by William Trollinger
Paul Brian Thomas is Professor of Religious and Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Radford. He is also the author of Storytelling the Bible at the Creation Museum, Ark Encounter, and Museum of the Bible (T & T Clark, 2020). You can read my review of this terrific book here. We here at rightingamerica are very pleased that Thomas was willing to be interviewed about the book.
- In your preface you explain how you ended up writing this book by observing that the Answers in Genesis [AiG] focus on “the Genesis creation and flood narrative attracts me like a moth to flame. Add to this the fascinating detail that AiG is a parachurch young-earth creationist organization; then the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter becomes a veritable playground for a scholar with interests like mine” (ix). Could you elaborate on this, that is, could you elaborate on how you came to write this book?
My interests in religious studies, and in biblical studies, have always drifted toward what some might call marginal expressions of religion and usual interpretations of biblical texts. Regarding the Bible, there are many little mysterious nuggets, like Genesis 6:1-4, that have become a playground for creative Bible interpretation. Those interpretations run the gamut from space aliens (benevolent and malevolent) to cryptozoology. As I note in my book, the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter flirt (quite heavily) with these ideas. They do so, however, using a suggestive register that allows enough wiggle room for plausible deniability. For me, there is something inherently fascinating about the belief that the Earth is about 6,000 years old and that humans walked the earth with dinosaurs. More importantly, in this age of “alternative facts” and suspicion of mainstream academics, I think the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter are symptomatic of the “post-truth” era while simultaneously deepening the problem.
- For those who may not be familiar with this scholarly approach, what do you mean when you say that this project is a Bible reception study of the AiG sites and the Museum of the Bible? Could you talk about the methodology you used, and explain how this work moves Biblical reception studies in new directions?
Bible reception studies examine the myriad ways biblical texts are interpreted. At its best, reception studies look at the factors that give rise to interpretive communities, how those ideas are disseminated, and how they then create new interpretations. For many years much of this analysis focused on the works of higher culture—like Shakespeare and Melville. I maintain, however, that popular culture artifacts, while often dismissed as trivial, tell us a lot about a culture and thus merit study. In recent years there has been more work on Bible reception studies in popular culture (ranging from children’s books to dolls). I wanted to help continue this trend. Moreover, looking at contemporary popular culture created an additional opportunity because these people are still around and I can ask them questions. While we can’t go ask Melville about his understanding of the Bible, I did have an opportunity to ask these questions of Creation Museum and Ark Encounter visitors. I developed an interview protocol and initially asked Answers in Genesis for permission to interview patrons on site. They denied my request. I fell back to plan B, which was to approach people who left reviews of the Creation Museum, the Ark Encounter, and the Museum of the Bible on sites like Trip Advisor and Facebook. From those requests I secured about 30 interviews. I also scraped online reviews and coded that material. I believe the interview protocol and the content analysis are my biggest methodological contributions to reception studies.
- What are cryptozoology and pseudoarcheology, and what do they have to do with the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter?
Cryptozoology is the study of cryptids. Cryptids are creatures that are thought to exist (or once existed) but are not recognized by mainstream academics. Bigfoot is a classic example of this. Likewise, works of pseudoarcheology make claims about history, often relying on eccentric interpretations of archaeological evidence, that are not supported by mainstream historians and archaeologists. The idea that the Nazca lines are UFO runways is an example of this. Both are characterized by a type of discourse that maintains their conclusions are being suppressed by a mainstream knowledge machine conspiratorially working to maintain its own agenda. The first display in the Creation Museum, the Dragon Legends exhibit, links dragons to dinosaurs and proposes that they have been seen as recently as the late nineteenth century. This is an exercise in cryptozoology. Additionally, the Ark Encounter argument that ancient humans were much smarter and more advanced that we usually recognize echoes pseudoarchaeological arguments. The discourse employed by Answers in Genesis is strikingly similar to that found in works of pseudoscience. Answers in Genesis views their work as scientific in nature, but as being repressed by mainstream scientists exercising a conspiratorial agenda.
- You make the argument (in keeping with our own research) that the AiG sites are not primarily about evangelizing non-Christians, but, instead, are focused on educating Christians in young Earth creationism. That is to say, the primary audience is made up of white evangelicals, which is why you expected to “encounter people who would demonstrate a high level of biblical literacy” (167). What did you find instead, and could you give some examples? And what should we make of this?
This is what I think a lot of people misunderstand about the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter. These sites are not meant to minister to unbelievers. Rather, Answers in Genesis is trying to reach believers who have compromised on the literal truth of parts of the Bible, particularly the Book of Genesis. This compromise, Ken Ham would argue, lies at the heart of many cultural problems. I expected that, given this target audience, there would be a higher level of biblical literacy. What I found is that interviewees would often rate their overall Bible literacy higher than their answers to specific questions would seem to merit. This led to an important observation that there are actually two levels of Bible reception happening at the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter. The attractions themselves represent a Bible interpretation by the Answers in Genesis team. The visitor is then engaging in an interpretation of that interpretation. Without a high level of Bible literacy the average visitor seems ill-equipped to “double-check” the interpretation offered by Answers in Genesis.
- Quoting from my review: “In analyzing visitor responses, Thomas brilliantly observes that what the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter produce in their evangelical guests is a feeling, a sense of ‘longing, homesickness, and nostalgia – what I termed biblical hiraeth – for a time and place governed by biblical principles” (72). How did you come to such an arresting insight, and what do you think this tells us about American evangelicalism?
In many ways this relates to my answer to the prior question. Since, for the average visitor verifying Bible exegesis seems less of a concern, I started wondering what visitors are getting out of these attractions. More powerful, I think, is the discourse speaking to a minority of people who feel lost in their own culture (broadly speaking), those who are longing for a time when culture reflected their values. For example, I found people talking in romantic terms about living the life of Noah. This seemed to be something more than nostalgia, and something more akin to homesickness. But, if we recognize that biblical narratives are ideological texts that were written by a particular segment of society to further its own agenda, and if we further recognize that AiG adds an additional layer of interpretation that furthers its own agenda, then we come to realize that the history presented by AiG never really existed. Thus, visitors are expressing homesickness for a home that never was. The Welsh term hireath, which is a homesickness for something lost (but that never really existed) that results in grief really seems to capture the mood of Creation Museum and Ark Encounter visitors.
- As I suspect is true for you, I have encountered a number of folks – including scholars – who see the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter as very different sites from the Museum of the Bible. And given the aforementioned cryptozoology and pseudoarcheology, that’s an argument that seems to have some merit. But as I understand your preface and final chapter, you argue that the similarities between the three sites are much more pronounced than the differences. Could you elaborate upon this conclusion?
I view the Creation Museum, the Ark Encounter, and the Museum of the Bible as different cogs in a larger system. It is correct that the Museum of the Bible does not engage in the cryptozoology and pseudoarcheology of Answers in Genesis. However, they both are certainly grounded in a vision of biblical authority. I would argue that the Bible is totemized to a greater degree at the Museum of the Bible. Having so many Bibles on display, even in different languages, conveys a sense that the object itself, not just its words, have authority. Both AiG and the Museum of the Bible also construct a version of history where the Bible is presented as central to a Godly society. They both trace this thread from ancient history to modern America. I think a good next step in this research is examining how these institutions function symbiotically to bridge the gap between midwestern families and the monied interests of the Green family and Washington D.C. politics.
- Have you embarked on a new research project, or is there one on the horizon? Given your eclectic scholarly interests, I am very curious as to what this might be!
I have things pulling me in too many directions. I have started another reception studies project examining how Bible themes/narratives are presented in modern board games. I also do some work in the study of monsters (I wrote my dissertation on giants in the Hebrew Bible) and will be embarking on a study of monster folklore in Central and South Central Appalachia. In deep Southwest Virginia they call Bigfoot a Wood Booger. I can’t help but check that out.