Postcard — November 22, 2017, 9:00 am

Brief History of Time

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.

Share
Single Page

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2020

The Interpretation of Dreams

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Dearest Lizzie

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Trumpism After Trump

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“My Gang Is Jesus”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Cancer Chair

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Birds

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Skinning Tree

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Trumpism After Trump·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The city was not beautiful; no one made that claim for it. At the height of summer, people in suits, shellacked by the sun, moved like harassed insects to avoid the concentrated light. There was a civil war–like fracture in America—the president had said so—but little of it showed in the capital. Everyone was polite and smooth in their exchanges. The corridor between Dupont Circle and Georgetown was like the dream of Yugoslav planners: long blocks of uniform earth-toned buildings that made the classical edifices of the Hill seem the residue of ancestors straining for pedigree. Bunting, starched and perfectly ruffled in red-white-and-blue fans, hung everywhere—from air conditioners, from gutters, from statues of dead revolutionaries. Coming from Berlin, where the manual laborers are white, I felt as though I was entering the heart of a caste civilization. Untouchables in hard hats drilled into sidewalks, carried pylons, and ate lunch from metal boxes, while waiters in restaurants complimented old respectable bobbing heads on how well they were progressing with their rib eyes and iceberg wedges.

I had come to Washington to witness either the birth of an ideology or what may turn out to be the passing of a kidney stone through the Republican Party. There was a new movement afoot: National Conservatives, they called themselves, and they were gathering here, at the Ritz-Carlton, at 22nd Street and M. Disparate tribes had posted up for the potlatch: reformacons, blood-and-soilers, curious liberal nationalists, “Austrians,” repentant neocons, evangelical Christians, corporate raiders, cattle ranchers, Silicon Valley dissidents, Buckleyites, Straussians, Orthodox Jews, Catholics, Mormons, Tories, dark-web spiders, tradcons, Lone Conservatives, Fed-Socs, Young Republicans, Reaganites in amber. Most straddled more than one category.

Article
The Cancer Chair·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The second-worst thing about cancer chairs is that they are attached to televisions. Someone somewhere is always at war with silence. It’s impossible to read, so I answer email, or watch some cop drama on my computer, or, if it seems unavoidable, explore the lives of my nurses. A trip to Cozumel with old girlfriends, a costume party with political overtones, an advanced degree on the internet: they’re all the same, these lives, which is to say that the nurses tell me nothing, perhaps because amid the din and pain it’s impossible to say anything of substance, or perhaps because they know that nothing is precisely what we both expect. It’s the very currency of the place. Perhaps they are being excruciatingly candid.

There is a cancer camaraderie I’ve never felt. That I find inimical, in fact. Along with the official optimism that percolates out of pamphlets, the milestone celebrations that seem aimed at children, the lemonade people squeeze out of their tumors. My stoniness has not always served me well. Among the cancer staff, there is special affection for the jocular sufferer, the one who makes light of lousy bowel movements and extols the spiritual tonic of neuropathy. And why not? Spend your waking life in hell, and you too might cherish the soul who’d learned to praise the flames. I can’t do it. I’m not chipper by nature, and just hearing the word cancer makes me feel like I’m wearing a welder’s mask.

Article
“My Gang Is Jesus”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

When Demétrio Martins was ready to preach, he pushed a joystick that angled the seat of his wheelchair forward, slowly lifting him to a standing position. Restraints held his body upright. His atrophied right arm lay on an armrest, and with his left hand, he put a microphone to his lips. “Proverbs, chapter fourteen, verse twelve,” he said. “ ‘There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is . . .’ ”

The congregation finished: “ ‘Death.’ ”

The Assembly of God True Grapevine was little more than a fluorescent-lit room wedged between a bar and an empty lot in Jacaré, a poor neighborhood on Rio de Janeiro’s north side. A few dozen people sat in the rows of plastic lawn chairs that served as pews, while shuddering wall fans circulated hot air. The congregation was largely female; of the few men in attendance, most wore collared shirts and old leather shoes. Now and then, Martins veered from Portuguese into celestial tongues. People rose from their seats, thrust their hands into the air, and shouted, “Hallelujah!”

Article
The Birds·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On December 7, 2016, a drone departed from an Amazon warehouse in the United Kingdom, ascended to an altitude of four hundred feet, and flew to a nearby farm. There it glided down to the front lawn and released from its clutches a small box containing an Amazon streaming device and a bag of popcorn. This was the first successful flight of Prime Air, Amazon’s drone delivery program. If instituted as a regular service, it would slash the costs of “last-mile delivery,” the shortest and most expensive leg of a package’s journey from warehouse to doorstep. Drones don’t get into fender benders, don’t hit rush-hour traffic, and don’t need humans to accompany them, all of which, Amazon says, could enable it to offer thirty-minute delivery for up to 90 percent of domestic shipments while also reducing carbon emissions. After years of testing, Amazon wrote to the Federal Aviation Administration last summer to ask for permission to conduct limited commercial deliveries with its drones, attaching this diagram to show how the system would work. (Amazon insisted that we note that the diagram is not to scale.) Amazon is not the only company working toward such an automated future—­UPS, FedEx, Uber, and Google’s parent company, Alphabet, have similar programs—­but its plans offer the most detailed vision of what seems to be an impending reality, one in which parce­l-toting drones are a constant presence in the sky, doing much more than just delivering popcorn.

Article
The Skinning Tree·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Every year in Lusk, Wyoming, during the second week of July, locals gather to reenact a day in 1849 when members of a nearby band of Sioux are said to have skinned a white man alive. None of the actors are Native American. The white participants dress up like Indians and redden their skin with body paint made from iron ore.

The town prepares all year, and the performance, The Legend of Rawhide, has a cast and crew of hundreds, almost all local volunteers, including elementary school children. There are six generations of Rawhide actors in one family; three or four generations seems to be the average. The show is performed twice, on Friday and Saturday night.

The plot is based on an event that, as local legend has it, occurred fifteen miles south of Lusk, in Rawhide Buttes. It goes like this: Clyde Pickett is traveling with a wagon train to California. He tells the other Pioneers: “The only good Injun’s a dead Injun.” Clyde loves Kate Farley, and to impress her, he shoots the first Indian he sees, who happens to be an Indian Princess. The Indians approach the Pioneers and ask that the murderer give himself up. Clyde won’t admit he did it. The Indians attack the wagon train and, eventually, Clyde surrenders. The Indians tie Clyde to the Skinning Tree and flay him alive. Later, Kate retrieves her dead lover’s body and the wagon train continues west.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

Americans evacuated from Wuhan did Zumba.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today