Aug 21, 2016

The Obsession With Biblical Literalism

A Christian theme park in Kentucky brings the ancient to life through a life-sized reconstruction of Noah’s Ark—but not without dipping into fiction.

AUG 21, 2016

Of all the biblical episodes, Voltaire thought none required more faith than the story of Noah’s Ark: “The history of the deluge being that of the most miraculous event of which the world ever heard, it must be the height of folly and madness to attempt an explanation of it.” If only he had visited Ark Encounter—a Christian theme park that opened this summer in Kentucky and boasts a “life-sized” reconstruction of Noah’s Ark. Seemingly impossible details have been fanatically researched and naturalistically explained by Answers in Genesis (AiG), a literalist Christian organization that’s also responsible for the nearby Creation Museum. With roughly 40 percent of Americans believing in creationism, the park shouldn’t be dismissed as mere Christian kitsch. Rather, it represents a recent and powerful trend in evangelical thought, a kind of fundamentalist realism. To visit the park is to see how conservative Christianity of the 21st century finds strength not simply in miracles, scripture and sermon, but in timber, mannequins, blueprints, and feasibility studies.

In over 100 exhibits on the ship, visitors learn how each difficulty might have been surmounted: How could eight people feed so many animals? Through an elaborate system of drains and chutes, as illustrated by an interactive video. And what about the stench? Solved easily enough—Noah just needed a ventilation system powered by the tides. And the daily tons of animal waste? Noah could dispose of that with a treadmill-cum-conveyor belt powered by elephants. But how did he fit elephants on the ship? And all those dinosaurs? They were babies at the time. And if visitors doubted that a wooden ship carrying all this cargo could withstand an apocalyptic flood, a placard explains that the ship’s dimensions, as specified in Genesis, has been proven by naval engineers to be the perfect compromise between comfort, stability, and strength. In one video, entitled “Sink or Swim,” visitors can watch animated simulations of ships from other diluvial myths being tossed in rough water. They all sink, often to the sound of terrified screams.

During the grand opening in July, visitors marveled at these technological novelties. But many I spoke with also confessed that they had never really worried about these details before; instead, they had just ascribed it to God’s power. Tim Lovett, the ship’s engineer, has heard this too often during his decades researching the ark’s design—and he has no patience for it. When we sat in Ezmara’s Kitchen, the park’s cafeteria named in honor of Noah’s wife, he dismissed those who attribute the ark solely to miracles. “It’s a bit of a disease,” he told me. “I’m only going to assume miracles if it’s there, and if it’s not there, it’s unhealthy for me to assume it’s a miracle… [God] doesn’t do miracles willy-nilly.”

Lovett’s fastidious focus on the ark’s “plausibility” is as much about politics as it is intellectual rigor. “The Israelites in the desert were not of particularly good character,” he explained. They simply “waited for miracles” and “sat in a tent complaining”; they were, in other words, “a bit like people sitting on welfare.” While certainly not universal, this sentiment has deep roots in conservative evangelicalism. As historian Timothy Gloege has argued, Christian fundamentalism has been intertwined with consumer culture and a faith in modern capitalism from its beginnings in the 19th century. This connection continues to flourish at Ark Encounter, where the text is interpreted, and then reconstructed, as a celebration of radical self-sufficiency.

During its first decades, Gloege explains, fundamentalism borrowed from the popular media of its day: converts were taught to read the Bible as if it were a realist novel or newspaper. A century later, the literalist style of reading has changed along with popular entertainment. At Ark Encounter, visitors learn to read the Bible as a producer would read a screenplay—the location, characters, and dialogue may be given, but the reader must fill it out with a set, lighting, sounds, and actors. It becomes fully realized only through performance.

While touring the ark, visitors are invited to consume fictional reenactments of Noah and his family as if it were a popular summer movie. When first entering the ship, visitors confront an overwhelming cacophony of life as imagined during the deluge: there’s the deep, bassy pound of waves, the hiss of wind, and the chatter of rodents hidden in the wooden cages that surround the path. The ceiling is lowest here; the lights are dimmest. The corridor winds around animal crates until visitors turn a corner and see the family huddled together; at the center is an animatronic Noah, who bends up and down in prayer like a bobblehead.

It’s a visceral experience, but more than that—it’s a lesson on how to read and visualize the Bible. This is no cartoon ark, no hermetically sealed miracle. If this isn’t immediately obvious to visitors, it will be when they stroll through the “Fairy Tale Ark” exhibit, which inveighs against light-hearted illustrations of the ship. Jonathan Crawford, an organic farmer from Pennsylvania and donor to Ark Encounter, complained to me about picture books that depict “a little bathtub with animals sticking out. The pictures are showing a falsehood.”

Christian fundamentalists have long proselytized with cartoons, but Ark Encounter seeks to change this by adopting the recent trend in Hollywood that conflates grittiness with verisimilitude, “reinventing” famously cartoonish franchises into something moody and gruff. If cartoons are the vehicle of myth and miracle, the ship’s immersive experience offers a different story, one about regular people, steeled by hard work, courage and faith. Ark Encounter seems to have found a realism that balances sanctimoniousness with entertainment.

For self-proclaimed literalists, the ark includes a striking amount of fabrications and fictionalizations. Consider, for example, one of the most popular exhibits, where visitors can walk through the family’s living quarters. At the entrance are two placards, one entitled “Artistic License,” and the other “Why Are the Living Quarters So Nice?” In each of the following rooms, visitors can see mannequin renderings of the family and read short bios. Take Ham’s wife Kezia, who likes “dressing up and looking her best, although the Ark’s busy schedule provides few opportunities for this.” But none of these details appear in the Bible. Genesis never takes a charming detour through the family’s hobbies. It never even reveals the names of the women on the ship. And yet these details are integral to the experience of Ark Encounter. It enlivens and stabilizes the text with the incontrovertible hardness of sets, props, and mannequins.

On AiG’s blog, Simon Turpin equates literalism with “plain reading” and “natural interpretation,” suggesting that anyone with common sense will read the Bible as they do. But as Ark Encounter reveals, this apparent simplicity demands endless fabrication. The park plans to build a pre-flood walled city, a first century village, a “journey in history from Abraham to the parting of the Red Sea,” and even the Tower of Babel (the latter, if literally life-size, seems to be courting disaster). Each of these grand dollhouses will likely be realized with the same style of evangelical realism that has made the Ark so enthralling to visitors.

The literary critic Terry Eagleton has written: “The ideal situation for the fundamentalist would…be to have meanings but not written language—for writing is perishable, corporeal and easily contaminated. It is a lowly vehicle for such hallowed truths.” Answers in Genesis seems to agree. These reconstructions create a deluge of meaning. So much meaning, in fact, that one begins to forget there was ever only a text.

No comments: