Putting the fun in fundamentalism

Ahead of packing up his bags in the wake of the Barack Obama victory, Jonn Elledge treats himself to a unique slice of Americana: Kentucky's creationist history museum.

Imagine that Britain's favourite religious fundamentalist, Stephen Green, had, due to some catastrophic administrative error, become chief curator of the Natural History Museum.

Hold that in your mind, and you've got a pretty good mental image of the Creation Museum in Kentucky.

The museum's raison d'etre is to reconcile everything we know about prehistory - cave men, dinosaurs, fossil fuels et al - with the idea that God created the heavens and the Earth and the world is 6,000 years old.

To that end, the first thing you see on entering the museum is a tableau of animatronic cave kids playing happily with some dinosaurs.

The whole thing does a brilliant job of making fundamentalist religious dogma fun. No hellfire and brimstone here. Instead it's all tactile exhibits, bright and chatty films ("Ever wonder where canyons came from...?") and, outside, a petting zoo. I was happy to skip this part, if only because there's something distinctly sinister about two grown men wandering around a zoo on their own, but my photographer insisted, and promptly got spat on by a camel.

The museum proper begins with a series of nature exhibits, intended to highlight the wonder of god's creation. These follow a consistent pattern of fact, ambiguity, God. To whit: The world features an amazing variety of lifeforms; it's hard to understand how these all evolved in a just few billion years; ergo, God did it.

Then there's a room comparing Biblical and scientific thinking, another (warm, comforting) introducing you to scripture, and a third (dark, alienating) looking at the modern world. This is done up like an inner city crack alley, with the walls papered with secular newspaper headlines, and a scary booming voice that pipes up occasionally to give you some statistics on divorce or abortion or other modern evils.

The best bits of the exhibit, though, are left until last. For one thing, they've got a film of what the world being created in six days might actually have looked like.

Then come a succession of animatronic recreations of the book of Genesis, only with added dinosaurs. Here are Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, accompanied by lion, lamb, penguin and dinosaur. The dinosaur has huge teeth but, since the Bible says there was no flesh eating in Eden, it's a vegetarian. You can tell, because it's nibbling a pineapple.

Then comes Cain and Abel. This isn't very interesting, but does come with a helpful explanation for why incest was okay back then.

Then there's Noah, who bears a suspicious resemblance to Michael Palin. This section of the museum combines recreations of the story of the Flood with practical tips on how to build your own ark. (Use hard wood for nails, as they will expand when wet; place your door on the second floor, and use a wedge shape to make it watertight; if that fails, ask God for help. It really does say that.)

There's also a cutaway of the Ark, with dinosaurs, and a film of the flood overwhelming the world while people, quite understandably, look a bit scared. An extended version of this is available from the giftshop.

At the museum's end they ask you to sit through a 20 minute film about Jesus Christ, and tell you not to leave at the end. Afterwards, a man comes forward, hopes you learnt something and asks you to accept Christ into your life. All the way through this I felt he was staring right at me, and said as much. "But I suppose everyone feels like that," I added. "No, he really was staring right at you," replied my photographer.

To give it its dues, the Creation Museum does a great job of making scripture fun, and beats hands down any religious studies lesson I was ever put through. The right wing political dogma is kept to a minimum (there's a single line about marriage involving a man and a woman, and a few bits about abortion, but it's less than you get in the average Republican party pamphlet these days). Along the way, it offers explanations for how cavemen fit into the Bible (you try building a civilisation when suddenly you can't understand each other), and why the Earth looks like it does (the Flood did it).

But it also makes clear that Asking Questions Is Wrong, and shamelessly manipulates those with low self esteem (one voiceover asks, "If evolution means only the strongest and prettiest survive, what hope is there for me?").

Worst of all, it never does explain what happened to those bloody dinosaurs.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

Getty.
Show Hide image

Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.