If you were anywhere near Washington, D.C., over the weekend, you probably heard about the grand opening of the Museum of the Bible – the $500-million facility funded largely by the evangelical Christian Green family that runs the Hobby Lobby craft store chain.
The Rev. Barry Lynn, AU’s executive director who will retire next week, was invited to tour the museum on Saturday, and I tagged along. I came away with mixed feelings about the place.
Generally, I’m a fan of museums – from the most popular of the Smithsonian’s facilities to the tiny museums run on a shoestring by small-town historical societies across the country. I enjoy learning about history, the written word and old books – and the Museum of the Bible certainly has plenty of the latter on display.
I appreciate that, unlike creationist Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter in Kentucky, the Museum of the Bible was privately funded and did not require dubious tax breaks. And the Museum of the Bible doesn’t make the hard sell that Ham’s Creation Museum does in pushing for a literal interpretation of the Bible.
Of course, critics have noted an evangelical bent to the material presented at the Museum of the Bible. The museum’s earliest nonprofit tax filing reported its purpose as: “to bring to life the living word of God, to tell its compelling story of preservation, and to inspire confidence in the absolute authority and reliability of the Bible.” The Washington Post noted the museum’s 20-member leadership board “is almost entirely white, male and evangelical.”
The Atlantic notes that critics feel the museum doesn’t do justice to several religions that impacted or were impacted by the Bible, such as Islam, Eastern Orthodoxy and Mormonism. Joel Baden, a professor of the Hebrew Bible at Yale Divinity School and co-author of Bible Nation, a book on Hobby Lobby and the Greens’ religious views, told The Atlantic: “For them [the Greens], the Bible is American Protestantism [and] the story they are telling is the story of ‘the Bible goes West.’ There’s a disconnect of the Bible from any non-Western themes … which is incredible.”
AU’s Barry Lynn was critical that the museum didn’t do more to address the varying methods people use to interpret the Bible, or how the Bible came to exist in its current form. He told The Washington Post: “Very short shrift is given even to the very creation of the Biblical ‘canon’ – what is in the Bible versus what is out. Scholars are deeply divided over the process used to make decisions at the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. Some demonstrate convincingly that the choice of which ‘gospels’ to include reflected a profound patriarchal dominance.”
AU Executive Director Barry Lynn observes a display about the Constitution in the Museum of the Bible.
I was most interested to see the “Impact of the Bible” exhibit, which took up much of the second floor. The exhibit delved into the history of Christianity and Judaism in America. I was glad to see the museum went beyond the simple explanation of the Pilgrims as persecuted people and showed that while they themselves were seeking religious freedom, they weren’t always tolerant of other religions and denominations. The museum pays tribute to both Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island as a place of true religious freedom in the New World, and Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, the inspiration for the Constitution’s First Amendment.
The museum does show some of the ways in which the Bible was used and misused to justify all sides of divisive social issues in the United States, particularly slavery. But the end of the timeline for “Civil Rights and Beyond” in America inexplicably ends in the 1980s.
There’s no acknowledgement of the current attempts to use religion as an excuse to discriminate against others – even though, just a few weeks from now and a few blocks from the museum, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission – a case about whether a baker can use religion as an excuse to refuse to bake a gay couple’s wedding cake.
There’s no reference to Hobby Lobby’s Supreme Court battle three years ago to be allowed to use religion as justification for denying women access to birth control. There’s certainly no reference to the Trump administration’s new rules that would broaden the ability of employers and universities to refuse insurance coverage of this vital component of women’s health care.
With its six floors, the museum should have plenty of space to give some of these modern debates air time. Given the current administration’s support from and pandering to evangelical Christians and their attempts to redefine religious freedom, it struck me as odd that the state of current events wasn’t addressed. If the Museum of the Bible wants to be relevant, it should touch on the book’s present as well as its past.