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The Making of a Creationist Theme Park: Part One | Righting America

Ark Encounter: The Making of a Creationist Theme Park (NYU, 2018) is the latest work from James Bielo. Below is the first half of the rightingamerica interview with James regarding this fascinating book.

This image is the book cover for James Bielo's Ark Encounter: The Making of a Creationist Theme Park. It features the bow of the wood Ark against a blue sky.

Ark Encounter: The Making of a Creationist Theme Park (NYU, 2018)

James S. Bielo is Assistant Professor in the Dept. of Anthropology at Miami University (Oxford, Ohio). He is the author of four books and more than 50 scholarly articles, chapters, & essays. He is the project director for Materializing the Bible, a digital scholarship project that explores the social, material, and political dimensions of biblically-themed attractions. And, he is co-editor of a book series with the U Nebraska Press, Anthropology of Contemporary North America

Before we get started, I’d just like to say thanks for this opportunity. These are really thoughtful questions and it’s helpful for me to reflect on them.

1. We have been asked again and again how we ended up writing a book on the Creation Museum. So we ask the same question of you: How did you end up committing years of your life to researching and writing on Ark Encounter?

It was a mix of good timing and proximity, an openness from the Answers in Genesis (AiG) staff and gracious reception from the Ark design team, and my interest in speaking from an unexpected ethnographic vantage point. I first heard about Ark Encounter in December 2010. After considering it for a few months, and knowing AiG was based only 1 hour from my home, I reached out to the ministry. Surprisingly, I only encountered two gatekeepers before I was standing in the Ark design studio in October 2011.

Such pragmatic issues are always important to consider in fieldwork, but there was also a methodological and theoretical interest that drew me in. From the get go, and still today, the idea of conducting fieldwork with creationists and writing about creationists only to ask questions about creationism per se was not all that compelling to me. Going back to anthropological scholarship in the 1990s, folks like Susan Harding and Chris Toumey, we have a pretty good handle on who creationists are in cultural terms. For me, the really fascinating questions were always about the process of cultural production, the possibility of tracing the making of a creationist theme park from a backstage vantage point. I was always more interested in the creative team, who so often are unknown (even within creationist networks), than I was in public figures like Ken Ham. I wanted to know how a project of religious publicity like Ark Encounter develops and changes as it forms, not merely the finished product that visitors experience. I wanted to learn how fundamentalist Protestant commitments structured the process and the decisions being made on a daily basis, but I also wanted to ask if the process was shaped by other cultural logics, tensions, and contingencies. As it turns out, it absolutely was.

2. How did you secure “backstage” access to Ark Encounter, what was that experience like, and how and why did this access come to an end?

I invite readers to consult the book’s Appendix, which charts the methodological journey of the project. But, I can offer an abbreviated version here. The first AiG staff member I spoke with was an administrative assistant, who had very few questions for me. Fairly quickly, she put me in touch with one of the ministry’s co-founders who was also working as the organizational lead for Ark Encounter. We had a 1-hour phone conversation in August 2011. I asked some basic questions about the Ark, but really this conversation was about him interviewing me. He wanted to know what kind of research I had in mind and what kind of writing I was hoping to produce. I explained that my goal was to analyze the process of production as an anthropologist interested in how cultural systems work, not as someone looking to write any kind of expose. At the end of the call, he invited me to the design studio for a tour, which we set up for October 2011. I spent several hours there and later learned that, at the time, this kind of tour of the studio was primarily given to potential (and, potentially, deep-pocketed) donors. I returned a few weeks later for the first day of full fieldwork, at which point I met the team’s creative director, whose thumbs up or down would really decide my access. He too seemed to appreciate the fact that I wanted to focus on the creative process, and that I wanted to stick around as long as they would let me.

My fieldwork ended in June 2014. In late February 2014, AiG announced that the Ark project had raised the necessary funds to begin construction. At this time, the creative director and I spoke about how my fieldwork could continue, if in an adjusted form. Up to this point, I would spend a full day at the studio once every couple of weeks or so. I sat in on team meetings, talked with the artists in their cubicles while they worked, and (with a few exceptions) was provided generally open access to the team’s process. For example, they would share work-in-progress with me, materials that would not be seen by anyone else outside the studio. The creative director explained that with the green light to begin construction, their design work would increase considerably and my presence sitting in cubicles would soon not be possible. We agreed that I would focus only on team meetings and their more public-facing work. For whatever reason, he changed his mind and my access ended. I never learned the full reason for this decision, but ultimately, I am quite grateful that they were as open as they were over the course of those 43 months.

3. In the introduction to Ark Encounter you note that you want to move analysis of creationism beyond questions of “religion-science” to questions of “religion-entertainment.” What do you mean by this, and why is this important?

Yes, I hope this will be an enduring contribution of the book. As I said above, the creationist movement is well understood in the anthropological record and in the critical, interdisciplinary study of religion. The lion’s share of this scholarship analyzes, interprets, and explains creationism within the framework of religion-science. In other words, the questions posed and arguments advanced engage creationism in terms of how this movement appropriates the symbolic and material infrastructures of mainstream science. This is both good and necessary. Really, there is no understanding of creationism without an understanding of how creationists and creationist institutions continually re-create an antagonistic relationship with science (in particular, of course, evolutionary science). It’s important work and should continue.

My intervention in the book is to say that the frame of religion-science, while productive, does not exhaust the questions we can and should ask about the social life of creationism. What is illumined when we shine the light elsewhere? Through my fieldwork with the Ark Encounter design team, I learned quickly that a different analytical frame would be necessary to understand their creative process and labor. While they did participate in standard creationist discourses about science as part of their design work, this was far less significant than their engagement with other cultural assemblages, namely the world of entertainment. Moreover, it was a particular form of entertainment defined by immersive experience, world-making, and play. As I ask in the book, what do we learn from the ‘creationist imagineer’ that we don’t/can’t from the ‘creation scientist’? So, by shifting the focus to religion-entertainment, I hope to make legible key elements of how Ark Encounter, as a project of religious publicity, was produced and how it works as a visitor attraction. By highlighting the relationship between religion and entertainment I am also setting the stage for the book’s central argument: with Ark Encounter, creationists seek to mobilize the legitimacy and authority of entertainment to advance fundamentalist Protestant claims to cultural legitimacy and authority.