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How About That Bible Museum? (Sun. Syl. 11/19/17)

The Museum of the Bible opened yesterday (11/18) in Washington D.C. I’m quite excited about this, as I am about most things that raise the public visibility of history and religion. Initial reactions have been mixed, stemming from differing views both on the content of the museum and on the nature, task, and methods of museums. By sifting several of the reports already available, I hope this Sunday Syllabus will elucidate these differences in viewpoint and ponder their relevance to how the general public does and should interact with expert opinion.

One issue not in dispute is that the museum is immense, impressive, and interesting.  It’s larger than the nearby National Air and Space Museum, packed full of artifacts, and liberally furnished with hi-tech experiences. All this means it is likely to be quite popular. As such, it is all the more important to consider what sort of experience it offers. (See this slideshow from the New York Post.)

First, let’s recap some of the controversy surrounding the planning of the museum and the acquisition of materials. Since the primary backers are the already controversial Green family, owners of Hobby Lobby, there was sure to be scrutiny from the start. Concerns ranged from general ineptitude (oh great, billionaires playing scholar) to evangelical propaganda (will a life-size Jesus ask people to believe in him and surrender their birth control?). It may be premature to judge without seeing the finished product, but steps along the way were not heartening. Lizzy Wade, writing for Science, offers one of the more level-headed treatments of the problem of potentially illicitly gathered material and displays with insufficient provenance and vetting. On the other hand, other prominent organizations have had similar troubles and emerged relatively unscathed, leading Menachem Wecker to raise the possibility that the Greens are receiving an unfair level of criticism because of unpopular political views.

Early statements about the museum’s purpose also stressed arguing for the Bible’s historical accuracy. These have been toned down, but an article in Washington Post notes that the people who had substantial input on the museum represent a much narrower spectrum than the groups portrayed in it. The general tenor seems to be that they tried to be fair and impartial, as fair and impartial as can be expected from a group of overwhelmingly white, male evangelicals who deliberately circumscribed the influence of people from other religious viewpoints.

What of the informative content of the museum itself? The exhibits I’ve seen mentioned fall into three categories: biblical content, transmission, and influence. Content exhibits seek to introduce the visitor to what one finds in the Bible. The focus looks to be on the narrative portions, rather than, say, the law codes in Leviticus or Paul’s advice to the Corinthians. Sometimes these presentations or recreations are blended with exhibits that feature other kinds of historical or cultural information. For instance, part of the New Testament portion features an imaginative reconstruction of daily life in Nazareth. On this, Philip Kennicott helpfully points to a kind of presentational slippage: “Small claims based on material or scientific evidence are juxtaposed with larger claims about the truth of biblical narratives in a way that confuses fact and speculation.”

Exhibits about transmission address how the Bible came down through history and spread across the whole world. Lots of different versions are on display in as many languages as the curators could find, all contributing to the impression that the Bible is just everywhere. And it is. The spread of the Bible and biblical religion through so many geographical and cultural barriers surely is remarkable. Based on information I have right now, I can’t render an appropriate judgment, but it seems that the museum has largely skimped on the serious questions of how the various writings that make up Bibles came together, and why there are Bibles that differ both in canon and in text. Perhaps this could be explored more alongside the Atlantic’s criticism that the museum is short on references to Islam, Mormonism, and Eastern Orthodoxy. We are dealing, it appears, mainly with the Protestant Bible.

The exhibits about influence explore the many ways in which the Bible has shaped culture. Surely there is no shortage of possibilities here. Some of the exhibits seem quite creative, such as looking at biblical lines that appear in song. Perhaps unsurprisingly, two sensitive areas receive quite a bit of attention, science and American history. Quotes from prominent early modern scientists like Newton and Kepler seem to be saying, “Hey, you can be a really smart scientist and also believe in Christianity.” This might be revealing a bit of evangelical insecurity. (Also, it’s kind of humorous that they used Newton. He did indeed study his Bible, but he was fairly rationalist and an anti-Trinitarian. For fear of reprisal, he did not publish his theological writings in his own lifetime.) The American history exhibits do acknowledge that the Bible was invoked to support various shameful acts, such as slavery and racial inequality, but they are always juxtaposed by counter-examples, such as Negro spirituals and MLK Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Meanwhile, a visual tour through Washington looks at all the inscriptions that feature biblical and theistic references. The moral seems to be that when it looks like the Bible is doing something good, it is, but when it looks like it’s doing something bad, there are two sides to the story.

I want to conclude with a few thoughts about what a museum is, or at least what I think it should be. Museums are often discussed under the rubric of “public scholarship” and “collective memory.” Note that both terms imply a people group (public, collective) and informational content (scholarship, memory). I’m not entirely sure how everyone else thinks museums work, but I have always understood there to be something of a social contract in play. The museum curators promise that what they’re showing you is an accessible (public) presentation (scholarship) of the general scholarly consensus on a given field. One does not expect to walk into the Museum of Natural History and find one idiosyncratic scholar’s take on the woolly mammoth. The curators are also supposed to be giving a transparent, if simplified, look into the relationship between evidence and narrative. Sure, some pieces may be more for aesthetics or flavor, but some of the pieces need to contain within themselves the actual reasons why the exhibits exist in the way they do. Finally, a museum is also supposed to give some sense of the limits of its knowledge and the areas that are still under debate. While visiting an exhibit on the Dead Sea Scrolls at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute, I was struck by how well the curators communicated the many unanswered questions raised by the scrolls, even as they celebrated all the illumination they have brought us.

Ultimately, this is the sort of criteria I would apply to the Museum of the Bible. Would a broad cross-section of academics who work in relevant disciplines be generally satisfied with the presentation? Tara Burton at Vox suggests the answer is no. If she is correct, that is a grave failure. The difference between a museum and a theme park is that one carries the air of expert authority. Pretending to an authority one does not possess is deceptive and manipulative. However, the Museum of the Bible is in a difficult situation. If a museum’s commitment to public scholarship means offering something like a neutral or pluralist viewpoint, that becomes extremely difficult when applied to the Bible. After all, as I mentioned before, there is no such thing as “the Bible” in the most objective sense. Writings become “the Bible” when they are appropriated as such by a group of people, who claim a special relationship to those writings. There is no easy way to present a public Bible, a Bible generally acceptable for public consumption, and there never has been. Perhaps that’s one lesson this museum can teach us, albeit unintentionally.

Nevertheless, there is another purpose of museums, one that the Museum of the Bible may carry out successfully despite other shortcomings. People don’t actually learn all that much from museum visits. The experience is more impressionistic than anything else. When I as a child crawled through a giant heart at the Franklin Institute, I did not appreciate the accurate layout of the ventricles. I did have fun. And I learned to associate science with fun, exploration, and wonder, rather than simply with a school subject. Similarly, the Museum of the Bible looks poised to raise the public’s awareness of the Bible and to encourage people to reflect on it after they’ve gone home. For me, for the Greens, and I would think even for their reasonable critics, that’s a win.


Published insunday syllabus