Additions to Ark Encounter—Will they be enough?

Ark Encounter is about to embark on its second year of operation, this July 7. To attract new visitors as well as to tempt those who have visited before to come again, the creators of Ark Encounter have been designing and building new attractions, which they previewed last winter on the Ark Encounter blog. Earlier this month, we (Bill and Sue) visited Ark Encounter to see what was new. Here are some of the highlights.

We came upon the first addition on our left as we walked toward the ark from the bus drop-off area. It consists of a few small buildings constructed in something of a southwest style. According to the Ark Encounter blog, this is “a pre-Flood village,” and they call it “The West Village.” So far, only one building there is accessible to visitors and that is a small restaurant (no indoor seating) that serves hot dogs, brats, and the like. The other small buildings and a small covered stage are still under construction or behind construction fences.

Other additions outside the ark include the wood ramp that extends from the ground to the ark door (that was incomplete as of our second visit last summer), a good deal of impressive landscaping especially underneath the belly of the ark, and a new approach to food service at Emzarra’s Kitchen.

In the first year, Emzarra’s was organized much like a fast-food restaurant with a long counter at which visitors placed their orders (for burgers, fries, and so forth) and were given their food. The counter has been replaced this year with a buffet. Visitors purchase tickets for the buffet ($12.99 for adults who want to eat one meal in the course of their visit and $19.99 for adults who want to eat two) or for pizza (either by the slice or a whole pizza). On the whole, the fare is standard American—fried chicken, burgers, fried fish, steamed vegetables, mac and cheese, and free-standing salad and dessert bars.  

According to the Ark Encounter blog, the additions for 2017 also include an expansion of the petting zoo (or the Ararat Ridge Zoo). We saw nothing to indicate a structural expansion of the zoo, but we did notice that much landscaping has been added along with kangaroos and some animals.

Inside the ark, the spaces at each end of the structure (in the bow and the stern) which were largely empty last year now feature a snack shop, sitting area, and small petting zoo; a “theater” area in which visitors sit on backless benches to watch a movie on flat screens that are suspended from the ceiling (more on the movie in a later post); and a new exhibit (likely the most significant addition) called “Why the Bible Is True.” This exhibit features about 40 placards (depending on how you count large placards and clusters of smaller ones) designed in the style of a graphic novel that tell the story of three college students at a large university who grapple with questions of faith, a secular religion professor, excessive drinking, casual sex, and an automobile accident. More on that later too.

According to the Ark Encounter blog, there is also some new signage and a new video inside the ark too. We did not take note of those additions. There is also talk of a new 800-seat theater to be built adjacent to the ark. While the area just behind the ark is fenced off, we could see no indication of any construction underway.

So, these are the highlights of the additions to Ark Encounter for summer 2017, at least as we saw them on our recent visit. Expectations are high as AiG promised at minimum 1.2 million visitors in the first year (July 7, 2016 to July 6, 2017) with increases each year after that. Will enough new visitors find their way to Ark Encounter along with enough repeat visitors to reach that impressive goal? We shall see.

An Ex-Fundamentalist Reflects on his Visit to the Creation Museum

While it makes sense that my visit to the Creation Museum produced anger at those who run the museum and pity for those who are buying what the museum is selling, upon reflection I realized that neither response is completely fair or helpful. While there is a place for anger at an institution that has been the cause of so much confusion and resentment toward Christianity as a whole, I am quick, eager even, to forget that I have an obligation towards them. In the words of so many vacation Bible schools, I remain, after all, a C, I am a C-H, I am a C-H-R-I-S-T-I-A-N.

While my understanding of Christianity, the Church, and her scriptures have changed me into someone no longer recognized by the museum as a Christian, the hallmark of my faith cannot be anger but love. Love, of course, does not preclude anger, but it does require prayer and faith. I have expressed my anger toward the museum and the damage that the ideology they push has done to me and many of those I love, yet I have not prayed for Ken Ham and company. Even as a liberal, evolutionist Catholic, I remain called to believe that God is drawing all things to God’s perfect self. Upon reflection, I have lately been willing to pray that this work be completed in even those who perpetrate the most evil sins against humanity, but I have (as of yet) failed to pray that God’s grace would change the hearts and minds of the folks at Answers in Genesis and their followers.

Secondly, my pity for those who have been charmed by the museum’s carefully crafted presentation, if I am being honest, only serves to demonstrate to myself how far I have come. “If only,” I smirk in my heart of hearts, “you were to become like me.” Further, it is this feigned concern that allows my pity to turn to haughty disgust in the face of climate change deniers, ardent supporters of President Trump, and the like. Reflecting upon the scriptures and Christian tradition, it would seem that my obligation, while maintaining truth and goodness, is to ask what deficiencies in myself and in the Church’s presence in the world foster this type of confusion, anger, and fear. I am angry at the museum for taking advantage of those who have not been equipped to see through their illusions. And then, in the same breath I express my righteous indignation against those same people for that very lack when it manifests itself socially and politically. The allure of a cleverly crafted Facebook meme almost always wins out against compassion, understanding, and the faith God is drawing the whole of Creation to Godself.

As I begin my own examination of fundamentalism in the form of a doctoral dissertation (Mary, Seat of Wisdom, pray for me) it is crucial that I not lose sight of my conviction that, in the words of Laudato Si, “there is but one human community” and, moreover, that there is but one Church. My work as a theologian is against fundamentalism, but must always be for the good of the entirety of the Church. So much of my anger at the Creation Museum is not necessarily because of what it does to create division and confusion but because it reminds me of how much work remains to be done within me. “A theologian is one who prays, and one who prays is a theologian.” And thus, it is my lack of prayers, and not my academic ability, that remains to haunt me. May God, who has begun a good work in me, be faithful to complete it.

An Ex-Fundamentalist Visits the Creation Museum

We welcome to rightingamerica Sean Martin, who is a fourth year doctoral student in theology at the University of Dayton (UD), where he is researching Catholic Fundamentalism. Before doctoral studies, he earned an MA in Religious Studies, also from UD, and an MA in Philosophy from Georgia State University. Along with teaching duties at UD, he also works as an adjunct instructor in Philosophy for Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana and this autumn will begin as an adjunct at Chatfield College teaching Philosophy and Religious Studies. Sean lives in Cincinnati, OH with his lovely wife, Beth, an adorable dog, and a disinterested cat.

My visit to the Creation Museum in the Fall of 2015 was largely similar to those who have written for this blog before. I was impressed by the sheer amount of money and energy invested in crafting this monument to evangelical anti-evolution ideology. I took pictures for research, I spent time at each and every display looking for hidden assumptions and logical inconsistencies, and watched the many other pilgrims who had journeyed to worship at this temple to society’s remaining hope of salvation. And from this experience, I could easily rehash that which others have written about previously in prose more elegant and insightful than I am capable. I also brought with me to the Creation Museum, however, all the confusion, angst, and pain of being raised as a fundamentalist, young-Earth creationist.

Thus, while I walked through the Creation Museum cataloguing my reflections for later examination, I also felt the lingering vestiges of my past commitments stirring in some long forgotten part of my mind. Having been a committed creationist until my freshman year of college in 2000, I know very well that despite the attestations of the Museum to the contrary, creationism is not about truth, or at least, not in the end. Creationism is about salvation and Heaven and Hell. And as I walked the halls of the Creation Museum, I heard again the whispers of doubt that – despite my advanced degrees and years of committed study of scripture, theology, and philosophy – it was possible that I was wrong. It was possible that I was being deceived and my pride and confidence in my commitments (as opposed to God’s truth) had placed my eternal soul in ultimate peril.

Like anyone perennially living in the mode of recovery, however, I was able to silence my demons through the use of long memorized mantras and self-assurances. These would be the same that I use on the rare occasions that I cannot reach my wife on the phone for longer than is comfortable coupled with the coincidental inability to contact several family members, leaving me beginning to wonder if I had been “left behind.”

As I made my way farther through the museum my fear turned to anger. Because I knew by heart all the tell-tale signs, I could recognize the subtle way that the Creation Museum and its parent organization, Answers in Genesis, gradually leads their visitors from academic discourse to irrational fear. What began as simply a different historical-scientific perspective is replaced with sin and despair, the specter of Pascal’s wager haunting every step. I became enraged, not only that the museum had weakened my own defenses and reintroduced doubts that I had assumed long conquered, but also that they would use such methods against those who have not had the luxury of 15+ years of theological and philosophical education. The museum preys on those whose pasts were, for whatever reason, bereft of the opportunities that had allowed me to find my way free of fundamentalism’s strong pull. I was furious at the Museum, and I pitied those who had fallen into their trap.

But as I reflected on my visit, I realized that anger and pity are neither completely fair nor helpful responses to the Creation Museum. More on this in my next post.

Politics: National and Transnational

In his conclusion to this week’s series, Dr. Pete Cajka compares the political implications of each site’s displays, focusing on the ways both sites critique secularization of local, national, and transnational cultures.  

V: Politics: National and Transnational

In Righting America, the Trollingers make the persuasive argument that the Creation Museum is preparing its visitors to fight in the culture wars.  The site seeks to “constitute” or “form” subjects to this end. Visitors are encouraged to pursue a particular interpretation of the bible in order to stop the nation’s slide into sin and ultimate destruction at the hands of an epochal flood. If one adheres to the truth about creation as presented by the museum, one cannot be held responsible for secularization or the nation’s decline in morals. The hoisting of Reason over the Word fuels the nation’s decline into a moral morass – and the Word must be made triumphant over Reason to arrest the slide. The museum encourages visitors to denounce Public Schools (bastions of secularism), promote patriarchy, and elide the nation’s painful history of race relations.

When set alongside Maria Stein – and considering a question of how Maria Stein “constitutes” its subjects – it is striking just how much the Creation Museum forms its subjects to win the culture war in America. The culture warriors that leave the Creation Museum are prepared to do battle in an arena of the American nation-state. If more individuals manage to save themselves from the public schools, perhaps the nation’s slide towards corruption can be reversed. It is, as the Trollingers note in their chapter on politics, a choice between “following the Word” or living in a “Godless America.”

This is not to suggest that the Creation Museum is only concerned with the nation-state, but the evangelicals and fundamentalists who frequent it seem to be focused on the religious and moral life of America in a way that the Catholics – past and present – at Maria Stein simply are not.

The ambitions of the Creation Museum itself are cosmic (which make its consideration for “America” all the more striking). In claiming that the earth was literally made 6,000 years ago, the Creation Museum makes a point about all of creation in outer space. They built the planetarium to show their concerns with the cosmic. The cosmic claims can also be seen in the way the CM avoids both the flat-earth idea of the Old Testament and the geocentric interpretation of the universe in other quarters of fundamentalist Christianity.  While the Creation Museum forms cultural warriors to fight on an American front – it also projects an interpretation of the entire universe.

The Creation Museum also attempts to obliterate time, which also makes its concerns with the moral life of the nation-state all the more salient. The culture warriors are formed to save America (a time-bound nation) but these soldiers have an imagination that is supposed to be 6,000 years in length. The creation of Noah’s Ark and the replication of scenes from Genesis obliterate time to give the viewer direct access to the early story of the bible. Yet, they have been commissioned by the museum to save America, a particular nation-state, from “the godless.” The flood came initially in response to human pride and selfishness, and it can return, but it can be stopped in the nation-state.

Maria Stein fosters a transnational consciousness among its visitors. The trunks on display at the museum show that the shrine’s initial patrons were Germans. The Sisters of the Precious Blood, also German, arrived at Maria Stein in 1944, at the very beginning of an age that American Catholic historians call “the immigrant church.”  

German Catholic Culture Exhibit. Copyright: Heritage Museum at the Maria Stein Shrine of the Holy Relics, 2017.

 The museum makes clear that Maria Stein has its origins in the tremors that shook continental Europe in the wake of the French Revolution.

Visitors encounter this transnational history several times in Maria Stein’s museum. A poster entitled “Trumpet of the Precious Blood” notes that, “St. Gaspar del Bufalo was a priest of the diocese of Rome, Italy, who found Missionaries of the Precious Blood in 1815. In refusing the oath of fidelity to Napoleon he remained loyal to the Holy Father and was exiled and imprisoned.”  

Trumpet of the Precious Blood. Copyright: Heritage Museum at the Maria Stein Shrine of the Holy Relics, 2017.

Maria Stein is also trans-temporal and cosmic in its own way – its relics, its connection to the saints, its likes to heaven – but it is also profoundly local. The nuns who built the convent at Maria Stein poured their labor into western Ohio soil. The immigrants who settled in Ohio understood the convent and shrine through profoundly local idiom: it placed an Old World/Old Faith into a new soil. Whereas Maria Stein offers an escape from the violence of the nation-state, the Creation Museum prepares soldiers for a Culture War here in America.

Both the shrine and reliquary imply that nation-states are sites of trouble that might not be worth redeeming. Maria Stein joins the Creation Museum in critiquing the secularization that resulted from various projects sponsored by modern nation-states, but the Catholics at Maria Stein offer a divergent response: they flee the nation-state. On one level, the museum and the reliquary are forming people to emulate saints or to join in the communion of saints in a lifelong effort to save their souls. On the political plane, however, the shrine suggests that leaving a nation-state to plant the faith in different soil is a reasonable response to secularization. The museum shows the German founders of the shrine to be highly mobile. The reliquary communicates a similar message. Victoria left the catacombs for western Ohio; she was murdered by a pagan who rejected the faith. Catholicism can be uprooted, moved across an ocean, and put in a new soil.


American religious historians often write about particular religious imaginaries in their work. It is difficult enough to empathize with one particular group of people, let alone many others, all in the space of one book. The story of how two vastly different religious imaginaries inhabit the same land, and use physical spaces to form individuals to very different ends, is a story that has been unfolding since the Reformation in the early sixteenth century.  If one begins with the Bible or starts with the desire for presence, the results, particularly in the form of a built environment, are quite different. Still, teachers in booth religious subcultures struggle to convey their messages to their followers. Both of these groups struggle with the coercive power of the modern nation-state. Both, to some extent, are ill at ease in the hyper pluralist context of the early twenty first century United States.

Bodies of the Bible, Bodies of the Saints

In today’s post, Dr. Pete Cajka continues his series on the Creation Museum and Maria Stein Shrine of the Holy Relics.  While yesterday’s post explored how visitors at each site read artifacts and relics with the religious imagination of each space, below Dr. Cajka examines the presence of bodies – biblical and religious, artificial and real – in each site to consider what these bodies contribute to visitors’ experiences.

IV: Bodies of the Bible, Bodies of the Saints

Both the Creation Museum and the Maria Stein Shrine & Museum have human bodies on display. Often scholars can separate Protestant and Catholics into binaries of word/flesh or absence/presence. A comparative analysis of the two sites reveals that flesh is present at both sites but to very different ends. Saint Victoria currently rests in a glass case underneath the reliquary’s main altar.

Encased remains of St. Victoria (c. 304) in the Maria Stein Reliquary. Copyright: Heritage Museum at Maria Stein Shrine, 2017

Her body, unlike other saints in the Catholic tradition, is said to have decayed– her bones are encased in wax and dressed in garments. The glass case and the wax might ask the visitor to consider what time has done to the saint’s flesh. Victoria was martyred in the third century, according to legend, by a “pagan” husband (it was an arranged marriage) who grew enraged by Victoria’s persistent commitment the faith. Victoria rested in the catacombs for some time before being brought to western Ohio. The visitor to Maria Stein cannot locate Victoria in her third century context – and the keepers of the reliquary have made no attempt offer such guidance.

Visitors to the Creation Museum behold incorruptible simulacra of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.  As the Trollingers note, “These human figures appear in multiple biblical scenes such as when Adam names the animals, just after Eve was created from Adam’s rib, and when Eve presents the forbidden fruit to Adam.” (Righting America, 32-33). The unblemished bodies at the Creation Museum – white and Western in appearance – are displayed alongside animals as well as dinosaurs.

The bodies at these two sites offer very different lessons on the passage of time. The visitor to the Creation Museum finds himself or herself in the fleshy presence of various biblical personages. The visitor to the Creation Museum encounters a number of healthy bodies. A robotic Noah speaks to the visitors. Craftsmen work away on the arc and craftswomen weave their baskets.

But the bodies at Maria Stein are literally in pieces. Pilgrims to the shrine are in the presence of small chunks of hundreds of saints. Victoria’s bones are encased in wax; her flesh is long gone. Not only has Saint Victoria decayed, she rests underneath a number of other relics – many of them fragments of bones or chips of bones, and some of them particles of holy objects.  Biblical Bodies are produced by the correct reading of Genesis. The Catholic bodies are subject to the erosion of time.

Reading Holy Objects

Today’s post continues Dr. Pete Cajka’s series on religious imaginations and the design of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, KY and the Maria Stein Shrine of the Holy Relics in Maria Stein, OH.  In this third installation, Pete addresses the problem of reading and interpreting the artifacts and relics at both sites. 

III: Reading Holy Objects

Both the Creation Museum and the Maria Stein Shrine deal with the problem of “reading.” Texts and objects cannot impose their wills absolutely on a receiving subject. As the Trollingers note, the bible, like other texts, can be read multiple ways. It is difficult – if not impossible – to control the lessons readers will derive from texts. The Creation Museum attempts to reduce the possibility that the bible might be interpreted in ways other than their own by selecting and omitting particular verses from Genesis in the museum’s displays and on placards.

Voice of the Lord Prayer Area at Maria Stein Museum. Copyright: Heritage Museum at Maria Stein Shrine, 2017

Maria Stein must also confront the problem of reception. Objects cannot impose a meaning on those who behold them. Visitors to Maria Stein’s museum can visit a small room with three religious objects. The first is a stained glass window on which the Holy Family appears. The second is a small statue of Mary holding the Christ child with her right hand, with Christ leaning on her shoulder for support. The third is a paper mache Jesus suffering on the cross, blood pouring out of the wound inflicted by the Roman soldier with a spear.

Paper Mache Jesus on the Cross. Copyright: Heritage Museum at Maria Stein Shrine, 2017

What lessons should the visitor take from the crucified Christ, the Christ Child, and the Holy Family? The visitor might understand such pieces as art. Is Mary present in the statue or is this just a representation of Mary? How should the blood flowing from the paper mache Christ be assessed by the visitor? The intention of the museum in putting such items on display is not entirely clear. Thus, any direct lesson could be lost upon the visitor. Or, a pilgrim could potentially draw his or her own lessons from the presentations of these materials.

The materials that appear in Maria Stein’s museum also allow for multiple interpretations the way a text is open for a number of readings. Indeed, placing such objects in a museum for the purposes of edification may challenge the presence previous generations of Catholics found in such materials. The ways such images are received are visitors and pilgrims would also change over time. Are current generations looking at these pieces in a “museum” whereas earlier generations of Catholics viewed them as invested with presence? The German Catholic community, especially its first wave that settled in Ohio in the nineteenth century, would have understood the suffering Christ, with blood gushing from his open wound, in different ways than certain twentieth century “American Catholics.” Putting statues or images on display in a museum risks making such images appear as atavistic, draining them of their real presence and vital life force. In this way, the pilgrim to Maria Stein may encounter mixed messages as they move between reliquary and museum.

The Biblical Imagination and the Presence of the Saints

Today we feature the second in a five-part series by our colleague, Dr. Pete Cajka.  Dr. Cajka’s previous post introduced readers to his extended analysis comparing the Creation Museum and the Maria Stein Shrine of the Holy Relics. Below, Pete examines the ways both sites shape how visitors experience their faith within each space. 

II: The Biblical Imagination and the Presence of the Saints

The two sites have been created with divergent “religious imaginations.” We might say that the developers of the Creation Museum went about their task with a biblical imagination.

The biblical imagination is constructed with words, and these words police the boundaries of the imagination. The message of the Creation Museum, as the Trollingers show, is based on a selective reading of the bible, particularly the book of Genesis.  The words of the bible, as presented at the museum, clarify the past. Visitors are confronted with a stark choice in the present: obedience to the Word or a false elevation of Reason over the Word. Sin brought people to read the bible the wrong way (reason flowed from pride), and the Creation Museum exists to show people how the bible should be read. While Ken Ham and the architects of the museum tout the clarity of the bible, the Trollingers make the point that, curiously, very few bibles are made available for visitors to read.

Front view of Maria Stein Shrine of the Holy Relics. Copyright: Maria Stein Shrine, 2017

The founders of Maria Stein, on the other hand, built a convent and reliquary with an imagination informed by “presence.” For Catholics, presence flows most abundantly from the Eucharist (the transubstantiated host), which brings the Real Presence of Christ into the world.1 Presence reifies in turn as saints and their relics place it more fully in into the mundane. A physical site built with concern for logos (even selectively so) concretizes in a different fashion than a building meant to house “Precious Blood” and relics.

If the words of the bible tell readers “what really happened” – presence does something very different. The reliquary and Victoria’s bones are “additions” to the Christian tradition, arriving in time well after the biblical story. Presence flows from words Christ spoke at the Last Supper (“take and eat, this is my body” Matthew 26:26) but it can be planted into fresh contexts by its practitioners. Indeed, presence must be brought into the world, often through rituals, and rooted in a soil. The creators of Maria Stein want to make the saints present – they are not attempting to show “what really happened.”

But the reliquary at Maria Stein still makes claims about how life should be lived on earth. The pilgrim is prodded to enter into a relationship with the communion of saints. Perhaps these visitors, like those to the Creation Museum, are confronted with a stark choice about eternity: live as a saint or risk the fires of hell! But the failure to make a choice to become a saint would not be responsible for a catastrophic, worldwide flood.

In tomorrow’s post, Dr. Cajka examines the problem of reading the artifacts, displays, and relics in the Creation Museum and the Maria Stein Shrine. 


1 On presence, see Robert Orsi, History and Presence (Harvard, 2016).

A Tale of Two Sites: The Creation Museum and Maria Stein Shrine of the Holy Relics

This week we are featuring a series of posts by our colleague Dr. Pete Cajka, Postdoctoral Research Associate the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism, University of Notre Dame. He is an intellectual and cultural historian of the twentieth century United States with interests in Catholicism. He received a PhD in American religious history from Boston College in 2017. His dissertation is entitled, “Rights of Conscience: The Rise of Tradition in America’s Age of Fracture, 1940-1990.” He has published essays in American Catholic Studies and Ohio History, and he has a forthcoming article in US Catholic Historian. He received a Dissertation Fellowship from the Louisville Institute for the Academic Year 2016-2017.


Presuppositions – our initial, core intellectual commitments – matter. The founders of the Creation Museum presuppose that the bible tells the real story of the earth’s creation. A commitment to this idea underwrites the museum’s exhibits, dioramas, displays, and films. The clarity of the bible also guides the political aspirations of the museum to wage a culture war against “Godless America.”1

Travel just 130 miles north of Petersburg, Kentucky and you will find the Maria Stein Shrine of the Holy Relics. The shrine opened its doors in 1875, and though it has far fewer visitors that the Creation Museum, it is also a key religious site of America’s Midwest. The shrine’s founders and the subsequent generation of custodians and devotees have very different presuppositions than the evangelicals and fundamentalists to their south who frequent the Creation Museum. The Catholics at Maria Stein assume that it is good to be in the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, or in the company of the saints. Presence enhances the efficacy of prayer. The importance of presence – the physical presence of saints’ bones – defines Maria Stein.

The upcoming blog posts in this series place the two sites in a comparative framework, despite the divergent presuppositions outlined above. Both sites are involved in the “formation” or “constitution” of their visiting subjects. Both sites draw upon the religious vitality of America’s Midwest. The Creation Museum and Maria Stein both have bodies on display. Both sites struggle with dilemmas of reading, interpretation, and message control. Each has a vision of politics in the modern world.

What follows in this series, then, is the tale of two religious sites. Both sites draw visitors into a built environment, constructed to affirm the presuppositions of each group. But one site used the bible as its blueprint and the other site is in the “presence” of the saints.

I. Museums and Shrines

The Sisters of the Precious Blood, the founders of the Shrine of Holy Relics, arrived in Ohio in the 1840s. Priests fleeing the Risorgimento and the Kulturkampf brought relics to the Midwestern United States throughout the 1870s and 1880s, entrusting them to women religious like the Sisters of the Precious Blood for safe-keeping. Gradually, over the last two decades of the nineteenth century, the sisters turned Maria Stein into an important place of devotion and adoration for fellow Catholics.  Over one thousand relics – including the bones of St. Victoria –have come to rest at Maria Stein. Visitors today can also visit a Heritage Museum found on the building’s second floor.

Both the Creation Museum and Maria Stein feed off the robust highway system of the modern United States. Both sites are in reach of highway 75, a major north-south thoroughfare, by way of some of its major tributaries. This land, a corridor that stretches from northern Kentucky and western Ohio, has been fantasized about by Catholics and Protestants in widely divergent ways. Protestants like Lyman Beecher worried that “Papists” would settle the American West – a fear that German Catholics like those who founded Maria Stein stoked. Catholics imagined the American Midwest as a “safe house” where religious objects and artifacts could be protected from the violence that wracked Continental Europe in the wake of the French Revolution.  

We begin by drawing an obvious distinction: whereas the Creation Museum claims to be a museum, Maria Stein is today a hybrid site of both reliquary and museum. The shrine of the holy relics opened its doors in the late nineteenth century and the Heritage Museum its doors in 2015. This initial observation raises two questions. First, how would the combination of reliquary and museum shape a visitor’s experience?

Reliquary at the Maria Stein Shrine of the Holy Relics. Copyright: Maria Stein Shrine, 2017

Subjects are invited to pray and learn while on site. The kneeler positioned in front of the reliquary at Maria Stein beckons visitors to bend their knees in prayer. The rows of flickering candles between supplicant and relics helps silent intentions offered at the reliquary to endure after the worshipper departs.

Second, would a physical space set aside for prayer help a visitor reflect critically on an institution’s message? The choice the Creation Museum wants its visitors to make (to be with the “inerrant word” or against it) offers little room for worship or prayer. Some visitors to Maria Stein have ventured to this specific place to adore the relics. The adjacent museum would help them to foster a dual identity of learner and supplicant. Such a dual identity is not what the developers of the Creation Museum had in mind.

This quick comparison highlights the absence of a space at the Creation Museum set aside for prayer. While the space at the Creation Museum itself would not make it impossible for visitors to offer spontaneous prayer (perhaps in the parking lot or silently whilst in an exhibit), the absence of contemplative space demonstrates further the intention of the site’s architects to impress a particular worldview on its visitors. The absence of a space to pray has implications for the “constitution of the subject.”  The teleology of Graffiti Alley and the excessive signage encourage acceptance rather than reflection. Prayer or reflection might destabilize the site’s message.  The visitor to the Creation Museum might have to head for one of the gardens to escape the bombardment of information.

In tomorrow’s post, we’ll explore further the distinctions in the designs of the Creation Museum and Maria Stein and the significance of these designs for visitors’ experiences in each space. 


1 On the importance of presuppositions in Evangelical history, see Molly Worthen, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (Oxford, 2014).

Ken Ham’s Glass House

GQ’s Jeff Vrabel toured Ark Encounter a few days after its July 7, 2016 opening.  In his hilarious and insightful article on his Ark visit Vrabel begins by observing that:

Noah’s ark is the first left after the gas station, down the street from the Mexican restaurant . . . Given that it constitutes a $100 million boat-shaped Bible theme park and the self-proclaimed “largest timber-fame structure in the world,” I’d expected a more dramatic approach. Maybe some animatronics. At least a little traffic.   

Because we are approaching the anniversary of the Ark’s opening, we recently made a third visit. While we were not keen on returning, it turned out to be a very productive trip. Over the next month, we will have a number of posts on the troubling and strange world of young Earth creationism as presented by Answers in Genesis (AiG) at Ark Encounter.

But for this post, we will remain outside the Ark. And we can report that the Ark Encounter exit off I-75 remains as undeveloped as the day Jeff Vrabel visited last July. El Jalisco’s and the gas station are still there, plus two sleepy hotels that clearly need updating. That’s it.

Nothing is happening there, and nothing is happening just down the road in little Williamstown.  In a May 24 Washington Post article Karen Heller reports that

A year after the ark opened, downtown Williamstown, about two miles from the tourist attraction, still isn’t much more than a collection of resale and “antiques” shops and shuttered storefronts. At lunchtime on a spring weekday, Main Street was devoid of pedestrians, tour buses, or open restaurants, except for a coffee shop with a tattoo parlor in the back.

Every day that goes by, it becomes increasingly obvious that AiG misled (at best) Williamstown city officials. In 2013, the town issued $62m of junk bonds and then loaned the proceeds to Ark Encounter. Over the next thirty years, ¾ of what Ark Encounter would have paid in property taxes will instead be used to pay off the loan.

Of course, groups like Americans United for Separation of Church and State are deeply troubled by the fact that this fundamentalist theme park is afloat thanks to this large government subsidy. But Ken Ham resolutely refuses to acknowledge this point, which is why we keep bringing it up. See, for example, his recent article, “Atheists Taking Over the Ark? Time to Debunk More Lies!,” in which he addresses “just a couple of the many outright lies” in the Freedom From Religion Foundation video, “Atheist Exposes Ark Encounter”:

Lie #1: The Ark was “built with millions in taxpayer subsidies.”

Truth: Not one dollar of state taxpayer money has been used – the Ark’s construction has been totally privately funded . . . All the funds for building the Ark came from our supporters who made donations (about 43,000 people/families) and other supporters who funded the bond offering. Also the numbers visiting the Ark are exceeding our expectations this spring.

Two questions regarding this highly problematic statement:

    1. Linking “supporters who made donations” with “supporters who funded the bond offering” elides the essential difference between these two groups: the former made gifts to Ark Encounter, and latter lent money – lots of money – to Ark Encounter and thus expect to be repaid, with interest. Given that 75% of what Ark Encounter would have paid in property taxes will go to paying off the loan, in what sense can Ham claim that the Ark  is “totally privately funded”


  1. Ham told the Washington Post reporter that the Ark “is on target . . . to attract more than a million visitors in the first year.” Given that he and other AiG representatives repeatedly predicted 1.4m-2.2m visitors in year one, in what sense can Ham claim that the numbers “are exceeding our expectations”?

In his attack on FFRF Ham sniffs that “when Christians ask me why atheists spread false information, I remind them that . . . non-Christians are spiritually blind and are ‘willingly ignorant of the truth.’”

The phrase “people in glass houses” comes to mind here.

Narrowing God’s Word and the Proper Christian at the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter

Last Wednesday, Sue presented our co-authored paper, “Sacred Rhetoric Turned into Culture War Rhetoric at the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter,” at the Sacred Rhetorics conference, which was held at Winebrenner Theological Seminary in Findlay, Ohio. Just one of the approximately thirty people in attendance had visited the Creation Museum and/or Ark Encounter, so it was a good thing that we had some images to share with the audience. The Q&A that followed the presentation was very engaging and tended to focus on the ways that AiG seems to restrict our understanding of the Bible and who counts as Christian.

  • Q: Why does AiG think it is so important to read Genesis literally?
  • A: Their argument is that if you don’t read Genesis literally then you are not getting God’s Truth as He intends it. Moreover, they argue, if you don’t read the first book of the Bible literally, then you likely won’t read any other book in the Bible (such as Revelation) literally. To fail to take Genesis literally is to fail to take seriously what God is trying to tell Christians from the first page to the last page of the Bible.


  • Q: If you believe in inerrancy and an old earth, would the people at AiG say that you are a faithful Christian?
  • A: They say that believing in an old earth is not a salvation issue. That is, one would not be denied God’s gift of salvation on the basis of one’s belief in an old earth. That said, they also argue that believing in an young earth is crucial since doing so shows that you take the Bible seriously as the inerrant Word of God. For AiG, the Word of God, to be True, must be understood as the inerrant-young-earth Word.


  • Q: Why does AiG think that reason is opposed to God’s Word?
  • A: AiG sees reason as a human faculty that can lead to error. Evolution is one of their prime examples of such an error produced by human reasoning. And the big problem with that error is that, according to them, it contests the true account of Creation in Genesis. By contrast, God’s Word is the universal truth that is without error and never changes over time. It is absolutely trustworthy, if it is read the right way—that is, literally.


  • Q: Does AiG shoot itself in the foot when it makes all kinds of arguments based in science given that it insists that believers should not rely on reason?
  • A: AiG makes a two-part argument regarding reason. The first argument is that good Christians need to make sure they always privilege the literal, young-earth-creationist interpretation of God’s Word over reason. If reason tells them one thing (that limiting marriage only to couples consisting of a man and a woman is wrong) but God’s Word says otherwise when read literally (that God commands that marriage only occur between a man and a woman), then Christians must adhere to what God’s Word says rather than what reason might indicate. Reason can be helpful, but only when its conclusions reiterate the truths that are revealed by a literal, young-earth-creationist Word. Anytime reason appears to contest that literal word, it must be rejected.


  • Q: How do children who have learned about science in school respond to what the Creation Museum is saying about the age of the Earth and the Flood? Do they laugh?
  • A: In our eight visits to the Creation Museum, we witnessed very little in the way of children laughing at or saying anything to indicate that they thought the exhibits were silly or preposterous. What we did see (as we wrote about previously) was parents (typically mothers) directing their children’s attention to this or that placard. Given the volume of home schooling material AiG sells, we think it likely that many parents bring their children to the Creation Museum and/or Ark Encounter as a home schooling field trip.


  • Q: Why don’t the Amish get as much attention as the Creation Museum or Ark Encounter since they seem to have important things to say about what it means to be a Christian today?
  • A: Sue got very excited about this question because, of course, her previous book was about the visual rhetoric of Amish Country tourism. Here’s her answer. The Amish actually get a lot of attention. About 11 million people visit just the three largest Amish settlements in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana each year. By contrast, predictions are that about 2 million people will visit the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter in 2017. And they do present a powerful witness to an alternative way of being in the world. Just one example—whenever a tourist gets stuck in traffic behind an Amish buggy, they are provided with a vivid (even if brief) experience of the very slow pace of Amish life. It they are paying attention, they might take that experience as an opportunity to think about the pace of mainstream life and what might be lost in that pace. In this way and others, the Amish put a mirror up to our culture and invite us to ask important questions about much that we take for granted in our culture and our lives.


In response to our paper and another, Professor Ronald C. Arnett made the following observation, which we think captures a crucial problem about the kind of Christian belief AiG advocates: “AiG’s project seems to be all about preservation and reification. But, faith isn’t about preservation or reification. It’s about death and resurrection.”


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