AiG’s Ark Encounter Is a Model for Christians Engaging Popular Culture
On July 7, the Christian apologetics organization Answers in Genesis (AiG) opened Ark Encounter, a life-size replica of Noah’s ark from Genesis 6-9, as a northern Kentucky attraction. The opening comes amidst various critiques that have been leveled at the group for their “intolerant liberal friends” slogans that were meant to appeal to Christians, their use of a state tourism program to incentivize Ark Encounter’s construction, and naturally, the usual Bible-origins-story wars.The Creation Museum and Ark Encounter show an exciting example of Christians engaging popular culture on its own terms.
Space doesn’t permit a full redress of AiG criticisms. (This includes the fact that the project, like any other attraction so approved, was built with bond financing. If the project meets benchmarks, it receives state reimbursement of part of new sales tax revenue. The state of Kentucky has paid nothing to build Ark Encounter.) I also cannot explore the “young earth” creation paradigm, which includes the belief that an ark of this size could survive a truly global flood. (For what it’s worth, I do accept a literal six-day creation and a global flood on biblical grounds.)
But I can address one assumption Christians may have about Ark Encounter: that it’s almost certainly cheesy and derivative, and/or that it doesn’t engage real popular culture.
Imagine: A Life-Size, Tour-Able Noah’s Ark Could Be Awesome
First, let us picture a world where Christians in the United States did everything well, or at least as well as expected given that we are redeemed but struggling humans. Imagine we had no history of preaching ridiculous doctrines, confusing the Gospel with politics, creating tacky subcultures, or refusing to engage our neighbors’ real needs and the issues of our time (e.g., racism, poverty).
Surely in such a world, Christians would create attractions such as Ark Encounter. In fact, we would not shy away from “worldly” concepts such as theme parks with restaurants and gift shops. We would not assume these concepts are inherently tacky or lowbrow, thereby accepting a false divide between “high” popular culture (such as critically acclaimed Netflix dramas) and “low” popular culture (such as theme parks). We would not buy into pragmatic notions that Christians must be ascetics who constantly work to care for our neighbors’ basic needs six days a week without inviting them to rest and have fun with us for a “sabbath.”
So let us not assume a tourist ark would be another example of stale evangelical cheese. But what if Ark Encounter’s creators did make a cheesy attraction? After all, how could they not, given their (presumed) ties to cultural fundamentalism and dull evangelical culture?
How Ken Ham Taught Me to Engage Popular Culture
For me, “creation science” in general and AiG in particular did not drive me into a dull, sheltered evangelical subculture. Instead, AiG’s work helped bring me out of my own sheltered world and into a greater universe of stories, science, and ultimately, Gospel truth.
Ken Ham’s early conference speeches were the first to challenge me. He took his subjects very seriously. He presumed Christians should engage popular culture, science, and media.
Seed planted: Christians should not shelter themselves from the world.
Ham was winsome, satirical, civil, and firm. He sounded like a happy warrior, not a fearful one.
Seed planted: “Swashbuckling” is better than screaming, angry culture-warrior-ing.
Ham referenced films I could not see back then, such as Jurassic Park and The Gods Must be Crazy. (Since then Ham has carefully outed himself as a Star Trek and Doctor Who fan.)
Seed planted: Fantastical stories are awesome for Christians.
Ham even poked fun at American and evangelical subcultures. Sometimes he would say things like “breastfeeding,” which made older women in the auditorium giggle. In the 1999 book Creation Evangelism for the New Millennium, he explained: “The average Australian is rather blunt and just tells it ‘like it is.’ (This has actually caused me to get into trouble many times in America.)”
Seed planted: Sometimes Christians should reconsider our assumed rules of “propriety.” Such rules actually vary from culture to culture. (Also: Sometimes you must be blunt, as Ham revealed when I pitched him my creation-science-themed novel. Someday I hope to personally apologize for being one of those fans. However, the novel rewrite is going well.)
Before AiG, I didn’t hear much about the evils of racism. Then came AiG and speakers like Ham who rebuked societal racism and insisted the Bible taught all people are one human race descended from Adam and Eve years before it was cool. Ham even wrote a book about it. To conservatives, AiG even scolded racist nonsense like “the curse of Ham.”
Seed planted: Racism is real, present, ugly, and spiritual. Furthermore, the solution begins with the Gospel.
Ham was the first Christian I heard communicate a distinction between the apostle Peter’s sermon for Jews in Acts 3 and the apostle Paul’s engagement with Gentiles in Acts 17. Ham observed that the Jews in Acts 3 believe in God and understand Old Testament references. But the Greeks in Acts 17 do not, and therefore, Paul speaks on their level. Therefore, Ham wrote this in Creation Evangelism for the New Millennium:
[C]ountries like America, England, Australia, and other Western nations were in generations past, in a sense, like the “Jews.” Thus, evangelists could approach them in the same way Peter did in Acts 2. However, I believe that a foundational cultural change has occurred so that these nations are now like the “Greeks.” Because the Church, by and large, has not recognized this change, effective evangelism is becoming increasingly rare.
Seed planted: “Classic” evangelism techniques don’t work in a “post-Christian” world. That is, Christians cannot keep speaking their Christianese and assume people will get it.
Of course, Ham usually discussed topics like racism and evangelism in terms of creation vs. evolution. Today I see this differently: creation and evolution are simply one element of the disharmony between the Gospel and common-grace-blessed yet self-centered worldviews. I also see inconsistencies between Ham’s original swashbuckling approach and AiG’s more recent “culture wars” appeals for the Ark, which seem to speak even more Christianese into a world that does not get it. I have questioned these appeals before because they follow a culture-war pragmatism Christians shouldn’t require to create things. We should only need to say: “Sisters and brothers, we’re building a life-size Noah’s Ark. Isn’t that amazing?”
(Conversely, many AiG critics have their own myths about Christians who accept literal-days creation. These myths include: AiG teaches if you “believe in evolution [then you] can’t be a Christian”; AiG doesn’t have real scientists; AiG wants to bully public schools into teaching biblical creation as fact; and AiG is equivalent to “Ken Ham’s beliefs.” None of these are true.)
Behold the Awesomeness of Creative Real-World Engagement
Perhaps I have an advantage: I’ve seen AiG beyond its occasional quarrelsome social media and news interviews. In fact, I’ve been to the group’s Creation Museum near Cincinnati, Ohio, more times than I can count, even when the museum was still being constructed.
Christian critics disillusioned with “evangelical” culture must see the Creation Museum. After their tour, they may not believe AiG’s view of human origins is true. But they will certainly consider believing that Christians really can create a first-class entry to popular culture: a tourist attraction with creative excellence, movies, lifelike animatronics, crowd control, themed restaurants, beautiful outdoor gardens, and community participation.
This is why I’m excited about Ark Encounter. I can only imagine Creation Museum-level quality expanded to a 510-foot-long, 85-foot-wide, 51-foot-high attraction filled with exhibits about Scripture’s account and Christians’ theories and speculations about the ark.
You may not agree with some ark supporters or even the project’s creators. But both the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter show an exciting example of Christians engaging popular culture on its own terms — a culture that is filled with people who enjoy themed attractions, restaurants, outdoor zoos, zipline courses, and gift shops with silly t-shirts.
Like any good Christian-made story, song, or product, Ark Encounter works on many levels.
If you’re a non-Christian or a creation-skeptic Christian, you can attend for enjoyment. You can marvel at the artistry and construction (it’s the largest timber-frame structure in the world). You can enjoy the park just like you could enjoy, say, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter even if you’re only casually familiar with J.K. Rowling’s novels and film series.
But if you’re a Christian in the “fandom” who supports the creators’ vision, Ark Encounter is even better. You can imagine the actual ark brought to life. You can grieve over God’s judgment and feel the weight of His sorrow and anger at sin. You can be inspired to worship the final Savior whom the ark always represented, the Savior to whom AiG also points (moving beyond creation-versus-evolution debates) as the only gateway to reconciliation with our Creator.
And if you happen to be a conservative, sheltered, and culturally disengaged Christian like I have been, well, AiG with its Creation Museum and Ark Encounter will challenge you. Why? Because there is no way such sheltered Christians could engage popular culture as AiG can. There is no way they could learn such crafts and construction, work with a state tourism cabinet, or cooperate with local hotels and secular attractions for tourism cross-promotion.
Perhaps this is what AiG does best (and often despite itself). The group hopes to rebuke evolution and promote literal creation belief among Christians, thus leading to an apologetics-based revival in churches. AiG and Ham, however, have found even greater success at challenging Christians to follow their stellar approach to popular culture engagement.
At the Creation Museum, overt teaching and exhibits don’t prompt me to worship my Creator nearly as much as the courtesy of museum employees as well as the fun and beauty of artistry and gardens. What they show may show Christ (and even creation!) better than what they say. And I expect that after I visit Ark Encounter, I’ll experience similar awe and worship as well as an increased motivation to love and engage my neighbors and even my enemies in culture.
Photo Credit: Ark Encounter by Cheryl Crain.
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