The Ark Encounter project, a replica of Noah’s Ark built by “young earth” Creationist Ken Ham with the exact specifications from the Bible, opened yesterday in Kentucky with no shame about its evangelistic goals.
A producer for New York Public Radio called me up to ask my interest in commenting on it. She had found my book, Craft Brewed Jesus, on an internet search, and thought my opinion was a good fit. In the end I got quoted on their web page (see The Takeaway Show, Life-Size Noah’s Ark Opens to the Public), but here is what I had prepared to say if interviewed on air:
First, this is definitely a fascinating idea, to replicate Noah’s ark with the very dimensions spelled out in the book of Genesis. It has a lot of historical and educational potential. There’s an enormous appeal to see this thing up close and explore its implications just out of curiosity.
The trouble is, the Ark Encounter project does not have a pure historical and educational agenda. It has an overt religious agenda—to evangelize people; it clearly says it on their website, that this is “the greatest evangelistic outreach of our era of history.” An agenda to convert people to a literalist view of the Bible and a fundamentalist version of Christianity. The website encourages visitors to bring friends to “challenge them with the truth of God’s Word and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” This is indicative of modern American Christianity to do large scale events, grow mega churches, and use entertainment, politics, or calls for revival, and in this case a big-business theme park, to convert people to an exclusive religious system and worldview.
So, why is that a problem? First they are getting tax incentives to partially fund it, supposedly because it’s an economic development project that will create jobs. But the jobs are discriminating—employees must sign a fundamentalist Christian statement of faith. This seems unfair that they are favored by city and state government when their real agenda is religious. Religious agendas are fine as long as they are paid by private donations. The question is why is the state of Kentucky favoring this religious business venture with such overt evangelistic goals, when other government agencies would be prohibited from doing so? U.S. Aid prohibits faith-based nonprofits to which it gives grants from using funds for evangelistic purposes. The Ark project’s tax subsidies are like grants. The reason they get a pass is because in this case religion has gotten into the economic development business.
The second problem I see is the potential to open up great learning about ancient history and science is squelched in this project because they have such a narrow view of the Bible. I was in the evangelical movement for 25 years and know from experience how narrow biblicists operate. For example, my latest book is about how modern conservative Christianity fails Christian History 101. In this case, the Ark Encounter project fails Ancient History 101.
While there’s great potential to explore what the Noah story is all about, the Ark Encounter ignores biblical scholarship and misuses ancient history, not to mention science, to push their strict interpretation of the Bible and the age of the earth. They ignore the historical and linguistic evidence that Noah’s flood was most likely regional and no reason to think it was worldwide. Babylonian narratives speak of a Mesopotamian area flood about that time. The Hebrew text in Genesis and other OT passages show most modern English Bibles are mistranslated when they speak of a flood that covered “the earth.” The Hebrew word used in Genesis and other passages indicates a regional flooding, not the whole planet. Even some evangelical Christians argue this.
It would be so much more interesting and honest for such a project to be willing to encourage a discussion and debate about real ancient history, the mistranslations that sometimes occur in our Bibles, and the science that can help us make sense of the Noah’s flood story. And, if it would lose the evangelistic bent and just present the project with all the various historical, linguistic, biological, and geological evidence and let the chips fall where they may. If the Ark Encounter did that, I would be supportive of such a project. But the way it is now, it’s just another religious mega scheme to push fundamentalist faith. Your thoughts?