Our first real truckin’ destination back in 2003, during the era of the wet run and the Ranger, was the Grand Canyon, where, I told Sam, he would see such a sight that he could truly conceive of the notion that, if not God, then something really extraordinary—out of this world—actually existed. I said this half jokingly, although when I first visited the Canyon I was, like many people, overpowered by the pure magnificence of it all. How could such an overwhelming sight have been created by pure accident of nature? And if so, who created—what was—nature? These questions are not unique to me; many have pondered such riddles in a much more sophisticated manner. But truly, I had really never given God any thought whatsoever. God, to me, when I was young, was connected to religion, which, I thought, was kind of a crock. If it wasn’t for religion I wouldn’t have had to go to Hebrew School after regular school every afternoon from three-thirty to six, studying for my bar mitzvah, Monday through Thursday. I could have been playing softball with my friends. If not for religion, I would not have to wear a suit and sit inside a synagogue during the High Holy Days listening to a bunch of old bearded guys chanting in a language I didn’t understand. As soon as I could possibly escape from religion and God, at thirteen, I did so—like a prisoner released from lock-up.
But for Sam, early on, religion was a powerful force to ponder and debate. Sam’s mom is also not religious—she was born Christian—and when he was very young, Sam liked to tell people he was half-and-half, although technically, according to the orthodox and conservative Jews, Sam would be officially Jewish only if his mom were Jewish. Reform Jews are not so selective—or at least, so I then thought. Originally, I had this idea that I would allow my son to choose his own religious direction by taking him periodically to different religious services. We’ve been to many churches and synagogues over the years. Sam says he is an atheist.
At one point, I decided to enroll him in an Episcopal Church Sunday school and a Reform Jewish Sunday school, simultaneously. He would attend alternate Sundays. Perhaps this was foolish and confusing, but Sam enjoyed the different experiences, until the rabbi from the Reform synagogue told me that Sam couldn’t be educated as a Christian and a Jew at the same time, at least in her congregation. So I asked Sam if he wanted to make a choice. He did. I withdrew him from both Sunday schools and we have not returned to a church or synagogue in a regular or structured way since.
But as we traveled year after year, I came to believe that what we were doing in that truck when we went to the Grand Canyon and then the following year up the AlCan, ending at the peak of Exit Glacier, were in many ways religious experiences. In that truck, we were being monastic—we were contemplating the world in an incredibly intimate way by talking and relaxing into each other’s silences. We were listening to the greatest music the world has ever known, from our point of view, music which demonstrably connected generations and cultures. Traveling, we were seeing the world, choosing to participate in a spontaneous and voluntary manner, while sharing the intimacy of a tiny comfortable chamber, not too different from a confession box, inside the truck. As Mr. Spock of Star Trek fame might put it, Sam and I, heading toward the Grand Canyon or Exit Glacier, and later venturing into China and Tibet and then visiting Auschwitz, were going through a mind meld, an extended religious experience no church, temple, cathedral, or museum could ever provide. The Creation Museum, however, provided an illuminating spotlight into a world we had automatically rejected.
We are in Noah’s Cafe, sitting on high stools at a small high table, a very chic little place with lattes and cappuccinos and organic wraps featured on the menu, talking quietly, our heads together. Sam in Levi’s and a wrinkled T-shirt displaying the periodic table is not so different in appearance from the other visitors to this brand new $27 million monument to the Book of Genesis called the Creation Museum. But the swarms of teens roaming this complex have T-shirts and badges displaying their faith. The biggest group, aside from Amish—there must be fifty kids, maybe more, banded together—display yellow-and green Ts. The front side says “Covington California,” while the back side reads “Runners on a Marathon Mission for God.”
I am reading to Sam from the literature we’ve collected about this place, located in Petersburg, Kentucky, about fifty miles south of Cincinnati, and the few notes I have jotted down in my spiral reporters notebook.
“The state-of-the art 60,000-square-foot museum brings the pages of the Bible to life, casting its characters and animals in dynamic form and placing them in familiar settings. Adam and Eve live in the Garden of Eden. Children play and dinosaurs roam near Eden’s rivers. The serpent coils cunningly in the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.” Behind us on the high stone wall snaking through the facility are advertisements for upcoming events, beginning with Answers Family Camp: Apologetics for the Whole Family, at the Higher Ground Conference Center, less than twenty minutes from the Museum.
There are six brass plaques embedded in the wall beginning at the entrance to the museum and spaced throughout the facility, organized according to the six Cs of History—Creation, Corruption, Catastrophe, Confusion, Christ, and Consummation.
Not surprisingly, the latter C is passed over quickly—in the blink of an eye. Signs everywhere: Prepare to Believe.
Bonnie—so says her “Volunteer” badge—approaches and introduces herself. “You are different from our regular visitors; I can tell by just looking at you,” she said. “Why are you here?”
“We listened to a feature on NPR about this place. Sam was intrigued,” I said, pointing at Sam. “So we came.”
The Creation Museum took us by surprise—first because it is all so bizarre. I mean, putting prehistoric animals and humans together in the same place and time, for example, positioning Creationism with Darwinism, as if they are equally viable.
We had expected an onslaught of criticism of Darwinism and evolutionary theory, but the rhetoric turns out to be ingeniously subtle. Very little effort has been devoted to converting the unbelievers; the entire edifice concentrates on proving—indirectly, subtly—that the Creationists are right, and demonstrating how wrong the rest of us are. One of the first of 110 full-sized exhibits in the complex portrays two paleontologists on a dig working side-by-side at a site of dinosaur remains. On a video—one of fifty-two videos in the museum—above a life-sized diorama, both paleontologists address the audience, professing to be good friends and colleagues embarked on the same work with similar objectives, but different starting points.
The first paleontologist explains that he believes that the world started six thousand years ago when God created Adam and Eve. It is all presented in clear-cut fashion in the Book of Genesis. The dinosaurs, created on the sixth day, as described in Genesis, were on the ark with Noah, along with lions, giraffes, all living creatures. Later we learn that the transformations precipitated by the massive eruptions at Mt. St. Helens are a vivid demonstration of how the Grand Canyon came into being almost overnight during the flood that engulfed the Earth. All of his scientific exploration is anchored in that belief. “So, in fact,” I tell Sam, “taking you to the Grand Canyon to show you evidence of the existence of God was the most legitimate religious experience I have ever provided for you.”
The second archeologist, wielding shovel and brush, is basing his work on the fact that the world was created millions of years ago, as most scientists currently believe. The way in which the radically opposing viewpoints are presented—the spin—is quite ingenious and ever so daring.
“It’s like George Bush,” Sam says. “We’re winning the war in Iraq!”
“It’s a few levels more sophisticated than Bush,” I say. “They’re not saying that Creationism is right and the rest of the world is wrong. They’re presenting the dialogue and the discourse so that both theories are on a level plane, that Creationism and Darwinism are comparable scientifically. That either theory could be right, depending on your starting point.”
“If the Bible is your starting point,” Sam says, “Everything follows and makes sense after that. Wendy has seen the light,” he adds.
Sam is referring to the woman seeking meaning in life in the special-effects theatre in which the seats vibrate and the sky spits moisture to evoke a three dimensional image and reconstruction of the impact wrought by the flood. Wendy begins the show, appearing as a real person on stage and introducing the movie. “Prepare for some fun and prepare for some solid answers—some intriguing surprises—and PREPARE TO BELIEVE” she tells us.
The lights go down and Wendy sits on a stage in front of an artificial campfire emanating from a triple split screen. Then the celestial landscape suddenly appears as another voice, a haunting female voice, asks in the echoing stillness “Does anybody even know I am here? Is there any meaning? Did God create all of this or did we just invent God?”
Lee Gutkind, recognized by Vanity Fair as “the Godfather behind creative nonfiction,” is the founder and editor of Creative... read more