By now you have either seen or heard about the Answers in Genesis billboard campaign targeting atheists. In very prominent billboards in major cities including Times Square in New York City, the message is proclaimed to their atheist friends, Thank God Your Wrong. A considerable amount of digital ink has been spilt on internet discussion boards and blogs. The vast majority of that talk has centered on the effectiveness and appropriateness of the ad campaign. While most of the publicity has not been favorable toward Answers in Genesis including a number of Christian commentators, Ken Ham seems to subscribe to the adage that any publicity is good publicity.
On October 10th Ken Ham posted his own view of the campaign on his Facebook page which I think tells us a lot about his thinking. Here is a little bit of what he had to say:
…This billboard campaign has really seen the atheist community talking about the boards. And that’s what we wanted.
As a result, I had the largest number of “likes” ever on my Facebook posts—and the largest number of “shares of posts” ever.
So what is the goal of the campaign? – To get the atheist community talking. That they are talking, I have no doubt. But have many atheist been spurred to discuss the existence of God in some meaningful way even if they followed the link to Ham’s personal video message to them? I doubt it. Ham himself recognizes that they may be punching back at God for now but he hopes that his apologetics materials will slowly eat at their core convictions. Ken Ham has a desire to see atheist know the true and living God, which is good, but the cynic in me can’t help but observe that what Ham seems to be most excited about is the increased traffic to his Facebook page and the Answers in Genesis homepage. His Facebook page is certainly not a place where atheist are going to find a loving challenge to their faith. Rather, Ham’s Facebook page saw hundreds and hundreds of congratulatory comments pour in and that doesn’t even include the countless number of negative comments that are deleted from the comments section. For the most part I believe Ham is preaching to choir, rather than atheists, with this campaign. He needs to continue to fire up his base supporters whose direct contributions and purchase of merchandise and trips to the Creation Museum are what keep his large enterprise running. The need for funds is especially great right now as the campaign to fund the Ark Adventure has been falling well behind what was needed to open the park on their original timeline. A potentially multi-million dollar campaign to preach to atheist is a huge financial commitment even for an organization as large as Answers in Genesis. (In 2012 they had 7 million in giving and reported 29 million in net assets). But the comments on Facebook would suggest that they will get back these funds and more in the form of more donations and admission fees to the Creation Museum even if no atheists are reached with this campaign.
Continuing with Ham’s comments:
Our ad agency, JDA, which has won several national awards for creativity, came up with many possible phrases for us to review to place on the boards. As experts, JDA wanted to create a short message on a billboard (knowing it is virtually impossible in the space given to convey a deep message) that would draw people to our website. That was the strategy – it was not just to have the billboard be our only communication with atheists. That’s why our website is so prominent on the boards — once we have caught the attention of people with a thought-provoking comment, they will be inclined to visit our website, where they can read an article on God’s existence and watch a video by me. And guess what? Huge numbers of people are visiting our website, going to Facebook, etc. The campaign has been a success.
So, the whole package of billboard comment, articles, and a video has done what we and JDA hoped it would do: get secularists to visit our website, comment about it, and have the nation talking about God’s existence. The fact that the New York Times has written an article about the billboard campaign, and CNN published a blog on it, has shown that the campaign has not failed, contrary to the blogger’s claim
The very fact that I am writing about his billboards right Ken Ham will count as a victory for his campaign no matter what I may say about them. I don’t subscribe to the view that all publicity is good publicity. I have no doubt that there will be some atheist who will see these billboards and even if it does not have an immediate effect it will start them down a path of questioning that will lead eventually to coming to know Jesus as their Lord and savior. But that could be said of any billboard no matter how poorly worded. The total merit of the billboards cant’ be judged by a few conversion stories that I am sure that Ham will happily report on Facebook in the coming months.
Answers in Genesis/Ken Ham – becoming the face of Christian apologetics:
Even since Ken Ham left the Institute for Creation Research he has been positioning himself and his organization with a Christian apologetics focus. It built itself around publishing and promoting creation science literature but has never been very serious about doing creation science. Sure, it has some Ph.D scientists on staff but compared to the entire budget of Answers in Genesis, science is only given a token role to maintain their legitimacy as experts in science in the eyes of their primary constituency. Their primary focus is Christian apologetics beyond science/faith issues. Nothing wrong with that at all, but many of us in the reformed theological tradition do not think that Ken Ham and others on the staff at Answers in Genesis have a particularly good grasp of historical Christianity and do not find their approach to witnessing to be particularly helpful. This is my biggest problem with this advertising campaign. I am all for trying to reach atheist with the gospel.
There is a great need there and the only hope for atheist in a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. What I fear is that the message that atheist will hear from AIG is not one of the true gospel but Ken Ham’s rather poorly articulated version. Ken Ham isn’t just thinking that the billboards will direct viewers to his gospel message but he also truly believes all the other resources on his site will convince the skeptic that the Bible is scientifically accurate and thus Jesus must be real. He really believes that the evidence from the world speaks to that world being young. Since I and many other Christians find this creation science evidentialist approach to Christian apologetics to be misguided, this campaign will not be effective in bringing non-Christians to Christ but rather is more likely to perpetuate negative and unfortunate stereotypes of conservative Christians. Simply put, Answers in Genesis is not the place that I would send one to find the best defense of the gospel message. Yes, much of what they say is good with respect to the gospel message of the Bible but their message is wrapped up with a fair amount of theological misunderstanding, lack of historical awareness and at times just plain extra-scriptural nonsense especially with respect to science.
Ken Ham, with little formal Biblical training, is quickly becoming one of the most identified faces of conservative evangelical Christianity. When Joel Osteen and Ken Ham are what the general public have come to associate with representing Christianity, I fear for the future of the church. In many ways the two are polar opposites but both represent extreme views within the context of historical Christianity. I find it unfortunate that Ham and others are distracting the eyes of both the church and non-believers from, in my opinion, serious Christian apologists such as John Piper (www.desiringgod.com), R.C. Sproul (www.ligonier.org) and others, many of which have developed comprehensive apologetic resources of much greater substance. Rather than simply creating lots of talk and more website hits and Facebook likes these evangelical leaders know how to engage in thoughtful discussions with an appropriate level of love and respect for all those created in God’s image.
I generally ignore Ham’s stunts, but go for the jugular when it’s a matter of content. Don’t feed the trolls, but don’t let them get awy with stuff like what I describe at “Reviewed: Young Earth Creationist books handed out in Scottish primary school 16 Sep 2013 http://wp.me/p21T1L-7U “
More visits to the AiG website, as highlighted recently by Mr Ham, does not equate to more atheists considering or embracing Christianity. Especially when the video flagged there for them during October contained a message from Ham (delivered to a partly sniggering audience of YEC believers) which included the sentence “Go jump off a cliff now and get it over and done with”.
YEC dogma is not biblical. It is not science. It is dying among the younger generations. I recently spoke to the senior class at a large Christian school near Ham’s creation museum. Ham has donated many YEC/AIG books to the school library. I asked the seniors how many believed that the earth was about 6000 years old. Only a few raised their hands. Most believed that science is trustworthy when it comes to dating.
Ken Ham would see that as further evidence that the young people of the church are turning away from the Truth of Genesis and we need to do something about it! Won’t somebody please think of the children??
John Piper? He is the very last person I would want to recommend. He is, perhaps, not the same kind of reprehensible as Ken Ham but appalling all the same. The man makes me ill. Literally, sick to my stomach.
I agree that Ken Ham and is ilk are doing conservative Protestantism no good. They are driving people away from the religion in droves and causing the discussions to become ever more divisive and hard to broach safely. On the other hand, Catholicism has what I think is the most progressive Pope I have ever witnessed. So what is lost in Protestant churches may be in some measure gained by Catholics. Of course, the more hard-core conservative Catholics may switch, balancing it out to some extent, who knows. Either way, I expect the net effect will still be a decrease in believers.