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

September 2019

The Wood Chipper

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Common Ground

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Love and Acid

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Black Axe

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Common Ground·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Thirty miles from the coast, on a desert plateau in the Judaean Mountains without natural resources or protection, Jerusalem is not a promising site for one of the world’s great cities, which partly explains why it has been burned to the ground twice and besieged or attacked more than seventy times. Much of the Old City that draws millions of tourists and Holy Land pilgrims dates back two thousand years, but the area ­likely served as the seat of the Judaean monarchy a full millennium before that. According to the Bible, King David conquered the Canaanite city and established it as his capital, but over centuries of destruction and rebuilding all traces of that period were lost. In 1867, a British military officer named Charles Warren set out to find the remnants of David’s kingdom. He expected to search below the famed Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, but the Ottoman authorities denied his request to excavate there. Warren decided to dig instead on a slope outside the Old City walls, observing that the Psalms describe Jerusalem as lying in a valley surrounded by hills, not on top of one.

On a Monday morning earlier this year, I walked from the Old City’s Muslim Quarter to the archaeological site that Warren unearthed, the ancient core of Jerusalem now known as the City of David. In the alleys of the Old City, stone insulated the air and awnings blocked the sun, so the streets were cold and dark and the mood was somber. Only the pilgrims were up this early. American church groups filed along the Via Dolorosa, holding thin wooden crosses and singing a hymn based on a line from the Gospel of Luke: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Narrow shops sold gardenia, musk, and amber incense alongside sweatshirts promoting the Israel Defense Forces.

I passed through the Western Wall Plaza to the Dung Gate, popularly believed to mark the ancient route along which red heifers were led to the Temple for sacrifice. Outside the Old City walls, in the open air, I found light and heat and noise. Tour buses lined up like train cars along the ridge. Monday is the day when bar and bat mitzvahs are held in Israel, and drumbeats from distant celebrations mixed with the pounding of jackhammers from construction sites nearby. When I arrived at the City of David, workmen were refinishing the wooden deck at the site’s entrance and laying down a marble mosaic by the ticket window.

Post
.TV·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A documentary about climate change, domain names, and capital

Article
The Black Axe·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Eleven years ago, on a bitter January night, dozens of young men, dressed in a uniform of black berets, white T-­shirts, and black pants, gathered on a hill overlooking the Nigerian city of Jos, shouting, dancing, and shooting guns into the black sky. A drummer pounded a rhythmic beat. Amid the roiling crowd, five men crawled toward a candlelit dais, where a white-­robed priest stood holding an axe. Leading them was John, a sophomore at the local college, powerfully built and baby-faced. Over the past six hours, he had been beaten and burned, trampled and taunted. He was exhausted. John looked out at the landscape beyond the priest. It was the harmattan season, when Saharan sand blots out the sky, and the city lights in the distance blurred in John’s eyes as if he were underwater.

John had been raised by a single mother in Kaduna, a hardscrabble city in Nigeria’s arid north. She’d worked all hours as a construction supplier, but the family still struggled to get by. Her three boys were left alone for long stretches, and they killed time hunting at a nearby lake while listening to American rap. At seventeen, John had enrolled at the University of Jos to study business. Four hours southeast of his native Kaduna, Jos was another world, temperate and green. John’s mother sent him an allowance, and he made cash on the side rearing guard dogs for sale in Port Harcourt, the perilous capital of Nigeria’s oil industry. But it wasn’t much. John’s older brother, also studying in Jos, hung around with a group of Axemen—members of the Black Axe fraternity—who partied hard and bought drugs and cars. Local media reported a flood of crimes that Axemen had allegedly committed, but his brother’s friends promised John that, were he to join the group, he wouldn’t be forced into anything illegal. He could just come to the parties, help out at the odd charity drive, and enjoy himself. It was up to him.

John knew that the Black Axe was into some “risky” stuff. But he thought it was worth it. Axemen were treated with respect and had connections to important people. Without a network, John’s chances of getting a good job post-­degree were almost nil. In his second year, he decided to join, or “bam.” On the day of the initiation, John was given a shopping list: candles, bug spray, a kola nut (a caffeinated nut native to West Africa), razor blades, and 10,000 Nigerian naira (around thirty dollars)—his bamming fee. He carried it all to the top of the hill. Once night fell, Axemen made John and the other four initiates lie on their stomachs in the dirt, pressed toge­ther shoulder to shoulder, and hurled insults at them. They reeked like goats, some Axemen screamed. Others lashed them with sticks. Each Axeman walked over their backs four times. Somebody lit the bug spray on fire, and ran the flames across them, “burning that goat stink from us,” John recalled.

Article
Who Is She?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t get up—­just couldn’t get up, couldn’t get up or leave. All day lying in that median, unable. Was this misery or joy?

It’s happened to you, too, hasn’t it? A habit or phase, a marriage, a disease, children or drugs, money or debt—­something you believed inescapable, something that had been going on for so long that you’d forgotten any and every step taken to lead your life here. What did you do? How did this happen? When you try to solve the crossword, someone keeps adding clues.

It’s happened to us all. The impossible knowledge is the one we all want—­the big why, the big how. Who among us won’t buy that lotto ticket? This is where stories come from and, believe me, there are only two kinds: ­one, naked lies, and two, pot holders, gas masks, condoms—­something you must carefully place between yourself and a truth too dangerous to touch.

Article
Murder Italian Style·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Catholic School, by Edoardo Albinati. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1,280 pages. $40.

In a quiet northern suburb of Rome, a woman hears noises in the street and sends her son to investigate. Someone is locked in the trunk of a Fiat 127. The police arrive and find one girl seriously injured, together with the corpse of a second. Both have been raped, tortured, and left for dead. The survivor speaks of three young aggressors and a villa by the sea. Within hours two of the men have been arrested. The other will never be found.

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.

A federal judge in South Carolina ruled in favor of personal-injury lawyer George Sink Sr., who had sued his son, George Sink Jr., for using his own name at his competing law firm.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today