A few weeks ago, a commentator identified what he believes to be the dominant mindset of our time. He calls it “ark head,” borrowing from the biblical account of Noah and the flood.
“Ark head,” argues Venkatesh Rao, happens when we give up on solving our big global problems and look instead for an “ark” in which to ride out the storms of this age of anxiety.
Rao points to the numbness with which most people see the “snowballing global problems and crises we’re hurtling towards,” whether the prospect of a nuclear World War III, another global pandemic, or a collapsing economy. He speculates that even news of an alien invasion would be greeted with a What can you do about it? sort of bored acceptance. This, he writes, is a coping mechanism for people in a new dark age.
The point of an ark, after all, is to “survive a cataclysmic flood while preserving as much of everything you care about as possible,” Rao writes.
For some in the tech sector, the ark could be cryptocurrency, artificial intelligence, or the metaverse. Others seem to be scaling down to their narrow subcultures of work or interest or personal life.
“If you can retreat within it, and either tune out or delusionally recode the rest of reality, it works as an ark,” Rao says.
If “flood geology” is the view advocated by some creationist groups to explain phenomena such as the Grand Canyon, I suppose one could call Rao’s thesis a kind of “flood psychology.”
His metaphor caught my attention because I’m currently teaching through Genesis 1–11 (which includes the Noah narrative) in a Sunday seminar at my church. I stopped to wonder if his metaphor might actually get at something true about this moment and, if so, what the church can learn from it.
Rao is no doubt right that we live in an extraordinarily anxious age. He’s also right that we live in a time when cynicism often manifests itself as self-protective numbness. At least some of this is due to the failure of big utopian problem-solving endeavors that haven’t worked. For many issues—often some of the worst ones—the answers are indeed small-scale and local, in the “little platoons” of church, family, and community.
Even so, I think Rao has missed the point of the Noah’s Ark story, and maybe we Christians have too.
The ark was not a coping mechanism. Noah didn’t seek it out. As a matter of fact, the Book of Hebrews describes the construction of this boat as an act of faith by one who was “warned by God concerning events as yet unseen” (Heb. 11:7, ESV throughout). When Jesus compared the last days with the “days of Noah,” he was speaking not of how shocking and disruptive these days were but how calm and boring and everyday they were.
The people of that age were not anxious, but instead “were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away” (Matt. 24:37–39).
The ark wasn’t the coping mechanism; everyday life was.
The apostle Peter wrote to a dispersed group of Christians in the first century who had been waiting for the return of Christ. Like Jesus, Peter warned that the biggest obstacle to being ready is the sense of everydayness.
Scoffers will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation” (2 Pet. 3:4).
This mundane stability can lead one to forget the suddenness of the flood that once submerged the land. The rainbow sign in the skies points to a covenant in which God pledged to never again destroy the earth by flood.
To those who believed themselves to be abandoned by God—since the end had not yet come, the earth had not been purged with fire, and the new heavens and new earth were not yet here—Peter wrote that what they were seeing was not God’s inattention but his patience, “not wishing that any should perish but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9).
In some ways, what’s needed from the church is a version of Rao’s ark mentality. We are to remember that just as through the ark “eight persons, were brought safely through water,” we are baptized into Christ. We have, in him, already passed through the greatest crisis of them all—the judgment of God.
That’s why the Christian life starts with something as odd as passing under water. The apostle Paul taught us that our ancestors, the people of Israel, were “baptized” by passing unscathed through the same waters that overwhelmed the Egyptian armies (1 Cor. 10:1–2). They passed through the waters of the Jordan into the Land of Promise. And at the beginning of his own ministry, Jesus went to that same Jordan River to be baptized. That’s our story.
To some degree, what the church does is point to the ark and warn, as the old song puts it, “No more water, the fire next time.” And yet, maybe too, we should see ourselves not just on the front end of the flood but on the back end of it too.
When the waters subsided, the Bible says, Noah sent out some birds as scouts. The raven never returned. This was an ominous sign, since ravens are scavengers who feed off of what’s dead. The wreckage was still all around.
Then, though, he sent out a dove. At first the dove returned because she “found no place to set her foot” (Gen. 8:9). Also bad news. On the second flight, the dove returned with a freshly plucked olive leaf. It meant hope and a sign of life. Something was out there on the other side. Even better was when the dove didn’t return at all. There was enough of a future out there that the bird could rest outside of the ark. It had found a home.
When Jesus underwent baptism, his cousin John was scandalized. John’s baptism, after all, was for sinners and for vipers who needed to fear the wrath to come. John knew from as far back as his days in utero that Jesus did not fall into this category. And yet, Jesus identified himself with us sinners, just as he would when he underwent the baptism of fire on a Roman cross (Luke 12:49–50).
And, as he came up out of the water, the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove. Once again, a dove scouted out new creation, found life after judgment, and pointed toward home.
When Jesus went away, he told us he hadn’t abandoned us but rather sent that same Holy Spirit to remind us that “in his Father’s house there are many rooms” (John 14:1–18).
The anxiety all around us is real. Sometimes it seems the entire world is having a nervous breakdown all at once. We see it perhaps most pointedly in the uptick of adolescents facing an unprecedented spike in mental health problems. Others—many of their parents and grandparents and friends and neighbors—feel no anxiety at all but have given up hope for the future.
For a world like that, our message should not be to find distractions—trivialities to numb ourselves from what seems like a terrifying world. Nor should we just get used to the way things are, content to feed off of what is dead.
An “ark head” cannot survive in an anxiety-flooded world. The arks we build are no match for the waters we face. There’s life on the other side of the waters, though.
Russell Moore is editor in chief of Christianity Today.