Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Opening Day at the Creation Museum

God is not fair. That was my first thought upon arriving at the Creation Museum on opening day. My second thought was of the movie The Princess Bride. Every time, Vizzini is warned that their boat is being followed, he says, “In-con-ceivable!” until finally, after the Dread Pirate Robert’s boat is too close to be ignored, Indigo Montoya replies, “That word— I do not think it means what you think it means.”

That God, the God of the people who conceived of the Creation Museum, the God of the people who bought lifetime memberships, the God of the people who lined up for hours to attend opening day… I do not think He is who they think He is.

As far as I can tell, there’s not much in Petersburg, KY except the new Creation Museum, future home of the headquarters for Answers in Genesis ministry, and a small grove of smoldering smokestacks. I apologize if I am maligning Petersburg; I neither explored the town nor did much research. Even the museum itself is not much to look at from the outside, although the grounds—still under construction—are lush and park-like.

When I rounded the corner of Bullitsburg Church Road, a cluster of protesters with signs reading “Evolve, already!” and “Lies!” shouted at me to turn back. It gave me a moment’s pause. I’m a proud left wing kook, a staunch secularist; my desire to go to the opening day of the Creation Museum was driven mostly by fascination with religious kitsch and by, I say with a twinge of shame, a sprinkling of snobbery. As I passed the protestors, I considered aborting the mission (terrible pun not intended) and redirecting my curiosity by joining them.

The police guarding the gate looked hot and angry, and in a moment of paranoia, I imagined they were sizing me up—me, alone, in my black VW bug with the fading Kerry/Edwards 2004 bumpersticker—wondering if I was a troublemaker. I pressed onward, and a uniformed Creation Museum staff member (olive drab vest and khaki t-shirt—a Disney version of an archeologist’s get-up) stopped my car and handed me a map through the open window. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Our parking lot is full. Here’s a map to off-site parking; we have a shuttle.”

And this leads me to God’s Not Fair, Part One. I’m not good with math or maps, and this one looked like ancient hieroglyphics, but a quick mental calculation yielded the reality that the satellite parking lot was more than seven miles away. But as I turned up the first aisle toward the exit, there before me, right after the line of handicapped parking spaces, was an empty spot, as close to the front door as you could get without being elderly and/or wheelchair-bound (as I would later discover a disproportionate number of Creation Museum-goers were). I pulled into park, got out of my car, and slinked toward the entrance feeling guilty and strange as though a nimbus of heathen-fog surrounded me like that smelly kid in the Peanuts cartoons. (I have always felt bad for that kid—Ashcan or Dustbin or… what was his name? Pigpen. His parents should be ashamed.)

The entrance line snaked four times before the door, and I wondered how long I was willing to wait to shell out $14.95 (I had a $5-off coupon from the internet) for a good story to tell over beers. As soon as I took my place on queue, I began to hear rumblings from the head of the line: “tired of standing,” “they should be giving out bottles of water,” “better be worth the two hour wait.”

“Two hours?” the young staff member who’d just joined the line said, “Why are they waiting two hours? There’s an express line inside with practically no one at it. It’s cash only.” He turned to me. “Are you paying cash?” I nodded; I already had three fives in my hand. He unhooked the rope and motioned to a side door. “There’s a desk to your right.”

My time from car to cash register: three minutes. Hearsay time for just about everyone else: an hour and a half. God’s Not Fair, Part Two.

Once I had my ticket, I was confronted by Chaos. In the lobby, called the “Portico” on the very snazzy, even hip, map I’d been given, there were three lines, none of which led anywhere. Emboldened by my luck, I wove my way between the lines to the entrance and then traced the shortest line back to its end. Five minutes later, I entered the main exhibit, situated next to a diorama meant to resemble a face of the Grand Canyon featuring animatronic dinosaurs happily cohabiting with aboriginal humans who bore a striking resemblance to Lilo from Lilo and Stitch.

I admit, I wanted someone to ask me why I was there. I wanted someone to notice a twitch of my eyebrow or a barely noticeable shake of my head and call me out on my godlessness. I wasn’t 100% sure of what I would say, but it would have involved Harry Potter and Teletubbies and not wanting to condemn something before I saw it.

The “walk through history” is a narrative that begins with a question: Why is it that two different archeologists, a Creationist and an Evolutionist, can look at the same set of dinosaur bones and come up with two different conclusions?

“Because they come from different starting points, of course!” says Joe, the grandfatherly archeologist in the video in the Dinosaur Dig room (He must be an archeologist! He’s wearing an Indiana Jones hat and an olive drab vest!). Below the video screen is a diorama of Joe and another archeologist examining a dinosaur skeleton.

“Fossils don’t come with labels,” he continues, and I expect him to tack, “silly butt” at the end. “So everyone begins with certain assumptions.” His colleague, Kim, Joe explains, began with the assumption that these dinosaur bones were millions of years old and formed in a slow process that involved thousands of years of heat and sediment and other crazy stuff. Kim is notably Asian, and not pretty-boy Asian like Jin on Lost or BD Wong from Law and Order, but decidedly “Other.” Joe explains that he began at the “starting point” that the Word of the Lord is the Truth. Take that, Kim!

Moving on. We pass through a doorway flanked by fossils (real and faux) and ancient seashells (real) and stalactites (faux), and a olive drab-vested staff member (they’re all archeologists!) explains that this fall they will be opening the “Cave Experiment” room downstairs where they will “grow” stalactites and stalagmites, disproving the idea that it takes hundreds of thousands of years for them to form. She’s grandmotherly, and I’m starting to realize that the staffing choices have been made specifically to avoid confrontation. I want to ask her why has every stalactite in every g.d. cave in the world only grown mere millimeters a year since man first started watching stalactites grow. I want to tell her that every person in the room who’d made it past first grade saw their science teacher grow crystals and make rock candy; the “Cave Experiment” was going to be nothing new to us. But Granny has me cowed.

The Starting Points room assures us that Christians and heathens alike share the “same facts, same world,” but “different starting points.” (This necessitates a Stephen Colbert regard for the word “facts.”) We’re invited to look at subjects of conflict (Fossils? Evolution? Dinosaurs? The Grand Canyon?) from both Joe’s and Kim’s “starting points.” These are really beautiful posters, like ads for the Gap or Jet Blue, each featuring a different topic with the explanation from both the Human Reason perspective and from the perspective of God’s Word.

Evolution? The sepia-toned sad eyes of an orangutan peer out from behind his splayed fingers. Beneath his huge face is the “Human Reason” explanation for his relationship to Mankind. He’s a kissing cousin, a neighbor on the “Evolution Tree.” Next to that kindred explanation is the “God’s Word” rational. It features a “Creation Orchard,” with our orangutan friend perched on the many-branched monkey tree, a safe distance from the human tree, which is just a trunk really, human at the bottom and human at top. It strikes me as sad to think that humans don’t evolve.

Next we’re herded into the Biblical Authority room, and just in case we’re a still a little iffy about Joe and his starting point and exactly why or how Human Reason became a bad thing, we’re surrounded by moving dioramas featuring the likes of Moses and Paul and Martin Luther explaining that by not believing in creationism, we’re “willfully ignorant.”

And just in case we still don’t get it, we file past a mural that appears to feature either Humphrey Bogart or Phillip Marlow burying something in a graveyard dotted with “God is Dead” engraved headstones, and we empty out into a graffiti and trash filled slum. Cigarette butts and beer cans on the floor (real), the graffiti (faux) gives way to walls covered in a collage of newspaper headlines and magazine covers recalling Terri Schivo, the crisis of gay teens, AIDS, abortion, Wicca, the deification of celebrities. The alleyway opens up to the side lot of a suburban home. It’s dark, but we can peep-tom through the windows and watch little Junior surf the internet for porn and listen in as little Julie makes plans to buy drugs over the phone.

Apparently, Kim’s starting point, Human Reason, is directly to blame for Julie’s drug problems, Junior’s teenaged libido, Teri Schivo’s eating disorder, the Rev. Ted Haggard’s sexual preference (oh, right, he’s cured now, so his meth habit, then), and all else that ails the world. We’ll find out, later, that ALL of this, including our destructive faith in Human Reason can be traced back to a SINGLE human being. Care to guess who? I’ll give you a hint: her name begins with E and ends with E and there’s not much left in the middle. God, I love a scapegoat!

Was it always like this, you may ask yourself?

Heck no! As you enter the next room, The Creation of Adam, you can almost hear the angels sing, like the first second or so of The Simpsons theme song. It’s a tropical paradise, Tahiti, Hawaii, Margaritaville; it’s Eden, and there’s Adam naked as the day he was zapped into existence, a carefully placed lamb covering his “little man” from one angle, a palm frond shielding it from the other angle (yes, I checked every angle, can you blame me?).

But Adam is bored, so God gives him Eve (hair over the top half, navel-high weeds the rest). Adam and Eve skinny dip in the next diorama, and I know they’re supposed to be unaware and unashamed of their nakedness, but the way he brushes the hair away from her face makes me feel a little horny, and suddenly my cheeks are pink and I feel like I’m intruding on a mannequin Harlequin “moment.” Maybe this discomfort is on purpose because there’s another onlooker—a ruby red, arrow headed serpent, checking out Eve’s goods.

And we’re ushered through The Cave of Sorrows to watch as Eve offers a bloody apple to Adam under the watchful eye of the snake, and the next image is of an anachronistic door, paint peeling, secured with a cartoon-ridiculous number of deadbolts and chain locks. The Big Guy has locked us out, and why shouldn’t he? We’re all sinners now, and the Cosmic Pain that Eve’s act caused has given way to everything from clothing and meat-eating (according to the Creation Museum, all creatures were vegetarians before the Fall) to murder and tedious work. We see the aftermath of Cain’s beaning of Abel, and humans up to their elbows in blood from a slaughter.

This can’t be good. God, even in his great big tenement in the sky, can’t possibly let this state of things to continue. And of course he doesn’t; we’re led into a massive room with animatronic humans constructing an enormous ark that looks more like an oil tanker than the perky bateau of our children’s books. There are an awful lot of people working on this ark, and I wonder if Noah’s told them that only he and his family have a ticket to ride.

In the Flood Geology room, the Great Flood is explained through videos and posters. And for the first time, I can hear other museum-goers make little noises of satisfaction, like they’re understanding science for the first time. “Who knew?” they seem to be saying. “So that’s how it worked.” It’s horrible, this flood, a tsunami cresting over the poles and cascading over the continents, making Katrina and the Asian tsunami look like the overtopping of a sink left on too long. One wonders how Noah’s ark, oil-tanker though it is, wasn’t dashed to pieces and sent to Davy Jones’s Locker, pairs of sheep, mice, and dinosaurs and all.

Yes, dinosaurs. Dinosaurs not only shared the earth with man since day one—day 5 actually, when they were created alongside the chipmunks and wolves—but they were saved by Noah and survived the flood (According to some literature I picked up in the gift shop, the dinosaurs on the ark were most likely “teenagers.” I wonder how Noah kept them away from the drugs and the online porn.) In fact, dinosaurs went on to thrive for many centuries. How else can you explain the preponderance of dragons in literature? Not dragons, silly Arthurians, but late-stage dinosaurs. (The gift shop, by the way, looks like a set from Harry Potter and is called Dragon’s Hall.)

Surprisingly, for a Christian museum, the Creation Museum is pretty light on Christ. For the most part, we’re treated to only the pissed-off God of the Old Testament. Many of the exhibit rooms are still under construction, so it’s possible that in the future we’ll be treated to, at the very least, a gory Stations of the Cross. And there’s no Evangelizing either; I was never witnessed to, no one blessed me, and while there is a chapel where people can go and quietly recover from their experience, the place doesn’t feel like a church. They’re not trying to convert, merely affirm the beliefs of the converted.

I had certain expectations when I went to the Creation Museum. I’d already read up on it and discovered that the founders had no intention of disproving “science” but rather adopting scientific conventions and fitting them into their mythology. Because of that, I was surprised to find that the museum was so light on Natural History and so heavy on Bible. I expected a Christian science museum and got an Old Testament wrath-fest with fossils and dinosaurs.

Like most museums and theme parks, the final stop in Creation Museum funnels you right into the gift shop. Kook that I am, I was looking forward to picking up some kitschy doodads to commemorate my visit, a snow-globe at the very least, perhaps a coffee mug with a pithy message. But I was out of luck; I couldn’t find one damn thing that passed for even faintly amusing. Instead the walls were lined with curriculum guides and witnessing workbooks, and people were checking out with armloads.

I left disappointed, both by my unimpressive haul of two packs of witnessing flash cards and a bookmark and by my experience in general. To be fair, I couldn’t get tickets to the planetarium show, and I did not avail myself of the “Men in White” stage show (your guess is as good as mine) or sit through every minute of all fifteen video presentations. But with the exception of the revelation that dinosaurs yielded dragons (thereby rendering at least some of Harry Potter acceptable in fundamentalists’ eyes) and that the 1982 eruption of Mount St. Helens proved that geology is fickle and provided the evidence that creationists so desperately longed for, most of the museum felt like old news. Very old. Like Old Testament old.

Upon returning from my trip to the Creation Museum, I told my roommate about my God is Not Fair feelings of guilt and disbelief and of the lines that miraculously appeared in each room where no line needed to exist and which I quickly learned to circumvent. And he, once a promising student of ministry who rejected The Way, simply said, “Sheep.”

I wanted to argue. I wanted to say, “They just hadn’t been told. They just didn’t ask anyone if they had to stand in line.” But then I realized that that had been the theme for my visit to the Creation Museum. I was reminded of the Billy Collins poem “Flock” where the punch-line is that the Lord is a Shepherd, “one of the few things/they already know.”

I walked the few paces to my car and, ironically, was directed by the quasi-archeologists not to the exit but to another parking spot. I backtracked and rolled down my window. “You just passed here. Didn’t you find a spot?” the archeologist asked.

“I’m looking for the exit, not a parking spot.”

“Oh. That’s strange; everyone else who’s driven down this aisle has been coming, not going.”

“Well, I’m going.”

Monday, May 28, 2007

Preparing to Believe!

Today marks the opening of the Creation Museum, a $27 million facility built with private donations by the Answers in Genesis Ministry. The Museum, located just an hour and a half from Louisville, and within a six-hour drive of two-thirds of the US population, promises “a walk through history… A fully engaging, sensory experience for guests. Murals and realistic scenery, computer-generated visual effects, over fifty exotic animals, life-sized people and dinosaur animatronics, and a special-effects theater complete with misty sea breezes and rumbling seats.”

In the mission statement, the Museum promises to

  • Exalt Jesus Christ as Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer through a safe, wholesome, family-friendly center for learning and discovery that clearly presents major biblical themes from Genesis to Revelation.
  • This center will equip Christians to better evangelize the lost with a sense of urgency, through a combination of exhibits, research and educational presentations that uphold the inerrancy of the Bible.
  • This center will also challenge visitors to receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and to accept the authority of the Bible by providing culturally relevant biblical and scientific answers from a biblical worldview.

The controversial museum has been designed under the direction of Patrick Marsh, who designed the Jaws and King Kong exhibits at Universal Studios, Florida. In a November, 2006 interview with the Guardian, Marsh was asked about the preponderance of remains of early, human-like creatures. Marsh responds:

"There are no such things. Humans are basically as you see them today. Those skeletons they've found, what's the word? ... they could have been deformed,
diseased or something. I've seen people like that running round the streets of New York."

And apparently, the Creation Museum features replicas of those skeletons with exactly that defense.

As a former New Yorker, I can’t think of a better place to take my first out-of-the-Ville roadtrip for Loueyville than to go and visit some of my peeps. Not the Creationists, of course, but the deformed, diseased (or something) quasi-New Yorkers.

It just so happens that one of the benefits of living in Louisville is the relative proximity to Erlanger, KY, specifically the Marydale Retreat Center, site of the annual Writers Retreat Workshop, of which I am a 2002 and 2003 graduate. I'd already planned to swing by for a day to visit some of my nearest and dearest (alas, I cannot stay due to real-world job responsibilities), so now I'm only 15 minutes away from the Creation Museum.

Stay tuned for a first-hand account of a visit to the Creation Museum on opening day.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Entrepreneurship in the Ville gone to the Birds

My first thought was: Explain to me the thought process that leads to this career path. Thought #2: Imagine this person’s day job.

Well, according to the BirdZerk! website, it’s unlikely he has one. At least during baseball season. Between April and September, Birdzerk!, native of the Ville, travels all around the country from CT to Albuquerque plying his zany mayhem. The brainchick of Dominic Latkovski, former Billy Bird mascot of the now-defunct Louisville Redbirds, BirdZerk! was hatched in 1995 and has provided entertainment to more than a hundred AAA Baseball teams and played at seven AAA All-Star games.

BirdZerk! (yes, the exclamation point is part of his name, like Jeopardy!), the Mardi Gras colored yellow bird-clown-sports mascot, provided the inter-inning entertainment for the May 26th Bats-Bisons Triple-A game at Louisville Slugger Field. And he was funny, actually gosh-darn funny. He and his family (?), Zerk! Jr, BabyZerk!, and BallZerk!, tormented the Bisons and umpires during their at-bat warm-ups in well-choreographed skits. BirdZerk! goads the third baseman into doing a funny “hey-ho!” dance and then runs away, leaving him dancing alone on the field. BirdZerk! gets kicked in the butt by an outfielder and BirdZerk! steals his glove and throws it to the fans.

The real stars are the good sports (pun intended) who go along with the Zerkfamily’s stunts. I tend to buy into the stereotype that most athletes visited both the Testosterone and Ego booths twice before they were born, but the half-dozen or so player-victims seemed joyfully willing to play the ass (it probably didn’t hurt that the Bisons took a 2-0 lead in the first inning and led throughout).

I was laughing too hard to whip out the digital camera, but the real entertainer of the evening was a barely knee-high little boy who participated in the final “I-dance-and-then-you-copy-me” (I’m sure there’s a technical name for it in sports entertainment jargon) BirdZerk! skit. Started off innocent enough: I shuffle and then you shuffle, I skip and then you skip. Then BirdZerk! did a bump-and-grind, and tiny tot shook his moneymaker. In the final exchange BirdZerk! whipped off his purple shirt and swung it around like a lasso, and tiny tot didn’t hesitate before he yanked his red t-shirt over head (it got caught on his ears), windmilled it over his head, and tossed it on the grass like a top-notch Chippendale dancer in the Land of Oz.

Louisville Bats vs. Buffalo Bisons (4-9)

The Bats lost with a season-high four errors. Let’s just get that out of the way to begin with. Season-high four errors. Just goes to show you that I am, indeed, anathema to sports teams and competitions in general. Should you ever go to Churchill Downs with me, it’s in financial your best interest to offer to pay for my beers (or mint juleps) so you can get my “hot picks” for each race. While I can’t help you pick the winners, knowing my picks will at least tell you which horses not to bet on. In the privacy of my own home, I rock Jeopardy!, but put me on a Pub Quiz team and I am definitely not smarter than a fifth grader.

After an afternoon hanging in downtown Louisville, I decided to hit my first Bats game. Since I moved here, I’ve been aching to go to a game, but somehow it’s never panned out. Roommate is out of town, but after a little hemming and hawing, I decided that going to a baseball game alone is no more pathetic than going to a movie or a bar alone, and I do both happily.

Bull Durham it ain’t, much to my disappointment. But that and the loss were the only disappointments.

$7 admission at the door for reserved seats (note to self: either reserve online in advance to get a better seat or pay less and sit in the bleachers or on the lawn—the view was as good as it was from my lousy reserved seats). After I got over the shock of seeing so many people eating pizza at a baseball game (Papa John’s is a ubiquitous presence in Louisville as the city is home to the YUM! Brands), I was happy to see the usual ballpark fare offered at Slugger Field, along with some more unusual food like pork chop sandwiches and Philly cheese steak nachos at reasonable prices. I spent $3.50 on an Italian sausage with peppers and onions, and while it was fantastic, my guts are a bit gooey today. You have to look a bit harder for premium beers, but they do exist, including the fairly potent RedHook ESB on tap. Premium beers are smaller than the piss beers, but they’re the same price-- $4.50, pretty much what you’d spend in most of the Ville’s bars.

Slugger Field is small and very family-friendly. There’s a carousel and a playground and a ton of give-aways and promotions for kids. The preponderance of children there last night may have been because of the Memorial Day weekend or because they were giving away free gloves to the first 1,000 wee ones, or maybe it’s always a kid-fest. (Note to parents: if you’re going to let your kids come and go ALL GAME LONG maybe you should ask the people on the end seats to switch places. More ESB went on my lap from kids bumping my knees than down my throat.)

You really can’t beat it with a stick though. Seven bucks for three hours of sports and entertainment (see: BirdZerk!) in the fresh air. Beautiful sunset over the Ohio River free of charge. I never felt odd being alone, and by the second inning, I was looking at the multiple game mini-packages (unfortunately, I’ll be out of the Ville for a chunk of baseball season and it was impractical).