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.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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