Thoughts on Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter

A recent press account tells us that the Ark Encounter project in Kentucky in the US is in trouble. The Ark Encounter allows visitors to walk round a huge replica of Noah’s vessel which has been built according to the measurements recorded in the Bible (Genesis 6). Believing the literal veracity of the Biblical account, the Encounter tries to imagine the scenario of how thousands of animals were housed and fed by Noah and his family. The founder of the project, Ken Ham, has produced for the people of Kentucky what, for this writer, is a huge monument for the absurdity of literalistic readings of the Bible. Ken Ham, like millions of Christians around the world, has bought into the idea that one of the ways in which the Bible is true is that every apparent historical or scientific statement is to be understood literally. This must always be preferred over any modern interpretations. As I pointed out in one of my earliest blog pieces, there are in fact in Genesis two separate accounts of the building of the Ark. In the first in Genesis 6 one pair of every kind of animal is taken aboard. In the second account in the first verses of Genesis 7 there are seven pairs of the available animals placed in the Ark. Only in the case of the ’unclean’ species is a single pair allowed on board.

Returning to Ken Ham’s project, we find that people are just not turning up in sufficient numbers to help pay for the $100 million project. Perhaps it is also because the vast swathe of the Christian population in Kentucky fails to feel Ham’s enthusiasm for ‘proving’ a Biblical narrative as being literal history. If anything, the Ark replica helps to make the story in the Bible even less believable as literal fact. How could one man, assisted by his three sons build anything as massive as the vessel recorded in Genesis? That is before we think about the gathering together of the necessary materials for the project.

The Ark Encounter project is a vivid reminder that many Christians on both sides of the Atlantic want us to believe every narrative or story in Scripture is historical fact. Conservative interpreters seem to be wedded to the idea that it is essential to read the stories of Noah, Job and Jonah as accurate history. There is the belief that because God is the supposed author of all Scripture, there is no other way to understand these narratives.

Although we today are used to making a sharp distinction between fiction and history whether in the Bible or elsewhere, this way of thinking simply did not exist before the 18th-century. The birth of the scientific method and historical analysis allowed scholars to distinguish between fact and probable fiction. Most historical works of the earlier period were an amalgam of legend, myth and fact. It is only today that we have the tools to separate them out. Even to use the expression ‘literal truth’ made no sense in a pre-Enlightenment age. It is noteworthy that today many Christians are so reluctant to use these modern critical tools of analysis on the text of Scripture. While they are prepared to apply the modern (and post-modern) tools of analysis in every other area of life, when it comes to Scripture, Christian leaders insist that we think and interpret in a pre-modern way. In the case of the Noah story, that involves us pretending that six verses of Genesis 7 do not exist.

Behind this insistence on reading every narrative passage as literally true is a method called ‘common sense philosophy’. This takes the view that every individual of reasonable intelligence can interpret language and determine its meaning by the application of common sense. Thus, one does not have to possess a sophisticated education to penetrate the meaning of the Bible. It is laid open to the understanding of all, including the common man. There is a second principle at work in this understanding of Scripture. This is known as propositional theology. This builds on the idea that the chosen method of God to reveal himself is through the words of Scripture. So, the Biblical text is all that is necessary for salvation. By applying ‘common sense’ the individual Christian can through diligent reading of the Bible text discover what God wants him to do with his life and his faith.

These two philosophical undergirding principles are, as we might expect, fraught with problems. The first problem is that the Bible does not in fact easily surrender its meanings to a casual reader. In practice, it requires the help of a Christian teacher to reveal its meaning to the ordinary Christian disciple who attends church. We do of course find a massive number of interpretations which vary according to the personality and training of each individual minister. The second problem is perhaps more serious. If God’s will and purpose are contained in written words and ideas, this will suggest that each Christian engages with God primarily through the use of his or her intellect. The part of us that deals with the content of words and concepts is the thinking mind. Is this really the only part of us that God wishes to engage with? Surely God meets us through all our senses, our emotions, feelings and longings.

It is instructive to compare the apparent compulsion to take all the stories of the Old Testament as being literal history (and never as story!) with the way Jesus extensively used stories in his teaching. When I hear a story, I respond to the emotion, the humour and the possible message within it. Something rather different is happening when I listen to a narrative which is supposed to be accurate history. I will also be puzzled and possibly even irritated when I am expected to overlook any inconsistencies or contradictions. If I were ever to visit the Ark Encounter in Kentucky, I know that I would feel completely overwhelmed by a sense of distaste and even anger at the stupidity of the project. $100 million has been spent on a building which tries to convince visitor that the words of Genesis 6 are literally true. Such a pretence has been maintained by ignoring the obvious discrepancies in the story revealed in the first verses of Genesis 7.

A reading of Scripture which insists that any narrative or story has to be read as straight history is sometimes a massive betrayal of proper interpretation. The God that I meet in the Old and the New Testaments speaks to me through story, poetry as well as through myths and history. I had the privilege of studying the Bible for itself and never had to use the lens of a conservative ‘pre-modern’ Bible teacher. I hope I can read it with a clearer vision. No one placed on me the burden of the doctrine that says only in the Bible do we discern the will of God. My use of the Bible is thus outside any dogmatic straitjacket and I am freed to use all the sources of history and tradition that are given to us. I am also fortunate to have some knowledge of the original Biblical languages. The Bible is I believe a far richer document when it is read against this background of the culture, the history and the experience of the people who met God in so many different ways. It is their words to describe that encounter that we have today. The uncovering of their experience is a never-ending project.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

8 thoughts on “Thoughts on Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter

  1. Great article Stephen.
    Half the trouble is trying to nail beliefs etc. down with words. Statements of faith and all that. It’s a tricky business. Look how much trouble they go to with creating legislation in parliament, and consider the army of people making a living by interpreting our laws in ways that were not in the minds of the ones who drafted them!
    I too did Hebrew and Greek to try to get closer to the spirit of the texts. Great fun. It saddens me how few young people going to theological colleges have this attitude.

  2. KEN HAM

    I am agnostic about questions like, ‘evolution or creation’; I find the ‘intellectualism’ that dominates these discussions strangely frightening.
    Old Testament accounts of Noah’s ark are likewise held in that tension for me.
    I want to know how do we really differentiate between a ‘story’ and real events passed on by verbal and written tradition? Are the groups that side with Ken Ham and others victims of a mass evasion of the truth or, is there some substance to what they say? Ken would point to: Matthew: 24-37 38
    as evidence that Jesus believed in a historic Noah and the ark?

    Surely we cannot make an Ex Cathedra statement about a possible historic account without at least the opinions of both sides being exercised.

    John Mackay, (A creationist) gives an explanation as to the different numbering of creatures that entered the ark
    Ought we at least take account of his view? Ken Ham is a man who suffered a lot in his life watching his brother die a horrible death. I wish to point out that these debates can at times become unchristian, I personally am agnostic about certain accounts in the Old Testament, however people like Ken Ham are my brothers in the faith and above all I want to love and respect them.

    Sincerely

    Chris Pitts

  3. Chris. There are methods some two hundred years old for distinguishing between ‘story’ and history. In many ways the distinction is unimportant but the inerrantists themselves make it important. I don’t regard it as of great moment and neither do most readers of the Bible. The issue of Ken Ham’s personal story has little bearing on what he has tried to do with the Ark Experience. He has created a monument, an obscene monument in my opinion, to a way of reading the Bible which creates abject suffering to many people. Literalism, a method which gives us an angry God who commands destruction of innocent people, is not an OK way reading the Bible. Women, children, foreigners and slaves have through history suffered gratuitous violence to uphold an understanding of truth which does not stand up to any level of scrutiny. The Creationists do not make any sense at all on the court of common sense or fair argument. I do not know John Mackay or his work but would suggest that arguing for a text from a pre-conceived position is likely to result in very poor scholarship and methodology. Let the text speak for itself. That is not what Ken Ham has done. He has twisted it to suit his ideology. That is creating ‘alternative facts’.

  4. Ken Ham (Some more thoughts)

    Thank you Stephen, you put your points across with generosity.

    Your view of ‘Obscene Monuments’ is an interesting one. I once knew a man in training for the Anglican priesthood who was stopped from entering an English cathedral unless he paid an entrance fee; he totally refused and went to the altar to say his prayers, he later became a catholic. His concept of an, ‘Obscene monument’ was one he held all his life.

    What interests me about the organized Christian religion and other beliefs is the way that ‘Fundamentalism’ travels in strange disguises, for example, Richard Dawkins can be described as a, ‘Born again evangelical, fundamentalist, atheist?
    Do some liberals in the Anglican Church make Ex Cathedra statements that are binding on their faithful?
    If the liberals in the Church of England were in an accident at sea and the ship was sinking would they embrace praying with a fundamentalist creationist?
    There is a kind of word painting psychedelic dimension to these thoughts,
    Sorry to go off point.
    Speaking as someone who has known the horror of illiteracy, I would find it hard if I were still in a happy clappie fellowship theatre, to get out of it if I was offered a high intellectualism, to compensate for my former spirituality?

    I remain confused, and it feels like this; “Look you have got a bad cold but what you really need is a shot of malaria!”

    Sincerely,

    Chris

  5. I like Chris’s point here – he points out that we all are prone to making statements of “truth”. As he says we need mutual generosity.

    More true liberalism maybe?

    As to your assumption about our approach to the text of the bible Stephen, I think we need to apply the same generosity. We may have the tools to critically evaluate the text. But those tools may be wrong, just as wrong as the inerrantists. (Well maybe that is a bit overstating it!!)

    For example if you read C S Lewis (A professor of literary criticism) about the use of that approach to scripture (“Fernseed and Elephants” – an essay) you will find that he is quite scathing about some more radical literary critics.

    Appeals to “traditional” christian values is equally subjective.

    As indeed is the often unspoken assumption that all theologians in my particular theological stream are getting better at being right (that is patently often not so!)

    Any assumption about the “right way” to read scripture and tradition can be as open to abuse as any other.

    Generosity – love – that’ll do it!! Frankly, however good a particular reading of scripture is I am more likely to listen if that is the context – and thank you Stephen for your attempts to set that standard. My apologies for the times when I fail in that respect.

  6. Scripture is always interesting but should it be read like any other book? My own appreciation of scripture has led me to compare it with autostereograms. Check out Google if you are not familiar with the word but most of us will have come across them at some time. They are those seemingly confused images of a bundle of colored (or otherwise) dots, lines or shapes that on first viewing seem to have nothing other to display than just that. As we allow our eyes to relax and try to ‘look through’ them (it often takes time and practice and some can never seem to do it) suddenly almost with shock a clear and precise 3D image hiding behind and through the jumble of dots appears. I give this as a way to approach scripture both the bits we like and the bits we find atrocious.
    An old highland lady said of texts that “they are like sweeties, you’ve got to tak them and sook on them”
    Paul Tillich was once challenged by an earnest young student who came at him shaking his Bible and saying “Do you mean to say this is not the Word of God?” to which Tillich replied “Not when you shake it but when it shakes you”
    The trouble is we do like to shake each other about our beliefs.

  7. Leslie. I hope that my approaches to reading the Bible do not preclude your approach. It is however unfamiliar to me. My sole point that that there are hundreds of ways of approaching the text but only a single one that systematically excludes all others, the inerrantist approach. For this way to be correct, every other approach has to be sidelined. That is like saying there is only way to understand beauty. That is clearly untrue. If this were were true, there would no such thing as art or art criticism since every artistic creation would come under a binary judgement. i.e. it was or was not beautiful. I still maintain that inerrantist approaches to Scripture drain it of beauty, colour, subtlety, nuance, and the ability to engage or challenge. It becomes flattened and almost meaningless prose. That is is not how I understand God and I expect his Word to do all the things in the things in the previous sentence. The living word of God engages us. It does not lie on a slab inert and dead. This is all that literal historical fact does. Simple facts can never move us to wonder and reverence. Stories, symbols and metaphors can.

  8. Oh yes. So well put. I was brought up fundamentalist. I was astonished to find some people looked at the Bible differently. But you do miss so much. How would anyone take the Psalms literally? I find the poetry in the creation stories just as wonderful.

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