KEN HAM'S "ARK ENCOUNTER" & DARREN ARONOFSKY'S NOAH
alike in rarity in fair America,
where we lay our scene.
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny...
The American culture wars over the Bible have tended to launch Genesis 1-3, the biblical creation stories, into the spotlight. And so it is no surprise that they have garnered their share of buzz in 2014, primarily in the Bill Nye-Ken Ham debate over science and creationsim in early February. It seems Bill Nye the Science Guy's frankly brave willingnness to enter the up-side down world of 'scientific-esque' argumentation found in radical Christian creationsim had an undesired consequence. As reported by several media outlets on March 2, the debate catalyzed donors to rescue Ken Ham's heretofore bankrupt plans to build Ark Encounter, a life-sized theme park and sister attraction to his extant Creation Museum. The media savy of Ken Ham makes me suspicious of his motives for inviting Bill Nye to the Creation Museum for their debate. But I am not a financial investigative reporter. I will leave that question to other people. In any case, the real debate about the Bible did not take place on February 4 between Bill Nye and Ken Ham.
As February gives way to March, we can see a new battle line emerging in the sands: 2014 will be the year of Noah's ark. Or rather, arks. Specced to the blueprints of Genesis 6:14-16, two ancient ships are springing up on American soil. Two men have responded to the biblical command to Noah: "Make thee an ark of gopher wood." Two major enactments of the Noah story, both multi-million dollar projects, provide a new and perhaps unexpected point-counter point through which to view American debates over the Bible. Step aside, Science-Creation debate. Noah is coming to America with the force of Ninurta.
Noah and the Last Days Trailer:
Ken Ham / Answers in Genesis
Paramount Pictures / Darren Aronofsky
Leveraging Debates Over the Bible
The two arks are poised to reframe debates about the Bible in America, because the real debate is not about science and creationism. These two men are not setting up a disagreement about how old the earth is or whether humans walked with dinosaurs. Ken Ham found a way to leverage his Ark Encounter project using that debate. This time, Ken Ham has his marketing sights on another favorite enemey of evangelical Christians, Hollywood. But he chooses to stir up this culture-war in a season of numerous Bible films: Son of Man, Exodus, and Mary, the Mother of Christ (the prequel to Passion of the Christ), and Noah. His wager is more risky. Artists are far more compelling and prophetically rhetorical than scientists. Films have a much stronger ability to open up new worlds and demand the suspension of disbelief than evolutionary theory. The Aronofsky-Ham face-off is far more revealing of actual lines of difference in American religion. They offer two competing retellings of the Bible.
Despite what he assiduously claims, Ken Ham is retelling the Bible. His commitment to literalism hides the interpretive work his Ark Encounter is doing on the Genesis story. Ken Ham won't tell the story in Genesis 6:1-4 of the sons of God coming down to have sex with the daughters of men. Ken Ham won't emphasize the drunkeness and nakedness of Noah in Genesis 9. He will not point out that the covenant with Noah includes the animals. Since evangelicals tend to reject the concept of torah instruction, Ham will likely not make anything of the laws given to Noah in Genesis 9. He will not worry over the repetitive details in Genesis 6-9 that led biblical scholars to overwhemlingly conclude that Genesis is a mash-up of two Israelite flood stories. Ham won't highlight the biblically censured act of Ham in Gen 9:20-27. As a facebook friend recently jested, "Ken 'Ham' - getting a better view of Noah than the rest of us since Genesis 9.22."
ARK #1: Darren Aronofksy's Set for his Film Noah (March 28)
Reportedly 75 feet tall, 450 feet long, and 45 feet wide, Aronofsky's ark for Noah went up on ground in New York back in 2012. While building the set for Noah, director Darren Aronofsky tweeted:
"I dreamt about this since I was 13. And now it's a reality. Genesis 6:14."
Building a physical ark is a dramatic undertaking. When in October, Hurricane Sandy's path ran directly over the Oyster Bay, NY set making it inaccessible, even the cast savored the diluvian realia of thier biblical project. Emma Watson who plays Ila in the Noah movie, tweeted "I take it that the irony of a massive storm holding up the production of Noah is not lost."
The ark for the Noah movie could have been digitally generated. Indeed, digital artists will bring every single bird and beast to life in the film's impressive pilgrimage of the animals. But Aronofsky insisted that there be a physical ark. In a recent article for the Hollywood Reporter, Aronofsky speaks about
"'honoring and respecting everything in the Bible and accepting it as truth.' Genesis describes the ark as a giant box, he says, and that's what he wanted for the film. "Of course, my production designer [Mark Friedberg] had a million ideas of what it could look like, but I said, 'No, the measurements are right there.'"
Of course, Aronofsky is here defending against pressures from Paramount studio and all the media worries about whether his film is 'biblical' enough. Aronofsky's repeated references to the biblical text can be seen as his trial-defense in a cultural climate that automatically assumes the entire country is both biblically literate and literal in their biblicism. Come March 28th, we will see where the country stands on these issues. But for now, it is clear, no matter the prosecution, that Aronofsky has an attachment to and a very strong vision for the Noah story and its physical ark.
ARK #2: Ken Ham's "Ark Encounter" Theme Park
Ken Ham's "Ark Encounter" promises a life-sized "biblically accurate" ark as theme park. Just recently greenlighted with $73 million in funding, it will receive visitors through its hallways of farm animals, snack bars, and exhibits defending a literalist interpretation of Genesis. With three decks planned, we see a juxtaposition of noctournal mokeys, "cat kinds," and sloths. On the third floor, a visitor can peer into Noah's living quarters right after rounding the corner on "Flood & Post-Flood Geology." At the prow of the vessel, stands Christ's Theater. Jesus did like ministering on boats, after all.
Proximate to its sister Creation museum, Ark Encounter doubles down on the core mission to provide biblical literalists a space to experience their counter-cultural realities. Ken Ham is a 7-day creationist. His organization, Answers in Genesis, affirms a global flood, takes evolution as an enemy of Christianity, and argues that true faith in Jesus Christ requires reading Genesis as literal history. The literal ark is tantamount to the truth-value of Christ's salvific plan. According to the project's vision statement:
To rebuild the Ark, to full-scale biblical dimensions, as a sign to the world that God's Word is true and its message of salvation must be heeded (Romans 3:4, 5:12). Just as the Ark in Noah's day was a sign of salvation, as well as judgment, an Ark rebuilt today can be a sign to point to Jesus Christ, the Ark of our salvation, and to coming judgment (II Peter 3:5-13, John 10:9).
Currently hosting 280,000 visitors a year in Petersburg, KY, the Creation museum is actually showing signs of cultural fatigue. Visitor numbers have dwindled over the last several years, prompting park designers to install secular zip lines and sky bridges as carrots. However, Ark Encounter promises to drive pilgrims using sticks. The flood is a parade example of Christian judgment and salvation for Ken Ham. Fear has always worked well for religion. And so, the Ark Encounter may fare far better than its Creation counterpart. Make no mistake, Ken Ham is using the media about the Noah movie to his financial advantage. He did it with Bill Nye, he's doing it with Aronofsky's ark.
Despite the dubious motives of Ken Ham's marketing, these two arks do present us with a new take on the culture wars. I think there's a good chance that Ken Ham will lose this one. He spent his career polishing his war on science. He's not ready to take on artistic genius.
A New Culture War
Darren Aronofsky and Ken Ham stand in very different places on the American cultural landscape. Aronofsky is an acclaimed Hollywood director. He went to Harvard and studied Social Anthropology. His films take on violent, disturbing themes and tones of human experience. His Noah promises to be conflicted and weighed down by ehtical conviction about the wickedness of human behavior. Aronofsky is Jewish.
Ken Ham is an Australian-born evangelical Christian for whom a radically literal interpretation of Genesis is paramount (pun intended). President of Answers in Genesis, he has long cultivated a leadership position over the faith and business ventures of young-earth Christians. With a bachelor's degree in Applied Science/Environmental Biology from Queensland Institute of Technology, Ham spent his career in organizations devoted to creationist science. His Noah is an obedient, righteous historical figure whose flood realigned the planet's geological strata, repopulated the earth with animal "kinds," and heralded the ancestors of all human population a mere 6,000 years ago.
I cannot imagine the occassion where these two men would meet and find common cause. Nevertheless, they are building arks at the same time. They are also making movies at the same time. Ken Ham, ever the opportunist, plans to release a YouTube film called "Noah and the Last Days" on March 28th to coincide with Aronofsky's film release. He made a trailer. He has seed-money in his sails.
The making of the ark for Aronofsky's Noah
featuring Darren Aronofsky, Russell Crowe, Mark Friedberg (Production Designer), & Emma Watson
[Released March 6, 2014]
0:00 - 1:00 offers a vision from inside the Ark
A live web stream on Feb. 27, 2014, Ken Ham announced that enough money had been raised for the Ark Encounter in Williamstown, Kentucky
But Aronofsky and Ham do have common obsession: Noah's ark. They both admit deeply personal auto-biographical attachments to the ark. Aronofsky's tweet (above) traces this obsession back to age 13. It is widely known that his poem on the dove in the flood story won him a contest and an audience with the UN. He even invited his school-teacher to be in Noah. Ken Ham describes similar childhood attachments. About his plans for the entrance to his ark, Ham states:
"people see a small wooden model of Noah's Ark that my father built for me just before he died. In many ways, that Ark is a representation of my father's uncompromising stand on the authority of the Word of God beginning in Genesis."
Beyond motivation and personal attachment, both Aronofsky and Ham want people to experience the ark: "Ark Encounter" and "Ark Experience." On their respective websites are impressive digital resources to get people on board. Aronofsky's website invites the audience to explore inside Hollywood ark. And Ham's website hosts trailers and interactive maps galore to give people the look and feel of being on the ark. Of course, both men want their multi-million dollar projects to succeed. Aronofsky wants an audience for his film, and Ham wants pilgrims to come to Kentucky. But their marketing tactics look like mirrors of each other!
Drunkenness of Noah
Sistine Chapel Michelangelo
For Ken Ham, the Noah story is about Christ and salvation. In one of his promotional videos, Ham said, "Other than the cross, I believe the ark of Noah is one of the greatest reminders we have of the message of salvation." In some of his site's literature, Ham has emphasized the importance of the door of the ark. If the ark is the vessel of salvation, the door to the ark is the specific path on which Noah's family trod. "The door is like Christ," says Ham. "It is the way to heaven." Nevermind that the Genesis Noah story is about God's promise and covenant with all humanity.
The Real Debate over the Bible: This World
Ken Ham is going to lose this debate. He may succeed in marshalling some more media plunder to erect his small fifedom in Kentucky. But the interpretive theology at the heart of his own biblical literalism is still a blind spot. He is not ready to pit his scientific ignorance and metaphorical lock-down on Christ up against the history of biblical interpretation, which is more artistic, curious, and takes on pressing concerns of the present day. Ham is posturing for a debate over the very role of the Bible in American faith, but Aronofsky stands in the swells of history.
Granted, the flood is not about history; it's about an end of human history. Both Ham and Aronofsky get this. Ham reveals his newfound interest in the end most clearly in the title of his film, "Noah and the Last Days." The trailer's mashup of war, terrorism, and natural disasters form the 'indisputable signs" and "undeniable evidence" that we are living in the last days. Ham has moved off of the beginning to tackle the end. The flood is "your future," says Ham.
But Christian theology has never fared well when Christ is hermetically sealed. Ham has Christ locked at the top of his boat like Rapunzel. What's the message of the Christ Theater on the thrid floor? ...that you have to travel to Kentucky to feel the door of salvation close behind you. You must cognitively ascent to backwards arguments about science as you ascend to 'Christ-as-rhetorical-space.' Who cares about the real troubles of this world. Jesus on a screen: your consumer catharsis is supposed to be your grace.
If Ham's ark is about a rhetorical Jesus and The Flood as a fantastic End, Aronofsky's ark is about the real environmental threats to life as we currently know it on planet Earth. His ark faces a world of human violence, war, environmental degradation and overpopulation. Aronofsky's ark critiques the human activities today that whisk us rapidly towards global warming and ecological apocalypse. His ark is steered like a resuce ship, straight for the Deepwater Horizon.
Both prophets of End Times, if Aronofsky is Jeremiah in the city of Jerusalem warning about the unquestionable military invasion that would bring certain destruction, Ham is Pseudo-Jeremiah, drawing off the power of scriptural authority to escape current events in fanatically fantastic terms. One is trying to solve a real problem, the other is drumming up millenia-old mythologies of cataclysm to revive a specter of faith and make some money along the way.
Ham's ark is a land-locked vessel thumbing its nose at the water pollution in Kentucky and neighboring West Virginia. The wellbeing of the animals in Ark Encoutner was an afterthought, Kentucky's coal miners still face higher rates of birth defects, and the Elk River still runs with chemicals from 'Freedom Industries' (we'll take the pun, though unintended). Ham's ark is American Freedom rising above the polluted tide of Appalachian waters, but since his is a journey into the other-world of salvation, it doesn't bother him that his ark won't find a place to land...Kentucky's mountains tops have been removed.
"It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair,
we had everything before us, we had nothing before us,
we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way."
~ Charles Dickens