by Margaret M. Grubiak
Margaret Grubiak is an associate professor of architectural history in the Department of Humanities at Villanova University. Margaret’s scholarship, including her first book on the history of university chapels, focuses on twentieth-century American religious architecture. Her next book, The 900-Foot Jesus: Landscapes of Faith and Doubt in Modern America (forthcoming from the University of Virginia Press), considers how people react with doubt to the religious images they see in the everyday landscape. This book includes a chapter on the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter, as well as chapters on “Touchdown Jesus” at the University of Notre Dame; the Mormon Temple along Washington, D.C.’s Beltway cast in terms of The Wizard of Oz; the evangelical theme park, including Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Heritage USA; and the giant Christ of the Ozarks statue in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, nicknamed “Gumby Jesus.”
At the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, the metal Stegosaurus entrance sign and the giant dinosaur statue plodding on the entrance plaza are the inescapable objects of your attention as you begin your museum adventure. To be sure, these elements are part of the spectacle intended to signal the museum’s very nature as natural history museum, theme park, and religious polemic. But what do we make of the Creation Museum’s architecture itself, if we think about it at all? It is, in truth, a big blank of a building: its cream colored, concave colonnade encased in dark glass is topped by a visually heavy, unadorned cornice, as landscaping and a battered stone sidewall seemingly sliding into the ground mask the museum’s massive 75,000 square foot volume. Completed in 2007 and designed by the Cincinnati-based firm A.M. Kinney Associates, the Creation Museum shares in the kind of anonymous, Postmodernist architecture of the Smithsonian Museums you see on the National Mall (think here, for example, not of the Beaux-Arts style National Museum of Natural History (1910) but rather the severity of the Hirshhorn Museum (1969–1974), the Air and Space Museum (1972–1976), and the National Museum of American History (1964)). But I’d like to posit another point of comparison for the Creation Museum’s architecture: the Creation Museum as American megachurch.
As scholars of American material religion and religious architecture have explored, the American Protestant megachurch—Willow Creek Community Church in the suburbs of Chicago is the quintessential example, and televangelist Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston is another famous realization of this building type—differs from traditional ecclesiastical architecture in its rejection of Gothic and classical historicism and frank embrace of a corporate image. Gone from the megachurch are the steeple and stained glass (though not always), and in their place are sprawling complexes in a sea of asphalt parking that feel more like shopping mall, hotel, and convention center than sacred space. This is purposefully so, to reach precisely those people for whom the pomp and circumstance of traditional liturgical spaces are off-putting. The megachurch’s massive foyers, wide hallways, escalators, coffee shop, and bookstore are meant to put people at ease within the familiar language of commercial and leisure spaces. The megachurch’s sanctuary space—if you can call it that—comes alive only with the activation of the worship services themselves, as massive screens project close ups of the preacher and the choir and scroll lyrics to hymns. These screens are the new stained glass, as religious historian Jeanne Halgren Kilde tells us. The megachurch remakes how Protestants worship and in what environment, even as it draws on longstanding traditions of Protestant auditorium and performance space since the nineteenth century.
For me, understanding the Creation Museum as a megachurch was a light bulb moment that offers a way to understand the function and purpose of the museum and its identity within the parachurch organization of Answers in Genesis. The Creation Museum is a proxy church: its exhibits become the text of its theology; the “Last Adam” theater, a performance of salvation; its Legacy Hall, a space for the witness of faith, as the 2014 debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye showcased to great public effect. But also like a megachurch, the Creation Museum fuses its witness to faith with an environment that caters to the many needs of its visitors. Noah’s Café, the Screaming Raptor zip lines, the petting zoo, and the annual ChristmasTown spectacular offer opportunities for respite and entertainment. This fusion of religion, entertainment, and the everyday found in the Creation Museum are the same hallmarks of the American megachurch.
In a 2010 Vanity Fair article titled “Roll Over, Charles Darwin!”—an article dripping with sarcasm and entirely inimical to the Answers in Genesis project—British writer JJ Gill made plain his expectation of understanding the Creation Museum as a house of worship and his great disappointment at finding such expectations unfulfilled. Gill observed,
Oddly, [the Creation Museum] is a conspicuously and emphatically secular construction. There is no religious symbolism. No crosses. No stained glass. No spiral campanile. It has borrowed the empirical vernacular of the enemy to wrap the literal interpretation of Genesis in the façade of a liberal art gallery or library. It is the Lamb dressed in wolf’s clothing.
Further judging the museum as “the biggest collection of kitsch in God’s entire world,” Gill lamented that Creation Museum “is the profound represented by the banal” that actually “defies belief, beggars faith.” For Gill, the very architecture and environment of the Creation Museum could not possibly embody a religious point of view for the very reason that God did not seem to be immanent there. The Creation Museum, in short, was too ordinary to convey its extraordinary claims with conviction.
What a critic like JJ Gill wanted was an encounter with a physical space that gave place to the transcendent and the religious imagination. But what Gill didn’t understand was that the Creation Museum traffics in the banal in precisely the same ways as the American megachurch—to meet people where they are, in a language of the everyday. In taking care of the body in the restaurants, in giving respite in the gardens, in attending to the energies of children young and old in the zip line and the petting zoo, all the while offering a testament to faith in its exhibits, its theaters, its lecture halls, the Creation Museum takes the form of the American megachurch.
The Creation Museum is many things at once: a natural history museum, a religious and political polemic, a theme park. And we can understand it in the context of the American megachurch too.