Ark Encounter

The Making of a Creationist Theme Park

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James S. Bielo
  • New York, NY: 
    New York University Press
    , July
     2018.
     240 pages.
     $89.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781479843244.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This book has also been reviewed in JAAR by Crispin Paine.

In July 2016, a new theme park opened up in Williamstown, Kentucky after almost six years of planning, designing, and creating. In the park, entitled Ark Encounter, visitors are invited to walk around and into a true-to-scale re-creation of the Ark of Noah and engage with the biblical narrative of the flood. The park was created and funded by Answers in Genesis, a fundamentalist Christian ministry that teaches creationist views of scripture. The ethnography Ark Encounter: The Making of a Creationist Theme Park by religious anthropologist James Bielo describes his anthropological investigation (conducted between April 2011 and September 2017) into the planning and construction of this theme park. 

In six chapters, Bielo clearly indicates how in the creation of the park two interrelated themes are foregrounded: the imperatives of modern entertainment, and the Christian problem of authenticity. By bringing these two themes together, Bielo shows how Answers in Genesis hopes to edify and embolden committed creationists, to convert non-Christians and non-creationists, and to advance fundamentalism in the public sphere. 

The creation of Ark Encounter is structured in entertainment strategies; the same goes for the preferred consumption of the site. Bielo captures these strategies with the phrase “immersive entertainment”: entertainment that is interactive, participatory, and experientially compelling, “catching” one into the frame of role playing that transports one away from the frame of everyday reality. Bielo describes in much detail how the members of the creative team have gone to great lengths to create an immersive entertainment park by using complex material and sensory channels. Their goal was to create a theme park of the same quality as Disneyland or Hollywood, without losing sight of the authenticity of the Christian narrative. Through elements of immersive entertainment, visitors to the Ark Encounter are invited to reflect on what life on earth was like before the flood, on the life that Noah and his family members lived on the ark, and on the first signs of new life that they received after the rains had stopped. By generating such affective attachments to an authentic past, creationists signify the importance of literal beliefs in our present-day lives.

According to Bielo, this search for the “authentic” is the primary concern in not only creationist perspectives on Christianity, but in Christianity as a whole. All Christians are temporally, geographically, linguistically, ethnically, and culturally separated from the origins of their religion. The question is how to reach back to these authentic origins from the context of separation. Christian schisms throughout history have accentuated this Christian aspiration to return to an early or pure New Testament church. The current building of the Ark Encounter is, according to Bielo, a contemporary solution to this problem. Here, historical continuity is constructed through material forms that promise intimacy and direct access to the biblical past.

The main strength of the book is the absence of judgement on behalf of Bielo. While the park generated outcry regarding its application of a tax incentive program, and although creationist worldviews are easy to critique, Bielo does not feel tempted to make normative remarks about the park or its creators. Instead of focusing on creationism and fundamentalism per se, he places the park and its makers into the frame of religion-entertainment. He invites readers (and, perhaps by extension, visitors to the park) to imagine how creationists are modern people, like all others. At the same time, he invites creationists to reflect on their own scripture in relation to other Christians and non-Christians. What binds all these people together, he argues, is their engagement with modern entertainment. This makes creationism very much part of modern consumer capitalism and recreation—not something apart from the profane, but very much part of everyday life. 

The absence of judgement can also be seen in Bielo’s emphasis on plausibility and conversion in the creation of Ark Encounter. While he describes in full detail the relevance of plausibility and conversion for the creationist creators, he does not comment on whether they have been successful in this. While he acknowledges that the production team has successfully created an embodied fundamentalist gaze, he leaves the question of how effective this has been or could be in terms of conversion to the visitors of the park. 

A second strength of the book is the ethnographic details provided, both of the creation of the park and of his fieldwork practice. The people central to the Ark Encounter project, as well as Bielo himself, are introduced in much detail. The ethnography is humane, insightful, and detailed. Throughout the chapters, a good amount of snippets from fieldwork experiences are presented, tied together in a strong, insightful theoretical framework that gives a clear image of contemporary Christian life in America. The added appendix, entitled “The Ark and the Anthropologist,” gives an insight into Bielo’s own search throughout his fieldwork period, starting with why he wanted to research the Ark Encounter project and how he gained access to the site. It portrays the twists and turns that the research took, and the methods of research Bielo used. It is a valuable appendix, for two reasons. First, it first gives an additional insight into the world Bielo has been engaged with, and the difficulties and opportunities he faced. Second, it is an interesting chapter to read for any anthropologists, and especially anthropology students, who want to know in more detail what anthropological research is all about. 

Throughout the book, Bielo engages with many contemporary debates in both anthropology and religious studies, such as the discussion on public religion; the social life of things; the enchantment of science, play and conversion; history-making and historicity; symbolic power; and the poetics of faith. He uses these and other theories to paint a picture of the cultural patterns that orchestrate present-day American public religious life. As such, the book is a much needed contribution to studies of American fundamentalist Christianity, and to the anthropology of fundamentalism. At the same time, it gives a good insight into the place of Christianity in our contemporary Western society, its relation to popular culture and commerce, and the power of “religious entertainment.” Reading the ethnography gives the reader a sense of being immersed and entertained, much as a visit to the park promises that we will be.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mariske Westendorp is Lecturer in the Department of religious Studies at Radboud University Nijmegen, and in the Department of Religious Studies at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

Date of Review: 
October 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

James S. Bielo is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Miami University. He is the author of four books including, Anthropology of Religion: The BasicsEmerging Evangelicals: Faith, Modernity, and the Desire for Authenticity, and Words Upon the Word: An Ethnography of Evangelical Group Bible Study. He is also the founder of Materializing the Bible, a digital scholarship project, available at www.materializingthebible.com.

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