by William Trollinger
Note: The following is taken (with slight edits) from the original version of my review, which appeared in the March 2022 issue Journal of the American Academy of Religion. Full citation information and a link to the article is included at the end.
In Storytelling the Bible (T & T Clark, 2020) Paul Thomas – Professor of Religious Studies at Radford University – provides a “Bible reception study of Creation Museum, Ark Encounter, and Museum of the Bible [MotB] readings of the Bible” (6). Toward this end, he examines how MotB and especially Answers in Genesis [AiG] use the Bible in their tourist sites to make rhetorical arguments. As regards the AiG tourist sites, Thomas rightly notes that their primary goal is not to save the lost, but to educate the saved in the young Earth creationist reading of Genesis, a reading which – according to the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter – has implications for understanding the rest of the Bible. Interestingly, so much of what one finds in both sites consists of efforts to convince visitors that creation science is truly scientific. As Thomas astutely observes, “the manner in which AiG presents its argument reveals a tacit assumption that visitors require the narrative to be rationalized, tempered by reason, supported by material evidence, and placed within a scientific framework . . . If these events can be proved in a naturalistic sense, then faith becomes less of a stumbling block” (74). Actually, Thomas could have noted how this focus on (obsession with?) empirical evidence and reason as opposed to faith and the witness of the Holy Spirit fits squarely within contemporary fundamentalist apologetics.
Befitting a scholar who has written on how UFO cults make use of biblical themes, Thomas does a wonderful job of noting how both the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter range far beyond the Bible to use rhetoric and arguments that draw from cryptozoology and pseudoarcheology, both of which are pseudosciences that claim that a conspiracy on the part of mainstream scientists has kept us from seeing the truth about the animal past and the human past. Thomas demonstrates that both tourist sites are tightly linked to cryptozoology, best evinced by the museum’s Dragon Legends exhibit, which suggests “that the widespread nature of dragon myths . . . can be taken as evidence of the existence of dinosaurs in recorded human history” (82). More than this, Thomas notes that AiG borrows from pseudoarcheology to hint that, in building the Ark, Noah may have made use of unspecified technologies that rival those found in the contemporary world; interestingly, if the author had gone beyond the museum and the Ark to AiG’s website, he would have discovered that Ken Ham has made even more specific pseudoarcheological arguments in online posts, asserting, for example, that it is quite possible Noah used cranes and concrete.
Beyond examining how these tourist sites use the Bible, Storytelling the Bible includes analysis of “visitor perceptions of Bible narratives as presented in the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter” (7). Toward this end, Thomas examined Facebook and TripAdvisor reviews, and then conducted phone interviews and online surveys with some of these visitors. . . . Thomas embarked on this project assuming that he would “encounter people who would demonstrate a high level of biblical literacy” (167), but he soon discovered that this is definitely not the case, to the point that visitors invest with biblical authority the flood (apologies for the pun) of extrabiblical material at the AiG sites – including, to give one example, the Ark’s imagined animal watering and feeding system. While at times the author suggests that the museum and Ark seek to avoid producing such confusion in visitors’ minds (pointing to, for example, the occasional disclaimers at the Ark regarding “artistic license”), it seems pretty clear that, in actuality, AiG exploits the biblical illiteracy of visitors, both to its website and to its tourist sites, to promote its own idiosyncratic and ideologically-freighted understanding of the Bible as the Truth.
But then again, and for all of AiG’s emphasis on a plain reading of the inerrant Bible, it turns out that the biblical text is very much beside the point. 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). Of course, these visitors have no idea that such a place never existed. But this too is beside the point. As Thomas concludes, the invented world of AiG is “like the longed-for homecoming that even inspires some to tears . . . it is uniquely real for many visitors, an idealized vision of a Bible society, for a group of people who feel like strangers in their own land” (168).
Interestingly, Thomas argues that the Museum of the Bible produces precisely the same response on the part of visitors . . . Despite the claims of certain evangelical scholars, the similarities between the AiG sites and the MotB are much more pronounced than their differences . . . All three venues promote a conservative religious and political worldview, including, as Thomas powerfully argues, when it comes to race, as all three sites fail to address “what it is about the [biblical] text, and its Christian readers, that [has] inspired racist readings” over the years (159). In fact, these three sites can be seen as working in tandem: as Thomas observes . . . , “the sense of oppression and persecution fostered by the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter fires up the base,” while the Washington-based (and DeVos-supported) MotB “funnels that energy into real political influence” (66).
In short, these three Bible-based museums/tourist sites are visible and popular Christian Right institutions, designed to comfort, educate, and energize the “homesick” faithful. And as the Christian Right has established itself as one of the (if not the) most important constituencies in the Republican Party, I suspect there is more scholarship to come on the Creation Museum, Ark Encounter, and the Museum of the Bible.
(For the full article, which also includes a review of Kathleen Oberlin’s Creating the Creation Museum: How Fundamentalist Beliefs Come to Life, see: Journal of the American Academy of Religion 90:1 (March 2022): 290-294. Here’s a link to the article.)