Friday, October 12, 2018

Book Review: Bielo, James. Ark Encounter: The Making of a Creationist Theme Park.

Lillia McEnaney reviews James Bielo's most recent book, an ethnography of a creationist theme park in Kentucky.

MLA citation format: 
McEnaney, Lillia
Book Review: Bielo, James. Ark Encounter: The Making of a Creationist Theme Park. 
New York: New York University Press, 2018.
Web blog post. Material Religions. 12 October 2018. Web. [date of access]

James Bielo’s most recent book, Ark Encounter: The Making of a Creationist Theme Park (New York University Press, 2018) is an in-depth and critical ethnography of a creationist theme park in Kentucky. Written in an accessible yet rigorous tone, Bielo examines the planning, execution, and ramifications of a creationist theme park’s construction within the larger trend within of biblical tourism, or ‘materializing the Bible.’ Bielo fundamentally argues that Biblical attractions and entertainment venues, such as Ark Encounter, provide a key framework for understanding the production of Fundamentalism, and actively work to legitimize creationist views. 

The ethnography begins with a historiography of the ways in which the Genesis story has been interpreted, appropriated, and rendered both in popular culture and academia. Bielo bases Ark Encounter off the idea that because the narrative surrounding Noah’s Ark is prominent both within and outside of Christianity, it is vital for the Creationist movement’s overarching argument(s). Interestingly, Bielo makes little distinction between Fundamentalism and fundamentalism here, but defines a particular Protestant Fundamentalism as the belief in four defining elements: 1) The Bible is the “Word of God,” 2) Genesis should be read literally, 3) a universal flood was a historical event, and 4) Darwinian evolution is an inaccurate “attack” on The Bible. 

He continues with a history of the Fundamentalist fight for cultural legitimacy and authority within the public sphere. It is within this context that Bielo introduces Ark Encounter as a “form of fundamentalist Christian public culture” that contributes to the “global phenomenon of materializing the Bible” (Bielo 2018:4). This section of the text is made explicitly accessible to a variety of audiences through an introduction and history of Protestant fundamentalism in the United States. Bielo directly addresses the reader – both non-creationist and creationist – urging them to understand the opposing point of view. Even in these early sections, Bielo is also impressively transparent in his ethnographic methods and thought processes. 

Arguably, the most useful theoretical contribution of Ark Encounter is the explicit contextualization of the Genesis story within a paradigm of entertainment, in which entertainment is a tool of materialization, conversion, and belief. To begin the text, Bielo asks how Ark Encounter fits into larger trends of ‘materializing of the Bible,’ and what Ark Encounter’s existence says about contemporary Fundamentalism. After asking these questions, Bielo introduces us to his organizational concepts: devotional consumption, entertainment as play, and religious publicity, all of which he lays out in a clear and concise way. Bielo asks: “how does Ark Encounter seek to mobilize and solidify the creationist public, convert the noncreationists public, and claim legitimacy and authority for creationism through its work of religious publicity?” (Bielo 2018:29). 

Ark Encounter’s following chapter conducts a survey of global case studies of materializing the Bible. Produced alongside Bielo’s web-based digital scholarship project, Materializing the Bible, this section provides key examples of tangible Biblical manifestations including gardens, creation museums, history museums, and re-creations. Where his digital archive often lacks depth and analysis, this chapter fills in the gaps. He explores the devotional and pedagogical nature of various case studies, and fits them into the larger themes that were introduced in the previous chapter. Bielo concludes that the phenomenon of materializing the Bible – and the construction of affect – is a direct response to the Christian longing for authenticity, an argument I found more convincing as the text continued. 

The following chapter is framed as an ‘ethnography of cultural production,’ where Bielo argues that analyzing the thought processes and labor of the Ark Encounter team provides important context for the project as a whole. He found that the labor of creating the park was directly related to the team’s religious commitment to a creationist agenda. This commitment was strengthened by the team’s collaborative processes. They developed a shared purpose: to publicize Fundamentalism. Bielo also found that the physical layout, sounds, and decoration of the team’s workspace worked towards this same goal, and this chapter also provided a useful discussion of discourse analysis. 

Chapter 4 explicitly tackles the process of conversion. It has been made clear throughout the text that conversion – through both religious publicity and materializing the Bible – is the key goal for the project team. In this, Bielo found that the team’s key strategy for conversion was to facilitate visitors’ embodied movements while in the Ark – “Noah’s story cannot merely be told; it must be felt.” (Bielo 2018:89). According to Bielo, when you enter the park, a feeling of multisensory immersion is immediate. The project team deliberately engaged in what Bielo calls “world-building,” an extension of immersion that I found particularly engaging and thought-provoking. A second strategy for conversation is ensuring that the Noah story appears plausible within the context of ‘religious play.’ Combined, the team hypothesized that this plausibility-immersion play would serve their goal of immersion, and succeed in converting their visitors. The acknowledgement and analysis of these tactics is a key contribution of the text, but it may have been helpful for Bielo to spend more time with these ideas. 

Bielo’s next section, Chapter 5, situates Ark Encounter within the paradigm of ‘history-making,’ in which the past is a contested sociocultural process infused with power. This discussion – and the construction of power in particular – is fundamental to understanding the Ark, and it would helpful to include this framework earlier in the text. Here, the processes of history-making are largely set in the context of the Creation Museum’s Dragon Legends exhibition, which fundamentally questions the assumption that humans did not live alongside dinosaurs. The introduction of this new case study provides a key shift away from the theoretical, and situates the book within a new museum anthropological framework. Though useful, its placement in the text seems haphazard. 

Bielo then returns to the work of history, and the “struggle for symbolic power” (Bielo 2018:135). In this struggle for power, Bielo notes that both the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter serve as safe havens for creationists – a place where they do not have to confront the scientific orthodoxy. This small note added the important aspect of the affective, lived experiences of Fundamentalism. His following discussion of Fundamentalist influences in education (education through entertainment – “edutaining”) acts in a similar way – it brings the experience of creationism to life, and reminds us why these discussions matter. It is here that Bielo drives the point of entrainment home – “when it comes to history-making, is creationism more fun than evolution?” (Bielo 2018:138). 

Bielo’s final chapter, titled “A Walking Poetics of Faith,” finally brings us to the realized product – Ark Encounter’s physical space. Bielo uses David Morgan’s (2012) approach to “the gaze,” in which Ark Encounter fosters an embodied “way of seeing” that furthers the team’s goals (Bielo 2018:142). This gaze results in what Susan Harding (2000) calls a ‘poetics of faith,’ where, according to Bielo, religious commitment and authority are intensified. As previously noted, immersion is key to religious authority and conversion, and Bielo continues this here by discussing the two ways in which the Ark Encounter team used immersive experiences to persuade their visitors: the construction of a “creationist past and a creationist present” (Bielo 2018:143). 

In this chapter, Bielo continues the comparison with the Creation Museum, which provides a useful frame of analysis to think through the realized park. Though close analysis of exhibition context, Bielo concludes that Ark Encounter works as both a form of pedagogy and religious publicity, with the overarching goals of converting non-Fundamentalists to Fundamentalism, while working to reify Fundamentalist beliefs. He importantly focuses on the interactive and sensory – particularly auditory, haptic visuality, and architectural – strategies, while also noting the specific and intention lack of written signage or text. 

Bielo closes Ark Encounter by again contextualizing this work into the larger projects of the anthropology of religion. Bielo expresses a wish that his book will make three primary contributions. First, “Ark Encounter demonstrates how fundamentalist public culture can emerge from a thorough entanglement between religion and entertainment” (Bielo 2018:175). Secondly, Ark Encounter fits into the larger project of “materializing the Bible” (Bielo 2018:175), and finally, it “provides an opportunity to expand our understanding of creationism and fundamentalist public culture.” (Bielo 2018:175). After reiterating these points, Bielo’s conclusion makes a sharp turn and brings in a discussion of the relationship of ‘theme parks’ to Fundamentalism. Though interesting, this conversation deserves to be moved to another chapter of the book and explicated with more nuance rather than squeezed into the conclusion. 

The most tangibly useful part of this book, for this reader, is Bielo’s appendix. He painstakingly reviews his relationship to the project team, his levels of ethnographic access, and his fieldwork experiences. Of particular interest was his reflections on his field notebook, and his frank relaying of the difficult turns his research process took. Bielo’s response and adaptation to disruptions in his research processes provides valuable lessons for any ethnographer, and particularly for young scholars. 

Overall, Ark Encounter is a useful contribution to the literature in anthropology, religious studies, and material religion, and situates itself within a deep literature in Fundamentalist studies. Bielo’s clear and concise writing style and structure, combined with his thoughtful analysis and discussion, produced a strong text that would be useful for scholars studying the anthropology of religion and is particularly useful for students because of his radical transparency in his research processes.  

Morgan, David. The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012. 

Harding, Susan. The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.