Vail Daily column: Ark re-builder makes blunder
A replica of Noah’s ark in Williamstown, Kentucky, has sprung leaks. Visitors to the recently opened tourist center called Ark Encounter see a gigantic boat erected to biblical specifications. But this huge ark is built on an erroneous reading of Noah’s story in the Bible. Intellectual flaws of mammoth proportions wreck its credibility.
Christian fundamentalist Ken Ham, who built Ark Encounter near his Creation Museum, believes there once existed an actual Noah who built a lifeboat according to God’s explicit instructions.
The biblical story about Noah reads as if its focus is upon a boat-builder who survived a flood of epic proportions. This saga, however, is really about us. Its graphic imagery assures readers that chaos isn’t the final word in God’s story of humanity’s struggles. Hope is.
The ark is a symbol of humanity banding together in difficult days when rains descend and floods of despair overwhelm us. It’s a stormy world out there, as global events and personal trials display. Nothing seems to stay put. Sometimes, we feel at the mercy of rampaging currents that engulf our hopes and leave us struggling to endure it all.
Neither lashing waves nor foaming riptides nor burials at sea prevail against hopeful humans. This is the punchline of Noah’s narrative.
The storyteller’s imagery reminds us of hope’s power to prevail over chaos. After “40 days,” biblical shorthand for an agonizingly long time, a dove flits from Noah’s hand over menacing waters. After a futile flight or two to find land, “the dove came back to him in the evening, and lo, in her mouth was a freshly plucked olive leaf. So, Noah knew the waters had receded from the earth” (Genesis 9:11). This sprig held in the dove’s beak stands for hope.
Christians who read about Noah and the flood and interpret these stories as literal facts miss the point of them. They do not reveal what happened long ago in ancient history. Rather, these stories show how to cope with adversities that pester us today.
Fred Craddock, who taught preachers how to preach effectively, told about how he responded to inquirers who wondered whether a story he told in a sermon really happened. Was it literally true, or had Craddock embellished it to make a point. “Fred, did that really happen?” a worshiper asked. He answered, “It happens all the time.” His story spoke to everyone. It exuded an ageless quality. It rang true to listeners who felt floods swirl through their lives.
Ancient people recognized a flood’s devastating destruction. Around campfires, their storytellers spun tales to conquer fears of drowning in waters of despair.
Years before the Noah narrative took literary form, other ancient Near East people repeated folklore about how their gods delivered them from total destruction. Floods stood for “utter chaos.”
In the Gilgamesh Epic, a tale about rising waters, gods got sick of humanity screwing up life. They unleashed a flood to destroy humankind. One wise god advised humans to build a large boat and take aboard animals in order to survive. After the flood receded, the ark was grounded on a mountain top.
Bernhard Anderson, my Old Testament professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, shows why biblical fundamentalists are mistaken and naive, taking Noah literally and reconstructing his actual ark. “The stories concerning primeval history, then, cannot be regarded as exact, factual accounts of the sort that the modern historian or scientist demands,” teaches Anderson. “These stories are ‘historical’ only in the sense that … they communicate the meaning of history” (“Understanding the Old Testament”).
Using flood imagery, this biblical meaning assures us that there’s a sprig of hope amid havoc. That’s the “ark” we reconstruct to fortify minds and steel spirits. Despair rocks us on our heels; hope gives us wings to endure.
The Ark Encounter advertises itself as an amazing experience in which visitors walk back into what actually happened eons ago. That’s a hoax. A visitor pays a $40 entry fee, walks around three stories in a ship 510-feet long, fitting biblical dimensions of 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide and 30 cubits high. They see exhibits featuring Noah who lived to be 950 years old. They find animals’ mock-ups totaling 7,000 that survived the flood, and they marvel at a glorious rainbow — a sign guaranteeing God won’t destroy humanity.
Ken Ham says his reconstructed ark defends “the truth of Scripture,” but its dense literalism leads to silly beliefs. Was the world, according to this naive, purported factual presentation, created in seven consecutive, 24-hour days? Is the Earth only 6,000 years old? Was there an actual flood that swamped the then-known world and left those in the Ark hanging on for dear life? Were dinosaurs’ fossils left behind in the flood’s sediment?
Such spiritual malarkey embarrasses Christianity. These biblical sagas in the opening chapters of Genesis don’t literally say what they relate; they say what they mean. And that meaning is expressed in ancient metaphorical folklore, not precise historical fact.
“Who finds a thought that enables him to obtain a slightly deeper glimpse into the eternal secrets of nature has been given a great grace,” exclaimed Albert Einstein. Christian fundamentalists miss the great grace of seeing the Noah narratives as inspiring stories that spark hope. Their ark sinks in superstitious muck, at odds with how the Bible should be rightly interpreted.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.
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