January 2018Spectacle

BIBLE MUSEUM: SCHOLARSHIP OR WEDGE FOR RELIGIOUS RIGHT?

This past November, the already crowded Washington museum scene added another member when the Museum of the Bible (MOTB) debuted a few blocks south of the Capitol. The massive, 430,000-square-foot museum took over a building on 4th St. S.W. originally constructed as a warehouse and most recently occupied by the Design Center. According to the museum’s website, its “purpose is to invite all people to engage with the Bible,” and its mission is nonsectarian scholarship and education, not proselytizing.

Is it really possible for a museum dedicated to the scripture of a specific religion to be a pure purveyor of scholarship rather than a promoter of that religion’s point of view? Perhaps, but when the museum’s collection was being assembled there was plenty of reason to doubt its scholarly objectivity. The museum’s founder and board chairman, after all, is Steve Green, an outspoken fundamentalist Baptist and CEO of Hobby Lobby. Green’s business, a nationwide chain of stores frequented by craft enthusiasts, broke into the national headlines when it challenged the Obama administration over a federal requirement that businesses cover contraception in their health insurance plans. Green and Hobby Lobby argued that providing the coverage would violate the company’s religious principles. In 2014 the Supreme Court sided with Hobby Lobby, a decision that gave greater weight to the religious views of an inanimate corporation than to the rights of employees to comprehensive health care.

The fundamentalist zeal that Green brought to litigation over health care was a direct reflection of how he runs his business. As reported by Sarah Posner in The American Prospect, Hobby Lobby advertises its Christian values by closing on Sundays and paying its workers more than the minimum wage. Staff meetings begin with a reading from the Bible and a prayer. “Every Christmas, Easter, and Fourth of July, the company takes out newspaper advertisements proclaiming belief in Jesus Christ as lord and savior, America’s founding as a Christian nation, and evangelizing non-believers,” according to Posner.

However, behind the scenes, Hobby Lobby’s treatment of its workers is often anything but stereotypically Christian. Employees have described “an atmosphere of sexual harassment, with employees photographing women’s backsides with their cell phones and laughing about it,” the Prospect reported. And although the stores are closed to customers on Sundays, employees are frequently required to work on the Sabbath, as well as put in late hours on weekdays, in order prepare for the next day’s business.

Green’s enormous wealth gained from the success of Hobby Lobby enabled him to pursue a passion stemming from his Christian faith: collecting historic Biblical artifacts. In their book Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby, Candida R. Moss and Joel S. Baden report that Green has bought over more than 40,000 artifacts, ranging from ancient cuneiform tablets to scrolls and scroll fragments to historic Bibles. Green’s private collection constitutes the heart of the MOTB’s artifacts.

The museum’s original planned location was Dallas, in a state friendlier to Green’s brand of conservative Christianity than the nation’s capital would be. At that time, the museum’s mission statement said the new institution would “bring to life the living word of God” and “inspire confidence in the absolute authority” of the Bible, the Washington Post Magazine’s Michelle Boorstein reported. Between 2010, when that mission statement was drafted, and the runup to the Washington opening, the museum’s stated purpose evolved to one stressing scholarship.

What changed? According to the Post article,

“I personally have learned a lot about the Bible and had this clarification,” said Green . . . “It’s not as important what I think when it comes to the Bible.”

But is there more to the story? Why this museum, and why here? To help find the answer, I paid the museum a visit.

Timed passes to the museum are required, but I had no trouble getting one for a weekday morning two days later. I arrived a few minutes before the opening time and was allowed inside right away. I was immediately impressed by the high-tech security scanner: You put your bag in a little compartment and pick it up on the other side when a light turns green. Next you enter a soaring atrium with the ceiling high above you consisting of an enormous, constantly changing video display: An illuminated manuscript becomes a cathedral ceiling, then a stained-glass window, then lush vegetation (the Garden of Eden?). Admission is free, but a sign in the lobby requests a “suggested donation” of $15 for adults and $10 for children. But nobody hectors you for money.

One of the first things that caught my eye was something called the Children’s Gallery, and I decided to take a look. The “gallery” features a number of interactive games, including one in which you take the part of David and use a sling to hit a target on Goliath’s head (I missed); you also can try to help Daniel elude lions in the den, or help Jesus feed loaves and fishes to the masses by tossing a ball in a basket.

 

I then proceeded to the elevator and up to the fourth floor, the History of the Bible section. That floor contains information and artifacts ranging from pre-Biblical cuneiform tablets (the writing medium of ancient Mesopotamia) to nearly the present day, with the older displays attempting to make the point that civilizations even older than that of the Jews had similar social and theological concerns. Among the more arresting artifacts on display are fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls — which are still being studied for authenticity, a display card notes. Panels about the history of the Jewish people — paralleling Biblical accounts but clearly trying to hew to established scholarship — give way to displays on early Bible scrolls and codices. After I passed a replica of Gutenberg’s printing press — representing the birth of printed books — the quantity of artifacts exploded, with historic Bibles coming fast and furious; there was even a page from a Gutenberg Bible. The historic displays are all presented as factual and scholarly, and one has to search hard for a hint of proselytizing.

The third floor, however, is another matter. Three immersive experiences await the visitor, and the first (in terms of my visit as well as chronology) is an extravaganza of light, sound, and installations rolling out the story of the Old Testament in 30 minutes, or at least the highlights. Wraparound screens and pulsating lights (the intonation of “Let there be light” is followed by a near-blinding flash) bombard the visitor with stimuli. After a film on Noah’s flood you walk through an empty room of white light, a symbol of the world wiped clean. Visitors cross the floor of a simulated Red Sea with the parted waters rising on both sides, and visit a shack during Passover where the edges of the doorway suddenly turn red with simulated lamb’s blood. There is nothing scholarly here; it is the Bible as story, and the special effects are meant to impress. The voice-over never questions the authenticity of the narrative being presented.

There are two more immersive displays, including a sprawling mockup of Nazareth in the time of Jesus, with re-enactors in Biblical dress demonstrating daily life around the year 0. The third “experience” is a wraparound film on Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection through the eyes of the disciple John, a story suitable for Sunday school but seemingly not for a supposedly scholarly institution.

On the second floor the museum returns to scholarship, with a lengthy gallery exploring the influences of the Bible. From the evidence, one would believe that the Bible influenced almost every aspect of Western culture: art, politics, philosophy, architecture; and contributed to almost every good impulse, from charity to human rights to freedom of speech. But was it specifically the Bible providing the influences or the sprawling institution known as the Church? Much Christian doctrine and church practice and tradition has only the most tangential connection to the Bible itself. The museum fails to address whether many of these things it roots in the Bible would have come to pass in the absence of the Bible, or Christianity, or any organized religion at all. Contrary to what the gallery seems to imply, nothing in scripture demanded the creation of Gothic architecture. In one display there are references to passages in the Bible that could be construed to condone slavery, but one then comes to wall displaying a panorama of heroes of emancipation who presumably drew their inspiration from scripture.

There is no question that the dominance of Christianity colors much of the past two millennia with the red of the Cross, but the museum prefers not to dwell on how much of that might have happened without the blessing of scripture. Nor does it care to dig deeply into Biblical influences that we might consider less than salutary: Besides its language excusing slavery, the Bible at various points condones homophobia, genocide, and animal sacrifice, and it is shot through with endorsements of patriarchy and religious intolerance.

Even in the face of its impressive range of artifacts and the scholarship behind them, one can detect a theme developing throughout the museum: the Bible as a good and wholesome book, a positive force that perhaps a few unscrupulous actors have tried to pervert. To its credit, the MOTB is not a twin of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, a theme park of fundamentalist dogma that asserts that the world is only 6,000 years old, evolution is a sham, and dinosaurs and humans walked the earth together. But the Museum of the Bible’s creators are clearly eager to see visitors leave with a warm and fuzzy feeling about the book at its center and about Christianity in general.

The runup to the museum’s opening was not free of controversy. Critics raised questions about the provenance of many of the artifacts — that is, where they came from as well as documentation of their authenticity. The source of art, archeological treasures, and other valuable artifacts has been a matter of concern going back at least to the mid-20th century, when Germany’s Nazi leaders looted vast quantities of artworks, many from Jewish Holocaust victims; some of these works wound up in museums or private collections after World War II without compensation to the rightful owners or their heirs. During the chaos following the Gulf War, countless antiquities disappeared from museums in Iraq and made their way out of the country. More recently, the Islamic State has funded its military and terrorist activities by looting priceless items from areas under its control and selling them on the black market.

In Bible Nation, Moss and Baden take an in-depth look at Green, his artifact collecting, and the development of the museum. They note that in 2011, a shipment of hundreds of ancient tablets inscribed with cuneiform that was being imported by Green’s family was seized by customs agents. This past July, the Justice Department required Hobby Lobby to relinquish the artifacts and pay a $3 million fine. The provenance of other artifacts in his collection has also been challenged.

The museum’s scholarly bona fides have been called into question as a result of its board being composed entirely of Protestants, a majority of them evangelicals, with Green as chair. “One has to wonder why a nonsectarian museum has no Jews or Catholics in any of its leadership positions,” Moss and Baden write. The museum has a number of prominent Biblical scholars on its staff, but the evangelical leadership calls the shots.

It’s not hard to see the benefits to Green and other evangelicals both of locating the museum in Washington and playing down sectarianism in favor of scholarship. A Christian-themed museum a short stroll from the halls of Congress is in a prime position to influence national policy. Proximity to the corps of conservative Christians in Congress could enable the museum to become something of a think tank for them, while giving Green and his friends the full-time access to influential policymakers he needs to promote his agenda — which goes beyond opposition to abortion and contraception. For example, as detailed by Moss and Baden, Green has aggressively promoted Bible study in public schools, notwithstanding the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state, and has argued that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. Green’s brand of fundamentalism also carries a strain of libertarianism, as Hobby Lobby’s court case appeared to have been as much motivated by a desire to free businesses — especially his own — from government regulation as by a concern for religious liberty.

Positioning the museum as scholarly rather than devotional gives Green more credibility in the nation’s capital, a city far from the Bible Belt both in terms of geography and attitude. Doors will open for the museum’s credentialed scholars that would remain closed for fundamentalist preachers.

Green himself has spoken of the connection between the museum and Washington politics. “I think our legislators ought to know the foundation of our government,” he is quoted by Moss and Baden. “Our founding fathers unabashedly looked to the Bible in founding this nation, so why wouldn’t it be right for our legislators to know the history of our government?”

Locating the museum in Washington rather than fundamentalist-friendly Texas necessitated that the sectarianism be toned down, if not abandoned entirely, but the move could provide a bigger payoff for Green and his allies: giving Christian fundamentalism a larger voice in the politics of the nation’s capital.

So: Is the Museum of the Bible a repository of artifacts and scholarship, a Biblical theme park, or a beachhead for conservative Christians in the city where abortion and gay marriage were made legal? From the looks of it, it is a bit of all of these. The museum makes for a fascinating day out, but go with your eyes open and your skepticism turned on.

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