“Intolerant Liberal Friends”: Ark Encounter’s Culture-War Confusions
What if I told you that a nonprofit Christian organization was partnering with a for-profit corporation to build a theme park about Noah’s Ark? A park with a full-scale working (yet not seaworthy) model of the legendary ocean liner? And what if I told you this theme park would include biblical accounts and themes in a creative and serious-yet-humorous way that naturally engages with culture, just as the group’s existing Creation Museum already does?
Bonus: What if the park was announced along with tourism tax incentives from a state that is relatively “culturally conservative” yet by a state governor who happens to be Democrat?
But evidently for many Christians it’s not exciting enough for Answers in Genesis (AiG) to announce Ark Encounter — again, with a life-size replica of Noah’s Ark, for a theme park, in the modern day, with live animals and snacks and tickets and everything, people! Alas no. Apparently if you say, “Let’s build a Noah’s Ark theme park,” few evangelicals care. But say, “Let’s build an Ark park to evangelize people and also really stick it to the intolerant liberals,” and then more evangelicals join the cause.
You and your “intolerant liberal friends”?
I can’t comment much on last month’s announcement that (at least for now) the Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet has denied AiG state tax incentives for the project. (Tax incentives do not “cost” the state anything; the idea is that the attraction would not build or generate more tax revenue at all without incentives, but state and builder both benefit if the builder gets back a portion of tourism tax revenue that results from the new project.)
Instead my interest is evangelistic and of course pop-cultural.
Why, even when Christians have the ability and the chance to show truly creative cultural engagement with creative excellence and joy, do we keep ignoring these strengths in favor of appeals to two lesser goals: reductionistic evangelism efforts and fan service?
On Dec. 8, AiG announced its new billboard campaign with some trolling of its excitable atheist enemies: “To all of our intolerant liberal friends: Thank God you can’t sink this ship.” Two days later Bob Stewart, secretary of the Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet, directly mentioned AiG’s web postings and evangelistic posturing as one reason for the state’s decision to reject the tax incentives. Stewart wrote:
[AiG founder Ken] Ham described how the Ark was designed to further AIG’s evangelical mission. He has stated that he wanted people to come and have an encounter with Noah’s Ark, but at the same time have an encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ. Patrick Marsh, AIG’s Director of Museum Design [… has said] the project is really about evangelism to the unchurched.
Stewart acknowledges AiG’s “right to change the nature of the project from a tourism attraction to a ministry,” which is oddly amusing. Anyone casually familiar with AiG would know the group’s mission from the start. And anyone familiar with evangelical churches and groups in general would know that we like to say all our programs are “evangelistic.”
Is “mission” a mere means to reductionistic evangelism?
Long before AiG became cool (and then uncool) with evangelicals, I enjoyed its materials and held to its view of doctrine and (mostly) science. But quickly this Christian outreach can turn into a pose for “reaching the unchurched” for its own sake.
We say, “Let’s help save people from sin.” But saved to do what? One answer goes like this: “To help save other people from sin!” and that’s a profound half-truth. If you get saved and help save others and build churches and organizations, this does follow the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself,” for your neighbor does need Jesus. Yet that is the second commandment; the greatest commandment is to “love the Lord your God” with all that we have (Mark 12:28–34). Before we love others and evangelize them, we must love God. But a reductionistic “everything is about evangelism” approach minimizes this chief mission.
Is “mission” a mere means to fan service and winning culture wars?
Answers in Genesis and others can help Christians fulfill the “apologetics” view of 1 Peter 3:15: “always [be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” But “mak[ing] a defense” as an individual can quickly become “making an offense” on a national scale, and with little of the “gentleness and respect” the apostle also commanded.
AiG has endorsed the biblical truth that we are broken and rebellious, yet Jesus Christ has come to love and convert His enemies. I loved (and still love) that emphasis. Yet this gospel goes beyond individual salvation: Jesus has begun to restore humans in a Kingdom to our original purpose of loving God above all else so that we can enjoy Him — and only then we can start flourishing and enjoying His gifts, including nature and exploration and science. These same joys in the gospel that transforms our view of nature and science linger at the Creation Museum, which I’ve visited at least six times and where professional and creative exhibits fill me with biblical hope in Christ and for a restored world of restored humanity.
But AiG obscures this vision from the wider world. Instead, on regular billboards and social networks, AiG promotes incendiary culture-war rhetoric that seems designed to placate Christians who may believe a billboard’s rebuke or biting Facebook reply will get that atheist real good. The creation/gospel message becomes just another means to wallop atheists and save America — again, for its own sake, bypassing the greatest commandment.
This limited vision affects much of AiG’s support-raising: from the “atheists are coming for your kids” alarmism to Ken Ham’s rote evangeli-speak wishes to Bill Nye (the latter of whom “won” the February 2014 debate on “isn’t science amazing kids?!”-style joy alone).
Rebooting origins organizations
As an often-cringing AiG fan, I say: Let us take the six-day-creation-and-global-flood origins ministry concept (I realize you may not agree we need them at all) back to biblical basics.
First, let’s have more biblically confident and joyous swashbuckling, and less “save America” alarmism. Of course the atheists come after children; everyone “comes after the children,” but Christians believe Jesus is greater than the world. And let us also have less of this troll-the-atheists nonsense. Jesus was not above “taunts,” but He did this far more effectively and winsomely than a billboard that backhand-compliments “intolerant liberal friends.”
Second, let’s not see “evangelism of the unchurched” as a means to its own end. Evangelism is indeed the Great Commission, the vital way we love our neighbors. Yet the Christian’s far greater commission is to love the Lord God with all that we have, and do this for eternity.
Can we fulfill this greater commission by building a creatively awesome Noah’s Ark theme park, even if we don’t also hastily add to the park’s fundraising literature “oh and it’s also for evangelism and to annoy those atheists you dislike?” Can we fulfill our chief mission even when we support (or critique!) the Creation Museum or a certain Christian view of the world’s origins? Surely we can. And surely we can do this while giving answers about our hope with “gentleness and respect” as we extol the wonders of science and science’s God.
They do the evangelization thing to try and justify the amount of money spent on a theme park. Even with that, a theme park is a notorious white elephant and danger; one is reminded of Heritage USA, the Bakkers’ attempt at such. Without that, issues of commercialization and empire building are harder to ignore.
The trolling-well, creationists in general are spectacular outcasts. You don’t survive as such without developing a siege mentality, and given the grief atheists give them, it’s hard to expect them to be perfectly Christlike at all times.
My first thought when I hear “Noah’s Ark” and “theme park” is the water park in Wisconsin Dells. And while I really did enjoyed the Creation Museum, I do think they come in more blunt than they need too.
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