Noah's Ark replica shows conservative Christians are embracing green building

Locator map of Petersburg, Kentucky
The Washington Post
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 5, 2011; 8:11 PM

When the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., opened on Memorial Day 2007, temperatures inside the 100,000-square-foot complex began to spike. Huge crowds of warm bodies will do that to an HVAC system, and it took months of tweaking through the museum's first hot summer to get the system working properly.

Mike Zovath, senior vice president of Answers in Genesis, the organization that built the Creation Museum, says he has learned his lesson. As a consortium that includes his group prepares to break ground this spring on a biblical theme park called Ark Encounter, which will include a replication of Noah's Ark built according to the dimensions given in the Book of Genesis, it is turning to the latest trends in "green" architecture. Scheduled to open in 2014, Ark Encounter will include environmentally sustainable technology "from Day One," Zovath said, and will be built by a firm that specializes in LEED-certified construction and design, the industry standard for environmentally efficient buildings.

That means geothermal heating, rainwater capture, active and passive solar heating and specialized window glazing. Even the 500-foot-long ark, which its owners say will be the largest timber-framed structure in America, will use sustainable heating and cooling, and lighting designed to reduce energy expenditure.

One might say that stories about green architecture have now officially jumped the ark. For a decade, at least, new office buildings, hotels, and even shopping centers have been trumpeted with news of their LEED ratings, which range from merely "certified" through silver, gold and the much-coveted platinum. Churches, synagogues and other places of worship have competed for environmental status through the LEED process. But it is a mark of success of the LEED standards, promulgated by the U.S. Green Building Council, that there is a new comfort level with them among conservative religious groups, including biblical literalists.

The Ark Encounter has been in the news recently because of its strict interpretation of the Noah story, a biblical passage that has taken on new resonance as global warming raises fears of larger and more devastating floods and droughts worldwide. Bloggers have pounced on pages from the Answers in Genesis Web site that patiently explain why dinosaurs will be included among the animals represented in its ark display: "God sent two of every (seven of some) land animal into the Ark," it says. "There were no exceptions." They also believe in unicorns.

But the appearance of the LEED standards on the organization's Web site is the bigger news, suggesting not only the extent of a trend already well documented - the embrace of environmentalism among evangelical Christians - but a fundamental shift in how religiously conservative Christians think of two basic biblical ideas: dominion and stewardship. And that change could have profound implications for the ongoing debate about global warming. Progress in battling the rise of global temperatures might depend less on consensus about environmental science and more on broad theological agreement about humanity's relation to the cosmos.

Roger Platt, senior vice president of global policy and law at the Green Building Council, says the success of the LEED standards among conservative groups has a lot of to do with the fact that they are voluntary and cost-effective. His group not only created the standards and advocates for "progressive building codes" but also lobbies for "climate change legislation, including carrots and sticks." He says there isn't a LEED system for boats, and that includes arks. But his group "is ambidextrous enough" to encourage green building, whether or not the builder believes in climate science, he says.

Zovath is a climate change skeptic. "Personally, I don't buy into it," he says. But he likes the bottom line of energy efficiency.

"There is a pretty significant return on investment," he says. But it's not just about financial return. It also has to do with how he defines stewardship, the responsibility for the Earth that Christians believe was given by God in several key verses of Genesis, especially 1:28.

"We are to be in dominion over everything that He created," Zovath says. "Not to waste it, not try to destroy it."

Over the years, and millennia, the meaning of those two words - stewardship and dominion - has changed how Christians relate to the natural world. Fundamental differences in the creation story, and the personalities of the different authors of Genesis, have created a tension between dominion understood as a hierarchical, possessive, even violent mastery of the world, and stewardship as a form of service, to God and the Earth, in God's name. Perhaps only in the past half-century has the more caring, nurturing notion of stewardship taken hold, as man's power over nature has shifted from minimal (in the days of agrarian and herding societies) to near-absolute (atom bombs, deep-water off-shore drilling, plastic grocery bags). Nature today is threatened, not threatening. And younger evangelicals are also shifting away from older patriarchal ideas.

"The Book of Common Prayer in the 1950s spoke of 'this fragile Earth, our island home,' but nobody really knew what that meant," says Sally Bingham, founder and director of Interfaith Power and Light, a group that works to make connections between ecology and faith. Now the fragility of the Earth is taken seriously not just by relatively left-leaning denominations, such as the Episcopalians (Bingham is also canon for the environment of the Episcopal Diocese of California) but by more traditional Christian groups. Today, one has to look hard, to the practitioners of inflammatory rhetoric, to find echoes of the old "dominion" thinking, such as this nugget from conservative commentator Ann Coulter in 2001: "We have dominion over the plants, the animals. . . . God said: 'Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It's yours!' "

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