What role does the Bible play in Americans’ lives? A century ago the answer to that question would have been straightforward: It was the most important book in the home, perhaps read daily, and the place where major events in a family’s history (births, deaths, marriages) were recorded. It was then—and is now—the most-bought and most-read book in the world.
And yet biblical literacy is in decline in America. Compared with previous generations, a smaller proportion of today’s population—even among regular churchgoers—reads the Bible regularly; in a survey published in 2014 by the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University, only about half of the respondents said they had read scripture in the previous year. The portion of American adults who told pollsters that they believe the Bible is the literal word of God has fallen from nearly 40 percent four decades ago to 24 percent this year; for the first time since Gallup began tracking this subject, more Americans now consider the Bible “a book of fables, legends, history and moral precepts recorded by man” than believe it is the literal word of God. The percentage of self-identified Christians has fallen as well. There are fewer and fewer places in the public square where the Bible’s history and importance to American cultural and political life are mentioned.
Thus the Museum of the Bible, opening on November 17 not far from the National Mall in Washington, D.C., appears at a critical time. How do you engage the citizens of an increasingly secular country, whose founding was nevertheless indelibly marked by principles found in this book, with its history? How do you create a space that acknowledges the cultural primacy of the Bible while also respecting the heterodox religious past and present of the United States? How can an institution talk about one of the world’s most controversial texts without itself becoming a flashpoint for controversy?
The short answer: It can’t.
There is little controversial about the museum space itself. The Museum of the Bible is housed in a former refrigeration warehouse approximately three blocks from the U.S. Capitol. In addition to its traditional exhibit areas, it includes two restaurants (one named, inevitably, Manna), a Broadway-style theater, a rooftop garden featuring plants mentioned in the Bible, and event spaces. There’s a gift shop and a children’s area called “Courageous Pages” that emphasizes some of the more action-packed biblical stories, such as those of Samson and Esther. There are interactive kiosks and displays to entice even visitors with the most Internet-addled attention spans. The museum cost upwards of $500 million to build, but admission is free (although donations are welcome).
The museum’s “Gutenberg Gates.” (Credit: Museum of the Bible)
During a behind-the-scenes tour of the museum in October, as workers were finishing building out the exhibit spaces, it was clear that this would be an impressive—and impressively high-tech—place. The ceiling of the museum’s main lobby features a 140-foot-long LED screen that workers on scissor-lifts were testing when I was there; images of flowers and stained-glass windows flashed periodically on the screens, turning the ceiling into a hypnotic Michelangelo-meets-Times Square montage. The enormous bronze doors that flank the entrance to the museum—dubbed the “Gutenberg Gates” because they bear a huge replica of the first page of Genesis as shown in the Gutenberg Bible, but reversed as the text would have appeared laid out on Gutenberg’s press—have their own Twitter feed.
Each of the museum’s three main levels has its own focus: the history of the Bible, its “narratives,” and its “impact.” I spent most of my time on the second floor, which examines the impact of the Bible and offers exhibits on a range of themes, including compassion, science, human rights, health, family, justice, art, music, and literature. Images of former professional football player Tim Tebow, with his famous eye-black patches of Bible verses, compete with statues of Galileo and George Washington Carver. A pile of burned Bibles offers a stark reminder of efforts to destroy and censor the book. Another room explores “the Bible Now” and features a 360-degree panoramic curved screen that shows the city of Jerusalem along with “real-time” content about the Bible from around the world, gleaned from social media and the Internet. In the center of the room is a “Joshua Machine” in which visitors can record their thoughts on the Bible’s influence on their own lives (one hopes an editor with quick reflexes will be on-site to prevent the appearance on the panoramic screen of any thoughts bordering on TMI).
The Bible is the ‘most-burned book of all time,’ according to the president of the new museum. Among the exhibits is this pile of burned Bibles. (Credit: Bill Clark, CQ Roll Call / Getty)
Throughout the tour, our guide reminded us that the purpose of the museum was to encourage everyone, not just Christians, to engage with the Bible, and it’s clear that the museum’s leadership is intent on making it rigorously nonsectarian. The museum’s website reinforces this, noting that the mission of the museum is to “invite all people to engage with the history, narrative, and impact of the Bible.” Great pains have been taken to avoid controversy. For example, the curriculum section of the museum’s website offers guidance for students who are homeschooled, in private school, or pursuing “independent study”—but there is no mention of public schools (message received, ACLU!). Indeed, so dogged are the museum’s creators in their determination not to offend anyone’s sensibilities that they will no doubt receive some criticism from devout Christians, who might be forgiven for wondering if the effort to make the museum broadly appealing has rendered it spiritually banal.
Consider the museum’s meticulous re-creation of a Nazareth village, with beautiful hand-painted frescoes (I watched some of the painters at work the day I was there) and reproductions of the tools and foods of biblical times (including some hyper-realistic fake figs). Once the museum opens, actors will stroll around the village, answering visitors’ questions about life in biblical times. One question a visitor might ask is when she will get to see Jesus; when I asked just that, I was told that there would be no Jesus in the museum. Too controversial.
Just as there are multiple versions and interpretations of the Bible, so, too, have critics offered competing interpretations of the motivations of the supporters of the Museum of the Bible. Two of the most vocal critics of the museum and its patrons are Candida R. Moss and Joel S. Baden, whose new book, Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby, offers a deep dive into the history and activities of the museum’s major donor, the Green family.
The authors claim their book is “about the power and influence of one billionaire Christian family and the cultural commitments that have made them so powerful, but it should not be understood as an effort to discredit their motivations.” Yet despite this caveat, Moss and Baden spend the next several hundred pages attempting to do just that. The book would have been far more persuasive had it been written as a straightforward exposé; as it stands, it pitches itself as a “journey of discovery” into the world of evangelical Christian philanthropy while flirting with the tone of (but never really delivering the damning indictment of) the muckraker.
For those unfamiliar with the Green family, David Green in the early 1970s founded Hobby Lobby, an arts-and-crafts company that now has hundreds of retail stores around the country. The business has been successful enough to earn him a spot among the 80 richest Americans on the Forbes ranking; his net worth is estimated at $6 billion. Like many wealthy Americans, Green and his family have generously given back to their community and to causes that align with their values, including missionary endeavors and other evangelical outreach efforts, most of which they pursued out of the public eye.
A museum display about the Dead Sea Scrolls. (Credit: Saul Loeb, AFP/Getty)
In 2014, however, the Greens became polarizing public figures because of their involvement in one of the big Obamacare cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. Burwell v. Hobby Lobby centered on whether privately owned companies like Hobby Lobby must follow certain kinds of regulations their owners find religiously objectionable—in this case, the requirement under the Affordable Care Act to provide employees with access to the “morning-after pill” and particular contraceptive devices, both of which are sometimes considered abortifacients. Moss and Baden argue that after winning the suit, the Greens became “iconic patriotic Christians.”
As such, evidently, their efforts to promote their beliefs became suspect—at least to academics such as Moss and Baden. Members of the Green family repeatedly told Moss and Baden that they have no intention of promoting a particular understanding of the Bible, but the authors assert that “this is in fact what they are doing,” even if “they may not be entirely aware” of it. Moss and Baden further condescend to the Greens by stating that they are “out of their depth, poorly informed, and a little naïve” on matters related to the Museum of the Bible. The authors make sure to mention, gratuitously, that “David Green and his sons Mart and Steve have only a year of college among them” and argue that “the interventions in higher education of business-savvy self-made Christians without even college degrees creates an unstable hierarchy of values. For academics, qualifications and expertise are key.” Anyone who has followed campus culture in recent years could be forgiven for wondering just which “values” the authors think the Greens could possibly endanger—and as for qualifications, the Greens have assembled for their museum a roster of impressively credentialed administrators, curators, and advisers.
One subject Moss and Baden raise does deserve scholarly attention: the murky provenance of some of the artifacts destined for display at the Museum of the Bible. Disputes over such matters are now rife in the antiquities world. The pilfered heritage of many former civilizations still claim pride of place in some of the world’s most prestigious museums: The Elgin Marbles, now called the Parthenon Sculptures, are still prominently displayed in the British Museum; the Louvre owns many Egyptian frescoes of dubious origin; Nefertiti’s bust resides in Germany, not Egypt; and so on.
But those objects were carried off in a very different era. Today, museums are expected to be scrupulous, above-board, and politically sensitive when collecting artifacts. The Green family has paid a price for what was either sloppiness or intentional misconduct in acquiring the collection for the Museum of the Bible: In July, federal prosecutors announced that Hobby Lobby would pay a $3 million fine and return thousands of Iraqi artifacts that had been obtained under questionable circumstances.
Still, the tone of Moss and Baden’s book suggests that it’s less the provenance of artifacts than the Green family’s beliefs that ought to be concerning.
Founder and chairman Steve Green on site during museum construction in 2015. (Credit: Mandel Ngan, AFP/Getty)
Moss and Baden apply a form of strict scrutiny to the Greens’ motives and practices; they seem to see a hidden agenda in everything the Greens do. When the Greens alter the initial wording of the mission of the Museum of the Bible to move it in a more ecumenical direction, Moss and Baden suggest they are trying to cover up their real goal of promoting their particular brand of evangelical Christianity. When the Greens rely on experts to guide them in acquiring artifacts for the museum, Moss and Baden fault them for being unscholarly and naïve. But it is Moss and Baden who seem naïve about the dynamics of modern philanthropy. Spend any time with the heirs of great family fortunes and you quickly learn that much of their time is spent fending off hordes of sketchy supplicants. Separating the wheat from the chaff is often difficult; it’s not a surprise that families would tend to trust people who share their values and worldviews. Sometimes that trust can be misplaced, and perhaps the Greens have occasionally received bad advice, but that hardly, as Moss and Baden imply, reveals a conspiracy to indoctrinate Americans in evangelical Christianity.
To its credit, Moss and Baden’s book does show many pitfalls that can endanger even the most well-intentioned philanthropists in their efforts to craft a meaningful legacy. And from the perspective of the academics engaged in internecine battles over biblical scholarship, papyrological integrity, and artifactual provenance, the Green family and its Museum of the Bible might well appear a big, bumbling—or even dangerous—new institution.
Ultimately, however, what Moss and Baden and other critics of the Green family can’t seem to grasp is why anyone would want to spend that much money to encourage people to understand the Bible. It can’t be that simple, they reason; there must be an ulterior motive, like undermining the separation of church and state or suppressing minority faiths or proselytizing to the unwitting masses or seeking unfair tax breaks.
In fact, it is that simple. And at a time of declining biblical literacy, it’s tremendously important.
Any museum that takes the Bible as its focus will generate controversy, just as the text itself always has. Atheists will scoff at the museum’s mission; fundamentalists will take issue with its ecumenical approach to scripture. When telling the story of the Bible, it’s impossible to please everyone. But what seems chiefly to bother academic critics is that the Greens unabashedly believe that telling the story of the Bible is important and have largely bypassed the squabbles and petty fiefdoms of academics and gone straight to the public to do so.
Whatever your faith tradition or lack thereof, and whatever your political leanings—or your feelings about the Green family, should you have any—don’t let them prevent you from visiting the Museum of the Bible. It is most certainly flawed, as is unavoidable in any attempt to synthesize a complicated subject and display it in a museum. But it is also an appreciation of one of the cornerstones of our civilization, at a time when such an appreciation is sorely needed.
Christine Rosen is a senior editor at the New Atlantis and the author of My Fundamentalist Education: A Memoir of a Divine Girlhood.
This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard