Studying the Creation Museum
Answers in Genesis opened its much-anticipated, 27-million dollar Creation Museum in rural Northern Kentucky at the end of May 2007, drawing more than half a million people in the first sixteen months and more than three million in the first ten years. Those are impressive numbers. By comparison, the nearby Cincinnati Museum Center, located in the heart of a major Midwestern city, covering a much larger range of subjects in three separate museums, boasting an OMNIMAX theater, and targeting a much broader demographic than just conservative Protestants, had about 1.45 million visitors in 2015. With 20% as much traffic as its much larger secular neighbor, AiG’s museum has proved to be a commercial success. Like the YEC ideas that it embodies, the Creation Museum shows no signs of going away anytime soon.
One reason for this is the high production values evident throughout. I saw this for myself, when I visited the Museum scarcely more than three months after it opened. Terry Mortenson of AiG kindly gave me a tour of the operation behind the scenes afterwards, but mostly I walked through the exhibits unaccompanied, attended a well-organized presentation by astronomer Jason Lisle in the technically impressive planetarium, and formed my own conclusions about the methods and the message of the Creation Museum. A few months ago, I commented on the one thing that struck me most, namely, the way in which visitors are shown the YEC view and evolution as separate but equal sets of assumptions, with the scientific evidence impotent to determine which approach actually provides a better explanation. That is best seen in the Dinosaur Dig Site (above), a huge sand box in which two paleontologists, one secular and one a creationist, uncover the same bones with the same techniques but draw very different conclusions about their implications.
As with many other cultural phenomena of comparable impact, the Creation Museum has attracted significant attention from scholars in a variety of disciplines. Some of the most interesting research comes from Grinnell College sociologist Kathleen Oberlin, who observes, “AiG offers a place, rather than a rhetorical theology or scientific debate, for adherents and curious visitors to engage their ‘side’ of the perceived debate over cultural authority.” Moving “the public sphere of negotiations between science and religion onto a new terrain,” the YECs at AiG “draw credibility for their beliefs by housing them in a structure—a natural history museum—that carries its own legitimizing authority as a trustworthy repository of artifacts.”
Similar themes are developed in the first full-length scholarly book about it, written by two professors from the University of Dayton, rhetorician Susan L. Trollinger and historian William Vance Trollinger, Jr. A former colleague of mine at Messiah College, Bill Trollinger has written extensively on fundamentalism, especially a book about William Bell Riley, a Baptist minister from the Twin Cities who founded the World Christian Fundamentals Association, an organization that combated evolution after the Great War. Riley was the person who persuaded William Jennings Bryan to assist the prosecution at the Scopes trial. Susan Trollinger is best known for her book, Selling the Amish. Between them, the Trollingers bring expertise in anti-evolutionism and visual rhetoric to bear on the Creation Museum. Their book, Righting America at the Creation Museum, combines analysis of the museum as a visual argument with analysis of the YEC ideas on display, giving readers a broad (and sometimes deep) understanding of creationism as a phenomenon. As surprising as it might be, the authors—who are both devout Catholics—were invited to speak this past summer at the American Atheist Convention in South Carolina. According to their blog, they were quite well received.
The Museum’s Messages
I entirely agree with the Trollingers’ central thesis, that “the museum exists and thrives … because it represents and speaks to the religious and political commitments of a large swath of the American population,” seeking to “arm millions of American Christians as uncompromising and fearless warriors for what it understands to be the ongoing culture war in America” (2). The key words here, “uncompromising” and “culture war,” are core aspects of young-earth creationism.
The Trollingers describe the Museum, a long-time dream of Ken Ham, as the “crown jewel of the AiG apologetics enterprise” that shows Christians how to understand our role in the highly secular modern world (13). The primary message of the Museum is not actually about the age of the Earth or evolution per se, but the need to preach a particular version of the gospel to unbelievers. Where the traditional Christian message always tries to balance God’s love, grace, and forgiveness on the one hand, with God's justice and judgment on the other, the Museum definitely leans strongly toward the latter. Except for a short film presentation, The Last Adam, Jesus is a relatively minor player in the Museum. He is infrequently quoted, and in the opinion of the authors, the traditional Christian message of love and grace is under-emphasized. Rather, “the essential continuity presented” at the Museum is this: “God gives the Word; humans disobey it; God is obliged to punish them” (49). The present world simply reiterates the sins of the past, and the whole Museum presents this gospel as rooted in the true history found in the literal Bible.
What about science? The authors explain the standard YEC distinction between historical (subjective) science versus observational (objective) science—which YECs use to keep the conclusions of natural history from refuting their interpretation of Genesis—and then apply it cleverly to critique some of the pro-YEC information on display in the Museum. For example, the room devoted to Flood Geology features some facts from observational science about the deposition of detritus by river floods, using “a small catastrophe in the present … as a mini-analogy for a global one in the distant past.” Is that analogy valid, given that “the very first placard visitors encounter” in that room denies Charles Lyell’s dictum that the present is the key to the past? (90-91) It’s a very good question.
As for the Bible, the Museum certainly emphasizes the Reformation idea of sola Scriptura (the Bible alone). Indeed, Ham’s organization places the Bible above all other sources of knowledge. According to AiG’s Statement of Faith, “By definition, no apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the scriptural record. Of primary importance is the fact that evidence is always subject to interpretation by fallible people who do not possess all information.” However, as the Trollingers point out, the Reformation actually “yielded an endless variety of theologies and practices,” in spite of Martin Luther’s rock bottom belief that the Bible speaks clearly to all who read it. Each group claims to have “the true word of God,” but “none has been able to control the proliferation of its meaning.” Nevertheless, “this has not stopped efforts to arrest the flow of interpretations, to freeze for all time the One True Interpretation. Enter young Earth creationism, and the Creation Museum” (111). Ham and his Museum “cannot acknowledge they are presenting an interpretation, nor can they consider the possibility that other interpretations—including other conservative Protestant interpretations—of Genesis might be correct” (136).
The Museum’s messages about Genesis and science are packaged alongside dire portrayals of the decline of Western society. Visitors pass through rooms called Graffiti Alley, where headlines show “how society has gone awry in our world after the Bible lost its place in the public square,” and Culture in Crisis, about the disintegration of families and churches as a result of accepting “millions of years” of Earth history, before arriving at the 6 Day Theater and Wonders Room. Not long after that, visitors encounter Cain and Abel--and “a large placard entitled, ‘Where Did Cain Get His Wife?’” That old question finds an answer. Citing Genesis 5:4 (“And the days of Adam after he had begotten Seth were eight hundred years: and he begat sons and daughters:”), the placard teaches that “brothers had to marry sisters” at least for several generations after Adam and Eve, because there were no other people around to marry, as AiG explains more fully here. I have to agree with the Trollingers: “Even in the context of the Creation Museum, this is one strange placard” (177).
This display at the Creation Museum shows how the wrecking ball of “MILLIONS OF YEARS” destroys a church, which can be rebuilt only by making “God’s Word” the real foundation, starting “at the beginning, six thousand years ago.”
Where the Authors Go Astray, Then Find Their Way Back
While I usually agree with the authors’ analyses and conclusions, they badly mislead readers about an important aspect of the Galileo affair. They say that Galileo got into trouble with the Catholic Church because the heliocentric cosmology of Copernicus (which he defended) contradicted the “three-tiered universe” of ancient Near Eastern cultures that is found in the Bible, “with the Earth in the middle, the heavens above, and the ‘netherworld’ below” (103). I agree that the biblical authors accepted the ancient Near-East world picture, but Catholic officials of Galileo’s time did not. The three-tiered universe was irrelevant to his collision with Rome. The contested issue involved moving the spherical Earth around the Sun, not denying that the Sun passes under the flat, disc-shaped Earth every night.
At the same time, the authors properly point out that the Museum actually treats the Solar System as if it—rather than the three-tiered universe—were the true biblical view. The visitor looks in vain for any depiction of the actual cosmology of the biblical authors. Thus, at least in this instance, modern science takes precedence over a literal Bible! When it comes to astronomy, the Museum’s science is not “the Bible’s science” (105). Here we find one of the most important conclusions in the whole book.
I also partly dissent from the way in which the authors narrate the rise of the Christian right in America—a theme directly related to the title of their book—particularly in relation to racism. They acknowledge that Ham and his Museum unambiguously oppose racism and blame evolution for advancing it. However, in the context of their larger narrative, they seem to imply that Ham’s opposition to racism is just trendy, part of a relatively recent change of heart among American Evangelicals, who increasingly disown racial prejudice. I don't think they've been entirely fair to Ham, who has shown admirable leadership on that score, but the larger story of creationism and racism (like the story of evolution and racism, which I partly addressed several months ago in connection with Darwin) is complex and deserves a longer treatment. BioLogos is planning to address issues of science and race in much more depth early next year, and look for a more substantial contribution by myself at that time.
As Brad Kramer said following his own visit to the Museum, AiG and their museum are about “providing a comprehensive worldview built around a view of the Bible as an authoritative answer book. Put differently, the ministry of Answers in Genesis is not first and foremost about Genesis—it’s about Answers.” The answers they offer can be authoritative for their audience only if all other answers, based on different interpretations of the Bible, are illegitimate. Otherwise, their cultural agenda collapses like a house of cards.
The Trollingers fully understand this. “At the heart of the Creation Museum is a radical binary in which the visitor is confronted with two sets of tightly-linked terms that are unequivocally opposed to each other, Bible-young Earth-Eden-truth-heaven versus human reason-evolution and old Earth-sin-corruption-hell.” They also understand the significance of this rhetorical strategy: “The binary is cosmic. The stakes could not be higher.” We find “no space for dissent, not even from fellow Christians,” in this “culture war with eternal implications.” All dissenters are “the opponents of Truth. They are the Enemy” (149).
Again, quoting Brad Kramer: “it does no credit to [the Creation Museum] to be so openly allergic to seeing their perspective as anything other than slam-dunk, black-and-white truth. In fact, it substantially weakens the cause. It allows young-earth creationism to be falsified not only by evidence against it, but simply by the complexity of the world outside of the movement!” (emphasis in original). This is the big problem with the “culture war” approach that the Trollingers rightly point out is the foundation of the Museum’s message. As I’ve stated before, engaging culture with Christian truth is a holy duty, but it goes awry when Christians approach culture in an aggressive and combative manner, oversimplify complex issues, and delegitimize any approach that starts with an open question instead of an assumed answer.
A longer version of this review will appear next spring or summer in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith.
My final column this year will reflect on my time as Fellow for the History of Science here at BioLogos, as I step away from that role. In the meantime, I join with you in celebrating the Incarnation, the greatest gift of love from God to us. Merry Christmas!