The recently opened Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., is a well-designed, visually appealing, ideally located, state-of-the-art used car lot, using the soft sell approach to peddle old, worn ideas. Its sales pitch, which is subtle, may well be persuasive to some, but it will appeal mostly to those who already have faith in the brand.
For those not yet aware of the background of this new museum, it’s a privately funded institution, with major support and inspiration from the Green family, the folks who made a fortune from their Hobby Lobby craft stores. The Greens are evangelical Christians and have used some of their wealth to support conservative Christian causes. Most famously, Hobby Lobby was the plaintiff that challenged the mandate in the Affordable Care Act requiring employers to provide contraceptive care as part of their healthcare coverage for employees. Before the Supreme Court, Hobby Lobby successfully argued it should be exempt on religious grounds from this mandate. Effectively, the company was arguing that religion permeates its business.
Given this prominent commitment to evangelical Christianity, many were skeptical that the Bible Museum would be anything other than an expensive, multi-story missionary outpost. But, as demonstrated by the success of their craft business, the Green family are savvy merchants, and they realized that if their museum was to be taken seriously, it could not be a vehicle for explicit proselytizing. Accordingly, with some exceptions (a couple noted below), the Museum of the Bible aims to promote belief in the Bible indirectly, principally by emphasizing its influence. ‘Hey, you should think about getting on the Bible bandwagon. Look at all these people and cultures that have been inspired by the Bible.’
This approach is most evident on the museum’s second floor, with exhibits on the “Bible in America,” “Bible in the World,” and “Bible Now.” These exhibits trace the Bible’s impact on American culture and thought, and its influence throughout the world on literature, language, the arts, education, and—in a very selective exhibit—science. The wording in these exhibits is obviously the result of careful consideration. Can’t oversell the product; can’t make demonstrably false claims. So, the exhibits give a passing nod to the malign influence the Bible has had, most notably in an exhibit acknowledging that both those who defended and those who opposed slavery made use of arguments based on scripture, but the focus throughout is on the positive (in contemporary eyes) effects the Bible has allegedly had.
In making some of these claims, the museum’s directors bend the facts without overtly breaking them. For example, there’s this claim about the founding of the American republic: “Enlightenment and classical philosophy provided the intellectual foundation for establishing a republic; the Bible its spiritual framework.” Really? The foundational document of the United States, its Constitution, makes no reference to God, and its only reference to religion is a negative one, namely an insistence that there be no religious test for federal offices. A strong argument could be made that the Framers envisioned a secular republic that requires no “spiritual framework” whatsoever, leaving it entirely up to individuals what to believe, without any prodding by the government. Making that argument, though, would require some knowledge of the Constitution and constitutional history, and this museum certainly isn’t going to provide that background.
Similarly, a calculated effort to stretch the truth without resort to outright misrepresentations is evident in the exhibit on science, which downplays any supposed conflict between religion and science. It features videos with various scientists saying positive things about religion and religion’s influence. Well, no one would deny there are scientists who are believers, but the majority of scientists today are skeptical of religious claims, continuing a trend that started after scientists found they could make claims about nature without fear of being tortured by the Inquisition. More importantly, the scientific method is readily distinguishable from theological ‘method.’ The former relies on testable claims; the latter on faith reinforced by dogma.
In some places the mask slips, and the museum tosses aside the role of curator to don the robes of the evangelist. During my visit I saw a short film about the New Testament. It’s animated and its intellectual level would not challenge kindergartners. It presents the Resurrection and various other miracles as undeniable truths. To be fair, I suppose the museum’s directors sense the museum has to provide some entertainment for Christian families (and there were a number of children in the audience) as these are, presumably, a prime target for financial support.
More disappointing was an exhibit entitled “In the Valley of David and Goliath,” which features archaeological finds from the Iron Age and accompanying commentary on Philistine and ancient Israelite culture. I say “disappointing” because overall the exhibit is not only informative, but (at least for those with an interest in history/archaeology) fascinating. Definitely for me the highlight of the visit. (Note: although entry to the museum itself is free, this exhibit has a charge for admission.) However, in the exhibit a film on the work of archaeologists focuses obsessively on the Tel Dan stela, recovered in the 1990s, which references a king from the “House of David.” This is cited several times as proof that the Bible relates history accurately and the biblical David existed and became a king. Uh, that’s quite a leap. Even if this stela could be seen as evidence that there was a King David—and there’s a dispute about how this stela should be interpreted—that does not imply the stories about David in the Bible are accurate. Indeed, it’s impossible for all the biblical stories about David to be accurate as they have inconsistencies—which are pervasive throughout the Bible, as is obvious to any careful reader not blinded by faith.
But who reads the Bible nowadays? Only about 37% of Americans read the Bible once a week and that number continues to decline. Meanwhile, Christianity, certainly the orthodox version, is waning, especially among the young. Less than half of American millennials believe Jesus was divine. Meanwhile, in Europe, skepticism is rampant; in the United Kingdom only 28% of the population believes in God or a “higher power.” Despite the Green family’s best efforts, despite their enviable sales skills, in a few generations the Museum of the Bible may seem more like the Mausoleum of the Bible.