I’d been on Noah’s Ark all of 20 minutes when the question that hung over every step was finally put to me: “Do you believe?”
It came from a man named Travis, who wore a Captain America T-shirt and had an excitable look in his eye. He was touring the new, five-story Ark Encounter in Williamstown, Ky., with his wife and daughters after driving three hours from central Indiana.
We stood on the ark’s second floor, in front of a display about the Garden of Eden, and Travis had just explained to one of his girls that some people believe the fabled garden still exists. Maybe it’s in the Bermuda Triangle, he said. Or near the Euphrates River. Or it might be suspended somewhere between heaven and Earth.
He spoke with such certainty that I interrupted, asking if I’d heard right. Travis said yes and repeated the story. Then he asked, right there, in front of his girls and Adam and Eve: Do I believe?
Travis meant the question in the big way and the little. Did I believe the story of Noah’s Ark? That Adam and Eve had been banished from the Garden of Eden? That it could be in the Bermuda Triangle? That we are descended from an all-powerful, all-knowing God?
I offered the most honest, least alienating answer I could: I don’t quite believe. But I don’t exactly not believe.
See it to believe it
I was glad he’d asked, because I’d wondered the exact same thing about nearly everyone at the 510-foot-long, 51-foot-high, $100 million version of Noah’s Ark that opened in a rolling Kentucky field in July.
There was the family of five from Columbus, Ohio, munching snacks in their van after four hours on the ark. After eating, they planned to return. There were the women leaving the ark as I prepared to board, bags from the gift shop dangling from their hands.
Woman No. 1: “It’s wonderful.”
Woman No. 2: “Incredible.”
Woman No. 3: “You’ll love it.”
Would I? My skepticism about Noah’s Ark as anything more than a fable for 5-year-olds made me wonder. It also made me wonder if the ark resonated with these people precisely because they did believe that God flooded the world out of wrath after telling Noah to, well, you know the story.
I spent several hours wandering Ark Encounter, and the takeaway was simple: You don’t need to believe to enjoy it. A life-size model of Noah’s Ark in an undulating Kentucky field is an undeniable spectacle, and it must be seen to be believed — sort of in the way that Stonehenge, Easter Island or an Ikea store must be seen to be believed.
Ark Encounter opened to great fanfare, curiosity and protests. It was built by Answers in Genesis, which describes itself as an “apologetics ministry, dedicated to enabling Christians to defend their faith and to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ effectively.” It also believes that Earth is 6,000 years old and that Adam and Eve co-existed with dinosaurs.
The ark is a clean and welcoming space that’s a marvel of design. It’s clearly meaningful to those who “believe,” as Travis put it, but to those of us a little less certain, it can be a fun way to pass a few hours.
The ark does a fine job of maintaining its motif. Yes, it really does (sort of) look like an ark in there. It’s a vast, open space of blond wood, with long ramps connecting its three floors and a clear view to a skylight in the roof. Bathed in yellowish light, it’s quite a handsome ark and, in late July, still had that new ark smell.
When Ark Encounter is just a representation of that fable for 5-year-olds, it’s fun. The first steps inside immerse a visitor in the premise: Rows of bamboo cages emit chirps, squawks and murmurs from across the animal kingdom, mixed with a recording of the low crash of waves. The rumble is so deep that you feel it in your feet.
But at other turns, Ark Encounter takes itself too seriously. Soon after that sense of being on an ark full of animals in a flooded world, we reach cages of life-size beasts. The first is a black bear beside the words, “How did Noah keep the polar bears cool?”
The answer: “Skeptics often mock the concept of the Ark and its animals, so they develop questions designed to make the Ark look foolish. However, when one thinks about the Ark from a biblical perspective, the skeptics’ questions end up looking foolish. ... We know that polar bears can produce offspring with grizzlies and other brown bears, and brown bears can interbreed with black bears. Thus, the various bears of the world belong to the same kind. The two bears on the Ark were the ancestors of the many bears in the world today, including polar bears.”
Everyone gets to believe and support what they want here in America. But as a visitor, I have a difficult time bankrolling such nonscience, especially considering the price: $40 per adult ($75 for two days), plus a surprise $10 parking fee.
The opportunities to spend money on the ark are plentiful, with a restaurant, the gift shop, a not-so-subtle push toward a visit to the ark’s sister attraction — the Creation Museum, roughly 40 miles north — and a zip line that costs $59. There’s also a snack kiosk where Gatorade, bottled Starbucks drinks, pretzels and chips are sold.
“I don’t think there was Gatorade or chips on the actual ark,” I said to an usher.
“If there was, it would have been a whole lot cheaper!” he said.
The ark amounts to a hit-and-miss array of exhibits and experiences, sometimes with a surprising undercurrent of anger and darkness. The world’s first 1,650 years are told mostly in poster board displays: the Garden of Eden, humanity’s fall from grace and then some stuff about how humans are “corrupt” and “wicked” and “vile.” One display is dedicated to the “deception” in children’s books: “Fairy tale ark stories often focus on cute animals on a fun boat ride. But the Flood account is about the righteous and holy God judging an exceedingly sinful world.” Take that, third-graders!
Most stirring were the explanations of how the ark would have functioned. How did Noah and crew feed all those animals? Dump all that animal waste? Ventilate the ship? Gather fresh water? Let in light? Ark Encounter gives us answers in poster and video form, and they involve intricate systems that seem plausible enough. The ark is otherwise a fairly exhaustive look at what life would have been like on it — plus at least one dinosaur because, presumably, Answers in Genesis couldn’t resist.