An elderly, bearded, white man dressed in ancient Middle Eastern garb, turban and all, stood on a stage in the middle of a field in Williamstown, Kentucky, and played a tune on what appeared to be a wooden flute. It was July 5, and I was watching him online from the comfort of my in-laws’ home in Memphis. Two minutes into his solo, the Williamstown High School band joined in, marching in formation through the crowd of 7,000 people who had come to bear witness to the ribbon-cutting of Ark Encounter, a Christian theme park featuring a replica of Noah’s ark built using the dimensions God gave to Noah in Genesis 6.
Ark Encounter has captivated my interest and curiosity since Answers in Genesis (AiG) announced the colossal project in 2010. AiG is the popular young-Earth creationist apologetics organization led by Ken Ham, well-known for the 2014 Bill Nye-Ken Ham debate. My interest in Ark Encounter stems not from the desire to see a particular worldview defended or rebuffed, but simply from the fact that I’m fascinated by some of the quirkier ways fellow Christians express their faith. On AiG’s website Ham described the opening of Ark Encounter as “a historic moment in Christendom.” I knew I had to see it for myself, and I was pleased when CT asked me to report on the opening. That is how, in the 24th year of my life, in the 7th month, on the 7th day of the month, I set out on a journey to visit Ark Encounter with one question in mind: What are we, evangelical Christians, to make of this?
The first hints that a major tourist attraction had landed in these Kentucky fields were signs on the highway warning motorists to expect ramp delays at the exit leading to Ark Encounter. Traffic jams, I imagine, are foreign to the residents of Williamstown, a city of around 4,000 people. But they just might become the new normal. A study from America’s Research Group predicts that as many as 2.2 million people will visit the attraction in its first year alone. That is to say, the gas station and motel across the street from the park’s entrance are about to have a very good fiscal year.
I drive through the main entrance as hardhat-wearing construction workers in cherry pickers put the final touches on the Ark Encounter sign. There’s no boat in sight—just a sea of blacktop dotted with few dozen cars. The park doesn’t open to the public for another hour, but people are already in line, waiting to hand over $40 per adult and $28 per child to get in. I hop on a bus taking Ark Encounter employees to their stations. After one mile, the bus reaches the crest of a hill, and there it is: Noah’s ark, $100 million worth of biblically-proportioned, timber-framed splendor.
From a structural standpoint alone, Ham has done something remarkable. The thing is 510 feet long and 80 feet high. Imagine the Statue of Liberty lying horizontally. Now add 200 feet to it and you’re still five feet short of the ark’s length. The juxtaposition of seeing a massive ship in the middle of a field with no water in sight save for a small brown pond is disorienting, but only adds to its grandeur.
Since I have a reporter’s pass, I have 45 minutes to explore the world’s largest free-standing timber-frame structure free of tourists. As I make my way up the entrance ramp beneath the ark, I begin to hear music and the sound of a distant storm playing through speakers. Inside, cages filled with detailed models of extinct animal species thought to be the ancestors of the animals we are familiar with today line both sides of the main floor.