Coming Home: Biblical Hiraeth at the Ark Encounter

Many visitors are not overly concerned that what AiG [Answers in Genesis] presents at the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter is not strictly biblical. For instance, just to name a couple of examples, there is no biblical justification for the complex feeding and cleaning systems proposed at the Ark Encounter, nor is there any biblical justification for the lavish presentation of Noah’s living quarters.

See Also: Storytelling the Bible at the Creation Museum, Ark Encounter, and Museum of the Bible (T&T Clark, 2020),

By Paul Thomas
Chair and Associate Professor of Religious Studies
Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies
Radford University
May 2020

A recent thirty-second Museum of the Bible commercial titled “Hope” begins with a striking image of a ship’s keel crashing through the black-green waves of a stormy ocean. Inside the ship, a man grips a Bible while his family huddles around him. As the camera cuts from the man’s upturned face to the Bible clutched in his wet hands, a narrator states, “When hope was all we had, it comforted us.” In the next scene, the narrator says “inspired us” over a scene of the American founding fathers examining a document (presumably the Declaration of Independence). The Bible is then said to have “convicted us” to a silhouette of Abraham Lincoln before cutting to Union soldiers engaged in battle. Ultimately, the narrator asserts, the Bible “set us free” as metal shackles rattle to the ground next to a black man’s foot. The narrator continues, “Is it not time, we the people, remember our past?”

As I watched this commercial, I was struck by how the opening scene, pilgrims sailing to the New World, is really a narrative governed by the biblical story of Noah’s ark. This pilgrim family, like Noah and his family, survives a stormy ocean because they trust, and even cling to, God’s Word. Additionally, I have observed that the Noah narrative is a critical part of the rhetorical framework of other Bible-based attractions—like the Kentucky Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter. All three of these contemporary attractions, the Museum of the Bible, the Creation Museum, and the Ark Encounter, use the Noah narrative to provide visual and rhetorical structure to visitor experiences. In doing so, they invite visitors to identify with Noah and transport them into an imagined biblical past. Thus, the manner in which these attractions frame the Bible and encourage a sense of nostalgia creates a powerful balm for many world-weary Christians who no longer feel at home in this country. 

For the past three years, I have studied, visited, and written about the use of the Bible at the Kentucky Creation Museum, The Ark Encounter, and the Museum of the Bible (Thomas 2020). I was interested in the Bible as an object that produces places like the Creation Museum, Ark Encounter, and the Museum of the Bible, but I was equally interested in the Bible as an object of consumption at these locations. Starting with a foundation in reception studies, I created a multidisciplinary plan to attack these topics that included elements of media studies, sociology, and ethnography. To examine how visitors encounter the Bible at these destinations, I conducted interviews with patrons of the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter and did a content analysis of thousands of site reviews published on Facebook and Trip Advisor. While the manner in which Answers in Genesis (AiG, the organization behind the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter) and the Green family (whose collection forms the basis of the Museum of the Bible) present the Bible is important, in this essay I want to focus my attention on the consumer. Specifically, I will focus on how consumers experience these places and how this ties into our current, turbulent, cultural moment.

All three attractions, the Creation Museum, Ark Encounter, and the Museum of Bible, are efforts to inscribe the Bible onto material objects. Take the Museum of the Bible as an example. The building is fronted by massive forty-foot tall bronze doors inscribed with Genesis 1. By walking through the doors, the visitor is invited to step inside the Bible. Writing the Bible onto the landscape is especially evident at the Ark Encounter in Williamsburg, KY, which features a full-size (according to the specifications in Genesis 6:14–16) ark replica cresting the rolling hilltops of central Kentucky. In analyzing visitor reactions to the Ark Encounter, I started noticing what Timothy Beal describes as geopiety (2005, 28). Beal understands geopiety as a “deep religious devotion to a vision of the Holy Land” that results from a romanticized and imagined Bible combined with a deep reverence for physical space (2005, 28). The very act of transcribing the Bible onto material objects, even landscapes, confers an aura of sacredness to those objects and places. As I analyzed visitors’ experiences of the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter, I started to recognize that sense of nostalgia and homesickness that Beal maintains results from a “longing to have our everyday lives set within the horizon of a sacred story” (2005, 27).

As it relies on extensive interpretation and guesswork, it is curious that visitors respond to the Ark Encounter interpretation of biblical narratives at a high authoritative and emotional level. As we know, a scant two verses in Genesis 6 provides us with most of the Bible’s detail about the shape and the structure of Noah’s ark. Therefore, AiG’s material interpretation of the Bible, at both the Ark Encounter and the Creation Museum, requires a lot of imagination. This is not something that AiG hides. In fact, many Ark Encounter displays that deviate from a strict reading of the text are marked by placards that read “educated guesses,” “artistic license,” and workable models.

Many visitors are not overly concerned that what AiG presents at the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter is not strictly biblical. For instance, just to name a couple of examples, there is no biblical justification for the complex feeding and cleaning systems proposed at the Ark Encounter, nor is there any biblical justification for the lavish presentation of Noah’s living quarters.[1] That AiG went into such details, essentially creating a hyper-reality, carries the force of Baudrillard’s simulacra—a copy with no original. I maintain that the amount of realism applied to AiG’s Bible presentations at the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter makes AiG’s interpretation seem uniquely real despite being divorced from anything historically real. Following Umberto Eco, “the fact that it seems so real is real, and the thing is real even if, like Alice in Wonderland, it never existed” (Kelly and Hoerl, 135). Indeed, this hyper-reality is so important that some visitors express dismay when the occasional hint of the inauthentic inevitably presents itself.

Of course, the concept of “biblical” is flexible. Thus far, I have used the term in a narrow sense to refer to things that do not explicitly appear in the text (like the Ark Encounter’s assumption that Noah was trained in ship construction). Even though much about the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter is not biblical according to that narrow sense, many visitors employ a broader understanding of “biblical” wherein perceptions of authenticity and a biblical “feel” are more important. Anthropological research into Evangelical communities has found that the Bible does not just refer to the Book and that God’s Word is often stretched to include sermons, discussions of sermons, and formal church lessons (Malley 2006, 196–97). Indeed, for many Evangelicals, something may be deemed biblical if it is seen to be rooted in the authority of God’s Word. Thus, applying Malley’s research to the case of the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter, AiG’s Bible interpretation need not be identical to the text so long as “transitivity between the text and the reader’s understanding is established” (Malley 2004, 84).

This transitivity was evident in both visitor descriptions of AiG attractions as “biblical” and in their experiences of nostalgia and homesickness for what many describe as a “biblical” time, despite the fact that what they experience largely results from the imaginative efforts of AiG. While obviously important, terms like nostalgia and homesickness did not quite capture what I was hearing and reading from Ark Encounter visitors. I needed a term that captured a sense of homesickness for a home that never really existed. As a result of considering this issue, I was introduced to the Welsh term hiraeth. Hiraeth is partly defined by a conventional understanding of the terms Beal uses, like homesickness and nostalgia. However, hiraeth adds the dimension that these feelings are connected to a home that never really existed, or a past that never was, but is nonetheless a place where the spirit longs to live.

At the Creation Museum, Ark Encounter, and Museum of the Bible authenticity aims to carry the visitor into the Bible. Therefore, I coined the phrase biblical hiraeth to capture the manner in which visitors describe being transported in time—returning to what they see as a better time when God’s Word governed society—as well as the nostalgia and homesickness that draws people to these places. For the most part, AiG seems to have skillfully employed material objects to create transitivity between the text and the reader’s understanding while inviting visitors to step into AiG’s interpreted and imagined past. By way of example, a Trip Advisor user called Patiodadio noted that there is a big difference between reading about the Ark in the Bible and seeing it come to life at the Ark Encounter (Patiodadio).[2] Another user, screen name Jesus_Love_Me2, maintained that the biblical description of the ark had an unreal quality, but the Ark Encounter made it real and personal (Jesus_Love_Me2). Reflecting upon a biblical hiraeth, many visitors report being transported back in time. A user named Psalm9242017 drew a sharp distinction between the Creation Museum as a place out of time and the present day by noting that visiting the Creation Museum was like walking in the Bible (Psalm9242017). Others noted that visiting the Ark Encounter was really like being in ancient Bible lands and visiting with Noah (Starmar 1955). Shirley R maintained that the people look and act authentically, and she felt like she was interacting with Noah and his family (Shirley R).

This special connection with Noah that visitors feel at the Ark Encounter, which is also being represented in the “Hope” Museum of the Bible commercial, is an expression of the perceived isolation and vindication fantasies being experienced by many Evangelicals in American culture. As John Lynch pointed out in his analysis of the Creation Museum, one is immediately struck by the rural location of both the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter. This physical isolation is certainly a reflection of cultural isolation and plays into isolation tropes that have characterized much of Christian history (Lynch 2013, 8). Though not biblical in the strict sense, there is a long interpretive tradition that depicts Noah as socially isolated as well, enduring the taunts of mockers and doubters. That AiG explicitly draws upon this persecution narrative is especially evident in a short film titled The Noah Interview that plays in the second-floor theater of the Ark Encounter. The film is set in Noah’s own lifetime while he is building the ark. He pauses his work for an interview with a reporter for the Pangea Independent Tabloid, known by its acronym as “The PIT.” In the encounter between Noah and the reporter, the calm self-assurance of Noah is contrasted with the caricatured skepticism and hostility of the press. For Ark Encounter visitors, being transported to Noah’s time and witnessing their own trials and tribulations played out in Noah’s life and participating in Noah’s eventual vindication (by proxy) is a powerful balm to today’s wary Evangelicals bearing the wounds of the culture wars.

The importance of a perceived biblical authenticity is illustrated in the comments of visitors who noticed the wizard peeking out from behind the curtain and thus potentially breaking the illusion. The large cafeteria at the Ark Encounter, called Emzara’s Cafe, serves a typical American lunch, including burgers, fries, and pizza. Some visitors found this puzzling. Mycatfatsoo expected more authentic Middle Eastern food, like flatbread, while others, like slm E suggested the addition of period foods instead of burgers and fries. Additionally, as a building designed to house thousands of visitors at a time, the Ark Encounter is constructed according to modern building codes. For some visitors like Bud A, a self-described Evangelical, the evidence of modern construction techniques, like Tyvek waterproofing, should have been replaced with gopher wood and pitch (Bud A).

In light of the rise of religious “nones,” shifting Evangelical demographics, and the diminishing influence of the Bible in American culture, the Ark Encounter and the Creation Museum function as “prefabricated images of home [that] offer an escape from anxiety of loss” (Boym 252). I like the term “prefabricated” in this context because it suggests the construction of an edifice from a collection of modular parts. As described in this essay, those modular parts, assembled by AiG at the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter and found in the products of the Museum of the Bible, include isolation and revenge tropes combined with a hiraeth for a better past represented by Noah’s calm determination in the face of doubters (Ark Encounter) or the religious principles of New England Puritans (Museum of the Bible). Jill Stevenson said it well when she noted that one function of a place like the Creation Museum (and I would extend this to the Ark Encounter and the Museum of the Bible) is to give a voice to a group that imagines itself as marginalized (Stevenson 2012, 94). Like a prefabricated dwelling, the Creation Museum, Ark Encounter, and the Museum of the Bible provides a ready-made home for America’s dislocated Evangelicals.



Beal, Timothy K. 2005. Roadside Religion: In Search of the Sacred, the Strange, and the Substance of Faith. Boston: Beacon Press.

Boym, Svetlana. 2018. The Svetlana Boym Reader, edited by Cristina Vatulescu, et al. New York, Bloomsbury.

Bud A. “Lots to Read; Nothing to See.” Trip Advisor, August 22, 2016,….

Jesus_Love_Me2. “Wow!” Trip Advisor, August 30, 2016,….

Lynch, John. 2013. “‘Prepare to Believe’: The Creation Museum as Embodied Conversion Narrative.” Rhetoric and Public Affairs 16 (1): 1.

Malley, Brian. 2004. How the Bible Works: An Anthropological Study of Evangelical Biblicism. Cognitive Science of Religion Series. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

———. 2006. “Understanding the Bible’s Influence.” In The Social Life of Scriptures: Cross Cultural Perspectives on Biblicism, edited by James S. Bielo, 194–204. Signifying (on) Scriptures. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.

mycatfatsoo. “Lots of walking.” Trip Advisor, September 10, 2016,….

Patiodadio. “Great family day.” Trip Advisor, July 15, 2016,….

Psalm9242017. “God is Awesome!” Trip Advisor, March 11, 2017,….

Shirley R. “Breath Taking!!!!” Trip Advisor, August 25, 2016,….

slm E. “Excellent Exhibits & Event Venue!” Trip Advisor, July 14, 2016,….

Starmar1955. “Structural beauty!” Trip Advisor, August 12, 2016,….

Stevenson, Jill. 2012. “Embodying Sacred History.” TDR/The Drama Review 56 (1): 93–113.

Thomas, Paul. 2020. Storytelling the Bible at the Creation Museum, Ark Encounter, and the Museum of the Bible. London, T&T Clark.


[1] My favorite “workable model” presented at the Ark Encounter concerns waste disposal. In this proposal, AiG imagines a large animal walking on a treadmill powering a conveyor belt attached to buckets that continually dump animal waste into a moon pool built into the ark.

[2] Note that the Content Use Policy of Trip Advisor prohibits direct quotes.

Article Comments

Submitted by Richard Faussette on Sun, 05/17/2020 - 21:39


Ken Ham is the fundamentalist Christian who founded Answers in Genesis. He is lambasted because he espouses Creationism over evolutionary theory, but then Ham is a religious man whose primary concern is not for the physical sciences. He says:

"If Christian leaders have told the next generation that one can accept the world’s teachings in geology, biology, astronomy, etc., and use these to (re)interpret God’s Word, then the door has been opened for this to happen in every area, including morality." From: A Young Earth – It’s not the Issue! (AiG-USA Newsletter) January 1998

Ham's concern is morality, the sexual morality of the Levitical prohibitions 18:19-24, the behavioral guarantors of Abraham's pronatalist covenant that raise the total fertility rate of a community that observes them.
It is not an accident that AiG spotlights Noah. The first creation failed and Noah is tasked with recovering from the Deluge and beginning the 2nd creation.
The first creation was destroyed because God did not want the sons of God taking the daughters of men. That would prevent Mankind from practicing strict endogamy. In the first creation the sons of God want to take the daughters of men for intercourse. In Sodom we find the men of Sodom wanting to take the angels visiting Lot for intercourse. It is the same situation in reverse. God does not want mixing. He wants angels to be angels and men to be men, the way he made them. He wants Man to be: endogamous. When Ezra reestablishes the Torah in Jerusalem, he tells the people “…Do not give your daughters in marriage to their sons, and do not marry your sons to their daughters…” Ezra 9:12
“Mixing” is forbidden. Interestingly, and rarely if ever under discussion, the power and unrestrained sexual desire of the corporeally endowed sons of the gods prevents mankind from practicing strict endogamy, a principle of the Torah if not its behavioral centerpiece.
In the Book of Jubilees, a non canonical work well known to Christians and Jews, Abraham gathers his sons to instruct them. He tells his sons to teach their sons the ways of Yahweh:“[L]et them not take to themselves wives from the daughters of Canaan; for the seed of Canaan will be rooted out of the land. And he told them of the judgment of the giants, and the judgment of the Sodomites, how they had been judged on account of their wickedness, and had died on account of their fornication, and uncleanness, and mutual corruption through fornication.” The Book of Jubilees 20:4-5
"The maintenance of strict endogamy is the primary concern of the text. The sons and grandsons of Abraham are taught not to take the daughters of Canaan for wives and the cautionary tales of the fallen angels and Sodom and Gomorrah are shared with them. The consequences of exogamy are portrayed in the judgment of the giants whose fathers’ God-given spirit sinfully surrendered to the human flesh they donned in God’s behalf."

The Ark in Kentucky is not a simulation. It is a grounding element for people who do not have the education of Biblical minimalists and don't understand the allegories, just as the written gospels were a grounding element for people who did not have the education of a Jesus who had the intelligence to write the oral tradition of Judaism on his heart.

The Christian fundamentalists cannot abandon their morality as Marxist progressive sexual ideology demands, so, with no one to help them, they are propping their morality up, (Ken Ham says as much above) giving it as much reality as they can muster. Observing the Levitical prohibitions and maintaining their traditional sexual mores keeps them from being "rooted out of the land" which is a metaphor for a plummeting total fertilty rate, population decline and eventual extinction.

The fundamentalists are not alone in their marginalization which is not in their imagination. Biblical studies is dying. Davies' Sheffield Biblical studies department was down sized/reorganized after the threat of being closed altogether, wasn't it?

Christian fundamentalism and biblical studies are both at paradigm shifts to be navigated.
Both challenges are real with real consequences if no one raises an anchor to leave the port where they have lingered much too long.

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