Welcome to The Ark Encounter, the Answers in Genesis Ark Park, located in Williamstown, Kentucky. The centerpiece of the Ark Encounter is the enormous Noah’s Ark replica, built 510 feet long, 85 feet wide, 7 stories tall, and reportedly the largest timber-framed structure in the world. The Ark Encounter is also one of the more controversial theme parks built in the United States in the last several years, largely because it is a government-supported tourist attraction with a decidedly religious focus and an end-of-the-day price tag of $172,000,000.
My family I visited the Ark Encounter on July 7, 2016, the park’s official opening day, with some friends. I wasn’t there as a life-long Answers in Genesis supporter, nor was I there as a life-long anti-AiG protestor. I was there because I love the story of Noah’s Ark, because we happened to be in-country and only seven hours away, and because I frequently write about the state of American Cultural Christianity on this blog. Visiting the new flagship of American Cultural Christianity (see what I did there?) on opening day seemed too good an opportunity to pass up, even at $40 a pop for my family of five (the baby was free).
But surprisingly, as I’ve been thinking about what to write regarding Ken Ham’s big boat built in the bluegrass backwoods, I’ve been struggling. Do I write a simple report of my trip? Do I tell my thoughts about the controversial displays – the dinosaurs in cages, the explanations of Young Earth ideology, the mannequins of Noah and his family? Do I respond to the protestors who congregated around the exit from I-75, frustrated by AiG’s alleged non-scientific view of the origins of the planet, and who seem to have made it their mission to see the Ark Encounter fail as a theme park?
I decided not to delve into any of those topics, but rather, to give a simple list of the positives and negatives of this theme park as I see them, as I do when I review Christian films.
Positives about the Ark Encounter
1. The ark itself
AiG attempted to build a replica that was the size of Noah’s Ark according to biblical instructions (300 cubits by 50 by 30), and the scope of the project is stunning. It’s actually pretty difficult to describe what it’s like, standing underneath the replica, looking up at that massive stern. The experience really did bring the biblical account to life.
As you can see by the pictures, AiG’s attention to detail with the ark is unarguably impressive. When they could, the builders used very old shipbuilding techniques, a feat that must have been a massive undertaking. One can’t help but admire the craftsmanship and dedication that went into the construction of the replica ark, by people who – in many cases – were doing it as an expression of their Christian faith.
2. The “Fairy Tale Ark” and the living quarters displays
The Fairy Tale Ark display really caught my attention. This was a simple room filled with children’s books about Noah’s Ark. At first, I thought the room was going to be celebrating that the story is taught to children, but I quickly realized that the purpose of the room was actually to condemn the trivializing of the Noah’s Ark story.
I was completely caught off guard by this display, and it really resonated with me. For the longest time, I’ve been amazed that a story about the destruction of the world was often told as a children’s story, and even in Thimblerig’s Ark, my middle grade novel for which this blog is named, I tried to capture the seriousness of the flood and not make it cartoonish. I was glad to see that the AiG people felt the same way.
That being said, seeing what that room represented surprised me, considering how much Ken Ham and AiG disliked Darren Aronofsky’s incredibly mature Noah film, even devoting a two hour video review to critically dissecting the film. It’s been a while since I watched the review, but I think they must have at least appreciated that Aronofsky shared their serious approach to the event.
The second display that impressed me was found on the third deck, and it was the AiG representation of what the living quarters on the ark might have been like for Noah and his family. This was another section where an impressive amount of attention was given to detail, and a great deal of thought given to what life may have been like for people at that time.
Since one of the main complaints about Aronofsky’s Noah was that he took too many liberties with his film, AiG appeared ready to head off any criticism about their own filling in of details with a rather lengthy explanation of their view on taking artistic license with biblical material.
Here are some images of the living quarters, where you can see the craftsmanship and detail that went into the creation of the displays.
3. The tenacity of Ken Ham and AiG
Ken Ham and the AiG people fought doggedly for years to get the funding to build the Ark Encounter: They raised millions through private donations; they were determined to participate in a Kentucky tourism tax rebate program, going so far as to take the fight to court; they were persuasive enough to convince the little town of Williamstown to give them a break on property taxes, a good deal on the property, and a massive interest-free loan; and when the attempts to raise donations didn’t seem to be doing the job, they gave supporters and investors the opportunity to purchase high-risk bonds for thousands of dollars a pop, and supportive investors apparently turned up in droves to do so. When their detractors were celebrating the project’s demise, Ham and company kept working, and they ended up having the last laugh as the park opened on July 7.
Say what you will about Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis (and there’s plenty of people out there saying plenty of things!), but you have to admire their determination and tenacity to tell the story they want to tell in the face of massive opposition (even if they do go too far in response from time to time).
And I should say that as a Christian, I can’t argue with the desire of the folks at AiG to expose as many people as possible to Gospel of Jesus Christ. After all, Jesus said:
Creating something like the ark does draw people in (although I question Ken Ham’s claim that 40% of attendees will be non-Christians – most non-Christians I know aren’t the least bit interested, and most of my Christian friends are only moderately interested), and the Ark Encounter might very well result people coming to faith in Christ.
After all, Scripture has story after story of God using unexpected and sometimes even foolish means to accomplish His ends. In this case, even though the secular society sees something like the Ark Encounter and the Creation Museum as complete and utter foolishness, and many authentic Christians agree with that assessment, as a Christian I can’t discount the possibility that God can use these things to bring people into a relationship with Himself.
More about that later.
4. The Ark Encounter’s economic potential
I’m not sure if this section should go in the positives or negatives, but I’ll go ahead and add it as my last positive. A segueway into the negatives, if you will.
Kentucky has one of the worst state poverty rates in the country, and Williamstown is among the lowest for any town anywhere. Having a major tourist attraction in this region could potentially help the economy in the long run, and this was one of the big selling points that Ham and AiG used to get the state and the town onboard with the controversial tax rebates and interest-free loans. The Ark Encounter’s sister attraction, The Creation Museum, helps make the case as the attraction has drawn nearly three million visitors in its nine years of operation, and having the two attractions so near to one another is a draw for many people who might not come to Kentucky otherwise.
Furthermore, Ken Ham has stated multiple times that the Ark Encounter could potentially bring a couple of million visitors in its first year alone. Having said that, it should be noted that others claim that those high numbers were purposefully inflated to make the park more attractive to investors. Whether or not it was purposeful, I can’t say. But unfortunately, with only 30,000 people reportedly visiting in the first six days, it doesn’t look like the end result will be anywhere near a couple of million.
That being said, my family must have spent close to $1000 in travel, lodging, food, and the Ark during our four day excursion, and there were hundreds of families at the Ark Encounter on opening day. That’s a lot of money injected into the area. Critics counter this idea by pointing out that the Ark Encounter has taken money away from the state through lost tax revenue and interest payments on that huge loan, and that it will be years before that loss becomes a gain for the local economy. And if the Ark Encounter fails, it will never be a gain.
Negatives about the Ark Encounter
- The displays
Other than the two displays already mentioned, most of the displays were pretty underwhelming. I saw posters explaining the AiG interpretation of Scripture, the AiG explanation of how the earth could be 6,000 years old, supported by a few television-sized video monitors. I also saw a few exhibits demonstrating what life might have been like on the ark for Noah and his family. There were also several fake animals in cages (including the infamous dinosaurs… I didn’t see the unicorns), but they didn’t really do anything, so they weren’t terribly interesting.
Considering that Ken Ham was bragging that the Ark Encounter would compete with Disney and be “beyond Hollywood”, and furthermore that he continually emphasized that the park had been designed by the person who had designed the Jaws and King Kong rides at Universal Studios, I was expecting more bang for my $160 bucks. See, the park is heavy on attempts to proselytize visitors and educate them about Creation theory, but extremely light on entertainment.
I’m assuming that as time goes by, more displays will be added, but they need to be more than just posters on the wall or the odd mannequin. The ark needs to be a dynamic, moving place to visit, and they shouldn’t just rely on visitors being impressed by a big boat, because that wears off quickly and won’t bring people back. I know that AiG has plans for a Tower of Babel, a first century village, a theater, and other things, but right now the Ark Encounter needs to bump up the entertainment factor if they want their numbers to be sustained.
Here are some simple ideas that AiG can use for free: (1) have actors wandering the decks in costume and in character, interacting with visitors. (2) Have much more multi-media, maybe even 4-D films that help you to experience what it would have been like to be in the flood. (3) since AiG loves dinosaurs so much, use Ken Ham’s Aussie connections to get dinosaur puppets from Erth to be a part of the experience.
The bottom line? There are a thousand things AiG could do to make the Ark a “must-see” park for everyone and not just believers, who are currently the only ones interested in visiting. Part of that is to make the place entertaining as well as informative. After all, it’s not the Creation Museum, so loosen it up a little! Make the experience more immersive and interactive and maybe even add some levity and fun, and even I might be convinced to return.
2. The sole focus on apologetics as ministry
As I walked around looking at the displays, I kept my eyes open for anything that would indicate that there was any sort of charitable component to the Ark Encounter, this ministry that was taking so much money to build.
Perhaps a portion of the ticket sales would go to help the poor in Kentucky? Maybe AiG would give you the opportunity to donate to help build schools or hospitals in some developing country as you buy your official Noah’s Ark cubit in the gift shop for $19.99 a pop?
Surely there would be something in this Christian theme park that reflected the charge of a Christian to help the poor?
But I saw nothing, and while it did disappoint me, it also didn’t surprise me. After all, as I said before, the Ark Encounter is for-profit, and after operating costs, every dime that is spent on visiting the Ark Encounter will undoubtedly go to pay back the massive 68 million dollar interest-free loan that was given to AiG by the city of Williamstown (which – interestingly – has a poverty level of 18.3%) and to return the investment given to those who purchased the bonds. This certainly makes business sense.
But does it make ministry sense?
3. The evangelistic component
Along those lines, I’ve said multiple times that I admire that Ken Ham and AiG have placed such a high priority on their projects sharing the Gospel. They have put an impressive amount of time and energy into building what they call “one of the greatest Christian outreaches of this era of history.”
But having visited the Ark Encounter, having walked the halls, examined the displays, and seeing what they have to offer, I can’t help but question how much of an impact this outreach will have on non-believers.
I’ve spent the past couple of days scouring the internet for any examples on non-believers visiting the ark, and in that time I’ve seen several reviews from visitors whose views weren’t in line with AiG when they visited. Reading their reviews seemed to indicate that none of them were convinced of anything afterwards, even after they were treated very respectfully by Ark Encounter and AiG employees.
This led me to expand my search for any skeptics who had been convinced by the Creation Museum, since it has been around for nine years. I found plenty of negative reviews by Atheists and Christians alike (here, here, and here – just to show a few), and I did find a couple of anecdotal examples of children from Christian families telling their parents that they wanted to follow Jesus as a result of visiting the museum, but I didn’t find any stories of skeptics or non-believers having any sort of change of heart from their visit to that attraction.
Sadly, if anything, the argument could be made that the typical response of non-believers to the Creation museum was having their skepticism reinforced by the visit. Watch this video for an example (and there is a bit of salty language):
The Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter both seem to suffer from the same problem that plagues most of the Christian films I review. They want to be evangelistic, but their impact outside of the faithful appears to be negligible.
Incidentally, I freely admit that I could be wrong about this. There could be scores of people who have come to faith as a result of their experiences with the Creation Museum, and there could be scores who will because of the Ark Encounter. If so, and if someone would like to provide evidence that I’m wrong about the evangelistic impact of the Creation Museum on skeptics, then I’ll gladly retract this point and have my positives outweigh my negatives.
4. The Cost
While I admire the tenacity, determination, and heart for evangelization of the people behind the Ark Encounter, I’ve also struggled with the fact that they are doing an Ark Encounter at all. Such a huge sum of money for building a theme park? My struggle finally came to a head one morning last May when I opened Twitter and found an AiG Tweet touting the benefits of building a Noah’s Ark theme park right next to a Tweet from J.K. Rowling’s charity Lumos, talking about their push to raise money to help orphans.
Seeing the two money-raising efforts side-by-side took my breath away. On the one hand, as a Christian, I respect AiG’s effort to share the Christian faith. On the other hand, as a Christian, I’m horrified that believers have struggled and fought and spent years raising an enormous amount of money to build a for-profit theme park replica of Noah’s Ark.
And it warps a part of my brain that it’s been done in the name of Christian ministry.
At this stage in the project it may be a tired argument (although I wouldn’t call it a stupid argument, as some have), but I can’t help but think what else could have been done with that money that might have had even more of an impact, if not on propagating the Creationist viewpoint, at least in sharing the Gospel and demonstrating a valuable apologetic, by meeting the physical needs of the poor and sick.
For example, over on Twitter, @branthansen wrote this:
Brent’s Tweet represents the heart of my struggle.
But didn’t Jesus command his followers to make disciples and to teach? Isn’t that what the Ark Encounter is doing?
As I said before, Answers in Genesis claims to have obeyed that command by building the Ark Encounter, and they have a point. People visiting the park will be exposed to the biblical teaching that the world is a damaged place, and that Jesus’s life, ministry, and death on the cross is the answer to fixing the damage.
At the same time, Jesus also said this:
So, what do we do with this? First, some counter arguments:
1. Giving to the poor is not AiG’s wheelhouse. After all, AiG’s stated mission is to help people learn how to defend the Christian faith, and building an attraction like the Ark Encounter is one way to go about doing that.
2. God owns “the cattle on a thousand hills”, and $172 million dollars is nothing to Him. As a friend wrote to me, “If Ham spends $100M on a colossal mistake, God is not one dime the poorer, nor are His plans set back by a day.”
3. I don’t personally know the Ark Encounter supporters, investors, or AiG employees, and I don’t know what they do with their private money. For all I know, they give more in a month then I give in a year, and the money given to AiG was on top of their already generous contributing to all sorts of worthy charities.
4. Christians should never endeavour to do big things for large sums of money? What if a Christian filmmaker successfully raised $172,000,000 to make a big blockbuster film? Would that make me “struggle”?
These are all good questions, and all good points. But they don’t change the fact that this sort of money raised in a for-profit ministry venture makes me uncomfortable, especially when there is so much need in the world.
And it leads me to ask the question: Would Jesus build an Ark Park, or would he turn over the tables in the gift shop?
I don’t know the answer. I really don’t know.
My final thought on the Ark Encounter: would I recommend a visit?
Christian or not, the ark itself is magnificent and is really something to be seen. But considering the cost of a ticket, there needs to be more going on to make it worth the expense, especially if you’re bringing a family. Once the park gets the zip lines up and running, once they get a few more (hopefully entertaining) displays in the ark, once they get a few more animals in the petting zoo, I’d say give it a go.
This is true, even if you’re not a Christian, or if you are a Christian but not a young-earth Creationist. Just be prepared to talk to your kids about what they will see, and to talk about why they will be seeing it. It can lead to some really interesting conversations about different belief systems, and different ways of interpreting Scripture. And yes, Bill Nye, it can even lead to discussions about science.
At least it did with my kids!
And if you do decide to go, and you agree with me on the charity/cost issues, then do the job that AiG should be doing and donate a matching amount to the tickets you purchased to a worthy charity of your own choice, preferably one that works in Kentucky.
I’d recommend a charity like the Christian Appalachian Project.