In the rolling hills of rural Kentucky, a ship the length of nearly two football fields and the height of a five-story building slowly rises from the ground.
This isn't just any ship, but Noah's Ark, as described in the Bible's book of Genesis.
"The Ark wall, according to the experts, was solid wood, pinned together and covered with pine tar," said LeRoy Troyer, the project's lead architect. "They think it was three to four feet thick." He picked up a heavy model of overlapping planks.
The vessel, like an Amish barn, is being built with a technique called timber framing, which uses wooden pegs and joints in lieu of nails. Amish carpenters from Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania are doing the bulk of the timber work.
"They think the construction took about 100 years," added Troyer. "So Noah had to have a lot of faith."
Noah isn't the only builder with faith. For the past five years, the Christian ministry Answers in Genesis has assiduously planned, fundraised, and even battled with the state of Kentucky in its quest to create what it says is a life-size replica of the vessel Noah built. The $29.5 million boat, dubbed the Ark Encounter, will be the eventual centerpiece of a religious theme park in Williamstown, Ky., the first phase of which is expected to cost $73 million. (Though the project will be funded privately, state politicians have debated its eligibility for certain tax incentives.)
The ark under construction in Kentucky as of June. Photo courtesy of ArkEncounter.com.
Slated to open in summer 2016, if all goes as planned, the Ark is, first and foremost, a large ship, built to the exact specifications outlined in the Bible. It will be suspended on 102 concrete piers, creating a 12-and-a-half-foot space between the ground and the ship's bottom. When complete, it will use the equivalent of 626 miles of wood, in planks one inch thick and 12 inches wide. Within the ship are 95 tons of steel plates and connectors. The top of the suspended ship's sail will reach 104 feet above ground level, about the height of a 10-story building.
The Ark will be, as far as its creators are aware, the largest timber-frame structure in the world.
Answers in Genesis, the group behind the Ark, is a self-defined apologetics ministry, meaning it seeks to equip believers with the tools to justify and share their faith. A central tenet of that faith is the view that the earth is just 6,000 years old. (Scientists say the earth is 4.54 billion years old.)
The ministry has been largely mocked in the mainstream media, particularly for its $27-million, 75,000-square-foot Creation Museum, also in Kentucky, in which dinosaurs are depicted alongside humans in the Garden of Eden.
In 2014, Jeffrey Goldberg described the museum in The Atlantic:
"And so [Ken Ham's] museum is filled with buff animatronic Adams and sexpot Eves (plastic breasts covered by waterfalls of extremely healthy hair) and writhing snakes and flying dragons and dinosaurs much larger than the average chicken."
A 2009 Times article documented a group of paleontologists' trip to the museum. The reporter, Kenneth Chang, quoted one of the scientists:
"I'm speechless," said Derek E.G. Briggs, director of the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale, who walked around with crossed arms and a grimace. "It's rather scary."
It's easy, perhaps, to dismiss the Ark as an architectural oddity, and Answers in Genesis as a pseudo-science fringe group in a flyover state. But to do so ignores the influence wielded by a group that operates on the margins of science, and the power of outsize physical structures, like the Ark, to galvanize and empower a religious minority.
Photo courtesy ArkEncounter.com.
According to the 2014 National Study of Religion & Human Origins, which uses detailed questions to determine how religion shapes belief, 37 percent of Americans are creationists, meaning they believe that God, and not a natural evolutionary process, created humans. Eight percent are young-earth creationists, who believe a 6,000-year-old earth was created in six 24-hour days. Given that the population of the U.S. is roughly 319 million, this amounts to 25.5 million Americans whose beliefs mirror those of Answers in Genesis.
The Creation Museum has, according to Answers in Genesis, received 2.4 million visitors since 2007. A feasibility study commissioned by the ministry and released this year projects a minimum of 1.4 million visitors to the Ark in its first year. (A study commissioned by the state of Kentucky estimated fewer visitors, but Answers in Genesis is planning facilities that accommodate 1.4 million.)
Outside of their brick-and-mortar projects, the ministry produces a prodigious quantity of web content. Google the phrase "when was the ice age" or "when did the dinosaurs live" and one of the top three search results is the website of Answers in Genesis. In 2014, the ministry's website received 43.9 million total page views and 14.4 million unique viewers, roughly a third of that received by the website of the magazine Science.
But beyond impact, the Ark and its creators demonstrate how architecture and design can play a pivotal role in constructing, and then disseminating, an alternative narrative of creation.
"The level of talent and training that the artists have, and the number of things they have to produce and think about, in terms of what to teach and what is going to entertain people, is impressive," said James Bielo, an anthropologist at Miami University who specializes in American Christianity and spent two and a half years doing field work with the Ark's artists. "It's by far the most sophisticated attempt to treat the Bible in this way."
Inside the Ark's design studio. Photo by Corinne Ramey.
If the Williamstown construction site is the Ark's brawn, its brains are housed in a monochromatic office park just south of Cincinnati. Inside, designers and artists work in cubicles, and sculptors create lifelike animals from CNC machines and 3D printers. On a recent visit to the studio, dinosaurs, and the cages that would hold them, slowly came to life under sculptors' hands.
The blueprint for the Ark and its contents comes from Genesis, the Old Testament's first book, in which God creates the earth in six days. The earth and its humans, the Bible says, have fallen into wickedness, and the only way out is for Noah to build a boat and escape before the flood. God tells Noah, in the King James version:
Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch. And this is the fashion which thou shalt make it of: The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits. A window shalt thou make to the ark, and in a cubit shalt thou finish it above; and the door of the ark shalt thou set in the side thereof; with lower, second, and third stories shalt thou make it.
The builders began by defining the cubit, an ancient unit of measure generally determined as the distance from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger.
"A cubit in the English Bible, King James, is 18 inches," said Troyer, the architect. "But we're using the Egyptian cubit, which is 20.4 inches. If you go to Egypt and see King Tutankhamun, those people were very tall." (Scientists say King Tut was five and a half feet tall.) This makes the ark 510 feet long, 85 feet wide and 53 feet tall, or roughly half the size of a substantial cruise ship.
Photo by Corinne Ramey.
For this ministry, minutiae matters, said Bielo, the anthropologist. Discussing details—say, asking about gopher wood or debating the length of the cubit—is precisely the dialogue that Answers in Genesis seeks to create with skeptics.
"Participating in that discourse is good for Answers in Genesis, because it's legitimizing the plausibility line of thinking," he said. "For them, very seriously, it's part of the conversion process. Once you establish plausibility, you can make the leap to believability."
The Ark encapsulates two major shifts in fundamentalist belief, both of which were ushered in by John C. Whitcomb and Henry M. Morris's 1961 book The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and its Scientific Implications. Previously, fundamentalist Christians used various theories, like equating each day of creation to vast ages, to account for discrepancies between the Bible and the scientific record.
For decades they had also expressed suspicions about the existence of dinosaurs. Many creationists believed that dinosaur fossils had been invented by evolutionists and thus tempted Christians to stray from the Bible. But the Genesis Flood reflected a shift in antievolutionist thinking, arguing for a literal reading of the Bible that had dinosaurs and humans living together in an antediluvian world just 6,000 years ago. (Scientists say dinosaurs lived between 230 and 65 million years ago.)
"Now dinosaurs are the darlings of the young-earth creationist movement," said Ronald L. Numbers, a University of Wisconsin-Madison historian of science and medicine and author of The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design.
Photo by Corinne Ramey.
The dinosaurs, according to Answers in Genesis, are just some of the animals Noah saved on his Ark. Genesis reads:
They, and every beast after his kind, and all the cattle after their kind, and every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind, and every fowl after his kind, every bird of every sort.
For young-earth creationists, the word "kind" is the key to explaining how every animal could squeeze onto one single boat. Kinds, young-earth creationists believe, are a type of taxonomic structure, roughly equivalent to zoological families. They also believe in what they call "microevolution," the idea that one "kind," for example, from the family Canidae, could have evolved into dogs, foxes, wolves, and other related animals. In the Bible, "both dogs and wolves are first mentioned less than a millennium after the Flood, indicating that diversification occurred very rapidly," the Answers in Genesis website says.
Answers in Genesis researchers believe the Ark could have held 16,000 animals, including dinosaurs, and used modern systems to store food and water. "With Noah being over 500 years in age, it would make sense that he had the knowledge to be able to incorporate automatic feeding and watering systems where they only had to be refilled occasionally," says an Answers in Genesis analysis.
A model of the Ark. Photo by Corinne Ramey.
Inside a conference room in the Northern Kentucky design studio, six men sat around a large table and prepared for a lunch meeting.
Rolls of blueprints and scattered drawings shared the table with four Bibles. A poster labeled "The Seven C's of History Timeline" was affixed to the wall. The timeline interspersed biblical events with historical ones; its key read, "Secular history listed in black."
Mike Zovath, Answers in Genesis's project manager and one of the ministry's three co-founders, bowed his head.
"Father, thank you for the amazing talent that you've assembled," he prayed. "We ask your blessing on all the work that's going on, this wisdom, this creativity, and give us patience as we work together. Bless this food now and strengthen us. We pray in Christ's name, amen."
The men served themselves sandwiches, salad, potato chips, and tea (which, in Kentucky, is always cold and sweet) and chattered about the mundane. They discussed wives, motorcycle trips, and the Cincinnati Reds before launching into the business at hand.
Photo courtesy ArkEncounter.com.
James Bielo, the anthropologist, was a regular observer at meetings like this. The team's goals—to create the world of Noah, and fully immerse people in it—aren't much different from those of a company like Disney, he said. "That is par for the course in our modern culture of entertainment," he said. "We're role playing. That's the kind of entertainment we love."
But at this meeting, the focus was largely on an exhibit in the Ark that would hold a sort of miniature Bible museum. The men discussed logistical issues: the artifacts would require a regulated temperature, and, ideally, the team didn't want to regularly redesign the entire exhibit, since the artifacts were on loan. They also were constantly concerned with managing the flow of people.
"The big thing is, if you got this thing packed, then you want to keep people moving," said Patrick Marsh, the Ark's design director. "If you got 3,500 people in the ship you have to move them through, because you have another 3,500 people downstairs waiting to get in."
Photo courtesy ArkEncounter.com.
But their main goal was connecting the story of the biblical flood, which they believe occurred in 2348 B.C., to Christ, who they believe wasn't born until several thousand years later.
"The key will be massaging out the Christ aspect of it," said Cary Summers, an Ark Encounter consultant who is also president of the Museum of the Bible, currently under construction in Washington, D.C. and funded by Hobby Lobby president Steve Green. "I think you can create a great storyline of the impact of the Bible that came out of Noah's lineage, and you could support it with hundreds of artifacts."
"Then we can always open the grand opening with some real pizzazzy things," Summers added. "Knock 'em dead, then switch 'em out."
Bielo, the anthropologist, described the Ark's creators as all business, all the time.
"Even culture wars stuff is not part of the everyday office life," he said. "If people imagine they are sitting around talking about the culture wars, it just doesn't happen."
The culture wars, however, certainly rage outside that office park. In December, Kentucky said the Ark would be ineligible for up to $18 million in tax credits, because Answers in Genesis's hiring practices constituted discrimination based on religion, and because the project is more ministry than tourist attraction. "State tourism tax incentives cannot be used to fund religious indoctrination or otherwise be used to advance religion," the state's letter read.
Answers in Genesis has sued the state, and the suit is still pending in court.
The Ark site in April. Photo by Corinne Ramey.
One of the office park's cluttered cubicles holds Kristin Andersen and Jon Taylor, both lead production designers for the Ark. Reclining in front of a large computer monitor, Taylor pointed to a nearby desk with a tiny model of an Ice Age exhibit, for which he was designing elaborate panels and scrims. (Young-earth creationists believe the Ice Age began after the biblical flood, around 2250 B.C. Scientists say the Ice Ages began 2.4 million years ago.)
"The critical thing about the models is they give us the ability to see what the exhibit will feel like to guests," Taylor said. "It makes it easier for us to go from there and explain to Ken Ham what we're teaching."
On the other half of the cubicle, Andersen was working on a drawing. "We always start with a story and an idea and the characters," she explained, surrounded by pictures of her son and her two diplomas, both from California Institute of the Arts, posted above her desk.
While the Ark is a notably ambitious example, the marriage of religion and architecture is certainly not new. During the 1870s, the Chautauqua Institution, an educational organization in southwestern New York, created Palestine Park, a large-scale model of the Holy Land. Today, religion and architecture meet in everything from mega churches to the Holy Land Experience, a biblically-oriented theme park in Orlando, Fl.
Photo courtesy ArkEncounter.com.
A set designer, Andersen takes inspiration from the secular world. A book of designs from the Disney movie Tangled sat on her desk, and she spoke of using costumes from the Broadway production of The Lion King as inspiration for a parade that would travel in front of the Ark.
But that afternoon, she was creating the living quarters for Noah, his sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth, and the men's wives.
Ham's wife, for example, "was known as the princess of the group," Andersen said. "She was into fabrics and clothing." Her room would be more decadent, with what Andersen said were historically appropriate fabrics.
"Ham is into weapons and building so I decorated their space like that," she said, pointing to a sketch. "Shem was more into reading and he was the smart guy. So he has a big scroll desk."
Because the Bible gives scant information about the personalities of Noah and his sons, the determined personalities are "little more than speculation," Tim Chaffey, the Ark's content manager, said in an email.
Photo courtesy of ArkEncounter.com.
For example, in Answers in Genesis's depiction, Shem specializes in raising animals.
"Many of his descendants are featured in the Bible as shepherds, including Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and later, David," Chaffey said. "Shem is also in the line from Noah to Jesus, so we thought that we could portray him as being more devoted to his faith than his brothers, so he shares his father's interest in studying."
For Andersen, creating characters with personalities contributes to a narrative that is more realistic than the typical depiction of a small ship stuffed to the gills with smiling animals and protruding giraffes.
"It wasn't really like that," said Andersen. "It was a real ship that was low and dark, and there wasn't a lot of light down there."
"As they come onto the Ark here," she said, gesturing towards a door, "I want it to be really dramatic and special, like 'Woah, this is really not what I expected,'" she said. "It's dark in there, and there will be an audio soundtrack. You'll hear the wind, and an approaching storm, an animal whimper. You'll meander through these dark cages."
While it's easy to dismiss the Ark's theatrics as the Disneyfication of religion, to do so ignores the effectiveness of dramaturgical techniques, said Jill Stevenson, associate professor of theater at Marymount Manhattan College and author of Sensational Devotion: Evangelical Performance in Twenty-First-Century America. "It's really powerful to go and visit [the Creation Museum] as a skeptic," she said. "Regardless of whether it changes your mind and makes you believe in the creation story, it's important to acknowledge that the tactics are what we use in other performance forms. If we think they work in any other theatrical environment, it shouldn't be surprising they work in these evangelical environments as well."
Photo courtesy ArkEncounter.com.
In the book of Genesis, Noah sends out a dove to scout for land. The first time, the dove returns to the ark. Then Noah tries again:
And the dove came in to him in the evening; and, lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf pluckt off: so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth.
LeRoy Troyer, the architect, marveled at how, as the Ark's visitors wind from the dark, lower deck to the well-lit upper one, they'd follow a literal narrative of salvation.
"That dove is a really good symbol," he said.
Editor: Sara Polsky
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