What Has Hollywood to Do with Jerusalem?: Production Values and Proclaiming the Gospel in the “Ark Encounter” and Ben Hur

If size matters, the new theme park in northern Kentucky, the Ark Encounter, is a […]


If size matters, the new theme park in northern Kentucky, the Ark Encounter, is a massive success. The center-piece of the park, which opened in mid-July, is a full-size replica of Noah’s ark, over 500 feet long, 85 feet wide, and 51 feet high. It is, according to the Ark Encounter website, the “largest timber-frame structure in the world.” The first phase of the park also includes “Ararat Ridge Zoo (with a petting zoo), a 1,500-seat restaurant, a gift store under the Ark, and a zip line.” Future attractions will include “a pre-Flood walled city, the Tower of Babel, a first-century village, a journey in history from Abraham to the parting of the Red Sea, a walk-through aviary, an expanded petting zoo, and other attractions that uphold the truth of God’s Word.” Ken Ham, the founder of Answers in Genesis—which is “an apologetics ministry, dedicated to helping Christians defend their faith and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ”—and the brains behind the Ark Encounter and the nearby Creation Museum, offered this rationale for his new theme park: “In a world that is becoming increasingly secularized and biased, it’s time for Christians to do something of this size and magnitude.”

Mr. Ham represents that segment of American Christianity that is often derided with the label “fundamentalist”, and who identify themselves as “literal” interpreters of the Bible. That “literal” interpretation, applied to the book of Genesis, includes a 6000-year-old universe created in six literal 24-hour days, and a belief that the flood of Noah was a global deluge drowning the entire planet. Those views, coupled with Mr. Ham’s single-minded vision and entrepreneurship, yielded the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter.

First, forgive me a brief side trip into biblical theology and exegesis. One can have a high view of Scripture and not see things in Genesis the way Mr. Ham and like-minded “literalists” see them. Before deciding what is “literal” or non-literal in Scripture we have to take genre, grammar, history, and theology into account. We all take some parts of Scripture “literally”. I am convinced that the Bible teaches that Jesus “literally” (better – “actually”) rose bodily from the grave because the historical genre of “gospel”, the textual emphasis on eyewitness reporting, and the explanatory power of an actual resurrection overwhelms any “spiritualized” or demythologized interpretation. But, the majority of even conservative biblical scholars do not interpret the “days” of Genesis 1 as literal 24-hour periods. The most persuasive view is that the days are analogical (see, for example, the representative analysis of Old Testament scholar, C. John Collins, in Genesis 1 – 4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary); they are God’s “days”, and as Scripture speaks analogically of God’s hands, arms, and eyes, the days also are not meant to be taken literally. Equally, the majority of conservative biblical scholars, Christian philosophers, and scientists who are Christians do not believe the universe is a mere 6000 years old. They accept standard scientific cosmological and geological dating and do not find it conflicts with Scripture. It is also possible that Noah’s flood was regional, not global. Biblical language taken literally as global often refers to the “world” of the main character, the writer, or the original audience of the story. The most well-known reference is Luke 2:1; only the Roman Empire, not the entire planet, was in view when Luke wrote that Caesar Augustus decreed that the “entire world” (Greek – oikoumenē) should be taxed. The Hebrew word typically translated “earth” throughout the flood story in Genesis 6-9 is eres, which means merely “land” and seldom projects a planetary perspective. The Hebrew word that refers to the whole world, tēbēl, is never used. If the flood was regional, the “world” that was drowned was the world of Noah, not the entire planet Earth. But, I digress . . .


Alongside the question of what “literal” interpretation entails is the problem of Mr. Ham’s super-sized Hollywood-style vision—in the Creation Museum as well as the Ark Encounter—of what evangelism and Christian apologetics should be. The story is not enough; you’ve got to have production values. The Ark Encounter ark isn’t just any replica; it’s the “largest timber-frame structure in the world.” It isn’t just a boat; it’s jam-packed with attractions and displays, animatronic figures of Noah and his family, life-sized animal replicas—including dinosaurs, and conjectured structures and engineering solutions for feeding and caring for a large number of animals in a confined space for a year, not to mention the zip-line, restaurant, gift store, and petting zoo in the surrounding theme park. In The Atlantic online last Sunday, in his essay titled “The Obsession with Biblical Literalism”, Carmine Grimaldi observes that, “At Ark Encounter, visitors learn to read the Bible as a producer would read a screenplay—the location, characters, and dialogue may be given, but the reader must fill it out with a set, lighting, sounds, and actors. It becomes fully realized only through performance.” Over at the Creation Museum, which I have visited, the approach is the same. “It’s a visceral experience, but more than that,” Grimaldi concludes, “it’s a lesson on how to read and visualize the Bible.”

Furthermore, as Grimaldi points out, “For self-proclaimed literalists, the ark includes a striking amount of fabrications and fictionalizations.” The actual biblical text tells us nothing about Noah’s daily life on the ark, the engineering challenges he faced, the names of his wife and his sons’ wives, the methods of feeding, watering, and waste disposal, or how Noah’s family spent their free time. But you will find all this and more on Mr. Ham’s “Hollywood” version of the ark and the flood it endured. Grimaldi tell us that, “Christian fundamentalists have long proselytized with cartoons, but Ark Encounter seeks to change this by adopting the recent trend in Hollywood that conflates grittiness with verisimilitude, ‘reinventing’ famously cartoonish franchises into something moody and gruff. If cartoons are the vehicle of myth and miracle, the ship’s immersive experience offers a different story, one about regular people, steeled by hard work, courage and faith. Ark Encounter seems to have found a realism that balances sanctimoniousness with entertainment.” This approach has certainly generated attention and ticket sales.

ben_hur_ver3Which is more than you can say for Ben Hur, the latest film offering from faith-based Hollywood power couple Mark Burnett and Roma Downey. This epic remake of the 1959 version is a bust of a summer blockbuster, garnering neither critical accolades nor viewers beyond a core Christian audience. The classic story, based on the novel by Civil War general Lew Wallace, recounts the struggles of a 1st century Jewish prince, Judah Ben-Hur, who has been betrayed by his own adoptive brother, tried for treason, and sentenced to a Roman slave galley for five years. On the road to revenge, he finds redemption through the message of Jesus Christ.

One of the kinder reviews, by Brett McCracken, a film critic for Christianity Today, notes the cheesiness of Ben Hur and the kinds of flaws that it shares with other faith-based offerings: “on-the-nose dialogue, unsubtle ‘cross’ imagery and parallelism, saccharine endings.” But he does note that “Ben-Hur presents some of the religio-political dynamics of Rome-occupied Jerusalem in the days of Jesus, and why those dynamics could be important for us today”, and that it “captures aspects of Christianity’s birth rarely seen in popular culture.” I could not help thinking of parents reflecting on a primary school Christmas pageant when I read McCracken’s review, and I doubt Ben Hur will lead to any serious reflection by Christians about power and privilege in contemporary culture, as McCracken thinks it might.

Mr. Burnett and Ms. Downey have produced other, more successful faith-based films and television shows, including Son of God, the cable series The Bible for the History Channel, and the broadcast mini-series AD: The Bible Continues for NBC. Mr. Burnett, who also produces the reality shows Survivor and The Voice, offered this reflection on his approach to Ben Hur, in a pre-release interview :

“From a Christian perspective it’s very important to make content that would stand on its own, whether it was Christian-focused or not. It needs to stand alone and be high-quality to attract a wider audience. And if it happens to also have a message of forgiveness and love and redemption and the story of Jesus woven in, that’s actually the right approach. Because you can’t be expecting young, secular Americans to be attracted to watch a movie that doesn’t have the right trailer and the feeling that it’s a big exciting summer action movie. Because remember what we’re up against, look at the slate of the summer. People have only got so much money to go to so many movies. And so you’ve got to offer something pretty epic.”

Ms. Downey echoed this frame of mind: “I think there’s such an opportunity for this story to reach young people and—through this action-adventure movie—bring them to the story of Jesus, bring them to the foot of the Cross.”


No doubt they are disappointed with the results. As of last week, it was being predicted that Ben Hur could lose as much as 100 million dollars. Perhaps the youth of America got the message—we’d like to part you from your limited movie-going dollars with this high quality epic action-adventure and introduce you the gospel of Jesus Christ at the same time—a bit too well.

I will not pretend to know, or presume to comment on, how to successfully produce and market a movie. What I would question is the idea that a big exciting summer action-adventure epic movie with great CGI effects is the best way, or even a good way, to bring “young people” to the “foot of the Cross.” It certainly didn’t work with the recent Ben Hur, at least not for any “young people” who weren’t already milling around in the vicinity. And what if they had come? What then? What would it even mean to be at the “foot of the Cross” as the credits roll and the lights come up? And while the Ark Encounter is succeeding where Ben Hur failed, in spinning the turnstiles and making budget, they both share the mind-set that Christianity has got to be a fun epic action-adventure or an “immersive” interactive spectacular or it won’t be attractive to people who have become conditioned to big-budget Hollywood productions. We have got to out-Hollywood Hollywood if we want the gospel to have an impact on our culture.

It’s not that popular culture is an inherently unfit vessel for the gospel, though I would wish that many Christian producers and consumers of pop culture would understand the necessary difference between a sermon and story. We do learn from stories, but not like we learn from a sermon. A good story, in literature or film, simply tells us consider this world for a while. If a story is true-to-life, whether it’s fact, fiction, or even fantasy, we understand ourselves more deeply, and our experience of our humanness is enlarged. If the story is enough, then the production values won’t matter.


One response to “What Has Hollywood to Do with Jerusalem?: Production Values and Proclaiming the Gospel in the “Ark Encounter” and Ben Hur

  1. Patricia F. says:

    When I heard that ‘Ben-Hur’ was going to be re-made, I thought it was ridiculous. How could anyone top the 1959 version–with a chariot race that had not a bit of CGI-effects?? I decided not to see this ‘newer’ version.

    Excellent comments on the film, BTW.

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