Ham’s Ark

Noah and his ark have been in the news quite a bit over the past several months. A friend recently shared a story on American News X about Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter, soon to open in Kentucky. It may be open already, but I haven’t been down yonder lately. I’m not going to attempt to match the well-deserved snark of Thomas Clay’s article, but I did find the design of Ham’s ark worthy of comment. I’m afraid I’ll have to wait while you check the article since photographs are covered by copyright and, well, I haven’t been down yonder. What first strikes me about Ham’s ark is that it has a rudder (as well as a keel). The Bible does imply that this was the first boat built, but then it also states the plans, like the Bible itself, came directly from God. The Almighty surely understands fluid dynamics, but I was wondering what the rudder was for. Did Noah plan on going someplace? Presumably in his flat world he’d have wanted to just stay afloat over the same place since, to quote another scripture, “there’s no place like home.”

Genesis doesn’t say anything about a rudder. In fact, apart from the inexact measurements in cubits, all we know about the ark are the following features:

•its dimensions (300 cubits by 50 cubits by 50 cubits; RMS Titanic, by comparison, was approximately 548.5 cubits long)
•it had three decks
•it had a door
•it had a window.

The Ham-style ark design is based on that advocated by Sun Pictures some years back as being especially seaworthy. Nobody knows what gopher wood is, but there was plenty of it around since all the plants were considered expendable in the face of a flood that would kill everything. But a rudder?

The biblical ark took its cue, somehow, from the much older tale of Utnapishtim. There are even earlier versions than that in the Gilgamesh Epic, but the parallels between Gilgamesh and Genesis have been known for well over a century now and are pretty remarkable. The original ark, however, was a cube. It had six decks. Now a cube of wood—even gopher wood—would sink like, well, a cube of gopher wood. Such a ship wouldn’t require a rudder to help it find the bottom of the New World Ocean.

Before my academic career took a tumble I was slated to write a book on Noah. Too bad that never happened, what with all the interest these days. A cottage industry in making arks has been launched. As modern-day arks sail, or at least get towed, through the present-day oceans, or are built high on dry ground, we can be glad for a rudder in the prescient mind of the sender of all floods.

Photo credit: Centre for Research Collections University of Edinburgh, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Centre for Research Collections University of Edinburgh, via Wikimedia Commons


Noah Way

As a fleet of Noah’s Arks near completion, some critics would like to stop these Titanics from their mythical crossing. The Ark Encounter, despite announcements of its demise, is set to open soon in Kentucky. This Noah’s Ark replica, unlike its seaworthy compatriots, is land-locked in bluegrass country. According to a story originating in the Lexington Herald-Leader, Tri-State Freethinkers tried to take out billboard ads suggesting the ark advocates genocide and incest. Well, marrying first cousins has been done before (think about it). And if you go back ten generations things get even a bit dicier with Cain’s wife and that of Seth. All in the Family wouldn’t even air for 6000 years. As for genocide, well, this was more like genomicide. Not a race, but an entire species, apart from kissing cousins, was about to learn the hard lesson of being born not of chosen stock.

According to the article billboard companies have rejected the Freethinkers’ proposal. It might cause accidents, they suggest, which, although not technically genocide, do take the lives of the innocent, even in dry weather. The flood divides people. Thus it always has.

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The culture wars, curiously, pick strange targets. I’m not in favor of teaching children to read myths literally, but then, I’m not in favor of bringing them up as materialists either. There used to be a concept called the “via media”—the middle of the road. Now such a stance appears decidedly wishy-washy. Milquetoast anyone? It is much better to be combative. “Oh George, you’re always so forceful,” sighs Winifred. So we teach our children. Boys, push your way to the front.

Implications can be tricky things. Allowing opponents, no matter how naive, their say has always been a mucking out of the Augean stables. Nobody likes to accommodate other points of view. Watching the parade of politicians we must be assured that we alone are right. Still, the stillborn billboard has a point. Building arks is the sign of the ultimate intolerance. Not only do you condemn those who differ to the outside, you are giving them a self-righteous death sentence. Maybe the billboard should stand. Or maybe it should not. What would Charlie Brown do?


Rainbow Disconnection

The scene can be quite dramatic. A zoom out from a dead or dying Christian martyr as the moving music swells. There’s a sense of poignant heaven in the air as a human being breathes his or her last, lapsing into the hands of an unseen, waiting father. That’s a kind of typical ending to the particular genre of a martyr movie. We’re left feeling sad but somewhat inspired that someone cared so much that they would give up their very life for their belief. I can see the scenes already building as Kim Davis goes to jail for contempt of court. Davis is the Rowan County clerk in Kentucky who refuses to issue marriage licenses to homosexual couples. Although her action violates federal law, she has her conscience for a pillow at night. All she has to do is spend a day in jail before she will become a martyr/cause célèbre for the religious right. I’m sure it’s already started.

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I don’t believe anyone should be made to go against their conscience. I also believe that if you’re an elected official being paid a tax-payer’s salary of $80,000 a year, that you should do your job. I’m sure the case isn’t so simple as all that, but as someone who’s never made anywhere near that much money, I could see myself easily stepping down if asked to do something that I just could not, in good faith, do. Most of us spend our lives compromising a bit here and there when our employment pushes us in directions we feel uncomfortable going. Nobody would consider us spineless for trying to hold onto tenuous jobs in an economy that seems to be endlessly faltering as the wealthy suck up more and more of the free cash. We do what we have to do. Go to confession at the end of the day and live to die another day. The evangelical, however, has a soft spot for martyrs.

Historians tell us that early Christians were probably not killed off as radically as the early records suggest. It seems the numbers might have been exaggerated to make a point. No doubt, many did die, and some in very gruesome ways, but they faced an unspeakable compromise—to deny the creator of the universe and burn in Hell forever. Issuing a license to a couple whose right to marry you question doesn’t seem to fall into the same category. Standing before the great golden throne your defense would easily be, “it was my job. I couldn’t quit because I needed all that money.” If there’s another viable source of income, the argument becomes spurious. I’m sure there are those in Rowan County who feel they’ve got a hero in their jail. The rest of us just get dressed and go to do the job we’re paid to do.


Jesus for President

From my economical hotel to Duke University was maybe a twenty-minute drive. As a stranger in town I prefered to stay off the heavily traveled corridors during busy morning commute times, never being sure when exactly my exit was coming up. So I took the backroads. Along the way I started to see churches with denominational names I’ve never even heard before. I quickly lost count of just how many houses of worship I passed. With all this rich fare, perhaps it is time to tighten the old Bible belt a bit. The short drive reminded me of my one and only fact-gathering trip sponsored by Nashotah House. I was sent to Asbury Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky for a technology conference. Accompanied by an Episcopal priest and a Lutheran pastor, I was not the only one of us to feel a bit besieged by the in-your-face evangelicalism of Kentucky. My Lutheran colleague wistfully commented, “but the ELCA is ‘Evangelical.’” A different species of evangelical entirely.

The chapel at Duke University easily dominates the west campus. The divinity school is one of the flagship seminaries of the United Methodist Church. Founded by the tobacco money of James Buchanan Duke (who also owned the estate in New Jersey where our ill-fated garden was planted this summer) and the fledgling Trinity College, Duke is an interesting mix of the sacred and profane; Eliade in quadrangles and limestone. The campus sports identity is the Blue Devils, and this diabolical emblem can be seen leering from tote bags and campus buses connecting east and west. Money and religion, devils and saints. Life offers many choices, and Duke, as an exclusive institution, serves the blended family of academics in Bible land.

One of my daughter’s favorite movies as a child was Disney’s Lilo and Stitch. In case you missed it, Stitch is an alien (you’ve got to love it already!), and Lilo is a little girl who loves Elvis, a true southern prodigy. The movie features Elvis singing Giant, Baum and Kaye’s “Devil in Disguise.” Although a song about love in crisis, “Devil in Disguise” seems a decidedly useful trope. Human institutions often disguise themselves as divine. After all, no suite trumps the God card. Religion is so prevalent in the Bible Belt that Christianity is less a religion and more a culture. That culture is at barbed odds with itself, for its deepest, darkest desires are out of line with the utter selflessness that Jesus seems to imply is at the heart of Christianity. Travel is one of the greatest teaching tools we have. Sometimes your own country can feel like foreign soil.


Poisonous Beliefs

When it comes to staying alone in hotels, I use the time to catch up on my reading. I suppose I did my time with television as a child, and there are so many books awaiting my attention that I just can’t see letting the time get away. Last night, however, I’d heard that Rick Perry was accusing God of changing His mind, and so I switched on the news. After that grew tiresome, I landed on Animal Planet where a woman was being chased out of her house by a snake. Being in North Carolina, the first thing that came to mind was snake-handlers, and within minutes my suspicions were confirmed. I’d stumbled on “Snake Man of Appalachia.” I was transfixed. Although I caught the show already in progress, it quickly became clear that the wife was terrified of snakes and her underemployed husband spent his ample spare time collecting rattlers and copperheads for church. The setting was rural Kentucky. Very rural.

This was a marriage between an unbeliever (she, Reva) and a true believer (he, Verlin). Reva’s love for Verlin was quite obvious, even as she told the camera she didn’t believe in snake-handling. “I worry every time he goes to church,” she lamented in the diametrically opposite words of the stereotypical housewife complaint. Meanwhile, some various relatives, apparently closely related, were out on their ATVs huntin’ snakes. They would praise Jesus when they found one, after stuffing it into the safety bag. If Mark 16.18 were truly to be taken literally, why would you need to use those snake-handling hooks and bags to carry the poor things in? It was a good day for snagging serpents, and when Sunday rolled around Reva was very worried as Verlin headed off to church with a Bible in the hand and a several snake carriers in the back of the 4-by-4. There were not many people in church—less than 10. I wondered what their death records read like.

Animal Planet has sunken to the lowest common denominator, adding shows about rusticated foils for sophisticated urbanites to laugh at. How else can you explain “Hillbilly Handfishin’”? What was sad to me was that Verlin and his family live in very humble circumstances. Very humble. He has trouble finding work and even his wife prays that the Lord might use his snake-gathering talent to earn a little money. They couldn’t even afford birthday presents for their kids, and we call it entertainment. Among the multitude of religious conflicts slithering through my brain as I watched, there was an even more troubling image: bread and circuses. When the Roman Empire had lost the unthinking adoration of the citizens, the ploy of making a spectacle of the suffering of others became common. Our society has clearly made the declaration that the wealthy are where they deserve to be and the rest of us should bask in their beneficence. You think you got it bad, watch those poor believers handling snakes while they live in shacks. After all, doesn’t that same Bible say, “blessed are the poor”?

Where is your faith?


Floods and Fairytales

Never mind that the Bible gives only a cursory description of “Noah’s ark.” Never mind that the story in Genesis is clearly derivative from Mesopotamian originals such as the epics of Ziusudra, Atrahasis, and Gilgamesh (the Utnapishtim version). Never mind that all species of animals cannot survive within a single, extremely limited biosphere without evolving afterward into the diversity that the world currently hosts, even counting extinctions. Never mind that not enough water exists (with apologies to Kevin Costner) to cover all landforms without every mountain being pounded flat and stacked neatly on top of the ocean floor. In short, never mind reality—people will continue to build replicas of Noah’s ark. As a literary trope the ark has proved invaluable; many of my posts demonstrate how it appears and reappears in books and movies as a symbol of human irresponsibility. And yet, in order to demonstrate the veracity of an ancient myth, we continue to build fundamentalist arks.

Yesterday my wife pointed me to a msnbc story of an ark being built—and sailed—in the Netherlands. Certainly those in the “low countries” have global warming to deal with more immediately that those on higher (geologically, not morally, speaking) ground, and the engineer of this particular ark does not strike the viewer as a rabid literalist (he is a little too unkempt for that, and his shirt is not white and he wears no tie). John Huibers, however, worries about a more localized flood in the Netherlands. The ark may be overkill since polar bears, koala bears and panda bears are rare in Amsterdam, at least when one is not medicated. Arks, however, make great tourist attractions.

In Hong Kong the Kwok brothers built an ark replica in 2009. Greenpeace has one in Istanbul. A Christian theme-park featuring a full-size ark is under development in Kentucky, and just two years ago I drove past a roadside ark being built in Maryland. Most of these arks, interestingly, follow the design in the Sun Pictures’ production In Search of Noah’s Ark rather than the more traditional, mythic design in my children’s Bible. It is a natural human tendency to mistake form for substance. The story of Noah is a cautionary tale that has taken on daunting real-life implications in our treatment of our planet. Water is the signature of life, but for us land-dwellers too much is not a good thing. Thankfully, should a flood come, there will soon be enough arks around the world that would-be Noahs may find themselves in a buyers’ market.

Still my favorite ark