One can say many things about Beowulf, the Old English epic poem that dates between the 8th and 11th centuries: Its authorship is unknown, it’s an important part of the Western canon and it’s the bane of many a college freshman.
Also this: Beowulf is a work of fiction. No one seriously argues that the poem, which features a hero who fights monsters and has fantastic adventures, is based on actual events.
Well, almost no one.
Charles Wolford of Louisville magazine recently journeyed to northern Kentucky to visit Ark Encounter, a tourist attraction built by Australian evangelist Ken Ham. Ham built a large replica of Noah’s Ark (complete with steel beams, lights, electricity, heating and air conditioning) and is charging people to visit.
During his visit, Wolford met with Andrew Snelling, a geologist who works at the park. A central tenet of Ham’s brand of young-Earth creationism is that humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time, a contention that, from the standpoint of mainstream science, is akin to asserting that hurricanes are caused by giants blowing on the ocean. Wolford asked Snelling what happened to the dinosaurs – and got an unexpected answer.
“Dinosaurs went extinct after they left the ark,” Snelling replied. “After the flood, we had the Ice Age. We had a radically different world. Some creatures weren’t able to adapt. But most cultures in the world have some legend about dragons, and these dragons are actually a good description of dinosaurs. The Chinese, for example, their dragons are depicted on scrolls pulling the chariots of emperors. And there was a story called Beowulf in which the king slays a dragon, and this happened in Norway.”
At this point, Wolford asks, “So you take Beowulf to be evidence of dinosaurs existing?”
Snelling replies, “Yes. It was an eyewitness account.”
Um, no, it’s not. It is a cool story, though.
Apparently, this is not a new argument for Ham and his pals. As this blogger noted earlier this year, Ham's Creation Museum contains an exhibit arguing that Beowulf "contains accurate historical information."
Beowulf: Keep telling yourself, "It's just a story." (Photo by Pete D via Flickr)
Now, I want to be clear: Snelling, Ham and other fundamentalist Christians are free to believe whatever they want about the Bible (or Beowulf, for that matter). But in Ham’s case, a private belief expressed through private channels wasn’t enough. He sought, and won, a subsidy from the state of Kentucky to open Ark Encounter.
Ham denies he’s getting taxpayer help, but the arrangement with the state works like this: Once a year, all of the 6 percent sales tax that Ark Encounter charged for things like tickets, food and souvenirs is returned to the park. So, money that had been in the state treasury is given back to Ark Encounter.
Sure sounds like a subsidy to me.
There are other disturbing things in this story. Ham attacks separation of church and state, asserting it’s not in the Constitution. That’s to be expected, but what I found more troubling was Wolford’s interview with a woman named Sarah Strooksbury, who teaches 8th-grade science in a Tennessee public school.
Strooksbury said she is required to teach evolution, but she doesn’t believe in it. In her interview with Wolford, she parrots creationist arguments and openly admits that she undercuts evolutionary theory in the classroom, remarking, “But I say, ‘Here’s what I believe. It makes sense that it would happen this way, too. Just look at the facts.”
Yes, just look at the facts, please! Unfortunately, they don’t seem to do a lot of that at Ark Encounter – and sometimes I think they don’t even know what facts are. This leads people like Snelling to confuse an epic poem with a history book.
As I said, these folks have the right to believe what they want, but let’s be clear: What they’re promoting is fundamentalist Christianity, not science. Ham’s goal isn’t to enlighten anyone with new information about human origins; it’s to convert them to his brand of Christianity.
In light of that, Ham & Co. should be kept far away from two things: our tax dollars and our public schools.