by William Trollinger
What will happen to museums in this post-truth age? Is there a productive way in which to respond to culture war rhetoric?
These were but two of the questions Sue and I were asked in response to our presentation last Wednesday on “Righting and Wronging America at the Creation Museum” here at the University of Dayton. The audience – 175-or-so students, faculty, and community members – was great. Many thanks to our colleagues Sandra Yocum, Meghan Henning, and Jessie Duckro for making this possible – and everyone should have the privilege of being introduced at least once by Meghan Henning.
It was a lot of fun, and it was also a challenge, in that we attempted in 45 minutes or so to summarize our book of 327 pages. In keeping with the book, we began with a methodological and historical introduction to our topic. Sue talked about how we approached the museum as a linguistic, visual, and material text that seeks to shape visitors as they move within it and through it. I talked about how the Genesis creation account (not accounts) is so important for conservative evangelicals in confirming biblical inerrancy.
Then, to the substance of the book. Talking about the museum as a museum, Sue noted that, in keeping with dioramas at places such as the Field Museum, the life-size diorama depicting the Garden of Eden – which includes Adam naming the animals and Adam and Eve enjoying each other in the Garden – invites visitors to see these scenes as re-presenting a real historical referent. She then talked about science at the museum, using their treatment of an Allosaurus skeleton — named “Ebenezer” – to highlight the point that the museum’s approach is to begin with their particular literal reading of the Bible as Truth and then build scientific “models” that confirm what the Bible says. And if the model fails to confirm what they say the Bible says, well, the model needs to be scrapped and a new model developed, for their particular literal reading of the Bible cannot be wrong.
In sum, for the Creation Museum the primary evidence for a young Earth is the inerrant Bible. That said, and as I noted, it is weird that there is no display of Genesis 1-11 at the museum; what Bible is there is presented is verses or snippets of verses on placards, sometimes with words or phrases removed. In short, the Creation Museum is less about science and the Bible and more about politics, with videos and exhibits and placards that claim, among other things, that public schools are sites of atheistic indoctrination and that America was once a Christian nation but is now mired in an antibiblical decadence best exemplified by gay marriage. This is a politics that portrays America as divided into two warring camps: the righteous Bible-believers, and the ungodly enemy made up of atheists, liberals, feminists, evolutionists, the LGBTQ community and others who are destroying and who are, in the end, headed to hell.
In the Q/A afterwards we were asked some very good questions, a number of which focused on how flood geology does not make scientific sense. Our general answer to these questions was: Right, but it is also important to understand that young Earth creationists have answers for every objection.
As regards the question of what becomes of museums in the current post-Truth age (or, are the Creation Museum and the Museum of the Bible portents of the future?), Sue responded by noting that this is why it is incumbent on all of us – and particularly those of us at a university — to teach the importance of evaluating sources for their accuracy and credibility. If we abandon this basic responsibility then, indeed, museums will cease to exist as institutions of public trust.
As regards how we might respond to culture war rhetoric, I said that we should refuse to participate. That does not mean we are to abandon the field of argument; in fact, it is incumbent to make arguments against culture warriors. But we must not resort to ad hominem arguments; more important, we must not lose sight of the fact that we should all be about “the common good.”
In saying this I had in mind a remarkable recent article in The Guardian by Rebecca Solnit, “The American civil war didn’t end. And Trump is a Confederate president.” Solnit begins with this arresting sentence: “In the 158th year of the American civil war, also known as 2018, the Confederacy continues its recent resurgence.” She connects our contemporary plague of racism and anti-Semitism back to the post-Reconstruction re-establishment of white supremacy and the 1920s Ku Klux Klan. She talks about a president who defends Confederate statues, who wants to end “birthright citizenship,” who talks endlessly about immigrants and refugees as criminals, and who uses anti-Semitic code language to inspire the wrath of his followers against George Soros.
But what is most interesting and surprising about this article is that Solnit ends on a hopeful note. She notes that the United States – past and present – is rife with examples of Americans who “subscribe to a grand inclusive ‘we, the people.’” She suggests – I want to believe this – that the future is on the side of those who hold to equality and justice for all people. Most germane for our purposes here, she ends by calling on those of us who hold such commitments to reject culture war rhetoric, and instead invite “people to wander out of their bunkers and put down their weapons and come over.”