by Treavor Bogard
Today’s post comes from our colleague Treavor Bogard, Assistant Professor of Teacher Education at the University of Dayton. Treavor, whose expertise is in English education, draws some pretty clear connections between Ken Ham and a stock character from the work of Flannery O’Connor.
Straight from a Flannery O’Connor story, it is Ken Ham.
An early feasibility study projected that the Ark Encounter would create 900 jobs, attract 1.6 million visitors in its first year, and generate a $214 million in economic impact for the region. The projections indicated that the Ark would rank below the twenty most attended theme parks in the U.S. With numbers like that, Williamstown city leaders had no problem believing that the Ark would be the town’s economic lifeboat, and offered $62 million to jumpstart construction on the Ark using high-risk, tax-increment financing of bonds.
But as has been reported in prior blog posts, the number of visitors to Williamstown has fallen far short of projections, leaving people to wonder if their encounters with Ham, who persuaded them to jump on board with the Ark, threw reason and objectivity overboard. As local businesses bemoan the absence of tourism in the area, Ham boasts that attendance at the Ark exceeds expectations and blames community developers for not taking advantage of the influx of visitors to the region. His reaction is telling: Ham and AiG manufacture faith not from believing in things unseen, but from constructing the reality they want to see.
The situation unfolding in Williamstown evokes a common trope in Southern Gothic fiction in which a “rainmaker” brings hope to an alienated town. Selling promises he can’t keep, he wins the trust of a community by reflecting back to them what they want to see. In times of drought and depression, he brings prayer, staged healings, and assurance of rain then, in a classic bait-and-switch, leaves town with their money. In the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, he appears as the devil disguised as an innocent—a young bible salesman, for instance—who exploits his victims’ faith in the decency of “good country people.” And after the offering plate is passed, he runs away with the loot, leaving the people broken, but perhaps wiser to the world. Where the community was once blind it can now see more clearly the world as it actually exits. These tales reveal how a charismatic evangelical can play to a community’s economic interests and feed its desire to have its faith and worldview affirmed.
In the tale of the Ark, the people of Williamstown stand in its shadow and look up to see Ham onboard, aloof to the sea of debt that may drown the town that materialized his vision. In the absence of tourists to justify the local development, Williamstown will struggle to keep the Ark afloat as visitors find food and lodging in cities with lots more to offer than Williamstown.
Will the people of Williamstown regard the Ark as a burden for the faithful, another cross to bear? Or will their encounter with the Ark offer redemption from religious intemperance? Such an encounter might awaken people to the cost of privileging faith over reason, emotion over intellect, intuition over fact, and denial over acceptance.