[Postcard] | Brief History of Time, by Sara Novic | Harper's Magazine

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A day on Noah's Ark

Noah’s ark was bigger than I had imagined. Having grown up with the story, I had pictured something colossal, but it still took me by surprise. It was more beautiful than I expected, too: the wood bright and fresh—handcrafted by Amish artisans—the light color emphasizing the ark’s vast bulk.

Ark Encounter, a theme park featuring a replica of Noah’s Ark built to biblical specifications, opened its doors in Williamstown, Kentucky, last year, and has since welcomed more than 1.1 million visitors. The park, which also features an outdoor stage, restaurant, zip-line course, and zoo, is a $102 million for-profit venture, built in part with $18 million in state tax breaks. The ark itself is a behemoth at 30 by 50 by 300 cubits (an ancient measurement, the distance between one’s elbow and fingertips), meaning it’s about 51 feet high, 85 feet wide, and 510 feet long, the largest timber-frame structure in the world. It is as tall as a four-story building, could fit three NASA shuttles nose-to-tail on its roof, and has the capacity of 450 semitrailers. It’s an impressive structure, and though I carry with me ambivalent memories of growing up in the church, I still found it alluring.

We approached the ticket windows. There were many of them, and an accompanying series of roped-off queues, but my partner and I were two of only a handful of people there. We each shelled out $40, climbed a ramp, and entered the ark, a long, open hall filled with effulgent gold light from a run of rustic chandeliers. The walls were made of exposed natural timber beams, like a log cabin. Up ahead, the ark widened, and signs welcomed us to various exhibits, some like little coves flowing one into the next, others with mazelike partitions. Then came the baby dinosaurs.

The ark is one of several educational ministries founded by Ken Ham, an Australian fundamentalist Christian who believes in “young-Earth” Creationism. The Bible is the infallible word of God, to be understood literally. As such, the days mentioned in the Genesis creation story must be seven twenty-four-hour days, making Earth about six thousand years old. With only six thousand years to squeeze in all of geological and biological history, dinosaurs and humans are said to have overlapped. And because God told Noah to bring “two of every kind,” dinosaurs got a ride on the ark right alongside the lions and tigers and bears.

The dinosaurs, like all the creatures in the museum, were stuffed or sculpted and positioned in rows of wooden cages alongside hay bales and clay water jugs. Some of the dinosaurs had birdlike beaks; others looked like giant lizards or mini brontosauruses; none were labeled with their scientific classifications, because they represented “kinds” which, as we learned later, is a broad category comprising animals that can mate with one another. Many species were represented by a single kind, and after the Flood, these kinds proliferated back into the diverse animal kingdom we know today. “Species [gave] rise to new species, modified characteristics develop[ed] over time, and the fittest animals survive[d] best,” one plaque read. “Sounds a lot like evolution, right?” But speciation, or “the biblical creation model of changes within kinds” still doesn’t support “molecules to man evolution,” which requires changes intrakind.

Another plaque tethered to a cage of giraffe sculptures asks: “Why is the giraffe’s neck so short?” “Today, giraffes are often considered in light of their most popular member: the long-necked giraffe. However, the other living member of the family, the okapi, has more reserved proportions. Indeed, the majority of fossil giraffes had shorter necks than the modern giraffe. This suggests that the Ark giraffes were probably more okapi-like appearance than the giraffe . . . only one example of variation within this kind.”

The caged animal sculptures ran the full length of the boat on two decks, while animatronic Noahs and other mini exhibits filled the outer rooms. As I walked through the wooden corridors, I was overwhelmed by the amount of explanatory text. I passed by video screens, timelines, models of boats to test seaworthiness, interactive doodads for kids to lift and twist and press, and a multitude of plaques—on the surface it looked much like any other science museum, except the only source quoted was the Bible.

“DIFFERENT WORLDVIEWS LEAD TO DIFFERENT CONCLUSIONS,” explained one sign, detailing the planet’s history:

6,000 years ago—CREATION

4,400 years ago—THE FLOOD

4,000 years ago—THE ICE AGE

2,000 years ago—CHRIST

My partner, who’s Jewish, stood slack-jawed before this timeline, so abbreviated from his own understanding. I knew about young-Earth believers, had expected this, but still began to laugh. The Ice Age, we read, resulted from the Flood and caused the dinosaurs’ extinction. There was no mention of how other animals and humans survived.

Most of the exhibits were focused on the minutia of ark-building and the care and keeping of its passengers. There were about 1,500 “kinds” of animals on the ark, at most, 7,000 animals in total. God instructed Noah to take seven of each “clean” animal—creatures that he could later sacrifice. For easier care and transport, Noah likely would’ve chosen baby animals. He used elaborate water-delivery systems—clay pipes running aqueductlike across the ark and delivering water into troughs, self-feeders for food delivery for the birds and smaller animals, slotted, slanted cages for manure collection, and roof windows, as stipulated in Genesis, as a rudimentary ventilation system.

His family also played a crucial role. They are depicted throughout the museum feeding and watering animals and cleaning cages. Noah’s wife, in particular, was essential personnel. “Mrs. Noah,” as she’s called, was likely quite “fit and active,” despite being six hundred years old, and cooked and wove textiles in addition to helping care for the animals. “Noah’s wife is one of the more overlooked characters of the Bible,” her introduction read, “considering every one of us contains some of her DNA!” We never learned her name.

Other plaques addressed more specific questions about the animals’ care. “How did Noah keep the polar bears cool?” posed one attached to a cage of stuffed bears. If polar bears had been on the ark, they wouldn’t have required cold to stay alive. However, polar bears weren’t actually on the ark at all. “Polar bears are members of the bear kind,” the plaque explained. “We know [they] can produce offspring with grizzlies and other brown bears, and brown bears can interbreed with black bears. Thus, the various bears of the world belong to the same bear kind. The two bears on the Ark were the ancestors of the many bears in the world today, including polar bears.”

“Were unicorns on the Ark?” asked another sign, affixed to a cage of sculpted rhinoceroses. Though older translations of the Bible include the word “unicorn,” we learn, this was likely a reference to a wild ox or rhinoceros.

We continued through the ark to find an exhibit dedicated to ridiculing Bill Nye. In 2014, Nye debated founder Ken Ham, arguing for the veracity of our fossil records, which prove that Earth is billions of years old. The screens in the room loop highly edited clips, making it seem as if he’s at a loss for words each time Ham quotes from the Bible.

By the time I watched the videos of Nye, I’d stopped laughing; I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being trolled. And in a way, I was—because Ark Encounter’s greatest vitriol is reserved not for Bill Nye, or any full-blown heathens, but for those interested in thoughtfully engaging with both science and spirituality, who think the Bible could be operating on a metaphorical level. On one wall, a red serpent wound its way around a gilded inscription: “If I can convince you that the Flood was not real, then I can convince you that Heaven and Hell are not real.”

In a far corner of the ark one exhibit was set off by thick glass doors. The room was dark, its backlit shelves casting a glow on colorful children’s stories of Noah and the Flood. When I slipped inside, I felt at peace among the books, recognizing Veggie Tales characters, and Who Built the Ark? from my childhood. But as I moved closer, I realized the display is titled “7D’s of Deception”—the cutesy illustrations of lions and flamingos marching two-by-two are apparently the enemy. Atheists, the exhibit said, “use fairy tale arks to mock the Bible,” and the presence of “fanciful objects attack the truthfulness of scripture.” Beside me, a pair of little boys stared at the books in horror. I staggered out into the light, blinked the dinosaurs back into focus, and let my eyes readjust.

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