Book review: ‘Righting America at the Creation Museum’
Susan L. Trollinger and William Vance Trollinger Jr. describe the Creation Museum as an arsenal for the Christian Right’s culture wars. It’s an apt analogy, but perhaps a better comparison would be a propaganda campaign. Righting America at the Creation Museum — written by two former Bluffton (Ohio) University faculty members — shows how a selective presentation of Scripture, science and history promotes a specific view of God’s created world and a narrow understanding of Christianity.
The museum — from Ken Ham and his organization Answers in Genesis, the leading articulators of young-Earth creationism — opened in 2007 in Petersburg, Ky., to promote a literal reading of the Bible, specifically the first 11 chapters of Genesis. These biblical accounts form the cornerstone of young-Earth creationism, which claims God created the world in six 24-hour days and the world is just 6,000 years old.
This reading of Scripture resonates with many Anabaptists, particularly plain groups such as the Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonites. These communities maintain a consistently literal interpretation of the Bible, as evidenced by their nonviolence and separation from the world. Righting America is not aimed at them. Rather, the authors have written for a more acculturated audience that employs biblical literalism much more selectively.
For Ham and company, the entire Christian faith depends upon a literal reading of Genesis. “If we question [God’s] first words, what does that do to our respect for the Author and the rest of what He says about His plan of salvation?” asks an Answers in Genesis publication. The consequence of that questioning, according to Answers in Genesis, is a turning from God to human reasoning. And the results of rejecting God include pornography, abortion and other ills that have left the world a decadent cesspool, which the museum dramatically presents with the goal of convincing people to accept Jesus Christ as Savior.
The Trollingers — a married couple who teach at the University of Dayton, about 75 miles north of the museum — explore the religious, scientific and political dimensions of the Creation Museum and the beliefs it represents. They made numerous visits, attended Answers in Genesis events and read voluminously to produce Righting America.
The book is not a defense of evolution but a comprehensive critique of the museum and the movement behind it. The writing is measured, devoid of bombast and bile, which makes the book effective as the authors rely on facts and cogent arguments. They describe exhibits that don’t adhere to stated principles, opportunistic applications of Scripture and dubiously employed uses of theology, history and science — all in a facility that douses visitors with a flood of information in a fast-paced environment that obscures the shortcomings. The Trollingers “slow it all down” so readers can more fully understand the Creation Museum.
Righting America doesn’t bog down in the intricacies of science or biblical interpretation, which could have made it daunting and inaccessible. The chapter “Science,” for instance, takes a crucial component of young-Earth creationism and turns it around. Ham and his colleagues claim a distinction between “observational science” and “historical science.” In the former, developments can be seen, replicated and verified. Historical science refers to what happened in the past that no one witnessed, such as the forces behind evolution, and so cannot be proven.
But the Trollingers demonstrate that much of the young-Earth creationists’ observational science is actually based on historical science. That undermines claims such as those regarding the biblical flood. There is no observational science that can confirm it, and it certainly can’t be replicated.
The museum’s biblical foundation is problematic. It asserts not only that all Scripture must be read literally but also that it’s commonsensical and doesn’t need interpretation — which is itself an interpretation. Righting America points out that the museum doesn’t address the striking differences between the two creation stories in Genesis and the two sets of instructions to Noah, who first was told to take two of each kind of animal but later seven pairs of each clean animal and one pair of each that was unclean.
One exhibit proposes Noah was a wealthy man who hired shipbuilders to construct the ark, a scenario not found in the Bible.
Ham argues that the Hebrew word yom, translated as “day,” must refer to a 24-hour segment of time, a view disputed by most scholars. Yet the museum approves of modern understandings of slavery as sinful and of a sun-centered solar system, both of which depart from literal readings of the Bible.
While not mentioning Anabaptism explicitly, the Trollingers show that the Creation Museum’s approach to Scripture puts it in tension with, and arguably opposed to, Anabaptist beliefs. Ham and the museum purport that a particular understanding of Genesis is central to Christianity. Consequently, the museum presents almost nothing about the life and teachings of Christ, who is Anabaptism’s foundation. One 15-minute film devotes just 32 seconds to his ministry and teachings but 3:45 to his flogging and execution.
“[I]t is difficult to find much reference to Jesus at all . . . except to say that he was the sacrifice required to bear the holy wrath of God the Father in payment for the sin of human beings,” the Trollingers write, reflecting the museum’s tone. “One will look long and hard . . . to find anything of substance on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ admonition to love our enemies or Jesus’ repeated calls for us to care for those who exist on the bottom rungs of the social ladder.”
That is probably the book’s most powerful critique of the Creation Museum.
Rich Preheim is a writer and historian from Elkhart, Ind.
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