Creation Nation

In the once anonymous town of Petersberg, Kentucky, seven miles west of the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, and "within a day's drive of almost 2/3 of the U.S. population," the Answers in Genesis Creation Museum makes a 27-million-dollar, 65,000-square-foot attempt to prove the Bible's creation story is "the true history book of the universe."

At the entrance, two stegosauruses stand sentinel on stone impediments.

From Flickr via Jim Hickcox.

In the once anonymous town of Petersberg, Kentucky, seven miles west of the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, and “within a day’s drive of almost 2/3 of the U.S. population,” the Answers in Genesis Creation Museum makes a 27-million-dollar, 65,000-square-foot attempt to prove the Bible’s creation story is “the true history book of the universe.” The facility, “constructed debt-free,” opened in May 2007, attracting 250,000 visitors in its first five months of operation. National news coverage has been plentiful, and as a Kentuckian who believes evolution is the true history book of the universe, I worry that the Creation Museum is drawing unsavory attention to my home state, fueling stereotypes. But I also can’t wait to visit.

1:1 Arrival

I’m arriving just after one o’clock on a December Saturday, full of curiosity. Over the stubbled fields bordering Petersberg, dark smoke plumes from industrial stacks. I figure those stacks are in Ohio, the border tantalizingly close, as if, for better or worse, the museum were almost built in a state other than Kentucky.

The Creation Museum promotes young-earth creationism, which teaches earth was created by a direct act of God between six and ten thousand years ago, in six 24-hour days. Old-earth creationists believe the planet existed much earlier but fell into decay, more or less reconciling earth’s age with mainstream science, and only later did God reshape the planet in six 24-hour days. Day-age creationists think God’s six days of work did not literally occur in six 24-hour days, but in much longer days, or with gaps between them. Evolutionary creationism, taught by most mainline Protestant seminaries, is a theistic hybrid, attributing evolution to an act of God.

At the entrance, two stegosauruses stand sentinel on stone impediments. I prepare myself for maximum cheesiness, but the Museum itself turns out to be a contemporary wedge of stone and glass: classy, museum-appropriate architecture. The parking lot is three-quarters full. Future plans call for 663 additional spaces, along with a gated entrance for emergency and maintenance vehicles. A hulking police officer, earphone plugged into ear, high-powered firearm holstered at hip, points me down a row of cars. My vehicle seems to be one of the few lacking a Jesus-fish. How many Jews have toured the Creation Museum? Having spent my entire childhood and much of my adulthood in Kentucky, Jewish population .3%, I’m comfortable being the odd Ashkenazi out.

I park next to a minivan with Tennessee plates, a leather-bound bible wedged between windshield and dash. I cross the lot behind a group of teens, hyperactive after disembarking a church van out of Louisville. I spot license plates from Ohio, Florida, Indiana, Texas—all over America, basically. Here are the results of a 2007 Gallup poll on evolution and creationism:

Evolution, that is, the idea that human beings developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, is:

Definitely True Probably True Probably False Definitely False No Opinion Total True Total False
18 35 16 28 3 53 44

Creationism, that is, the idea that God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years, is:

Definitely True Probably True Probably False Definitely False No Opinion Total True Total False
39 27 16 15 3 66 31

1:2 Ticketing

Entering the museum’s foyer—a vast space with a 40-foot ceiling and stone walls and a huge broadside that reads “Prepare to Believe”—the church kids and I are greeted by employees clad in Creation Museum safari vests. The museum employs about 160 people, all of whom signed a statement of belief in young-earth creationism and other Answers in Genesis tenets, which include “Genesis is a simple but factual presentation of actual events and therefore provides a reliable framework for scientific research”; “The Noachian Flood was a significant geological event and much (but not all) fossiliferous sediment originated at that time”; and “The only legitimate marriage is the joining of one man and one woman.”

I’m handed a form attached to a clipboard. In exchange for my name, mailing address, and email address, I’m entitled to $2 off museum admission ($19.95), and mailings from the Answers in Genesis ministry, based 11 miles away in Hebron, Kentucky. As I fill out the form, my ears pick up a susurrus of chirping birds, roaring mammals, hissing serpents. I hand back my real name, fake email. Proceeding through a series of roped switchbacks to the ticket counter, I lament the waste of paper to my fake mailing address. There’s a life-sized cardboard cutout of Answers in Genesis’s president, founder, and chief pastor, Ken Ham. He’s bearded, 56 years old, wearing a Sears-grade button-down and slacks. Annual passes cost $129.95 per family, $59.95 per individual. According to the museum website, over 10,000 people have become members. A five-year membership costs $99 a year and provides “year-round access to the museum, free planetarium admission, bookstore discounts, super special email offers, and the opportunity to be part of a global, culture-impacting ministry.” A lifetime membership may be purchased for $1,000.

1:3 The Main Hall

A museum employee offers to take my picture, which I can pick up on my way out; I decline, fearing the cost, though the area is certainly photo-worthy: on a rocky embankment, a 40-foot sauropod cranes its neck amid towering cypress trees draped in moss. One of the fun things about creationism is that it speaks to the dreams of children and B-grade filmmakers everywhere: humans mingling with dinosaurs. One sign in the Dinosaur Den reads “The word dinosaur wasn’t invented until 1841, which explains why dinosaurs are absent in the Bible’s account of animals on the Ark.” And another, more boldly: “It is possible that dinosaurs could still live in remote parts of the world.” Inside and out, the Museum is rife with gorgeously detailed prehistoric beasts, all of them lifelike and many of them life-sized. The Director of Museum Design is a man named Patrick Marsh; he designed the “Jaws” and “King Kong” attractions at Universal Studios in Florida. He also coordinated the unveiling of the refurbished Statue of Liberty in 1986

In the main hall, visitors snap pictures in front of a 15-foot statue of the Virgin Mary cradling Jesus. The few Asian and African-American visitors stand out in the predominantly white crowd. A family of Mennonites emerges from Noah’s Café sipping soft drinks. The general vibe is festive. Within biting range of the sauropod stand two mannequins, a boy and a girl, clothed in animal hides. They’re black-haired with mocha skin, somewhat Semitic in this regard, but their somewhat European features make them appear somewhat European, while their somewhat wide foreheads make them look somewhat Cro-Magnon.

Where to begin? The museum’s K-9 officer passes in front of me with a German shepherd, gives me a stern look, as if he’s seen my type before. Feeling chastised, I merge into a steady stream of visitors entering an aisle of colorful placards. The first is labeled Human Reason: a timeline charting earth’s creation according to hard science, which says Earth is 4.6 billion years old. A second, labeled God’s Word, dates back 4,350 years and charts the Seven Cs of Christianity: Creation, Corruption, Catastrophe, Confusion, Christ, Cross, and Consummation (“One day, at the Consummation, the Creator will remake His creation. He will cast out death and the disobedient, and dwell eternally with those who trust in Him”).

People glance at the Seven Cs, though few stop to read. On the museum website, Ken Ham writes, “When you think about it, everything we teach in Christianity goes back to this timeline (the Seven Cs) of history. And this is the point: we need to show people that the Bible is a history book, and that everything connects to real history.” Ken Ham’s radio show, “Answers . . . with Ken Ham,” is broadcast on more than 860 domestic radio stations and 450 outlets worldwide, clocking in at 1.5 hours per show. He’s the author and co-author of several books. In Dragon Hall Bookstore, I’ll hear him preaching on one of his videos: he has an Australian accent. Just after the museum opened, he was interviewed on Australian radio:

This idea (for the museum) came about from when I was a teacher in public schools in Australia actually, teaching in the science classes and students saying, “Sir, you’re a Christian, how can you believe the Bible when we know that’s not true because of evolution and what’s in our textbooks?” And then when I took them to museums and saw that they were presented evolution as fact, I thought why can’t we have a creation museum? And so I had this embryonic idea 25 years ago in Australia. But of course, Australia’s not really the place to build such a facility if you’re going to reach the world. Really, America is.

1:4 Three Glass Cases

The first contains live finches. The sign below the case, complete with biological finch diagrams, tells us God created everything 6,000 years ago with the ability to “multiply on earth.” Regarding finches, “scientists have been puzzled by their vast array of traits.” Charles Darwin isn’t mentioned by name. Finches can interbreed, the sign tells us, and their speciation is so great because “God loves variety.” This variety proves there wasn’t enough time in evolutional history-even billions of years-to get such different traits from a common ancestor.

Next, a terrarium houses poison dart frogs, so bright in color, and sitting so still, they look artificial. Upon closer inspection—perhaps they are fake?—I discern tiny palpations. Kids plant their hands on the glass, adults point at frogs on branches and rocks. “Why is creation so deadly?” asks the sign below the glass. The answer: poison dart frogs raised in captivity (like the ones in this case) aren’t poisonous. Poison dart frogs before Adam sinned were not poisonous. Poison came from animals eating wild plants after Adam sinned. “All things were good before Adam sinned.”

The last case contains a pair of chameleons astonishingly well adapted to hiding before our very eyes. People who have already discerned the bright green lizards in the bright green foliage point and tell other visitors where to look. We learn that chameleons can extend their tongues to over 1½ times their body length(!), at an acceleration of up to 50g. These miraculous tongues could only be designed by God.

A man named Kurt Wise, who owns a Ph.D. in invertebrate paleontology from Harvard, an M.A. in geology from Harvard, and a B.A. in geology from the University of Chicago, is scientific advisor to the museum. He recently told the New York Times Magazine that he wanted to use the museum to present a “coherent story line about the earth’s history. Even if it’s wrong, it’s a starting point. It ought to fit together not as a set of random processes but something coherent orchestrated by God. And not just coherent but spine-tingling.”

Most creationist “science” attempts to prove a 1961 model put forth by John Whitcomb, a theologian, and Henry Morris, a hydraulic engineer. In The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and Its Scientific Explanations, Whitcomb and Morris argued that Noah’s Flood suddenly and catastrophically altered earth’s geological processes. Geysers from the skies and from within the earth, the Bible’s “floodgates of heaven,” bludgeoned the oceans, exterminating all sea life and causing water to “rise over the high mountains.” A period of tsunamis, earthquakes, and volcano eruptions gave way to a compressed ice age, causing continents to shift and the water to recede, allowing life to flourish in its present form.

1:5 Interpreting the Facts

A darkened room contains a life-sized, spot-lit model of an archeological dig in a rocky desert. Two mannequin paleontologists—a white guy with a gray beard and a skinny Asian guy—are excavating a dinosaur skeleton. Their tools and field notes lay about, and the site is roped off with a sign that reads, “Thou Shalt Not Touch!”

A small crowd has formed at a flat-screen monitor: a video introduces two paleontologists who look like their mannequin counterparts. As the Asian guy digs in a dried river bed, his face hidden under the brim of his outback hat, the white guy, affecting a professorial tone, tells us he’s been studying fossils his whole life, and science requires interpretation of facts. Holding up a dinosaur bone, he waxes poetic on what existed on Earth thousands of years ago. He tells us that he and his colleague, Kim, agree on many facts regarding fossils, but disagree on a few details regarding how they were formed. Kim then looks up from his digging and says the dinosaur fossils at this site were formed about a hundred million years ago, because of a local flood. He resumes digging, without mentioning radiocarbon dating. The white paleontologist, looking into the camera, smiles and shakes his head.

1:6 Biblical Authority

The next room resembles an alleyway in Jerusalem circa King David. Pillars and large stone blocks. There are mannequins: Isaiah cowled in a tallus and holding a large online-only, presumably a torah; Moses holding the Ten Commandments; King David holding a harp; Paul sitting at a desk, penning an epistle. A man behind me says, “Isaiah looks like Bin Laden.” He sounds ticked off. His wife tells him to “can it.” In my opinion, yes, Isaiah’s dark skin, salt ‘n’ pepper beard and narrow face make him resemble Osama Bin Laden, though Bin Laden wouldn’t be caught dead in a tallus.

The adjoining room contains a mannequin of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the Castle Church in Wittenberg; sheepskin pages from a 300-year-old Torah that was secreted out of Iraq following Saddam’s order to destroy all Torahs; and a copy of The Da Vinci Code with a sign that reads, “Its popularity is only temporary.”

1:7 Life in the City

I pass through to an urban streetscape with the flicker of poorly functioning street lights, buzzing power lines, the sweep and wail of sirens in the distance, honking cars, jack-hammering workmen, shattering glass, screeching tires. Airbrushed across the brick wall of a condemned building: “MODERN WORLD ABANDONS BIBLE.” Bits of crumpled trash lay scattered on the cement floor. The walls are plastered with torn magazine pages whose headlines pertain to Columbine, same-sex marriage, euthanasia (featuring Terri Schiavo), teen pregnancy, drug abuse, abortion, 9/11, murder, the ACLU (removing the Ten Commandments), suicide, homelessness, pornography, AIDS, and stem cell research (featuring Christopher Reeve). A radio announcement warns of possible terrorist attacks. A fake rat crawls along the top of a wall.

I’m writing in my notebook when a man who has been touring ahead of me—alone, reading most signs—asks if I’m a journalist. I nod. He wants to know what I think so far. He’s Caucasian, middle-aged, and he’s smiling amusedly—amused that the museum is using a city to represent Godlessness, I assume. “I think it’s funny,” I say.

His eyebrows arch, smile gone. “Funny?”

My apology: “I came into this sold on evolution.”

“Well, that’s what you were educated to believe. Who do you write for?”

“A magazine called n+1.”

He glances at my notebook, says nothing. The last thing I wrote: “Rat on wall.”

“I guess you think creationism should be taught in schools?” I venture.

“Why not? Evolution is only a theory.”

He moves on. I loiter in the alley, hoping to create some distance between us. I’m beginning to feel sorry for the guy: isolated, fanatical, doomed to failure. Then I remember that Gallup poll—66% of Americans think creationism is definitely or probably accurate. He probably feels sorry for me.

1:8 Culture in Crisis

In the next room, “Culture in Crisis,” videos play inside a series of life-sized dormer windows: Two boys, maybe 13 and 10, the older sitting at a computer, the younger playing video games. They’re discussing school, how lazy they feel, how much trouble they’ve gotten into, and then the older kid starts to roll a joint. The next window shows a teenage girl sitting in a chair, talking on the phone about her pregnancy results: she doesn’t want to keep it. The next window shows two women sitting at a table whispering, while in the background a man sits slumped on a couch with a can of beer, watching TV. It’s difficult to hear the whispering over the statistics issuing from an overhead speaker: “Parents spend less than 30 minutes per day with their kids”; “Over one-half of teenage girls engage in premarital sex”; “Average age of internet porn exposure: 11.”

I wait with a group of visitors at a roped entrance to the next exhibit, a movie theater with limited seating. Some people chit-chat, others listen to statistics. The man who accused me of believing what I learned in school is standing nearby. Eventually, an employee wearing a headset arrives and unhooks the roped entrance to the Time Tunnel. We file through a dark tube with myriad points of white light. The house-lights go down, and we’re shown the museum’s “Dawn of Creation Movie,” a dramatic reading of Genesis 1 by a man who sounds just like Don LaFontaine, the famous movie-trailer intoner whose nickname is “The Voice of God.”

1:9 The Garden

Giant fans blow the foliage of an ultra-verdant pre-Flood forest, while Genesis is read over a cacophony of jungle sounds: I’ve entered the Garden of Eden, a.k.a. the first of the Seven C’s: Creation. Amid the bloom and thicket a ten-foot-tall tyrannosaurus rex moves his neck to and fro, making an eerie hissing noise instead of the usual roar. The vertical slit in his bright green eye expands and contracts, a nictitating membrane descends. Well-used dinosaur teeth are embedded in gums that glisten with dinosaur saliva. A little boy next to me warns, “Don’t you get smart with me, T-Rex, or I’ll shoot you!”

Along with smaller dinosaurs, a variety of animals—deer, zebra, squirrels, a penguin, rabbits, an antelope—frolic in the woods or drink from a stream with mountains and waterfalls painted in the distance. A swarthy Adam sits on the ground, sporting the chiseled musculature of five-time world-champion boxer Roy Jones Jr. A sign tells us, “Before Adam’s fall, all animals, including dinosaurs, were vegetarians. No animals would die, so there were no carnivores.”

Further along, in an arbor of birch trees, Adam and Eve sit holding each other’s arms. Eve is dark and beautiful: think movie starlet Penelope Cruz. Her long raven hair covers her breasts; she appears to have shaven her underarms. A sign tell us, “The creation of Adam and Eve is the foundation of marriage: one man and one woman.” Next comes “Adam and Eve in Waterfall”: they’re standing in a pool beneath an actual waterfall, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil growing nearby. Eve holds a white blossom while Adam caresses her hair. A grandmotherly woman at the railing wipes her brow and says, “Whew.”

1:10 Corruption Valley 

Here Eve tempts Adam with a palm full of berries—small and red, like holly berries. I’d always pictured an apple, but the Bible does not, in fact, specify the forbidden fruit. Right around the corner: gray cement walls with what appear to be burn marks. A white door is locked eight times with an assortment of padlocks and deadbolts. Walking past the door, toward the sound of machine-gun fire, visitors enter a place called “Corruption Valley.” And here we go again: cement walls covered with pictures of starving people, diseased people, drug abusers, the skeleton-riddled killing fields in Cambodia, Arlington Cemetery. Over the speakers: Hitler propagandizing?

Yep. It’s Hitler.

Projected onto a jagged section of wall: images of Nazi soldiers, more starvation, more disease. This invocation of Hitler, the most ironic I’ve encountered in my life, reminds me of something he once said: “Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it.”

1:11 The Ark

The Catastrophe section starts with “Noah’s Ark Construction Site,” certainly the coolest exhibit in the museum, the one I’d want my kid to see, if I had one: a gigantic section of the Ark, reduced to 10% of its “actual” size in order to fit in the room, with mannequin laborers up on wood scaffolding or working in stalls: we hear hammering, sawing, the squeak of pulleys. Blacksmiths, weavers, and carpenters carry on conversations with Jewish accents straight out of “Fiddler on the Roof.” One guy doubts a flood is really coming, another calls Noah a “religious fanatic.”

Inside glass cases are models of the Ark: one shows animals being corralled into the Ark two by two, including dinosaurs. Four flat-screen monitors linked together present a rumbling, computer-generated recreation of the oncoming Flood, with a real-time clock ticking in one corner; after the initial surge, including massive geysers (the floodgates of heaven), the Ark is shown tossing and turning in gargantuan waves. It occurs to me that CGI would enable James Cameron to make an astonishing “Noah’s Ark” movie.

1:12 Modernity Begins

The Rainbow Covenant room tells the story of Noah after the Flood through glorious depictions of the Ark emerging into God’s green earth, His promise renewed. The Flood Geology Room features a stunning fossil called “Last Supper of a Perch.” The perch has halfway consumed a herring, which proves animals were instantaneously trapped by the Noachian Flood. In the first mention of scientific dating method that I’ve found, a chart shows how an 11 year-old lava dome dates greater than 350,000 years-old by radio-isotope dating. This is meant to show radioisotope dating is a flawed technique, though this particular example deals with an isolated application with too many undocumented variables to mention.

1:13 Jesus

The final exhibit, a movie called “The Last Adam,” covers the Cs of Christ, Cross, and Consummation. A sign says, “The first Adam brought death and suffering into the world. The last Adam (Jesus) brought life to those who received His gift of salvation.”

The waiting room is packed with people sitting on benches as overhead monitors play video of witnessing Christians. An employee tells me the wait for the movie is currently forty-five minutes. The poster for “The Last Adam” rivals or exceeds a Hollywood poster in production value: Jesus on the Cross with churning flame in the background, movie credits across the bottom. The teaser: “It is finished.”

The movie features realistic sets in biblical times, impressive costumes, pretty decent acting—think made-for-TV. We’re seated in comfortable movie chairs, a theater roughly the size of a small-screen Cineplex theatre. A brawny roman soldier with goatee gives an eyewitness account of Jesus’ death as if he’s regaling a bunch of dudes in the free-weights room. Leaning over his knee, he says things like, “I’ve seen lots of people nailed to a cross, and let me tell you, it ain’t pretty. But Jesus, he took it without showing any emotion. It was almost like (shakes his head) . . . like he knew what was coming after his death.”

The movie specifies Jews and Romans as the people who took Jesus to the Cross, making the film slightly less incendiary than Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. People emerge from the theater visibly moved. One old guy has tears in his eyes.

Visitors can decompress in a room replicating a Nazarene synagogue from the first century—inside, soft music plays, and save for the rack of Christian literature, the place is devoid of religious iconography. I do sit in there for a while, thinking I’ll recommend the museum to evolutionists and creationists alike. It can be a good ride, regardless of your point of view, and good rides are worth taking, no? And anyway it’s a ride we’re all already on, like it or not. As the writer and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins says, “People actually believe that because they read some dopey prophesy in the book of Revelation, the world is going to come to an end some time soon. People who believe that say, ‘We don’t need to bother about conserving forests or anything else because the end of the world is coming anyway.’ A few decades ago one would simply have laughed at that. Today you can’t laugh. These people are in power.”

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