The newly opened life-sized Noah ark replica, in Williamstown, KY, is 120,000 square feet of hellfire-tinged, free-ranging weirdness. Located 45 minutes from its sister attraction the Creation Museum, the Ark Encounter bills itself as a "one-of-a-kind, historically themed attraction." And the collision between Biblical history and the evolutionary history of life are at the focal point of this family-friendly park.
The Christian fundamentalist organization behind the attraction is Answers in Genesis, or AiG, which is headed by Ken Ham (the Australian-born creationist who notably debated Bill Nye the Science Guy in 2014). At the core of AiG's beliefs is their literal reading of the Book of Genesis—where God fashioned the universe in six days, the earth is a mere 6,000 years old, and humans and dinosaurs lived during the same period. Parables don't apply. For these young earthers, the Genesis flood narrative is fact. God, for instance, really did divinely instruct Noah to build his boat and the flood subsequently annihilated everything that "moved on the earth." Times, though, are better for the reproduced ark. This simulacra comes equipped with Wi-Fi, air conditioning, and a nearby, 1,500-seat restaurant that serves comfort food and gluten-free options.
Ham and company are forecasting more than 2 million people could visit the attraction this year. When I recently visited, though, the crowd was steady but sparse (still, their seemingly target market, children, was the largest demographic there). Undoubtedly, the sheer size and scale of the vessel—which is 510 feet long, 85 feet wide, and 81 feet tall—is striking. The first floor of the structure (one of three decks) is devoted to both displaying how species were housed and fed on the ark while simultaneously quarrelling with those who view the logistics of the ark story as absurd.
According to the Bible, Noah was told to take with him two of every kind of animal, along with seven pairs of flying creatures and clean animals. To illustrate how this would be feasible, placards throughout the exhibit differentiate between "animal kinds" and "species." As they have it, the notion of a species is a "modern classification system" whereas the Bible used the term kind, which they say is "a much broader category than the modern term of classification." In others words, Noah brought with him all the antecedents of the animals that currently exist. As it's put on one placard: "Estimating the number of animals on the Ark depends upon several factors. Near the top of that list is the decision to 'split' or 'lump' the animals that may or may not be related as a kind." Therefore: "Coyotes, wolves, dingoes, and domestic dogs can generally interbreed. Thus, they can be 'lumped' into the same kind. So Noah just needed two of the dog kind on the Ark."
Elsewhere, the theory of evolution in general gets similar treatment. One placard, titled "An intelligent Look at Ancient Man," ponders: "The evolutionary story often portrays ancient man as a brutish caveman. Over the years, he evolved to become a hunter-gatherer. During the 'Agricultural Revolution' these hunter-gatherers became farmers and raised flocks. Eventually, men advanced to the point that they began to build cities." And then the next paragraph throws down the gauntlet. "Once again, the biblical account of man makes better sense of what we have observed. The caveman, hunter-gatherer, farmer, and city-builder definitely existed, but they all existed at the same time. In fact, each of these types of people can be found in the world today."
While reading this I turned to a straw blonde mother with her stroller-bound son and asked her if she thought this was true. "Well if Ken Ham, my man, says they do then of course!" She then added, "I've seen some National Geographic-type shows where they did these segments on people that sure looked like cavemen to me."
Other areas contain exhibits rebuking everything from climate change, the evolutionary explanation of the origins of languages to how the Grand Canyon could have been formed even on a young earth, and why God is in favor of capital punishment. There's even a didactic panel that explain why it's wrongheaded to believe extraterrestrials created structures like the Great Pyramid of Giza. But, as a cultural artifact, the Ark Encounter on the whole suggests that the contemporary world is becoming just as decadent and depraved as it was before the flood. And AiG does not shy away from the grotesqueness of the disaster. One mural, for instance, depicts God's wrath and among the carnage is a young girl moments away from being mauled by a shark. He does allegedly work in mysterious ways.
Upon leaving on the bus that takes you to and from the ark, two families and a middle-aged man by himself began chatting about how they wanted to make the pilgrimage back once the next phases of the park are done. These additions, according to AiG, "include a pre-Flood walled city, the Tower of Babel, a first-century village, a journey in history from Abraham to the parting of the Red Sea, a walk-through aviary, an expanded petting zoo, and other attractions that uphold the truth of God's Word." I interjected in the conversation asking what they thought of the price tag of the Ark Encounter (so far it's cost roughly $91 million and the entire project will be more than $150 million). The unaccompanied man retorted while laughing, "I mean, any amount of money is worth the explanation of everything."