Ark Encounter is impressive. Vast, dominating, an ordering principle for the hills that surround. Timbers bleached to silvery translucence. It took dominion everywhere, the ark was gray and bare, it did not give of bird or bush, like nothing else in Kentucky. This ark captures and organizes. It refuses to be part of its environs. Indeed, the land, the buildings, the road itself take their cues from it, from the metaphor it materializes. There is nothing of Williamstown in the ark. We are in Kentucky, but we could be almost anywhere. All the nearby forest has been clear cut. The ark manifests as a shape already filled out, fully equipped by Ken Ham’s voice on the bus: “world-class,” “bigger than imagination.” What is this ark--what does it wish to be? An event? An encyclopedia? A Summa?
Immaculate, two-by-two, topiary animals lead the way aboard. Or, rather, they sit there caught always in the act of boarding. We followed their lead. Everyone arrives at this ark just in time, it seems, before the rain. (Though the day was radiant and the sun had already dispelled the mist). But, no. Stop! Getting on the ark was too easy. Our anticipation alone, our desire to visit, our desire not to be jerks during the visit, not to deride a religious impulse we could not share, an aspiration to derive complex and unanticipated values, to discover some openings and have a second Frostburg: these feelings alone would have led us aboard. Leaving the ark some three hours later was heavy business, though. The weight its impression made was too much, its imprint too full of force.
In Frostburg we showed up and the day unfolded by happenstance. In Williamstown, it turned out, we were expected. For, as we learned, this ark possesses only one door.
Exit Through the Gift Shop
Let’s start at the end. When through a series of ramps we had reached the ark’s third floor, we hesitated. Were we done? Was there anything else to see? One of the ark’s attendants smiled at us--used perhaps to the minor confusion that some visitors feel when they reach the “end” and yet find themselves still within. We asked if there was more, if it was possible to go outside, to behold the view from the top of the ark--there, perhaps that door behind you. “I wish that I could give you that advantage,” she said, smiling, pointing the way towards the exit, down the long ramp that leads the way out. “Be sure to see the gift shop,” she added, reprising the signage posted throughout the ark that orients you in part (always) to this gift shop departure. We do believe that she sincerely wanted to give us the opportunity to walk outside and experience the view that we suppose that Noah and family might have had and which we imagine Ken Ham and special guests now experience. But the door that would give us a view from the exterior, looking out across the world and back towards an ark that no longer contained us, was not for us to access. We returned the smile and descended, departing as instructed.
Now don’t get us wrong. We have no particular problem with this gift shop exit. We are not out to play gotcha with the sideways glances and nodding knowing of reports of tax breaks, the use of public funds, excess in merchandising, endless monetizing. Those ships have sailed just as they have sailed at so many other museums world-wide. Ark Encounter’s gift shop is like any other: it’s fairly traded contents are proudly proclaimed as such (though some purchases support missions to distant communities rather than the communities themselves). Perhaps the ubiquity of fudge and soda on offer at every level surprises, but otherwise, the gift shop exit appears innocuous, ordinary. The candy is tempting. Ark puzzles, ark replicas, ark memorabilia, little different from such items you may purchase from your local art museum, from a site in the Holy Land, or that once upon a time you might have purchased on your entry into Jerusalem (whatever the year C.E.). The cash value of these items presents no internal contradiction to the ark or its encounter--something almost joyfully thematized beyond the ark in its environs, where you find themed selections of fast food and drinks, a petting zoo, a zipline. You can eat at Emzara’s buffet, opt for a “flood of refills” if you choose to purchase a large soda, taking pleasure in the wittiness of language games that are safe because the bible, after all, is true. Noah was. God spoke to him. The ark’s design is God-given. So it is ok to “play,” to elaborate on the theme for it is not exactly a “theme,” it is the truth. Who does not support the truth?
This spirit of game, experiment, or play is familiar to us. It is something we value. It is an aesthetic to which we subscribe--which we find interesting. We encounter such troping, expansion, and exploration of the Flood story in children’s toys and games, in medieval drama, not to mention the endless extra-textual reworkings of Noah and the ark in so many forms of expression (novels, music, film, and more). We were fascinated then as we boarded the ark to encounter another truth-message prefacing our encounter, this time carving out a small space for fiction. The ark introduces itself, makes itself vulnerable, inoculates itself, with a series of statements about “Ark-tistic License,” reassuring visitors that while there exists no precise scriptural basis for the internal workings you are about to behold, nor for some of the stories you will encounter along the way, the makers of this ark have equipped themselves with historical resources from the experts, acquainted themselves with world-wide ancient technologies, and so the ark you are about to enter stands as a figure of the possible that attempts to make clear the truth of Noah’s ark as historical fact. Of Noah and his family we are told:
The Bible gives us some specifics about Noah (e.g. righteous man, husband, father) but it does not tell us what he looked like, how he dressed, or what his hobbies might have been. We are told even less about his family, and Scripture does not even reveal the names of his wife and his daughters-in-law. Artistic license was taken to name these four women, develop their backstories, and craft their appearances.
Noah’s story will later be filled out to include tales of a boyhood love of adventure, an apprenticeship as shipbuilder, falling in love with his employer’s daughter. Anonymous Mrs. Noah now has a name, a life, a story: Emzara (you will recognize that name from the buffet advertised in the brochure, but the plaque beneath her statue states that the designation derives from the Book of Jubilees). Of her arkbound life we are told that Emzara “makes family time a priority” and “enjoys relaxing with Noah when time permits.” She loves animals of every kind. Shem’s wife meanwhile is olive-skinned Ar’yel, mother all Middle Eastern peoples. Ham is partnered with black Kezia, from whom all Africans descend. The two fell in love when Ham was attacked by an animal and Kezia nursed his injuries. Japheth meanwhile is married to Rayneh, whose “distinct features are commonly seen in people from Europe.” Race begins here even as race is dismissed throughout the ark with invocations of “we are all one blood.” All six younger members of Noah’s family have charming and distinctive hobbies that range from carpentry and blacksmithing (for the sons) to tapestry weaving and cooking (for the daughters in law). So many stories smuggled aboard, but always framed as license not truth. This ark knows its limits even as it seeks to engage, instruct, impress those who tour its decks.
To the surprise and delight of visitors, dinosaurs have also been licensed to come aboard. The “triceratops kind” and the “tyrannosaurus kind” and numerous others sit two-by-two, in stalls or cages just like all the other animals. In another display, all the ark’s various imagined designs (Gilgamesh’s cube, the Arkadian coracle, and three-keeled boat) are stress tested--much as you might find in a museum of natural or naval history, or a science museum. Our hearts leapt at this … openness? Our thoughts sighed. What was this strange and inviting inclusiveness, this ability to tolerate the static generated by so many different and divergent discourses? Mrs. Noah has a designation, a presence. She desires. She matters. Dinosaurs? Unicorns, perhaps, too? Our spirits rose in tempo with the rising musical ambience (the soundtrack is constant). Our feet trod lightly as we ascended the ark, delighted to be aboard. What was this feeling? Sympathy? To tell a kind of truth, sympathy is what we were wanting to feel, and, to tell another truth, we found sympathy wanting.
Just as you are about to leave the gift shop and exit the ark, bumper stickers, journals, T-shirts and other assorted ephemera for sale frame the mission of the ark that you are now departing as Taking Back the Rainbow. Our hearts sank. Our spirits came crashing down. Truth is that they had crashed much earlier but somehow it was the dissolution of the ark into the laissez faire, buy-what-you-like of the gift shop exit that transformed the ark encounter into a heavy weight upon us. Exit through the gift shop. Buy fair trade if you want. Eat fudge (or don’t); drink soda (or don’t); don’t buy anything at all; or invest in a homophobic redeployment of the rainbow, a mission and a motto that you can sport on your body and your car. Doesn’t really matter. The Taking Back the Rainbow display lets you know that, like it or not, just by entering, two times $48.00 plus tax and parking fee later, you have invested in what presents by the end as a rainbow that has already been taken back.
To put it differently, Mrs. Noah has been given a name and a story to ensure that she offers a model for a properly submissive, quietly subordinate wife. Not by coincidence the buffet at which you are intended to have your lunch bears her name. She is happy to serve. She is realized in order to be enfolded into someone else’s story. The same with Ham: he is given an Ethiopian wife, but we are also told that all races are one race and come from Adam and Noah, so no big deal. The age old possibility that his sexuality is not one that the ark can contain is never raised.
The only time you’ll wear that color.
Taking back the rainbow.
At night, the ark is illuminated by brilliant lights, each color of the spectrum shimmering along its aside, the ark itself become rainbow and covenant. Dispersed throughout the structure are various other rainbow moments, prismatic signs. The Genesis moment of rainbow and covenant that is the ark’s occasion, its essence, its culmination (and beginning), materializes as a kind of sacrificial altar in one quiet room where you will learn why Noah and his family were no longer vegetarians once they exited the ark, and why only Jews worry about clean and unclean animals anymore. A rack of color-coded tee shirts in a second floor gift shop will make you smile (tee hee!) and admire the efficacy of the ark’s museumology, the techniques it deploys in order to engage and capture those who visit. But, exit through the gift shop, and these bumper stickers and assorted Taking Back the Rainbow tchokes are different, trumping all these other rainbows or revealing their part in a sovereign taking back.
These missionary rainbows establish what we had already realized on earlier floors, but this time the framing left nothing open, at least not for us. For all its apparent invitations to play, to open the structure of the ark we receive from Genesis, Ark Encounter is a psychotic / synoptic archive that seeks to comprehend everything. Its “ark-tistic license” marks an attempt to close out the ark, to press gang stowaways, and so to ensure that this Ark-Summa is “bigger than imagination.” By psychotic we do not mean that it is mad even if it is pathological. We mean instead that Ark Encounter structures itself by and through its ability to introject everything in advance. It has never encountered an idea that it cannot comprehend. It is a total system, a phantasy, opening only to close.
Truth is (and we confess that this was difficult for us and remains difficult to write) we were awaited. We were comprehended. Ark Encounter had our respective numbers. And those numbers were up. Devout Christian, skeptic, progressive, secularist, atheist, gay, lesbian, queer, trans, Jew; however you are abled (the ramps, scooters, elevators provide a level of access to be applauded); Ark Encounter welcomes you. You have been expected.
But, exit through the gift shop; turn around; look back at the ark; the timber falls away, an incomplete facade. All you see is brown and beige concrete, security cameras surveilling clear-cut terrain.
Back then to the beginning. Get off the bus and the timber frontage is so vast that you almost have to take a picture of the ark’s expansiveness just to frame it for yourself. Nearby, there’s the zipline; lofty wooden tower; Mount Ararat Petting Zoo; an empty space where (we were told) the Tower of Babel auditorium will someday stand. Follow the entrance sign and you work your way by a series of plinths, quick reminders of the story so far (creation; Adam and Eve; serpent / dragon; the fall; sin and death; salvation). Little ways on and there’s the time-lapse video of the ark’s construction; lots of space for queues that are not there today; statement on “ark-tistic license.” Bit of a walk up a ramp and you are on board; darkness, soundtrack of thunder and rain; smile-to-self that it’s as if you’ve boarded just in time.
Now aboard, you are greeted by rows upon rows of crates, covered jugs, bamboo cylinders. No meta-commentary yet. The explanations have not started. The idea is that you are entering a world that you must apprehend, and at first it is left to your own senses to realize that the stacked crates are filled with animals and the clay jugs are for their water, the bamboo tubes are where their food is dropped. How clever, you say in recognition of Noah’s animal management system and your own ability to have figured out how it works before you arrive at the detailed plans and explanations, and because it is clever. So round the bend you go, the crates and amphorae a canny crowd management system, depositing you at last at your first diorama. Noah and his family stand gathered in the bosom of the ark, illumined blue in the dark, deep in a prayer for safety. The convenient sign nearby gives you the words in English (“God of heavens we ask for your mercy through this horrible storm…”). His family huddled at his feet, animatronic Noah raises then lowers, raises then lowers his hands. The room floods with a soundtrack of gale and thunder and a Hebrew prayer contained in no siddur. In truth, the room was so loud that Elohim was the only word we could really make out, and it made us wonder what Hebrew and Israel and Jew were going to signify as this ark progressed. The Ark contains among its treasures a Torah scroll from Poland that we are guessing came from a congregation destroyed by the Holocaust, though no details are provided. The foundation of the State of Israel (1948) appears on many of the museum’s timelines.
To keep your pleasure in discovery coming, to keep your engagement strong, around the next bend you encounter the first of many dinosaurs. Adorable Scutosauri penned within the ark? A joke? Stowaways? A laughable error? No, it all makes sense, but you must be patient, for this Summa Arkilogica circumscribes all things and opens the possibility of error only to close it down. If the dinosaurs are to become extinct that will be the fault of those who come later, not Noah and certainly not God. More frequent signage now rebuffs whatever scepticism you may have transported aboard. “How did Noah keep polar bears cool on the ark?” asks a plaque, informing you that the problem is with you, not the polar bears. It’s a foolish query. First, polar bears are routinely kept in warm weather zoos everywhere. Second, why would you assume that Noah took two of each type of bear inside the vessel rather than conserve a pair of bears (“bear kind”) who founded every future bear family, from grizzlies to browns and blacks, which can certainly mate with each other?
The problem, the signs imply, is that you have come equipped with bad questions. Coyotes, dingoes, wolves and domestic dogs all come from the same parents (“dog kind”). The signage repeats an early modern logic here. And maybe at this point you think with smug satisfaction that the Ark is smuggling Charles Darwin aboard as a stowaway, since varied descent from originary animal kinds sounds quite a bit like evolution, black and white bears deriving from some Ur-ursine ancestor. Yet even that suspicion will be re-educated in time, when you enter a room that asserts differences in body types do not necessitate evolution or a godless world or a concept of agentless nature. Even Neanderthals are descended from Noah’s sons (but not Lucy and her fellow Australopitheci; they are obviously monkeys). “EVERYTHING FITS” shouts another wall plaque, listing in detail the 1,398 animal types that Noah conserved, sufficient stock to repopulate the world. If some of his cargo died out after the voyage, that was not the fault of the ark system.
And if you thought that animals like giraffes and T. Rex and elephants were too vast to harbor, or unmanageable even for the ultimate engineer, then, again, the problem lies in your question. It is easy to figure out that God’s animal summons sent Noah juvenile creatures to board the ark. Young creatures are more docile. They do not eat so much, create less waste, have a longer lifespan during which to reproduce. “85% of animals [in the ark] weighed 22.0 pounds or less” the EVERYTHING FITS sign declares, an unnecessary decimal point yielding a patina of scientific precision. Sea, river, and lake creatures were perfectly happy at the vessel’s exterior since some layers of the Flood had salt and some did not. What is more, all those dinosaurs--the oh so many dinosaurs--it turns out they must have been aboard the ark because the deep time of geology and the fossil record is wrong. Dinosaurs board this Encounter’s vessel so that they can die off (will have died off) after landfall, in the years to have come. Fossils do not lie, they are just narrating a story that you might not yet have been told: their presence in stone proves the Flood rather than queries its universality. Fossils are remnants of the animals that did not find safety in Noah’s structure.
What about unicorns? They are here too, a sign informs us, in the form of the “rhinoceros kind.” This ark is a total system. Its exhibits comprehend geology, meteorology, oceanography, paleontology, natural history, evolutionary biology, the diversity of language, and the origins of all races, all stories, and all myths.
By now you are likely already to have noticed the number of security cameras the ark’s hull contains. (Quick smile and wave, as one of us learned to do as a child and has been doing ever since). You will have remarked the constant admonitions that you should not touch displays because you are being observed. And maybe, probably, this admonition does not bother. You’ve been to Disneyworld or LACMA or one of the Smithsonians and you know that observation is essential to a comfortable visitor experience and crowd control. Some grass is not to be walked on. And everyone is polite. Please and thank you.
But Ark Encounter makes no promise that it won’t try to touch you, that it won’t in fact reach out to do so or that, in fact, its entire structure as Summa, is a reaching out and into the souls (it hopes) of those who visit. Perhaps The Noah Interview (2016) film playing in the deck two theater in the Ark’s bow will take you by surprise. This Noah speaks like Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof (or for some of us reminds of an uncle from New York, the one who insisted he knew where the best bagels were sold). He sports a rounded cap that resembles in an odd way some depictions of the medieval pilleus cornutus. We encounter him conversing with his wife Emzara, who insists that he bring a rose bush aboard his nearly finished ark. Because he loves her he agrees. Roses have no use he opines. But Emzara likes them. Use enough that liking. They are the sweetest couple. Just then a journalist and her crew arrive from a nearby city to interview Noah for her fake news tabloid, The Pits. The three members of the news crew are types rather than individuals: the bossy Englishwoman who does not know her place (the journalist plays a role that used to belong to the Mrs. Noah of medieval drama); the uppity non-white who refuses civility and compliance (a man in Maori tattoos who laughs at Noah’s piety--”what you call sin I call freedom” he says angrily); the eyeline-wearing, gender nonconforming artist who will sketch an unflattering portrait of the ship builder. The news crew are incompetent. After all they are the pits. The interview is skewed. Their prejudices may only be confirmed. They are not really interested in Noah recounting who will not be admitted to the ark or his story as to why he builds so encompassing an architecture. In truth, the news crew is only really interrupting more important work: Japheth stops by for instructions; Noah solves a labor dispute between the bronze-worker and iron-worker he’s commissioned to help by providing full employment. Come the end of the interview, he leaves open the possibility that God will enable him to include the news crew or “any that God sends him,” but they scoff and return to the city, intent on disseminating their fake news. The story ends with a peal of thunder that intrudes (but only for a moment) on their complacency. Noah seems sad at this inevitably missed opportunity. “Scoffers gonna scoff” Mrs. Noah consoles. “That’s us,” one of us said to the other. And we felt sad, because though we were aboard we had been placed outside.
Fast forward to a replay of the same story on the next deck up, the film As In the Days of Noah (2017). Interesting typology this. Same actor plays Noah -- now Noah Zomarsh, Director of Ark Experience, speaking in a gently nondescript American accent. Ezmara becomes his assistant. Same tabloid journalists arrive in Kentucky from New York City. But the emphasis is different. Adah Evoli’s not happy with her reporter’s job at The Pit (Progressive Independent Tabloid) --”it’s not the BBC” she moans as we hear her thoughts on her way into her boss’s office. She’s hoping for an assignment on the French Riviera or to Cabo--but no it’s to Kentucky. And she’s got to drive --with that incompetent film crew. All of the actors are the same, and, at first, they conform to type. Down they drive to the ark. Set up their equipment. Noah Zomarsh orients them to the enterprise and Adah mocks him by saying that he can stop his “sermon” anytime because they are not going to use any of it. “Tell us about the tax breaks” she asks--isn’t this a money maker? But Adah’s a little different this time. “What’s that around your neck?” asks Noah. Adah touches the crucifix she wears. It’s a gift from her grandmother, who was religious. Turns out Noah the caretaker had a grandmother too. Quite some moment this that Noah and Adah are having. “Do you want to know the real explanation for this place,” Noah asks, inviting the film crew inside the ark to experience a new exhibit. The three find themselves in a dark theater where with a few touches on her iPad Emzara that was brings up a 3D hologram, the New Zealand evangelical minister Ray Comfort. He explains at length how the ark functions as salvific enterprise, offering the bad news of sin and the good news of redemption and activating in them a knowledge of their own fallenness and the beginnings of a desire to repent. All three of the film crew are impressed, troubled, moved. Each is touched. Each participates. Recognition if not quite epiphany. They leave the exhibit and exit the ark.
The film ends with Adah pretending to forget her phone so that she can return to Noah and the ark. Supposing someone wanted to change, she asks, supposing someone wanted to believe, how would she go about it? Noah and Adah share a religious grandmother. Hell, they both have grandmothers. And so now Noah informs her of the wisdom of his own. No longer speaking like Tevye, this Noah is possessed of a winning earnestness, even when he speaks hard truths. He is compelling. He is devout. At this point in their voyage, museum visitors have already been instructed that the door to the ark (marked with an impressive cross, as it turns out) is the door to the church. To seek entrance to the ark is to embrace the community of a Christ who died so that all those errors they might have made (feminine assertiveness among them) may be forgiven. Jesus is the door. So, please enter. And remember, if you do not, you shall drown, and you shall die, for that is the fate of those outside the ark. This is not a “popular” truth, Noah Zomarsh observes, but would it not be worse to withhold this truth (however brutal) and so to admit to your difference? Strange compassion, this comprehension. Stinging kindness, this salvation.
The key to salvation, then, is to leave New York City, coded as Jewish, coded as Sodom, and travel to Ken Ham’s Kentucky’s Ark (if only in spirit). Conversion becomes an American road trip. The soundtrack to the first film, The Noah Interview, includes all the melodies that have since the days of Cecil B. DeMille signified Biblical Times; the second is scored with country music. The transformation of Tevye-Noah to Christian Patriarch, of the ark to a church, and the flood to baptism, is a typological maneuver as effective as when deployed by St. Augustine -- but here, it is more airtight. The destiny of the Jew, the dominating woman, the nonwhite who declares (in the first film) “Your sin is my freedom!” and the gender nonconforming is given in advance. This ark has been expecting us all and the path to salvation leads to one door alone. Everyone is welcome. You just have to change your script. You just have to become someone else entirely.
This is difficult. It is hard not to act out, not to respond to this comprehending structure according to the scripts offered to us: scoffers always have to scoff, don’t they. So, let’s be clear, let’s stay with the please and thank yous. We wish that this ark could have given us a different set of “advantages.” We arrived, we think, open to surprise, open to the possibility for alliance, for affinity, for shared sympathy. But Ark Encounter offers little purchase for such strategic affinities athwart the politics of belief and spectrum. Its synoptic vantage points are all its own, an advantage not to be shared with you (not yet, perhaps not ever). There is no way out of this structure, not from the top. But you can come back in from the bottom as often as you like. Season passes include admission to the Creation Museum, about forty-five minutes away.
All of these things sting. We happen to like bossy women, recalcitrant Jews, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, queers, transfolk, self-questioners, scientists, naysayers, atheists, noncompliant types of many stripes, grandmothers, religious and otherwise, and all. If the price of admission to the ark is their transformation into performers of Director Noah’s script, we would rather remain outside with them. We observed that there are numerous doves inside the Ark Encounter, in cages and in iconography and in Noah’s hands. There are no ravens. This ark does not reward curiosity, but instead shuts down inquiry by anticipating and silencing all questions in advance. It is an ark too full of ready answers. When openness enters in the form of doubt or waywardness or off-script performances, it does so only to be incorporated into the total system.
To be honest, we are well aware that this performance of resistance and its overcoming is essential to the Ark Encounter’s machinic operation and that we are wrong to say we were expected. It was more that the positions offered to us existed not to be filled but in order to repeat and confirm the belief of believers. Ark Encounter unfolds as the expression of a faith event that has already occurred so that now it may be repeated as so many exquisitely titrated hits of affect. After all “scoffers gonna scoff,” says Mrs. Noah. That’s what they do, cementing and thereby circumscribing the lines between belief and non-belief, between the saved and the damned. We were not expected. It was more that we were useful, even if we never spoke a word. It’s pure coincidence that we showed up, personed the dummy subject positions presented to us. No one really expects the drowned to be waiting come landfall. It’s nothing personal.
So, we did not feel comfortable purchasing any merchandise at the shops. We did not eat fudge or drink soda or go the buffet. We most certainly did not buy any “Taking Back the Rainbow” bumper stickers or T-shirts, and to be honest it makes us sad that anyone does. We do not want to take the rainbow back, not while it is in good queer hands.
“This is the most important thing you will see,” said one visitor to another. It hardly seemed so to us as we approached. We thought we were about to enter a play space, probably, some small ark-themed playground or playroom with slides, crawl tubes, maybe reading stations, where children (and parents) who need one might catch a break. All we could see from the outside were the giddily exaggerated cartoon animal heads that topped the entrance to the exhibit. We were not alive to their parody, their predatory foreclosing of play. They looked a bit silly, a bit too cartoonish, but no more so than your usual dollar store toys or mylar balloons. Plus that was happy music being played, wasn’t it? Kind of Disney.
We were not prepared for what we found inside. And to an extent we are still not prepared for the installation labeled THE FAIRY TALE ARK. The room is bright and lined with every children’s version of Noah’s Ark imaginable: books, toys, puzzles. These colorful items line shelf after shelf, radiant in display, but placed behind glass. This archive is not to be touched. Perhaps it was because we have seen such rooms before at other museums -- here’s the children’s version of a phenomenon, collected and curated. Perhaps it was because the installation includes the various Playmobil models of the ark we have been writing about in our book, subjects them to its own kind of ark-thinking. Perhaps it was because this installation deploys the same tropes that Rob Nixon names Slow Violence or that artist Ellen O’Grady performs when she recalls an image of Noah’s Ark from her storybook Sunday School and has a boy named Joel scream “WHERE ARE ALL THE BODIES?” This room is an archive of many of the arks we sailed with and beyond in the opening of our book, the version of the ark we ourselves had once condemned, the one that avoids difficulties and culminates in an attenuated rainbow. This is the ark of salvation … but of animals more than people, of childhood joy and play, rather than later in life severities. All of this is behind glass and you cannot touch it and the purpose of the room is to make you never to desire such an ark again. You are lured into this glassy archive so that the fairy tale can drown ... Noah’s ark was not like that at all, the signage declares. An otherwise blank wall declares in the face of all these joyful boats and shimmering rainbows: “‘AND EVERYONE DIED EXCEPT THE 8 PEOPLE IN THE ARK.’ (GENESIS 7.23)” Just below this sign is an empty ark.
“This is the most important thing you will see.” This is the archive of delusion and disbelief, an archive that must be named like some index of banned or condemned books. These books misdirect your children with errors. And so here are all those books that may not be touched or read. Here they are gathered, stored, and presented to the eye so that you may recognize them and purge them from your shelves. These books misdirect attention. They open the wrong doors. They stand in the way of Jesus as door. They bar the way on to the ark and so to salvation.
We want to remember a child’s voice whispering to a parent “I don’t like it in here.” And one of us thinks he heard that voice distinctly--though we cannot be sure that that voice was whispered in this room even as that whisper haunts our memory of it.
We ended the trip by driving through Williamstown, hoping maybe to find a rainbow flag flying from someone’s door, or maybe just a place to eat, as we had in Frostburg. We did not find either (which is not to say, of course, that they are not there), but we did wander into the Grant County Public Library. We were both bookish children; we recognize a refuge when we see one. As we walked the open stacks we thought about how much Noah would have appreciated the place, since the sections on ANIMALS and ENGINEERING were conveniently located near ORGANIZING TIPS and GARDENING. The library was under construction, the outline of a new edifice framed in steel girders that rose in an arc. In a back room devoted to local history we read about Williamstown’s struggle to come to terms with some difficulty legacies: slavery, a segregated school system, an uncomfortable past that some people wanted to forget. But there it was, documented in shackles, brochures, newspaper clippings. Most of the patrons of the library on this particular day were white, and yet most of the local stories commemorated here are gathered under a banner declaring BLACK HISTORY. This is a permanent installation. Thank god for public libraries.
No Summa this--more the outpost of an extended, incomplete, and open encyclopedia, the library as a place to wander: there is no set path. Yes there are always problems with which books get included and which do not, but we found Maya Angelou, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, and Oscar Wilde on the shelves, and we were not looking hard. And the staff are eager to help, eager to give readers and would-be readers all the advantages they can provide. A librarian who offered us assistance could not direct us to books on Noah’s Ark such as we had seen confined at Ark Encounter. The children’s books are ordered simply, alphabetically, on open shelves, at the height of their intended readers. You need to know the author or the title to pluck one immediately from the shelf. But really you are invited to peruse, to encounter all manner of books, so many books, none of which may be comprehended by anything like a book of books. Nobody is going to tell you how to find your story when it is one among very many and the browsing is half the fun. The shelves are crammed.
Ark Encounter is brutal. The price of admission not, for us, worth paying. The psychotic / synoptic narrative it presents is not the only story of the ark to be told and neither is that structure nor story inevitable. There are so many others. But we did pay the price of admission, out of our own pockets, not from research funds. And so it is that we end our encounter with this Ark with a donation that plays, in part, as expiation, a donation that represents exactly what we paid for tickets and parking. We gave this money to The Trevor Project. We encourage those who read this post to do likewise and support the lives of at risk LGBTQ youth. These donations to better futures mark our own, personal, particular, exits through the gift shop.
Some rainbows must not be allowed to be taken back.