One of my favorite pieces of classical music is the one-act opera Noye’s Fludde, created by the British composer Benjamin Britten. The opera is based on the fifteenth-century Chester “mystery” or “miracle” play that recounts the biblical story of Noah, the flood, and the Ark. Featured in the opera is a large chorus consisting of children of all ages and sizes who represent the pairs of animals who march into and out of the Ark, and the numerous unconventional and exotic instruments that provide particular musical effects: bugle fanfares for the animals; handbell chimes for the rainbow; various improvisations to replicate musically the sounds of the storm; and “Slung Mugs,”(cups and mugs of various size and thickness that are slung on string by their handles in order to form a rough scale and in the opera were hit with wooden spoons to produce the sound of the first raindrops hitting the roof of the Ark.) The music is inspirational, the design is brilliant, and the entire production is charming.
But it is not for the charm, or for the design, or even for the inspiration of Noye’s Fludde that I write this article. No. The reason for my writing is because a Bible-themed park, featuring a full-size version of Noah’s Ark will shortly be nestled in the rolling, green hills of tiny Williamstown, Kentucky, arguably one of the more unlikely places on the face of the Earth for such a bizarre project to exist.
Ark Encounter, as the attraction is called, will open 7 July. According to Ken Ham, whose project this is, the Ark is two football fields in length, eighty-five feet in width and eight stories in height. Ark Encounter is just forty-five minutes from Creation Museum, another venture by Ken Ham, which attracts nearly half a million visitors a year and teaches a young-Earth theory of creation. Ham calls his ministry, Answers in Genesis. The Ark is part of an 800-acre property, a portion of which is dedicated to a theme park that will feature a zoo, camel rides, multiple restaurants, and thousands of feet of high-speed zip lines. Ark Encounter is Ham’s Shangri-La, an extravagant vanity project born out of his boundless narcissism and ambition. And that should not surprise anyone familiar with his shtick. Ham, an Australian-born entrepreneur, is as much a showman as he is an evangelist; a preacher who proclaims a twisted gospel, born out of what only can be called biblical ignorance. Ham wants the public to view Ark Encounter as a delightful amusement park doubling as a religious experience.
Families will be able to frolic in Ark Encounter’s other offerings – an ambitious collection of “historically authentic” attractions. (Please note the quotation marks.) These attractions will include a replica of the Tower of Babel, described in the Book of Genesis as a project designed to be so tall that humans could talk face to face with God. That depiction, of course, assumes that God lives above the sky in a three-tiered universe, an idea that breathed its last breath with the work of Galileo Galilei in the seventeenth century. Visitors will also be able to take a ride through the plagues of Egypt; a first century village; and a pre-flood village. In addition, there will be drama theaters and an amphitheater. Budding zoologists will be able to visit a petting zoo and a walk-through aviary.
But it will not be all fun and games at Ark Encounter. For Ham, the Ark is a symbol of the end times – that so-called period of divine punishment that humans face when they challenge God’s authority. The Ark, Ham claims on the Answers in Genesis website, “was also a vivid warning that, according to the Bible, God sent a flood in Noah’s time to wipe out a depraved people, and God will deliver a fiery end to those who reject the Bible and accept modern-day evils such as abortion, atheism and same-sex marriage. We’re becoming more like the days of Noah in that we see increasing secularization in the culture,” Ham says.
But I have a few concerns about what is behind all of this fun and games. My first concern is that the State of Kentucky is forcing taxpayers – whatever their religious beliefs – to partially fund Ham’s Ark Encounter project.
Yes, tax incentives and free land are provided by the State of Kentucky and Grant County, where Ark Encounter is located, to operate his “evangelical tool,” all in exchange for the hope that the Ark will attract millions of tourism dollars and jobs to the state.
“It’s definitely an evangelical tool,” says Ken Ham. “I mean, it’s not like a Disney or Universal, just for anyone to go and have fun. It’s a religious purpose. It’s because we’re Christians and we want to get the Christian message out.”
Ken Ham is founder and CEO of Answers in Genesis, whose mission is to spread Creationism. (I’ll address that in a minute.) Ham is also the founder and CEO of Ark Encounter. He has been able to fund the Ark through private donations, municipal bond investors and state sales tax incentives.
Ark Encounter is a $100 million, for-profit enterprise, owned by two non-profit organizations, Answers in Genesis, and Crosswater Canyon. To shed some light on how Answers in Genesis is able to siphon money from every direction, I looked at a few of the confusing legal gymnastics taking place here. Crosswater Canyon, controlled by Answers in Genesis, is a non-profit that owns and operates two for-profit companies – Creation Museum, LLC and Ark Encounter, LLC. All donations for the project come in through the non-profit Crosswater Canyon, but all the tax incentives are applied to the for-profit Ark Encounter, LLC.
The literal Ark itself is the only non-profit portion of the attraction. So all the tax deductible donations people make are applied to the construction of the Ark, which qualifies as non-profit because it is an “educational tool.”
And what about the land surrounding the Ark? The land is not technically part of the non-profit part of the park, so donations do not apply there, but that is why visitors will have to pay to park their cars (800 acres of land, and Ken Ham wants to charge people to park!) and then buy an admission ticket to satisfy the business portion of the attraction.
Many people are as outraged as I am. Why? Because Ham’s fundraising methods are a violation of the First Amendment and laws that require separation of church and state. These tax incentives are intended to be neutral and not to support one view or another. It is clear to me that Ark Encounter is not a neutral enterprise.
To this criticism, Ham says that such condemnation is pure nonsense. He adds: “The government offers this tax incentive to the Bourbon Museum [Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History], Kentucky Kingdom [and] the Speedway [Kentucky Speedway]. We have every right to partake in it, too, if it’s a performance-based rebate.”
That may have some validity, but I am certain that the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History does not exclude employment to those who refuse to sign a Statement of Faith and that raises my second concern.
Ham insists that the Statement of Faith is a “basic” Christian credo, much like one would find in a local church. Except, of course, Ark Encounter is not a local church; it is a business. To work at Ark Encounter, job applicants must sign a contract, professing a belief in the creation story as recorded in the Bible. For instance, they agree that the “great flood of Genesis was an actual historic event, worldwide in its extent and effect.” Ham says that this declaration is necessary because “we are a Christian organization and we have a Christian message.”
But Ham’s Statement of Faith is far more than that. The statement also requires employees to disavow homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and pre-marital sex. Employees must also believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible and in Jesus Christ. So, no Jewish or Islamic employees are permitted. Only Christians are hired – and then, only certain Christians. For instance, I would not be eligible because I embrace evolutionary science. Even Pope Francis would not be qualified since he made the following remark at an assembly of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences: “When we read about creation in Genesis, we run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything. But that is not so. He created human beings and let them develop according to the internal laws that he gave to each one so they would reach their fulfillment.”
The State of Kentucky tried to revoke the tax rebates after learning that Ham required employees to sign his statement of faith that excludes people who were gay or who do not accept his particular Christian creed, but Ham and Answers in Genesis won a legal battle against the State of Kentucky to retain an $18 million state tax credit. Judge Greg Van Tatenhove of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky, writing in his judicial decision, declared that tourist attractions – even those that advance religion – meet the neutral criteria for the tax incentives! Huh?
As if such maneuverings were not bad enough, Ken Ham leads a Christian ministry dedicated to the spreading of Creationism. I am not a creationist by any stretch of the imagination and this is a free country. One can practice whatever kind of Christianity, or any other religion, or no religion at all that one chooses, but that leads me to my third concern.
Ham’s interpretation of what he calls “the Christian message” is intellectually dishonest. His literal, fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible is derided by most Christians who consider such a position as indefensible and even embarrassing. Most scientists and educators also disagree with his findings. The theme of this park is to demonstrate the literal accuracy of the biblical book of Genesis. That is a point of view that no recognized biblical scholar in the world would support. That seems not to matter to Ham and other self-styled defenders of the literal truth of the Bible.
When people raise questions about the historicity of Ham’s “facts,” they are dismissed as “secular scientists” or “secular historians,” who are not true believers and therefore whose points of view have no validity. Truth to be truth, it seems, must support Ham’s convictions.
While I do not profess to be either a “secular scientist” or a “secular historian,” I am a practicing Christian who has been educated in a highly regarded college and a reputable seminary and I find that the theories offered by Ham to be profoundly ignorant, and more importantly, to be insulting to the Christian faith itself. The kind of biblical literalism that Ham and his organization espouse has been relegated to the dustbins of history for at least the last two hundred years. I am neither opposed to an individual’s private ignorance nor would I deny anyone’s right to interpret his religion in any way he wished, but I do object to those who seek public funds in order to peddle their biblical ignorance to the world in a money-making scheme. Even more, I resent their ignorance that reduces the Christian faith to a caricature of itself and subjects it to constant ridicule by the usual suspects who know a good source of comedy when they see it. While Ham and his organization assert that the “literal Bible cannot be wrong” those who study the Bible know that it is wrong in thousands of places. To wit: Epilepsy and mental illness are not the result of demon possession, as the Bible states. Slavery is not a legitimate social institution, as the Bible asserts. Women are not created inferior to men and cannot be regarded as male property, as the Bible maintains. Since homosexuals do not choose their sexual orientation they should not be put to death for “their sin,” as the Bible declares. Yet if one applies a literal interpretation of the Bible, one can validate each of those biblical assumptions. The literal Bible is demonstrably wrong in thousands of places in its understanding of reality.
“Young-earthers,” such as Ham believe that God created the universe in six 24-hour solar days, and since all of history is only six thousand years, dinosaurs, along with tigers and camels and other animals roamed the Earth alongside Adam and Eve. Ham completely rejects scientific evidence that the Earth is 4.5 billion years-old and that fossilized dinosaur bones date back roughly sixty-five million years. An exhibit at Ham’s Creation Museum, however, shows two smiling children playing in a lush garden next to two petite Tyrannosaurus rexes! Ham rejects mainstream science institutions as evolutionary sophists. He says: “Museums like the Natural History Museum [sic] in Washington, D.C., Smithsonian [Institution] or Chicago Field Museum [sic], mostly they teach that we supposedly evolved [from] apelike creatures. Why shouldn’t we be able to use the same technology and really challenge people to consider the Bible as the true history of the world?” I think the answer to that question is obvious. At least it is to me.
Young-earth creationism gained popularity only about sixty years ago, and has remained a marginal creed within Christianity. Even many Bible-believers and evangelicals accept the science showing that the universe is billions of years old – some reasoning that each of the six “days” of creation in Genesis may have lasted millions of years, not twenty-four hours. And of course, many Christians accept evolution.
One of Ham’s biggest critics, Bill Nye, best known as “the science guy” on television and in books, has said, “Humans and ancient dinosaurs did not live at the same time. It’s completely unreasonable. Science has established that the earth is billions of years old, and no worldwide flood occurred in the last six thousand years.” Nye dismisses Ham’s creationist exhibits as biblical propaganda and says that dinosaurs died out long before human beings ever came along. Says Nye: “I can prove that beyond any reasonable doubt. That is what’s very troubling. Allosauruses and humans did not live at the same time. Teaching the earth is six thousand years old is completely wrong and inappropriate. We’re going to raise a generation of kids who are scientifically illiterate,” says Nye, who debated with Ken Ham at the Creation Museum in 2014.
For now, the young-earthers are having a heyday, thanks largely to Ham and his supporters. Their ministry, Answers in Genesis, produces books, magazines, videos and curriculums used by thousands of churches and home-schoolers. The Creation Museum – which sells these materials in its gift shops – claims 2.7 million visitors have come through its doors in the nine years since it opened. But about half of those visitors came to the Creation Museum in the first three years, suggesting that interest may have dropped off. The Ark could change that. Ham projects that the Ark will attract 1.4 to 2.2 million visitors in the first year, and will double the attendance at the Creation Museum.
When it opens in July, admission to Ark Encounter will be $40 for adults and $28 for children, (plus parking) and Ham says that he expects the fascination with Noah and his Ark will result in one million to two million visitors in the first year. “We really do believe that if we build it, they will come. And they’re going to come,” Ham said.
And the unsettling truth is that he is probably right. There will be people who will come to this biblical theme park. Showman extraordinaire, Phineas Taylor “P. T.” Barnum reminded us all of how often such people are born. But does the State of Kentucky really want to announce to the world the lack of knowledge that must reside in that state to cause it to offer tax incentives that encourage this degree of religious ignorance? I hope not, but then again, stranger things have happened.