An Interview with Susan Trollinger and Bill Trollinger: Righting America at the Creation Museum

I spoke recently with Susan Trollinger and Bill Trollinger about their new book, Righting America at the Creation Museum.

Susan L. Trollinger is Associate Professor of English at the University of Dayton. Her research interests include visual rhetoric, classical rhetoric, and the study of Protestant fundamentalism and Young Earth Creationism in American culture. William Vance Trollinger Jr. is Professor of History in the History and Religious Studies Departments at the University of Dayton, as well as Director of UD's Core Integrated Studies Program. His research interests include American evangelicalism and fundamentalism, Protestant print culture, creationism, and the Ku Klux Klan

PC: In the introduction you talk about the need, when studying the Creation Museum, to “slow it all down” – could you talk about what you mean by that?

ST: We borrow that reading strategy from people like Sut Jhally, who bring together semiotics and content analysis to enable us to see patterns in texts that otherwise might elude us. Jhally, for instance, uses this strategy for his work on music videos. Music videos can seem to say a lot of different things when it comes to male and female sexuality. But by slowing music videos down and looking at them carefully, by de-contextaualizing them in this way, he shows us that music videos in fact say the same thing about male and female sexuality again and again. And, by the way, what they say is not good for men or women. We were borrowing that methodology. When you go into the Creation Museum there is so much going on: you have dioramas—both life-size and miniature, lots of signage and placards, videos, films, objects displayed in glass cases, an ever-present sound track. All kinds of things are going on, and we just wanted to slow it all down, take it apart, and look very carefully at it. What exactly are the arguments being made? How are they being made? What kind of evidence is being offered in support of their claims? Does the reasoning make sense? How is the visitor positioned in relationship to the dioramas? In our book, we try to take the visitor out of what can be an overwhelming experience in the museum, and slow it all down so they can see what is underway—so that they can see, for instance, that as they move through the museum they are on a narrative path. That is walking along that path, they are inhabiting a certain story and a certain argument. We try to help our reader get a clearer understanding of that story, that argument, and how it is constructed?

PC: They are making very specific arguments about the Bible, and science. The book really slows it down and shows the reader what the Creation Museum is arguing.

ST: One of the things we wanted to do was to pay close attention to both the linguistic arguments that they are making on placards, signage, videos, and the like as well as the visual arguments they are making. As visitors move through the museum, they are not only encountering this or that placard. They are also moving through a space in such a way that they are also inhabiting a story about what the Bible is, what the history of Christianity has been, what it means to be a Christian in today’s world.

PC: What is at stake in seeing the Creation Museum as a Museum?

ST: A great deal. The fact that the Creation Museum is constructed within the idiom of the natural history or science museum is incredibly important. Visitors are likely to be very familiar with natural history or science museums. As a result, they are well trained in how to think about the information that they encounter in those kinds of museums. By virtue of appearing in a natural history of science museum, such information is deemed credible, reliable, scientific. So, when visitors encounter a display or diorama with corresponding placards that tell them that the universe was created in 6 literal days less than 10,000 years ago, they are strongly encouraged to receive that claim as true.  Something else that visitors have been trained to know about mainstream museums is that the information they present is backed up by research, especially scientific or historical research that is properly done and credible. It reflects the wisdom of the day. The point of a museum, visitors know, is to make all that research (which is surely tough for most people to understand) accessible and interesting to the public. Thus, visitors are invited to receive the information that they encounter in the Creation Museum in the same way—as informed arguments backed by extensive and credible research. It is difficult to overestimate the significance of the fact that this young Earth (really young universe) creationist argument is being made through the form of the natural history or science museum in terms of how from the moment the visitor enters they are invited to grant the arguments made therein a lot of credibility.

PC: The Creation Museum seems to be ‘postmodern’ because it allows people to have ‘presuppositions’  – or concedes that individuals can have presuppositions –  but then they shut the door on that quite quickly.

WVT: It was amazing to us that you have had smart people, really smart people, describe the museum as postmodern. It’s postmodern for ten seconds, and that's it.  After that, it’s not postmodern. I’m not sure how people are fooled by that. And that is a “credit to the museum” because they’re clever in that regard.

ST: Yes, indeed, they shut the door on that very quickly! By the time you enter the second room in the Bible Walkthrough Experience (the centerpiece of the museum) they’re already saying that you have just two choices. You can choose “man’s reason” or you can choose “God’s Word.” And if you choose man’s reason, you’re likely to end up alone, lost, and without meaning. They waste no time pointing out that there really is only one choice.

PC: The Bible chapter was fascinating in so many regards. Your third chapter places the Creation Museum in the longer history of sola scriptura, biblical inerrancy, and the history of Protestantism. And then at the end, you play with the idea that Ken Ham could someday end up as the target of derision in a museum focused on geocentric models of the universe. This chapter really impressed upon me that they have a very specific interpretation; that they don’t want to acknowledge the cosmology of the Bible itself, which talks about a flat Earth. How do you write about people with these types of religious imaginations? You let them speak for who they are; then you ask well, what are they really saying?

WVT: So Sue and I see chapters two and three on “Science” and the “Bible” as the centerpiece of the book, as they set up the chapters on “Politics” and “Judgment.” We use the same methodology in the chapters on science and the Bible: Close observation. One thing that we noticed is that the museum – and Answers in Genesis, the folks who run the museum – must erase history completely. They have to have the eternal, unchanging interpretation of the Bible. They do not care in the end about the biblical text. That is why – on their placards -- they can cut material out of the verses they quote without putting in ellipses.  In fact, they can ignore huge sections of the Bible because the Creation Museum is trying to promote a particular interpretation. But biblical interpretations change over time, and Ken Ham cannot stop this. Who knows what happens down the road?

ST: And, as other scholars have shown, in the end the measure of the true Christian within fundamentalism is who has the most conservative, which is to say the most literal, interpretation. And that gets pretty strange pretty quick when you’re talking about the Bible.

WVT: Especially with the cosmology.

ST: Right. If you read the Bible literally when it talks about the cosmos, it’s hard not to see a geocentric cosmology. And sure enough, there fundamentalists who are argument that a truly literal reading demands a geocentric view.

PC: Are you mainly in conversation with journalists? What is the historiography here? Who are your interlocutors? People seem to be trying to wrap their minds around this. Maybe if journalism is the first draft of history, then you’re supplying the second.

WVT: Our historiography is fundamentalism, history of museums, history of science – but when it comes to the Creation Museum, you’re right, it’s primarily journalists who have commented on it so far.
ST: And others like prominent scientists whose commentary has also appeared in popular venues.

PC: How did you come up with your approach? What was it like working as co-authors, between these disciplines? You do historical research, ethnographic research, rhetorical research – the approach is in conversation with so many things that are important right now to religious studies scholars. How did you develop your methods together? Obviously this question stems from your research, Bill, on the history of fundamentalism. The Scopes Trial is haunting this project, but there had to be a way to get at the Creation Museum in an ethnographic and anthropological manner as well.

WVT: One of the great things about this project for us is that we had a site. And then we could bring our various disciplinary approaches to bear on that site. That ended up being so much fun because we got to ask so many different kinds of questions that go beyond any one discipline. And the site turned out to be so rich for that.

ST: I’ll never forget walking through the Creation Museum the first time. We came around a corner and confronted this huge placard about the “Church in Crisis.” It had this big arc depicting the downward direction of the history of Protestantism. Appearing on that downward arc were Hodge and Warfield – the guys who developed the idea of “biblical inerrancy” – and the Scofield Bible. They were there because they accepted an old Earth. Bill came around the corner and looked at this placard, and he was like “Wow, I can’t believe this.” I had no idea in that moment what was so strange about the fact that Hodge, Warlfield, and Scofield were on the downward slope. But that’s because I am not a historian of American fundamentalism. So, that was just wonderful and that kind of thing happened again and again, where the expertise of one of us enabled the other to see something they otherwise would not have seen. That’s the fun of interdisplinary work. You learn a ton and your work is so deeply enriched by it.

WVT: I will say that for me, that was the moment that told me there was something here. When you’re throwing early fundamentalists under the creationist bus, something important is going on.
PC: You argue generally that we should be concerned about the Creation Museum because it’s preparing a lot of people to take part in a culture war.  The question you want to answer is a question about how the Creation Museum constitutes Christians both politically and as Christians -- if you can see those as separate categories. You use this word ‘constitute’ in your introduction. So how does the Creation Museum constitute these Christians and prepare them for a culture war?

WVT: I’ll start by saying that lots of these folks are going to vote for Trump. And it is baffling for people on the outside of evangelicalism and fundamentalism to think of how a Christian could vote for Donald Trump. But these Christians have been shaped into a culture war mindset and Trump is on the right side of that divide. Moreover, the Creation Museum reinforces this culture war binary. In our first talk on the museum, we used the phrase ‘preaching to the choir,’ then we realized that the phrase is not accurate. They’re not just preaching to the choir, they’re shaping the choir. So you have good evangelicals and fundamentalists who want to live by the Bible, they want to take it literally, and these folks at the museum take them and say, alright, if you’re going to do that, you must be participants in this culture war.

ST: I’ll just underscore that the Christian being constituted here is deeply political because the binaries are absolute. There is no middle ground. And AiG is explicit: you’re either with Jesus or you’re not. With that binary in place, all you have to do is put Hilary on the wrong side of it, and then it’s obvious that if you want to think of yourself as a good Christian you have to vote for Trump. The other thing they do – one of the things that disturbed us most about the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter – is how the Christian subject constructed in relationship to the Flood. We talk about this in some detail in the book. In the Creation Museum the visitor is positioned in a very powerful was as having made it onto the Ark. Safely inside, they are looking through the Ark door that God is closing on all of the people who are perishing outside. What’s disturbing about that is the way in which the Creation Museum encourages the visitor to experience the fact that they are inside while so many die outside as a good thing. This, we fear, is a construction of the Christian that invites callousness and a lack of compassion for the suffering of others.

WVT: But then Ark Encounter ratchets it up.

ST: Yes, Ark Encounter has this big flat screen with a chart that suggests there could have been as many as 20 billion people who perished in the flood. Well, 20 billion minus the eight on the Ark. And never mind the animals. But amidst a culture war rhetoric that says there is good and there is bad, there are the sinners and the saved—it’s tempting, we think, for people to think that all those 20 billion people deserved what they got. This concerns us greatly.

WVT: The callousness is just overwhelming. And it’s not Jesus. This isn’t about putting forth the good news of the Gopsel; this is about being on the right side of truth. It’s about being on the right side of “God the Punisher;” it’s not about Jesus.

PC: Final question. Do you think AiG, the Creation Museum, and now Ark Encounter have the capacity to shape and constitute many Christian subjects into this worldview? AiG’s output is considerable, not just the museum itself, but the curricula and the agents it sends out into the field. It has a generative capacity to bring people into this worldview and really mobilize them. How do you see this in the broader history of fundamentalism?

WVT: Early fundamentalists were intensely interested in the Bible. But when you’re at the Museum and the Ark you get the feeling that these folks are much less interested in the Bible as a sacred text, and much more interested in a very particular and very dark message of judgment. Not just judgment of individuals, but a judgment of all of American Culture, including a judgment of President Obama and the supposed “Homosexual Lobby” that supports him. Until this project, I had not realized the extent to which fundamentalism has gotten darker and meaner. This meanness owes a lot to the Christian Right, which has politically mobilized fundamentalists. Of course, they were always political in the sense that they had conservative political views. But that is not the same thing as being mobilized, and they have been mobilized. And this is a meanness that you can hear in Donald Trump’s rhetoric. Donald Trump has had success because there is an audience for his kind of mean rhetoric, including a Christian audience. From our perspective this is politically scary. But we are not just Americans, we are also Christians. So we have this extra dimension to think about -- the way Christian faith has been distorted – and we are deeply concerned.

ST: Yes, and so the next question to ask is: what are the Christian discourses that will successfully resist this kind of meanness and say that this kind of culture war rhetoric has no place in the church of Jesus Christ?


Marc J. said…
Thanks for sharing Pete. As always an interesting perspective from the one and only Bill Trollinger. It's always mind blowing to me that this fundamentalist perspective of the Bible you address here, is so quick to ignore the messages of Jesus Christ. All the best - Marc
Unknown said…
This reading of the museum and its context is brilliant; I look forward to reading the book. I agree that the museum surely does constitute visitors, to some extent; but of course they are already predisposed to those ideas or they would not visit in the first place. I agree also (brilliant point) that the museum positions itself as an actual natural history museum. I am most struck by the danger of such a callous and mean-spirited effect, produced by the exhibits. The only thing to add may be too obvious to mention: how such things produce a zealous anti-science, anti-intellectual view of the world. Thanks for a terrific interview! -hb

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