended the tax incentives, stating that the state is not endorsing a religious worldview but is interested in creating the purported 900 jobs the project will support. Second, the story confirmed some general assumptions about the role of Christianity, especially Protestant Christianity, in the American South. That the state government seemingly endorsed a conservative evangelical group that proselytizes a literal reading of the Bible under the guise of "Biblical science" in the least furthers the national reputation of the South as the "Bible belt," and at the most portrays Kentucky as the buckle of the "Bible belt."

Following several editorials, including one from the Lexington Herald-Leader on December 3 (the state's second-largest newspaper) decrying the governor's decision on the basis that it cheapens the state's image and embraces the hostility towards scientific inquiry that Ham's group espouses, the story faded from the news cycle. When the story broke, it provided a serendipitous moment for the Religion courses I teach to liberal arts undergraduates; a "teachable moment" so to speak concerning religious discourse in our country. However, this story represents a teachable moment for all of us and should not fade from our collective memory too hastily. The story's importance can be witnessed in statements such as those provided by the Answers in Genesis group defending employee hiring for their new project based upon religious background: "There will be positions that will require Bible knowledge because ... we have certain things in there that are requiring biblical knowledge. That doesn't mean, though, if you don't have that you can't work over in the restaurant or some other part of the facility."

Not only does this statement glaringly prefer one qualified applicant over another on the basis of religion, but exactly what counts as Biblical knowledge for the group? Many Westerners have some familiarity with the creation story or the story of Noah and the ark due to cultural influences (take the film Evan Almighty for example where Steve Carell can be mistaken for Noah). Inarguably, the group endorses a specific theological approach to scripture, and would require its Ark emcees to embody a literal interpretation of the flood narrative in Genesis, and promote the idea that the Biblical event was indeed historical (words taken from the website). In the view of Answers in Genesis, any thought that contradicts Scripture, especially evolution, is invalidated. Scripture is the divining rod for truth, and this follows Protestant maxims such as sola scriptura as the supreme voice of authority promoted in the Creation Museum itself. One wonders then how this approach would translate to the subsequent event in Genesis of the Drunkenness of Noah (Gen 20-28) that perhaps could translate to lucrative alcohol sales in the park as well as featuring patriarchal nudity and potential incest.

While scholars such as myself can snicker at such non sequiturs, this should be treated with due seriousness given the demographic of the Creation Museum and the proposed Ark park. By using features such as dinosaurs, (children can even ride a triceratops adjacent to the Garden of Eden exhibit at the Creation Museum) Ham and his ministry have cleverly attracted visitors of a younger age to their exhibitions. Dinosaurs will even be featured at the new park seemingly for a similar purpose of drawing visitors. With such shrewd evangelistic techniques, Ham can preach his hostility towards science and endorse "Biblical science" to a young and growing audience. Creationism under the label "intelligent design" or otherwise is nascent among young and old in our country today. Many of our elected representatives exhibit a similar hostility towards evolution that reflects their constituent base. A Gallup poll conducted on the general opinion towards creationist viewpoints in 1991 and 1997 suggests that creationism, even a watered-down version, is preferred by almost half those polled. While this poll is dated, if a referendum were held on which theory should be endorsed today, evolution would likely be bruised and battered.

The trend of Biblical literalism should be countered not with rival Jurassic Parks but with the realization that the Bible is not a science or history book. The Bible is merely a set of narratives and stories that reflect a relationship between humanity and the divine. The flood narrative in particular that will inspire the building of an Ark in Kentucky has a correlation in other near Eastern texts such as the Epic of Gilgamesh that contribute to a more localized "deluge theory" in Mesopotamia and exhibit the power of storytelling in ancient society. Such an approach does not denigrate the importance of the Bible for believers or non-believers. "Story" and "Myth" are not slanderous accusations when applied to the Bible, inferring that they are "untrue." The holiday season provides a most prescient example, as this is the time rife with the re-telling of the birth narrative of Jesus from the gospels of Matthew and Luke that are usually mashed together into one Christmas pageant filled with magi and shepherds. But even the magi that appear in Matthew prominently exhibit the power of storytelling and suggest that Ham's Answer in Genesis ministry misses the point. The author of Matthew never specifies how many magi there were, subsequently labeled the "three" magi due to the number of their gifts. The story became so popular in early Christianity that names were duly attached to the three magi: Melchior, Gaspar and Balthazar. And the popularity of the story manifested itself physically as the purported remains of the three magi lie in repose today at Cologne Cathedral in Germany. The magi jumped out of the story and into history, not due to its historical authenticity or its prophetic justification of the birth of a messiah, but due to the fact it was a good story. It was a story that hid the deeper relevance the magi embodied in the narrative as their three gifts (gold, frankincense and myrrh) foreshadow the life and death of Jesus. If the Bible serves as a mirror, and reveals more about us than of anything else, then the recent episode in Kentucky suggests we should be listening more intently to the stories from scripture, and not constructing Arks or ironic Towers of Babel around it. Perhaps then would the literalism movement dissipate, as readers realize the narrowing shackles such an approach places upon the Bible.