Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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The Manger at the Museum
The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago has a beautiful display of Christmas trees decorated to represent nations around the world. Wandering around in the midst of them this past weekend, I discovered near the great steam locomotive a lovely little crèche scene from Italy. What does this have to do with science or technology? Nothing, really. And it was a relief that the Museum didn’t try to draw any foolish connections.
Not so, apparently, in Kentucky, where a Bible-based theme park called Ark Encounter is being planned. The full sized replica of the Ark will be joined by a 100 foot Tower of Babel, a first-century Middle Eastern village, and a romp through the Old Testament with special effects depicting Moses, the 10 plagues, and the parting of the Red Sea. According to The New York Times, the developers of Ark Encounter expect to spend $150 million, employ 900 people, and attract 1.6 million visitors from around the world in the first year. With the Creation Museum only 45 miles away, they envision a Christian tourism corridor that would draw busloads from churches and Christian schools for two- and three-day visits.
Wait, there’s more! “In the interest of verisimilitude,” said The Times, “the ark is to be built with wooden pegs and timber framing by Amish builders. . . . Animals including giraffes – but only small, young giraffes – will be kept in pens on board.” “We think that God would probably have sent healthy juvenile-sized animals that weren’t fully grown yet, so there would be plenty of room,” said the developer of the project. “We want to show how Noah would have taken care of them, taken care of waste management, taken care of water needs and food needs.”
The developer promises that the project will be “a model of environmentally sensitive development.” “I don’t believe in global warming,” he said, “but I do believe we’ve got to be good stewards of everything God’s given us.” (Here’s irony! Create a display about some ancient world under water while denying the facts about rising sea levels today?) Mired in a weak economy, the governor of Kentucky is eager to grant substantial financial incentives to the project which could receive up to $37.5 million in sales tax rebates over the course of ten years.
Over the centuries the church has often seemed desperate to demonstrate the “truth” of its message in dubious history, flawed science, and the amassing of a vast treasure trove of artifacts and relics from things like Veronica’s veil to pieces of the “true cross.” Apparently God’s place in the universe needs to be propped up by physical evidence and human display. Sites in the “Holy Land” where “it is said” this or that Biblical event actually occurred now sit under elaborate shrines and basilicas while tourists walk – or perhaps swim! – where Jesus allegedly walked. A common theme has not only been credulity, but also commercialization, something Ark Encounter seems intent on continuing.
Pilgrimage has been an important practice in Christianity. A connection to holy places and holy things is, for many, profoundly meaningful whether or not the actual history and provenance of a particular place’s relationship to historical events can be determined. And apart from the question of whether government funds ought to be used to advance modern Bible theme parks, there is little harm, I suppose, in families taking their children to pet the juvenile giraffes on the Ark. No harm, that is, unless you mind having the Christian witness connected to literal interpretations of Scripture that ignore or deny the disciplines of history, archaeology, physical science, and literary criticism. If Christianity is about the incarnation, the Word made flesh, then it is about God being present in the real world, not some world of historical or scientific fantasy and religious make-believe.
Which brings me back to the crèche at the museum. Some Christians may be disappointed to see it just sit there with no interpretation, no effort made to demonstrate that, based on scientific and historical research, “this is exactly the way it all happened and looked in Palestine 2000 years ago.” Some Christians may wish to have this great institution devoted to science and technology prove for all to see that the baby born in Bethlehem was in fact the Child of God. Others, whether atheists of true believers, might object to the fact that the crèche is even in the museum, convinced that the wall between science and faith ought to be rigidly kept. But I, for one, was happy to find it there in all its humble simplicity. As I walked among the fascinating displays, testimony to scientific wonder, human imagination, and technological ingenuity, the simple crèche seemed to be saying, “It was and is in this world that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” That’s a message that is almost, well, Biblical!
John H. Thomas