A blog by Paul Wallace

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    I have discovered that most people have no one to talk to, no one, that is, who really wants to listen. When it does at last dawn on a man that you really want to hear about his business, the look that comes over his face is something to see.

    -- Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

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    Ark Encounter and the death of wonder

    ark

    The ark seems to float on a sea of creationists in this image from Ark Encounter’s ribbon cutting ceremony. Jim Lo Scalzo

    I hoped it wouldn’t happen.

    I even secretly thought it wouldn’t happen. But I underestimated the tenacity of Ken Ham’s posse and the generosity and sheer numbers of garden-variety creationists.

    Tomorrow, after a dozen years; multiple court battles; the Great Recession; and outcries from educators, lawmakers, chamber-of-commerce types, scientists, Christians, and Kentucky taxpayers, the $100-million Ark Encounter will open its doors to the public.

    It is, according to the website, a “one-of-a-kind historically themed attraction” centered on a full-scale replica of Noah’s big boat. There are animatronic dinosaurs on board, zip lines, a zoo (no live dinos, sorry), and other fun activities for the family. But the real point is serious: the promotion of biblical literalism.

    Those who built the Ark Park believe the cosmos and everything in it is about 6,000 years old, that Adam and Eve actually walked the earth as the first people that many years ago, that evolution and pretty much all mainstream science is a lie, that there was a global flood that produced all fossils and formed the Grand Canyon, that dinosaurs were on board an actual 510-foot-long boat made entirely of wood, etc.

    Passing these beliefs down to the next generation is what the Ark Park is really about.

    It is also about answers. After all, those who take the Noah story as a historical-factual account will have lots of questions that would never occur to someone (like me) who does not read Genesis this way. Therefore questions like How did Noah fit all the animals on board? and How did Noah feed and care for all the animals? and How did Noah build the ark? are answered by exhibits inside the ark. The basic idea is that, when people see this thing and get the answers, they’ll be convinced of the literal nature of the story found in Genesis 6-9 and thus (I suppose) of the rest of the Bible.

    Proof by spectacle, I guess you could call it.

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    It’s for the kids: dinos on the ark. John Minchillo / AP

    The folly is considerable. What most depresses me tonight is this: Neither the theology nor the science of the Ark Park is even partially sufficient to the mystery before which we all stand. The park itself is manufactured out of anti-wonder. It gives dead-end answers to questions that really matter, it actively discourages creativity, is fearful of complexity and uncertainty, and runs fast in every anti-intellectual direction imaginable.

    The God of the Ark Park is a lunatic con artist, having very recently created a cosmos delicately rigged to appear 13.8 billion years old (why?). The Bible of the Ark Park is as dull and two-dimensional as the paper it’s printed on. The science of the Ark Park is not science at all; it is a lie wrapped in science-y language written and spoken to deceive the unknowing.

    As a father, I am saddened tonight to think of all those kids who will never learn about the wonders of real science and real theology and real biblical studies. These are entire worlds of thought and creativity and imagination that will be forever closed to the majority of the children whose parents take them to this travesty.

    Here’s the one single thing Ham and his posse got completely right: When one is trying to get the attention of 10-year-olds, it is very hard to compete against electronic dinosaurs on a 500-foot-long boat built by God.

    God and the blackbird

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    John James Audubon, American Crow, Plate 156 of Birds of America

    About an hour before Dad died I glanced out of his bedroom window and saw a crow. It was perched in a familiar poplar right at eye level and only a few yards away. I stopped to look at it. After a few seconds it spread its long black wings and rowed away in silence.

    I didn’t need a crow to tell me what was going to happen. Dad was in the sunroom in his hospice bed. The family had gathered and were prepared. So the avian foreshadow was gratuitous. Still, the literary quality of the moment was not lost on me.

    It might have been. Before the poetry had time to fully register, my rational mind informed me this crow could not be special. I grew up in the shade of that poplar and had seen many crows in and around it over nearly five decades of life. It was one crow sighting of dozens, maybe hundreds, in that very place.

    But reason had no real chance that evening. The world was growing still, the sun was setting, and things seemed faintly lit from within. Everything had taken on an illumined and — dare I say it? — holy quality, including the crow.

    The low-angled light reflected off its highly-organized rows of wing feathers. The long black beak was held slightly open, as if the bird were about to speak. The eyes were intelligent and hard. Before it set itself in motion the creature looked as if had been machined out of impossibly fine purple-black metal.

    An anonymous sixth-century Syrian monk we know as Dionysius once described God as a “brilliant darkness.” This is an apt description of that crow, and it makes me wonder.

    Ever since that day I have worn an arm band that says “Imagine Moving Forward.” I am trying to do that, but after almost eight weeks without Dad my analytical mind is back to its annoying habit of reducing my more poetic — and hopeful — thoughts to nearly nothing.

    So I find myself wondering: Is it possible to move forward believing that God, who we claim called light from the void, really does shine in dark things? That doing such is precisely the divine signature? More than that: that on that day God took the form of the darkest of birds, a living shadow, just to pay me a visit and remind me that such a thing is possible?

    It seems it would be good to believe that, but I can’t picture myself believing it for the rest of my life, however long that might be. That’s altogether too much moving forward to imagine. I don’t even think I can believe it for 24 hours. But maybe I can imagine living the next 24 hours as if I believe it. Yes, that I can do.

    That I can do.

    There is a balm in the back yard

    greenanole

    The newest and greenest member of my personal cosmos. These guys like sunning themselves atop our wooden fence

    It’s been five weeks since Dad died. In that time I have found it difficult — impossible, really — to do thinking work, creative work, which is the work I love. I try to write and can’t. I find it difficult to manage my time effectively. I try to create engaging projects for my astronomy students but my mind seems to be taking a long nap and won’t be bothered.

    Meanwhile social media have become increasingly intolerable. The political climate has a lot to do with that as does the mass murder in Orlando over the weekend. The associated weeping and gnashing of teeth on Facebook and elsewhere is exhausting, honestly, and Dad’s passing has made it seem more inappropriate than ever to spend time worrying about things I can’t change.

    Not that I begrudge my friends their thoughts and feelings. My heart is broken also and I too have opinions. I have ideas about what should be done about gun violence in our country, and I know exactly for whom I’ll vote in November, and why. I have opinions on Islam and the dignity and integrity of LGBTQ folk too.

    But life is brief and the days are dark, and talking about this stuff online never works out for me. It just leaves me wired and unhappy and distracted.

    And, like I said, I can’t really think too well these days anyway, so why bother?

    Into this bleakness two things have stepped in to save me: (1) spending time with friends and family, and (2) simple, mindless offline tasks: sorting laundry, doing dishes, carpooling the kids, working in the yard.

    Especially the latter. We have wonderful yards, front and back, and when I work out there I’m never alone. The back yard is an especial wonder. It is a smallish fenced-in sanctuary full of life, our happiest discovery since we moved in last summer. In it I have counted 19 species of bird, including one Cooper’s hawk. We have moles and lizards (like the green anole above) and rabbits and bats and an assortment of other creatures sharing the modest space. It’s a nonstop nature show. The more I look the more I see.

    It is a surprisingly effective balm. These animals bring me peace and make me happy.

    In this calm revelry I must be much like Dad of course, whose own back yard was (and is) a living city of trees and bird feeders and sunlight. I’m sure he spent many hours absorbed in the comings and goings of catbirds and lizards. Maybe I’m becoming more like him.

    I won’t fight it. That kind of fight always turns ugly. Anyway, it’s totally okay with me if I turn out that way.

    A beautiful life

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    Kristen, our youngest, under the CSX bridge at Ira Melton Park, a very short walk from our house. My son Henry took the picture last month

    Dad, my counselor and my rock, died Wednesday after fighting various cancers for several years. In the end it was acute myeloid leukemia that took him.

    Since that day, between bouts of tears and laughter, I’ve mostly been overwhelmed by the beauty of this world.

    A few days ago I was working with my teenage daughter on her math homework and I noticed her hands. Miraculous creations, hands. I saw that Julia’s are a near-perfect blend of mine and my wife’s. Turn them one way, they’re mine, turn them another, they’re Elizabeth’s. But of course they’re neither mine nor Elizabeth’s.

    Yesterday my teenage son played at a piano recital. His Bach was nuanced and perfectly organized, his Debussy fluid and pure. It was an overwhelming six minutes, and I couldn’t help but cry, quite a lot actually.

    Earlier today I was grading exams in a downtown coffee shop. I looked across the street and watched a man stringing lights above a restaurant’s outdoor patio. He was up on a ladder arranging the bulbs with great care. It was one of the most wondrous things I’ve ever seen.

    Over the last week I’ve stopped — involuntarily, it seems to me — and looked at leaves and the moon too many times to count. I’ve been left speechless by the sight of my seven-year-old picking mulberries and dropping them in her toy watering can. I’ve heard Elizabeth laugh and it sounded like water. I’ve observed the rabbits and squirrels and moles and chipmunks and birds in our backyard with an admiration bordering on worship.

    Grief has a way of hollowing us out, is what I think. It clears out the garbage and allows us to be filled by the brilliance surrounding us: life, the world.

    I think I understand Job a little better now than I did before Dad died. Loss empties us of conceits and trivia and then the whole world changes. It seems automatic. You suddenly see through to the miraculous essences of familiar things and they are made new. For Job it was the stars and the ostrich and Leviathan; for me it’s the moon and thrashers and Bach.

    The wonder of life: Dad’s final gift to me, fitting from one who loved the world so well. May I never forget it or lose it or trade it for anything finite.

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