The husband-and-wife team of Susan L. and William Vance Trollinger Jr. have been fascinated by Australian creationist Ken Ham’s Creation Museum since it opened in Kentucky a decade ago.
After multiple visits and much research, these University of Dayton professors turned their efforts into a new book, Righting America at the Creation Museum, which was published by Johns Hopkins University Press last year.
Not only do the Trollingers give a detailed account of the museum that aims to make the case for young-earth creationism and a literal interpretation of the Bible, they also show how the museum is part of a larger political movement on the Religious Right.
The book steers readers through the history of museums and creationism; background on Ham’s ministry, Answers in Genesis (AiG); the Creation Museum’s presentation of science and the Bible; and the museum’s place at the intersection of American politics, science and fundamentalist Christianity. The book ends with some thoughts on the Ark Encounter, Ham’s re-creation of Noah’s Ark.
The Trollingers recently discussed their book with Church & State Assistant Editor Liz Hayes:
Q. How did you get on the path of writing a book about the Creation Museum?
Trollingers: Given Bill’s work in the history of fundamentalism and Sue’s work in the study of visual rhetoric, this project makes sense – but it is not a project we planned on pursuing. The Creation Museum opened in 2007, and in 2008 we made our first visit, took photos and notes and gave our first presentation. Fascinated by the place, we kept visiting, kept taking photos and notes and kept giving increasingly substantive papers. After one of these presentations in 2011, a friend asked us, “Why aren’t you writing a book on the museum?” We thought this was a great idea – and wondered why we had not thought of it ourselves!
Q. What did you hope to present with this book? And can you explain the title, since “Righting America” could imply several meanings?
Trollingers: When we were getting started on this project, one of the things that really struck us was that many commentators writing about the Creation Museum weren’t taking it seriously. They tended to talk about it as if it were just some wacky fringe phenomenon that didn’t deserve a serious look. We believe that the Creation Museum (and the various companion materials on AiG’s website) is shaping conservative Christianity in really powerful and negative ways.
What we hoped to present with this book is a serious, sustained and close reading of the museum that would enable readers to see for themselves what this thing really is and what it is doing.
The title is meant to be a bit ambiguous. We definitely intended for it to communicate that we believe the Creation Museum endeavors to push America to the right – and to the Christian Right, in particular. But we also wanted to suggest that we think Ken Ham and his colleagues at AiG think that this is the right direction for America, and that they are engaged in a deeply political project.
Q. In the book’s introduction, you write, “It is tempting to dismiss the Creation Museum as a surreal oddity, an inexplicable and bizarre cultural site. But to imagine that the museum is a wacky but essentially irrelevant outpost on the far outskirts of American life is a huge mistake.” Why shouldn’t people write off the Creation Museum?
Trollingers: Over the past few years we have talked with numerous people in our academic world who simply cannot take the Creation Museum seriously. A universe that is less than 10,000 years old? Dinosaurs and humans on the earth at the same time? Are you kidding? But as wacky as these ideas may seem, they are held by millions of Americans on the right side of the American mainstream. More than this, Answers in Genesis, the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter are aggressively engaged in the project of preparing and arming Christians to serve as combatants in America’s culture war, a culture war that is poisoning and polarizing American politics and religion. If we did not know before the 2016 presidential election that institutions such as the Creation Museum have an impact on all of us, we certainly should know now.
Q. You write about historical science versus observational science – can you summarize these terms and explain their importance in relation to the Creation Museum?
Trollingers: Observational science and historical science are really important terms for young-earth creationism because it is by these terms that young-earth creationists delegitimize evolutionary science and elevate creation science to an equivalent epistemological plane. According to Ken Ham (and other young-earth creationists), real science is observational science – that is, science that comes in the form of repeatable observations and experiments that focus on observing what happens before our very eyes (and other senses).
But when scientists move from that kind of work to trying to explain some process that is in the past, that is historical science. A geologist can examine rock formations in the present. And that scientist (and others) can repeat those examinations. And they can make inferences based on their observations about the state of those rock formations, and that is real science. But when those scientists start making inferences about how those rock formations came to be, now that is historical science. And according to Ham, that’s not real science. Since no scientist was present to observe the creation of those rock formations, then it’s all just speculation.
According to Ham, it’s fine to engage in historical science but you have to grant that it’s not real science. Since evolutionary science seeks to make inferences about the origins of things, evolutionary science isn’t real science. Ham concedes that creation science does the same thing and therefore is also historical science, not real science. So, now you can see what has happened here – by way of these terms, Ham puts evolutionary science and creation science in the same bucket. But, Ham would want to point out, there is one big difference: Creation science is grounded in God’s truth. And that is its ace in the hole.
Q. You’ve noted there are relatively few Bibles in a museum that is supposed to present the word of God. What do you make of this void?
Trollingers: For a place that is ostensibly about making the case for the inerrant Word of God, we were stunned at their treatment of the Bible. Not only are there no Bibles to read in the museum (you can buy one in the bookstore), but there is no display with the text from Genesis 1-11, which is supposed to be the focus of the museum. Yes, there is a fair amount of text from the Bible, but much of it is in fragments, verses or a verse or even just a few words from a verse. There is an inconsistent use of biblical translations, and often no context provided for the biblical text being displayed. Most surprising, there is creative editing of biblical text, including verses removed from a passage without any indication that they have been removed.
But over time we realized that this really is not surprising. More than presenting the Bible itself, the Creation Museum seeks to present a very particular young-earth creationist interpretation of the Bible as the truth. And the effort to make the case for this very particular interpretation overwhelms any effort to attend to the details and the idiosyncrasies of the biblical text.
Q. You conclude the book by noting, “the ideological and politicized young Earth creationism of the Creation Museum and AiG … has little to do with Christianity’s rich intellectual and social justice tradition … It has little to do with faith and hope and love. Sad indeed. For all of us.” What do you think the museum and YEC movement is about and why do you find that sad?
Trollingers: AiG, the Creation Museum and now Ark Encounter are all about aggressively promoting an ideological and politicized young-earth creationism as “True Christianity.” We find this sad because millions of good, Bible-believing Christians have bought what AiG is selling. And what AiG is selling has very little to do with what Jesus teaches in the Gospels, which is why there is so little Jesus at the Creation Museum. What AiG is selling has very little to do with the Hebrew prophets, very little to do with, as we note in the book, Augustine and Aquinas and Barth and Bonhoeffer and Day and King. At the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter what you get is a Christian Right message that constitutes a truncated and distorted form of Christianity that is bad for the church and is bad for the country. As Americans with deep Christian commitments, this makes us sad.
Q. Ham’s Ark Encounter, a re-creation of Noah’s ark, opened just a few months after your book was published. What are your thoughts on the Ark Encounter and how it compares to the Creation Museum? Are you considering a new book on the “Ark Park?”
Trollingers: You might say that the Ark Encounter is, in at least one way, the opposite of the Creation Museum. The Creation Museum isn’t all that impressive as one approaches it from the outside. Aside from some extensive gardens that are quite beautiful during the growing season, the building itself isn’t much to look at.
Inside is where the action is. Therein, the Creation Museum stages a powerful constellation of arguments that, briefly put, say that Christians need to understand that they are living in a perilous time in which America is in steep moral decline. It argues that they need to get on the right side of this great culture war between conservative Christianity, on the one hand, that demands obedience to a God who has no problem wiping out nearly the entire human race when he’s had enough of their disobedience, and the liberal/secular/humanist/atheist American culture that denies God, defies his obvious and clearly defined rules (a crucial one being that marriage is only to be between a man and a woman), and has no moral compass. There is real drama in the Creation Museum, and through all of our eight visits, we always found it to be engaging and fascinating.
The Ark Encounter is quite different in this regard. Unlike the Creation Museum, the Ark Encounter is a jaw-dropping sight from the outside. Its sheer size certainly does capture one’s attention upon arrival. Moreover, the craftsmanship of the Ark is also quite astonishing. The more than three million board feet that went into the structure makes for a gorgeous (even if strange) exterior.
Once inside, things are not so engaging. One reason is that (at least as of late July) there is a lot of empty space at either end of the structure. Another is that on the lowest level, much of what is on display are empty bins and other containers.
The point is that the Ark had plenty of room to store enough food to feed all those animals. But looking at empty bin after empty bin gets old pretty fast.
Also, the layout of the upper decks is very simple. A great deal of interior space is dedicated to really wide walkways. Along one of the wide walkways are a series bays that hold various exhibits, many of which focus on how Noah and his family took care of all those animals in the Ark. Along the opposite walkway can be found bathrooms and a few additional exhibits.
The Ark Encounter does repeat something of the life-size diorama strategy seen in the Creation Museum on its top floor where visitors can pass through a series of “rooms” crafted to suggest, by way of their designers’ imagination, what Noah’s family’s quarters might have looked like. But as these “rooms” are all a matter of their designers’ imagination They seem decidedly less compelling than, say, the Garden of Eden diorama at the Creation Museum. Unlike that diorama, which seems to provide a peep hole into the past, this one just gives us a three-dimensional version of what the designers imagined.
We are sure there is much to say about Ark Encounter, and we have said quite a bit about it on our blog, rightingamerica.net, but we will leave it to others to write a book on it.