Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Rosh Hashanah Day II

My Trip to the Creation Museum
I never expected all the dinosaurs.

As we rode in the taxi entering the grounds of the museum, they were the first things we saw. Bronze statues of dinosaur skeletons graze all over the vast lawn in front of and leading up to the Creation Museum.

In 1994 Ken Ham set down the plan to build a museum dedicated to creationist theology, and the belief that the world literally was created in six 24-hour days, like it says in the Torah. He strove to build a reasoned, logical defense to those who would question creationism. We’ll get to this later. 13 years and seven million dollars later, he built the Creation Museum in Petersburg, KY. It’s about 15 miles south of Cincinnati, so while the CCAR Convention was gathered in Cincinnati this past spring, I had to see it for my self. I invited two other rabbis to grab a cab with me, and soon we were there. Looking at the dinosaurs.

Dinosaurs are a running theme throughout the Creation Museum. There are statues of dinosaurs, animatronic dinosaurs, and a movie about dragons—who are really just leftover dinosaurs. This is contrary to what I knew about creationists. They think dinosaur bones are all fake, right?

It makes for an extremely kid-friendly museum. Think about it—how many kids do you know who are fascinated by dinosaurs? The way they tell it, dinosaurs were created on the sixth day, just like all the other land animals. So when God put all the creatures in the Garden of Eden, the dinosaurs were there with them.

The first room in the museum has an eerily lifelike pair of animatronic men squatting on either side of a partially uncovered dinosaur skeleton. One is an elderly, white-bearded caucasian, and the other is a young-looking Asian man. The old white man narrates a film about their archaeological exploits that plays on a loop. He explains that he believes that the world was created in six 24-hour days, while his friend believes that the earth is [say with a chuckle:] billions of years old.

What struck me about this display is the comforting figure of the Santa Claus-like white man with the message from the Bible, as compared to the Asian “archaeologist,” who believes in a process of evolution that took eons.

The Asian man is the “other,” and that he is far eastern is likely a conscious choice. Asian religions are the farthest theologically from Christianity. They are unrelated to the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. So in the very first exhibit, a perception is established. There is certainty and comfort in the creationist message, in contrast to scientific theory. They are only theories, after all, Santa Claus reminds us. The creationist message is delivered in a nice, calm, soft spoken voice that reminds us of our grandfather. The “others” believe that which is alien, foreign, and not like us. It was an extremely clever presentation, and very scary.

Throughout the museum there is only one path, so it can only be navigated from beginning to end. Before it gets to the creation story, there is an exhibit about the Bible itself. It mostly describes use of the Biblical canon in various communities, most notably that of the Jews. One display has three different versions of the Pentateuch. The first was a reproduction of a stone with ancient proto-Hebrew carved into its surface. The second was a reproduction of a Greek scroll. The third was an actual Torah, marked with a plaque describing it as a scroll from Poland rescued from the Holocaust. I leaned in to inspect it, and discovered that it was open to Genesis 32, the story of Jacob wrestling the angel.

As I read, I thought of how clever the museum’s design is. Hebrew and the display of ancient languages gives validity to the museum’s message. If the words on this scroll were written in a language that the Jews still use today, it stands to reason that the message in the scroll must be fact, right?

Even cleverer is the precise scene to which this Torah was opened. As Jacob struggles with the angel, so does the creationist struggle with the other who challenges the Biblical message.

Before long, a woman I did not know saw me staring at the text and said, “It looks like it’s upside down, doesn’t it?”

I couldn’t resist showing off. I pointed to where I was reading, “it says here, vayivater ya’akov l’vado, and Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until dawn. It’s the story of Jacob wrestling the angel.”

“Where did you learn that?” she asked.

I got a little nervous at this point, “I have a Master’s degree in Hebrew Literature,” I told her quickly. While this is true, I suddenly felt the need to run away into the next exhibit.

From there on in the museum, Hebrew text is prominent. Sometimes it is used like the Hebrew word Metushalach—as a nametag of sorts on the desk of the animatronic Methusaleh. Other times it is in the background of still and electronic displays all over the museum. Consistant use of the Hebrew language serves as a validation of sorts. Every time Hebrew is on display, it is an implicit reminder that this stuff “really happened.”

After the museum’s version of the history of Torah, we get to the Biblical account of creation. We read this story today during our Torah service. God creates the world in six days. Light and darkness on the first day, water and sky on the second, land and plants on the third. The next three days God spends filling the creations of the first three days. Sun, moon, planets, and stars on the fourth day, birds and fish on the fifth, and land animals on the sixth, including the first human being. The Bible does say that after six days, “The heaven and the earth and all their array was completed…” (Gen 2:1). We heard Cantor Kruk chant those very words. They are very much a part of Jewish tradition. This is Rosh Hashanah, after all, and we are celebrating the birthday of the world.

So how do we reconcile what we know about the universe and how it works with what it says it in the Bible? For that I look deep into the wisdom texts of our age, and one of the most venerated scholars known to modern Americans. That’s right, I speak of Indiana Jones. In the third Indiana Jones movie, Dr. Jones writes the word “FACT” on the chalkboard, and says to his students, “Archaeology is the search for fact... not truth. If it's truth you're looking for, Dr. Tyree's philosophy class is right down the hall.” Understanding the wisdom of this statement, I often tell the opposite to my sixth grade Bible students. I tell them that facts can be empirically proven through evidence or observation. Truth, according to my definition, is dependent on belief. The Bible is concerned with truth, not facts. Truth is not beholden to logic or reason. We can believe something fully, to the fullest extent of our being, and have absolutely no proof of it.

Remember I said we would get back to the Creation Museum’s “reasoned, logical approach” to answer those who question creationism? This is an attempt to use a system of facts to prove a truth. There is a movie in the Creation Museum called, The Created Cosmos. It is a planetarium-style film, during which the viewers are treated to a tour of the universe as we know it, starting on earth observing the planets and stars, then moving out into space, past our solar system, out of the Milky Way, and eventually as far out as humanity has been able to observe at this point. While looking at the view from millions of light years away, the narrator attempts to prove that the earth is 6000 years old. He says:

Critics claim that it is impossible for the light from these galaxies to reach earth in only 6000 years. They claim that these galaxies prove the universe is billions of years old. But in fact there are several different ways to get light to travel these distances in a short period of time. These include gravitational-time dilation, altered synchronous conventions, and others.

This is logic and reason. Gravitational-time dilation, altered synchronous conventions, and others. After the movie, I asked the two I was with if they had every heard of these. Since none of us had, we looked up these supposed proofs up on line. We found gravitational time dilation, but could not find altered synchronous conventions. Since I was in my home town, I called my high school physics teacher to verify the information.

Gravitational time dilation is a theory that claims gravity is stronger when objects are closer to large objects, therefore light moves faster when close to planet-sized objects. When light moves faster, it distorts the way time is perceived. The proof used for this theory is that when an atomic clock, the most accurate type of clock there is, gets placed on a mountain, it moves slower than an identical atomic clock on the ground—closer to earth’s gravitational field. The problem with this theory is that this is not a measurement of time moving slower; it is a measurement of clocks moving slower.

According to my teacher, another problem with using this theory is that in order for light to travel millions of light years in less than 6000 years, it would have to travel on a path that skirts hundreds of millions of large planetary objects—large enough and close together enough to alter the speed of light. These objects would have to be visible to have this kind of impact, and we cannot see them.

Well, it sounded reasoned and logical before we looked it up. Or at least it sounded like fancy scientific jargon.

One more “proof” from the Creation Museum: While traveling through the Biblical story, we come to a replica of Noah’s Ark. The miniature ark is about three feet long. In the middle of the ark is an open door, with a platform attached to a tiny staircase. On the platform stands a teeny tiny Noah, guiding the animals two-by-two into the ark. The animals walking up the platform include a pair of elephants, a pair of giraffes, and a pair of triceratops.

Oh, yes. The dinosaurs are still around with Noah. You see, according to the museum, the fossilized dinosaur bones that we find in different layers of the earth are real. They just aren’t millions of years old as science claims. On a plaque in the Noah exhibit, it says:

Because things were buried in sequence during the flood, it left a pile of rocks and sediment each time and gave the appearance of layers of strata, which is why scientists misinterpret the layers of strata as coming from different era.

So fossilization was not the result of millions of years of pressure from layers of earth. According to the Creation Museum, fossilization happened in 40 days due to the tremendous pressure from the Great Flood. The extinction of dinosaurs happened slowly over the following two thousand years, with only one or two dinosaurs left by the middle ages—which spawned dragon legends so prominent throughout the world. Presented to the museum-goer as reasoned and logical.

This presentation does elicit questions in the mind of the thoughtful observer. What about carbon-dating? Why haven’t archaeologists found dinosaur bones that are younger than the Flood? And of course: What are you people smoking? Sadly, I had no representative from this culture who I could ask. I did hear a father’s reaction to his daughter’s questions. We were in the Tower of Babel exhibit, and I heard him yelling at her. “Stop asking so many questions!” he scolded her. “Just listen and pay attention. You don’t question this stuff, this is God’s word.”

Throughout the museum, there are monitors with God’s word on display. On every monitor, Biblical quotes flash on the screen while a voice reads the quotes aloud. Each of these screens has different texts, but over the same background. The background is a Torah scroll opened to the very beginning, the chapter we read today. On every monitor the Bible quotes are read across a Hebrew background—the original Hebrew text on a Torah. Remember, Hebrew serves as validation.

Here’s the problem: The Torah on every monitor is upside-down. Mistaking the letters like the friendly woman at the Torah display, the confused designers created a display of upside-down Torah throughout the entire museum.

I am reminded again of high school science. In anatomy class, we learned that the human eye is an amazing instrument for capturing light. It is able to detect different colors of light, adapt to different intensities of light and dark, and focus differently for objects that are far away or up close. When an image hits the optical nerve, however, that image is upside-down and 2-dimensional. The brain then flips this image, and uses information from both eyes to create the 3-D, right-side-up view of the world we enjoy. Without our brains working properly, we would see the world upside-down and flat.

The same is true with any information we take in. There are generally three sides to any story: yours, mine, and the facts. If we hear only one side of the story, we cannot possibly understand it properly. This is even the case when we watch the news. There is no such thing as an unbiased reporter. Opinions are disguised as information, and the medias feeds us constantly with lie after lie, scandal after scandal, anything that sells commercials. The media plays to our anxieties by presenting upside-down images on a screen of rendered half-truths.

When we hear a story from any source, our job is to do our due diligence and check the facts. Don’t trust what you learn from television, radio, emails, or even this bimah. Use your brain. Check the facts.

In just over a month we are going to vote. Voting itself is easy. It takes only pushing a button. What happens before pushing the button is the important part. It is our duty as American citizens to vote with our brains. We do this by thinking first about our values. What is important to us? How do we react to the issues of 2008? How important is one issue over another?

Then we look to see which candidate is a more suitable representation of our views. Based on using our brains, not on believing the stories we are told.

The dinosaurs are long gone. By using my brain and taking in as many sides of the story as I can, I have come to the conclusion that the Earth is in fact much, much more that 6000 years old. The Torah is not a history book about the past. It is a guide to teach us how to live right now. It is full of exhilarating stories about our mythological ancestors and how they overcame tremendous odds to succeed as God’s special people. We can learn from the examples of the great faith they had in God to get them through the difficult times.

One of the lessons from the Bible is that before us at every moment there are choices, and if we choose wisely we will live well. The choices we make are not always as clear as good over evil. More often they are between good and better. It is not always easy to tell which is which. The answer only becomes clear when we use our brains.

May we all use the coming year to ask good questions of anyone who presents a truth to us. May God grant us the wisdom to not take anything at face value, no matter how good it seems. May we use our minds to discover the facts that will lead us into a sweet, healthy, and prosperous 5769.

No comments: