Once, I was talking to an Australian friend about Ken Ham, the P.T. Barnum of the fundamentalist faithful, who moved to Kentucky from Australia to open the Creation Museum, the Ark Encounter and our minds to the idea that dinosaurs lived alongside humans.
He had to come to a place like Kentucky, my friend explained, because he would have been laughed out of Australia.
I thought about that conversation recently as I watched “We Believe in Dinosaurs,” a respectful documentary that chronicles the three-year journey of Ham and his devoted followers as they built the world’s largest wooden boat outside Williamstown. The directors, Monica Long Ross and Clayton Brown, got some great access as they interviewed the people tasked with convincing people that the world is only 6,000 years old and fossils were formed by God’s great flood.
There are the designers who lovingly sculpt and paint a baby stegosaurus (Noah would have chosen younger dinosaurs to go on the ark because they eat less and take up less room). There’s footage of Ken Ham selling his young earth ideas, and an interview with resident scientist Georgia Purdom, who has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from The Ohio State University, and whose eyes look burdened with knowledge that she certainly didn’t get in Columbus as she explains that because the Bible is true, “we expect science to be consistent with it, and it is.”
If there are protagonists in this drama, they are David MacMillan, a former creationist who’s now trying to get people to accept that you can simultaneously be a good Christian and believe in evolution, and Dan Phelps, a geologist and the president of the Kentucky Paleontological Society, who is deeply wounded by the Ark’s offenses against science and secular government. Phelps, who dubbed Ham the “Ayatollah of Appalachia,” led the charge against the Ark Park receiving state and local economic incentives, especially after he saw ads requiring salvation pledges from potential employees. Some of the nicest scenes show MacMillan and Phelps climbing amid the rocks in a highway cut, gamely chipping away at rocks that are certainly more than 6,000 years old.
But in all, this movie is a somber affair, and what I felt most watching it was melancholy.
It’s depressing to watch Ham instruct a room of children what to say if anyone suggests the earth is actually millions of years old. “WERE YOU THERE?” they shout in unison. It’s sad to see a handful of atheists gamely protest the park on a barren corner of I-75. It’s depressing to see science dismissed as merely an anti-Christian fad, or the footage of Vice President Mike Pence dodging questions about whether he believes in evolution, and think about our government’s dismissal of climate change science.
It’s also sad to see Phelps mourn his inability to stop state tax dollars from being used to subsidize the Ark. That, of course, is the crux of any outrage we should feel. People are free to believe anything they want, but in a country founded by those trying to escape religious dogmatism who made the separation between church and state a pillar of our society, it’s very trying to see Kentucky’s limited tax dollars being spent on this fundamentalist Disneyland.
Ken Ham hasn’t been laughed out of Kentucky yet, and plenty of people visit the Ark, but his hefty payouts from Williamstown and Grant County have yet to bear fruit. One of the most poignant scenes in “We Believe in Dinosaurs” is at Elmer’s General Store, a performance venue and ice cream shop in downtown Williamstown, where the owners eagerly await the promised hordes of tourists with ice cream cones and a bluegrass band.
The day after I watched “We Believe in Dinosaurs,” I called Elmer’s, and owner Elmer Virgil picked up the phone.
“We’ve been closed for a year now,” he said. “There just weren’t enough people from the Ark.”
“We Believe in Dinosaurs” is currently only available at film festivals, but the directors hope to get a distribution deal soon.
Linda Blackford writers columns and commentary for the Herald-Leader.