Will the Mu­seum of the Bi­ble Erase the Line Be­tween Church and State?

The new, $400 mil­lion in­sti­tu­tion is just a hop, a skip and a prayer from the Capi­tol.

Forward Magazine - - Opin­ion - By Gordon Haber

En­ter­ing Mu­seum of the Bi­ble was a lit­tle like get­ting on a plane to Is­rael: It was a mess try­ing to get through se­cu­rity. There was a kind of hon­ey­combed bomb­sniff­ing de­vice, tall as a man, that a French cor­re­spon­dent said re­minded her of some­thing from “Star Trek.” A news­pa­per re­porter from Alabama wasn’t al­lowed in the me­dia en­trance un­til he ex­plained that news­pa­per re­porters were in fact mem­bers of the me­dia.

Mu­seum of the Bi­ble is lo­cated in Wash­ing­ton D.C., the Amer­i­can city wherein one hears the most about “bib­li­cal val­ues” but sees them least en­acted — if by “bib­li­cal val­ues” we mean hu­mil­ity, char­ity and gen­eros­ity of spirit. The os­ten­si­ble point of the $400 mil­lion fa­cil­ity, the brain­child of Steve Green, pres­i­dent of Hobby Lobby, is to help vis­i­tors “ex­pe­ri­ence the book that shapes his­tory,” as the web­site puts it. This is ac­tu­ally a fas­ci­nat­ing idea, but there are trou­bling ques­tions about its ex­e­cu­tion.

Ob­vi­ously the Bi­ble in ques­tion is the Chris­tian one, which is to be ex­pected. But the schol­arly con­cern is that the mu­seum has an evan­gel­i­cal re­li­gio-po­lit­i­cal agenda — which is pretty rea­son­able, since Hobby Lobby took its re­fusal to pay for cer­tain kinds of birth con­trol for its em­ploy­ees all the way to the Supreme Court, and won. Also, there were se­ri­ous prove­nance is­sues as Green amassed his col­lec­tion, lead­ing to a $3 mil­lion fine im­posed by the U.S. De­part­ment of Jus­tice.

In the lat­ter case, the mu­seum as­sures us that it’s cleaned up its act. The press ma­te­ri­als stress a “rig­or­ous” vet­ting process. At a press con­fer­ence for the mu­seum’s open­ing, Lawrence Schiff­man, a pro­fes­sor of He­brew and Ju­daic stud­ies at New York Univer­sity, told me that “the prove­nance is­sue isn’t fake news, but it’s old news.”

Schiff­man ad­mit­ted that he works for the mu­seum as a paid ad­viser on Ju­daism. When I asked if he could be more spe­cific about his job, he replied: “I walk around. I read things.” When ques­tioned about the pos­si­bil­ity of an evan­gel­i­cal agenda, he de­nied that there is one, speak­ing in­stead of the “re­spect and love” he re­ceives as a Jew­ish col­league. “This is an amaz­ing mo­ment in Jew­ish-Chris­tian re­la­tions,” he said.

The mu­seum’s own po­si­tion is that it is “non­sec­tar­ian.” Dur­ing the press brief­ing, Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Tony Zeiss said that the mu­seum had hired a sofer to in­scribe a Torah.

“We do not ad­vo­cate for one spe­cific faith tra­di­tion,” he said. “We ad­vo­cate for the Bi­ble.”

Maybe so. But the Green fam­ily and oth­ers in­volved with the mu­seum at the high­est lev­els, Zeiss in­cluded, are evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians. Green him­self has been quoted as say­ing he be­lieves that the King James Bi­ble is in­errant and that the United States was founded on “Chris­tian prin­ci­ples.” In this light, the con­cerns of re­li­gion schol­ars seem war­ranted: that Mu­seum of the Bi­ble will both re­in­force the nar­ra­tive of Amer­ica as a “Chris­tian coun­try” and un­der­mine the sep­a­ra­tion of church and state, at least in the eyes of its vis­i­tors.

I tried to view the mu­seum with an open mind, but right from the get-go it was hard to avoid a cer­tain ten­den­tious­ness even be­fore set­ting eyes on the ex­hibits. Mu­seum of the Bi­ble is two blocks from the Na­tional Mall and three blocks from the Capi­tol Build­ing, so it’s go­ing to be quite easy for vis­i­tors to con­flate it with gov­ern­men­tal in­sti­tu­tions. Green him­self, in the post­press con­fer­ence me­dia scrum, said that while the mu­seum took a “jour­nal­is­tic” view of the Bi­ble, he wouldn’t mind if leg­is­la­tors came over to see the “bib­li­cal con­nec­tions,” pre­sum­ably be­tween the text and Amer­i­can gover­nance.

What of the mu­seum it­self? Well, it looks great. Built in a for­mer ware­house, its ex­te­rior is a straight­for­ward brick build­ing topped with curv­ing glass-and-alu­minum ad­di­tions. The in­te­rior is all pale mar­ble awash in nat­u­ral light. That is prob­a­bly the place’s great­est strength, as nat­u­ral light is re­fresh­ing for the eyes dur­ing a long day of eli­sions and half-truths.

The fun starts with the “Im­pact of the Bi­ble” on the sec­ond floor, which com­prises three ex­hibits: “Bi­ble in Amer­ica,” “Bi­ble in the World” and “Bi­ble Now.”

Dom­i­nat­ing “Bi­ble in Amer­ica” is a bizarre se­ries of mu­rals de­pict­ing os­ten­si­bly wa­ter­shed mo­ments in Amer­i­can his­tory. We see Na­tive

It feels a lit­tle churl­ish to point out that the colonies were not ex­actly wel­com­ing to Jews.

Amer­i­cans earnestly re­ceiv­ing Bi­ble in­struc­tion and then earnestly slaugh­ter­ing colo­nials; we see a dis­em­bod­ied, pre­sum­ably di­vine hand with a quill pen poised above Ar­ti­cle VI of the Con­sti­tu­tion — which for­bids re­li­gious tests — and then George Wash­ing­ton swear­ing the Oath of Of­fice with one hand res­o­lutely on a Bi­ble.

To be fair, “Bi­ble in Amer­ica” com­pli­cates the nar­ra­tive by dis­play­ing pas­sages from Scrip­ture used to both ra­tio­nal­ize and abol­ish slav­ery. As for the folks who were here first, one small bit of wall text re­minds us that “the ar­rival of Euro­pean ad­ven­tur­ers and set­tlers proved cat­a­strophic for Na­tive Amer­i­cans, whose pop­u­la­tions were dec­i­mated by dis­ease and con­flict.” The mu­seum even throws in a cou­ple of women, with a small dis­play ded­i­cated to African-Amer­i­can poet Phillis Wheat­ley, and a por­trait of Har­riet Beecher Stowe. The Jews are thrown a bone as well, with the in­clu­sion of a Torah scroll in the colo­nial-era mu­ral; it feels a lit­tle churl­ish to point out that the colonies were not ex­actly wel­com­ing to Jews, and most of us didn’t get here un­til two cen­turies later.

Nev­er­the­less, “Bi­ble in Amer­ica” does in­deed fol­low the evan­gel­i­cal nar­ra­tive of Amer­i­can his­tory, which be­gins with the “Mayflower Com­pact,” a doc­u­ment that ac­knowl­edged the ne­ces­sity of civic gov­ern­ment in Ply­mouth Colony. Be­cause the com­pact as­serts that it is writ­ten “in the name of God,” and the Found­ing Fa­thers (sup­pos­edly) based the Con­sti­tu­tion on the com­pact, many Amer­i­can Chris­tians be­lieve that Amer­ica was there­fore founded on “bib­li­cal prin­ci­ples.” “Bi­ble in Amer­ica” in­cludes a fac­sim­ile of the Lib­erty Bell, ap­par­ently the first ob­ject in­stalled in the mu­seum. It is dif­fi­cult to see how this ob­ject re­lates in any way to the Bi­ble un­less one is al­ready con­vinced that the Amer­i­can ex­per­i­ment is di­vinely in­spired.

It was harder to suss out a co­her­ent nar­ra­tive in “Bi­ble in the World,” other than some­thing to the ef­fect of the Bi­ble be­ing re­ally great and be­hind ev­ery­thing that is good about the world. This ex­hibit fea­tures sec­tions de­lin­eated by

GETTY IMAGES

THAT RINGS A BELL: A vis­i­tor tours the “Bi­ble in Amer­ica” ex­hibit atthe Mu­seum of the Bi­ble.

MU­SEUM OF THE BI­BLE

LIGHTS, CAM­ERA,EVAN­GE­LIZE: The mu­seum fea­tures its very own the­ater.

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