Sunday, January 2, 2011

Biblical Literalism as a Foreign Country: The Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky

The following post is not about Texas, although I have found that there is a Creation Museum in Glen Rose, Texas. I'll be visiting soon.

While driving through Kentucky, on my way from Detroit to Austin after Christmas, I found a museum that, while not in any way evidence of the foreignness of Texas, undeniably resonated with some of the central elements of what secular, liberal Americans find perplexing and alienating about contemporary Christian life in America. The Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky is a high-budget affair, with animatronic Adams and Eves, professionally produced film clips in every room, a gargantuan diorama of Noah building the ark, and massive dinosaur sculptures. A gift shop stocks hundreds of dollars worth of posters, DVD's, T-shirts, and fossil replicas taking the form of bracelets, statues, keyrings, bookmarks, and coffee table books. Tickets cost $24.95, though when Emily and I tried to pay separately, they gave me a two for one deal so I could be coerced into some strange model of chivalry.

The beginning of the museum's self-tour contains some surprises. A diorama displays a
dinosaur excavation, in which an old white man and younger Chinese man sit on opposite sides of a set of bones protruding from the earth. The plastic men continually sweep, brush, ponder, and record in a never ending animatronic dance. Multiple televisions surround the scene playing a continuous loop of an educational video, in which the real-life white man explains how he goes about believing in God's creation against the claims of modern science.

It is a beautifully tight explanative system, in which, the man tells us, different "starting points" lead to "different conclusions." If one starts with the belief that the Bible is the li
teral truth, then one interprets the dinosaur bones to be roughly 6000 years old. The bones become evidence of the flood. If one, on the other hand, does not believe the Bible, and simply relies on the "arbitrary" perceptive starting point of man, then one interprets the bones to be millions of years old, and the death of the dinosaurs remains elusive. If I had only visited this scene, I might have thought "well, I don't agree with them, but at least they want to agree to disagree." Everyone wins.

But the open, tolerant approach does not make it past the first scene. The tone of the next several scenes is openly antagonistic, and seems to assume that the reader of the captions does not believe in the Bible. This is an odd move, considering that few secularists would spend the $24.95 to get in. And yet, we are told that it's awfully mysterious that there are so many kinds of finches that can all reproduce with one another and evolution couldn't possibly explain the natural diversity of animals.

We then move away from the antagonistic tone to a fairly straightforward natural history version of Genesis. There were details in this narrative new to me, including the idea that all animals were herbivores before the Fall, and that man's turn from God led them to eat one another. I knew that the Tower of Babel and the story of Noah's three sons, Ham, Japheth, and Shem, helps this narrative account for the diversity of man, but I did not know that by this same logic, race is a racist fiction (this is a fascinating analysis that I didn't know existed in the evangelical community). Not an argument I expected from this kind of story.

I was also, however, told why I hadn't known these details. The Creation Museum displays not only the history laid out in Genesis, from the creation story to the Fall to Noah's Ark, but also the history of that story's marginalization in American public life, including education and national science funding. After the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, America turned to secularism and thus went through a Fall from grace of it's own. Moral decay (depicted in the museum as a dank,
urban scene with neon lights and anti-religious graffiti) followed America's turn from the creation story towards evolutionary biology, and the only way back is through an acceptance of biblical truth.

The final, forward looking exhibit depicted Noah's ark, which was salvation both for the characters in Genesis and, in this telling, modern-day America. We carefully drifted between an animatronic scene that taught us about cubits, pegs, and two of every kind (except for the dinosaurs!), and
information on the Creation Museum's newest venture, a massive new park called Ark Encounter. They are attempting to build a modern day Noah's ark, to scale (600 train cars will be able to fit inside the three story building) as well as a slightly less-to-scale replica of the Tower of Babel. Secularists are outraged as the governor of Kentucky has approved large tax breaks for the park.

In some press, the park and the Ark are not so subtly implied to be small lifeboat for the "economic storm" as well, creating jobs and revenue (1.6 million visitors a year). Thus, once Ark Encounter is completed in 2014, America will be one step further towards sweeping away the dinosaurs of evolutionary theory and towards redemption through belief in the stories of Genesis. Having raised only $800,000 of a 150 million dollar budget, it looks like they have a long way to go.

This video shows an interesting debate between Ken Ham, the CEO of Answers in Genesis, and Lawrence Krauss, a science professor from Case Western. Their conversation plays out a familiar dichotomy where one accuses the other of brain-washing, and the other shoots back that he is defending morality. The secularist says that we "have to be competitive in the 21st century," implying that science is crucial to economic advancement, and the religious man thinks that our culture has been corrupted. Enjoy.