The Museum of the Bible Opens Tomorrow

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Today the Associated Press is running Rachel Zoll’s article on the Museum of the Bible.  I was happy to help her with the piece.  Here is a taste:

Separately, critics have seized on a changing mission statement of the museum from its earliest days, when founders said they aimed to prove the authority of the Bible, to a new, more neutral goal of inviting people to learn more about the Bible. Museum president Cary Summers described the change as a natural progression as the project moved ahead.

But John Fea, a historian at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, points to the family’s goal of helping people “engage with” the Bible as a telling indication about what the Greens hope to achieve. He said the “Bible engagement” concept was popularized by the American Bible Society in the 1990s amid concern that people who owned copies of the Scriptures weren’t necessarily reading them.

Fea said advocates for this strategy ultimately hope the Bible will inspire a desire to learn more and maybe accept Christ.

“There’s a public face to this Bible engagement rhetoric and then there’s a private aspect of what it really means,” Fea said. “It debunks the whole notion that this is just a history museum.”

Green’s response to such arguments: Visit the museum and decide for yourself.

Read the entire piece here.

The Museum of the Bible is a Museum and a Ministry

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The front page of the website of the Museum of the Bible states: “Learn about the Museum being built and the other initiatives spurring worldwide Bible engagement.”

The Museum of the Bible also describes itself this way:

Museum of the Bible invites all people to engage with the Bible through museum exhibits and scholarly pursuits, including artifact research, education initiatives and an international museum opening in late 2017 in Washington. The 430,000-square-foot, $400 million Museum of the Bible, dedicated to the impact, history and narrative of the Bible, will be located three blocks from the U.S. Capitol. 

A page devoted to job openings at the Museum says: “Museum of the Bible is an innovative, global, education institution whose purpose is to invite all people to engage with the history, narrative, and impact of the Bible.”

In an introduction to a Christianity Today podcast interview with Glenn Paauw, the senior director of content at the Institute For Bible Reading, says:

A museum experience like this has the potential to widely open our eyes to the fact that the Bible is immersed in real, ancient history, but it’s very different than ours.” Christians should be encouraged by the museum putting the Scriptures in context, says Paauw. “The very first step to great Bible engagement is understanding the Bible in its own world and on its own terms,” he added.

In his recent review of the museum at Christianity Today, Martyn Wendell Jones writes:

But the most enduring questions surrounding the museum will undoubtedly concern its intent. As its leadership has walked back the apologetic messaging of its early days in favor of a more open-handed mission of “engaging” all people with the Bible, skeptics may smell a ruse while some Christians may wonder if the museum is holding back.

In August 2017, the American Bible Society asked its patrons to pray for the Museum of the Bible. The ABS describes it as a “museum inviting all people to engage with the Bible.”  Here is a taste of that plea:

There’s a need for increased Bible awareness and increased Bible reading in America. “Over 90 percent of the homes in this country have a Bible. But I think we’re probably less familiar with it today than ever, because we don’t teach it as we once did,” says Steve Green, chairman of the board of Museum of the Bible. “This book claims it’s for all people. So [Museum of the Bible is] an invitation for all people to come and learn about and engage with it, and hopefully they will leave with a curiosity to want to know more.”

In Mark 4:20, Jesus describes his Parable of the Sower. He says, “The seeds that fell on good ground are the people who hear and welcome the message. They produce thirty or sixty or even a hundred times as much as was planted” (CEV).

Museum of the Bible is like the farmer planting seed by sharing God’s Word with others. We have an opportunity to pray for the seed to fall on good soil—to cause hearts to respond to God’s invitation for a relationship with him.

Last week in Politico Magazine, Candida Moss and Joel Baden, the authors of Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby,  asked “Just What Is the Museum of the Bible Trying to Do?”  The answer to this question is simple.  As seen from the quotes above, the Museum of the Bible wants people to engage with the Bible.  But what does this mean?

If you want to understand what the Museum of the Bible means by “Bible engagement” (or “scripture engagement”) you need to know something about the history of the American Bible Society.  As I argued in The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society, the American Bible Society invented the phrase.  The three paragraphs from the ABS website that I posted above offer a good definition.  The Mark 4:20 reference says it all.

The mission of the American Bible Society states:

We strive to the landscape of the Bible engagement in this country by partnering with church leaders in major U.S. cities, advocating for the Bible in American culture, and equipping ministry leaders with customized Bible resources.  In the next 10 years, we aim to see 100 million people engaged with God’s word in the U.S.

It is worth noting that the American Bible Society began talking about “Bible engagement” and “scripture engagement” as part of a significant change to the mission of the 200-year old organization.  During the mid-1990s, the Society took a turn away from mainline Protestantism and toward evangelical Protestantism.  It also shifted from an organization devoted to distributing the Bible around the world, to a Christian ministry devoted to getting as many people as possible to engage with the Bible as the word of God.

I discuss this transition at length in The Bible Cause.  Here is a taste:

Under [CEO Roy] Peterson’s leadership, the American Bible Society continues its historic commitment to meeting the spiritual needs of people around the world and building a Christian civilization at home and abroad through scripture engagement.  If he has learned one thing from the history of the ABS, it is how to get people excited about the Bible Cause through grand vision statements.  By 2025, Peterson wants to see 100 million Americans engaged with the Bible, scriptures available in every world language, and the expansion of the ABS endowment to $1 billion.  It’s an ambitious goal, and that is why he has Executive Vice President of Ministry Mobilization Geof Morin, who has been at the ABS since 2007, to help him.  Morin represents the future of the Bible Cause.  He has worked in global Bible Cause Coveradvertising, sung at the Metropolitan Opera, and is an ordained priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Philadelphia.  He oversees ABS marketing, communications, and Bible technology, and runs Missions U.S. Global, the title given to the Society’s domestic and international ministries.  He is passionate about scripture engagement and the role it can play in the universal Christian church–Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox.

In its 2025 “Strategic Vision” statement the ABS defines scripture engagement as “encountering God through the Bible to become faithful followers of Jesus Christ.” Through the help of the Nida Institute for Biblical Scholarship, the ABS has developed a theoretical and theological framework for how such engagement with scripture should take place.  At the core of this idea of scriptural engagement is the belief that people can encounter–and have encountered–the claims of the Bible in diverse ways and by multiple means, including public hearings, performances, reading, worship, art, and music, to name a few.  Such encounters involve the full range of human faculties: emotions, the intellect, the imagination, and the soul.  Inherent within this view of scripture engagement is the belief that God, by entering into human culture through the person of Jesus Christ, has invested this world with meaning and has created human beings for community.  To put it simply, the Bible has the potential, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to transform lives when it is experienced with other people and through various forms of culture….

The ABS has entrusted this work of measuring the success of scripture engagement to the Barna Group, a Christian research organization known for its work in observing the state of American Christianity and offering “spiritual indicators” about where the United States is moving on matters of faith and culture.  With the help of Barna-created surveys specifically designed for this purpose, Peterson is convinced that by 2025 the ABS will have “defensible numbers” to show that 100 million people in the United States are actively using the scriptures.  The ABS also relies upon Barna for its annual State of the Bible Survey.  Morin, who spearheads this project, likes to call it a “Bible thermometer.”  The State of the Bible report is more than just a fun way for the ABS to let the country know who it is and what it does.  Rather, the success of Peterson’s 2025 vision is directly related to its findings.  The ABS is just getting to the point where it has enough date to be able to see some trends about what American think about the Bible.  The evidence suggests that there is still a lot of work to do.  At the moment, the ABS and Barna estimate that roughly 47 million Americans are actively engaging with the Bible.  This number will need to be more than doubled in the next decade in order to meet Peterson’s projections.

I don’t have the time or the space to add more to this post, so let me wrap things up with a few points:

  1.  The American Bible Society hopes to get more people engaged with the Bible through the creation of the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center at 101 North Independence Mall East.  Museums like this are one of many ways the “Bible engagement” or “scripture engagement” can be accomplished.
  2. The relationship between the American Bible Society and the Green family is a close one.  The Greens give a lot of money to the American Bible Society and have shared some of the intellectual property it has gathered in the building of the Museum of the Bible.  Both groups use DeMoss for their public relations needs.
  3. The Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C. must be understood in the context of the history of “Bible engagement” or “scripture engagement” as first introduced by the American Bible Society.  This makes the Museum of the Bible a Christian ministry disguised as a first-class museum.

Is Criticism of the Museum of the Bible Unfair?

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Menachem Wecker asks this question in an article published yesterday at Religion News Service.  Read it here.

Such a question arises for several reasons:

First, the Museum of the Bible, scheduled to open this Fall, is the project of the Green family, the founders of the arts-and-crafts chain store Hobby Lobby. While I am sure that many Americans know the name Hobby Lobby for the store’s fine selection of arts-and-crafts supplies, many also cannot separate the store from the 2014 Supreme Court case Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.  In this case, the Court concluded that Hobby Lobby, as a “closely held for-profit corporation,” was exempt from the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that employers provide certain contraceptives for their female employees.

I had mixed feelings about Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.  I do think the Affordable Care Act’s contraception requirement violates the religious liberty of faith-based groups.  I am with the Little Sisters of the Poor on this.  But I was also troubled that the Court concluded that a corporation could have religious liberty. I wondered if a chain store like Hobby Lobby could really be considered, at least in a theological sense, a “person.”  In July 2014, I wrote a piece for Perspectives on History titled “We Hold These Truths to Be Self-Evident, That All Corporations Are Created Equal.”

But what I think doesn’t matter.  The very fact that the Museum of the Bible is associated with Hobby Lobby and the culture war issues raised by the Burwell case means that it cannot escape, at least for a generation or so, the stigma that it is promoting a religious and political agenda.  I know the Museum of the Bible is trying hard to shake this perception, but I wonder if the uphill climb is just too steep.

Second, the Museum of the Bible, and the Green family specifically, is taking heat for buying stolen artifacts.  Hobby Lobby recently agreed to pay $3 million as part of a settlement for this illegal purchase.  This has tarnished the museum’s reputation in some quarters. It doesn’t look good.

The Museum of the Bible will not appeal to everyone, but it will have a niche audience. It will attract millions of Christians who love the Bible.  Many of these future visitors support the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and will not care about the purchase of the stolen artifacts.

Want to hear more?  I will be discussing the Museum of the Bible in November at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Boston.  I will be part of a panel on a forthcoming book by Candida Moss and Joel Baden, Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby.  I also wrote a bit about the relationship between Hobby Lobby and the American Bible Society in my book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford University Press, 2016).  Hobby Lobby gives a lot of money to the American Bible Society.

Here is a taste of Wecker’s piece:

Steven Fine, professor of Jewish history and founding director of Yeshiva University’s Center for Israel Studies, agrees that regulation of the sale of antiquities “is quite intense.”

He, too, doesn’t think that the Greens’ beliefs are the problem. In fact, he said they should be more open about their religious motivations.

“The question for me is not whether the Greens have a religious position, but to make sure that they are upfront that their faith positions are the subject of this museum,” he said. “For me, it is just an issue of transparency. Remember that even by saying Bible, Jews hear one thing, Protestants hear another, and Catholics a third.”

Whatever the Greens’ motivations, McGrath of Butler and Thumma of Hartford said neither the family’s religious beliefs nor the manner of acquiring the artifacts is likely to have any effect on the museum’s future success.

“People will still flock to a Museum of the Bible, seeking reassurances that their faith is grounded in history,” McGrath said.

“Those for whom the museum is intended won’t care,” Thumma added, “and will indeed interpret the U.S. attorney’s action as anti-evangelical bias, or maybe even ‘fake news.’”

Read the entire piece here.

The Club of American Bible Society Historians Who are Mets Fans is Always Looking for New Members!

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Some of you are familiar with Peter Wosh’s excellent history of the American Bible Society, Spreading the Word: The Bible Business in Nineteenth-Century America (Cornell, 1994).  I relied heavily on Wosh’s book in my The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford, 2016).

Wosh recently retired from his post as Director of the Archives and Public History Program at New York University.   If his Facebook page is any indication, he is spending a lot of time exploring the historical landscape in his home state of New Jersey and enjoying his New York Mets season tickets.

Today Wosh posted a picture of himself at Citibank Field.  It was Mets helmet day! (Posted here with his permission).

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When I saw this pic I had to respond. As you can see, my childhood Mets helmet is way to small for my head.

 

Mets

American Bible Society historians stick together. Let’s Go Mets.

The Erie Canal: Religion and America’s “First Great Social Space”

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Lockport, NY on the Erie Canal, 1839 (Wikipedia Commons)

In The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society I wrote about the way the ABS used water as a metaphor to describe its work during the early 19th century:

The ABS owed owed much of its distribution success to burgeoning American infrastructure.  The construction of the Erie Canal and other canals reduced by months the time it took to send Bibles from New York to growing river and lake cities like Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and St. Louis.  ABS packages traveled down the Ohio or Mississippi and along the tributaries extending from these mighty rivers.  A representative from the Pittsburgh Bible Society described ABS packages as floating “messengers of salvation,” making visits to the “huts of the poor and destitute” on the frontier.  Fitting with a nation committed to building itself through travel across rivers, lakes, and canals, the ABS and its auxiliaries often used water metaphors to describe the distribution process.  The Bible traveled along “little streams” that flowed into the “mighty river” of the Christian nation that the ABS hoped to forge.  The distribution of the Bible was like the opening of a great “flood gate” that poured through the “arid regions” of the country, serving as a “streamlet to water every plant.”  The managers of the Indiana Bible Society, using a passage from the Book of Ezekiel, described the process of distribution as “Holy Water” issued from the “Sanctuary” that “spread wide and flowed deep, and all things lived wheresoever the waters came.” Both literally and figuratively, the ABS was using water to link remote and scattered settlements into a Bible nation.

A few years before I started working on The Bible Cause, I was asked to appear on a radio show to talk about the relationship between early American religion and the Erie Canal. I declined the offer.  I was busy at the time and I did not think I had much to say on the subject.  When they asked me if I knew of anyone else who might be qualified to appear on the program I wish I knew about the work of S. Brent Rodriguez-Plate.

Check out the Hamilton College religious studies professor’s recent piece at Religion News Service, “The Eric Canal and the birth of American Religion.”

Here is a taste:

The first great social space in the United States was not Boston Common, William Penn’s Philadelphia squares or L’Enfant’s great avenues of Washington, D.C.

It was an artificial river, 4 feet deep and 40 feet wide, cutting across New York state.

Like the Silk Road in Asia, the Erie Canal not only established physical links across geographic regions, it also remade the social and religious lives of everyone it touched.

Albany newspapers, Genesee flour, Syracuse salt and Western timber traveled on the canal alongside theater groups, former slaves, tourists, industrialists and religious revivalists. This “one thronged street, from Buffalo to Albany,” as Nathaniel Hawthorne phrased it, exceeded its transportation uses to become an empire builder, a political-economic superpower that was inextricable from a spiritual empire.

Physical work on the Erie Canal began on July 4, 1817, when upstate New York was one vast wilderness in the eye of the young nation. Within three decades of its opening this “psychic highway” cultivated experimental spiritual groups, including the Mormons, the Adventists, spiritualists, followers of a revived apocalypticism and utopian communal societies such as the Oneida Community, with the Amana Colony and the Shakers passing through. The emotion-laden revivals of the Second Great Awakening also ignited along the way, giving rise to the evangelicalism that we know today.

Read the entire piece here.

The Bible in Kentucky Schools

BevinMatt Bevin, the Governor of Kentucky, just signed a bill allowing the Bible to be taught in the state’s public schools.  Here is the text of HB 128:

AN ACT relating to Bible literacy courses in the public schools.
     Create a new section of KRS Chapter 156 to require the Kentucky Board of Education to promulgate administrative regulations to establish an elective social studies course on the Hebrew Scriptures, Old Testament of the Bible, the New Testament, or a combination of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament of the Bible; require that the course provide to students knowledge of biblical content, characters, poetry, and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding contemporary society and culture, including literature, art, music, mores, oratory, and public policy; permit students to use various translations of the Bible for the course; amend KRS 158.197 to permit a school council to offer an elective social studies course on the Hebrew Scriptures, Old Testament of the Bible, the New Testament, or a combination of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament of the Bible.

A few thoughts:

First, this is nothing new.  Several states have passed similar laws.  See Mark Chancey’s essay “Bible Bills, Bible Curricula, and Controversies of Biblical Proportions: Legislative Efforts to Promote Bible Courses in Public Schools.”  Chancey, who teaches at Southern Methodist University, is the nation’s leading scholar on such public school Bible courses. Check out his website for more resources.

Second, having a Bible course in a public school is constitutional.  Perhaps someone can help me out here, but I don’t understand why special laws are needed to teach the Bible in schools. It seems as if the only reason for passing such legislation is to make a political statement. The Government of Kentucky, or at least those men and women who have power in the government of Kentucky, want to let their constituency know which side they are taking in the culture wars and the fight to make the United States a Christian nation.

Here’s some history:

In 1963, the Supreme Court ruled in Abington v. Schempp that mandatory reading of the Bible in public schools as an act of religious practice or devotion was unconstitutional. But what many fail to recognize is that Abington v. Schempp did not completely remove the Bible from schools.  Here is a taste of Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark’s majority opinion:

It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without the study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization.  It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its religious and historic qualities.  Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistent with the First Amendment.

As I argued in my book The Bible Cause, The American Bible Society (ABS), the largest distributor of Bibles in the world, actually supported the Abington v. Schempp decision in 1963. The ABS replied to nearly every letter that it received about the case from disgruntled supporters by putting a positive spin on the decision.  ABS General Secretary Robert Taylor’s response to a writer from Reseda, California was typical: “The American Bible Society is…trying to get people to understand that the Supreme Court decision did not rule out the teaching of the Bible in public schools.”  Taylor ripped into local school boards for giving people the opposite impression.  In fact, as another ABS Secretary, Homer Ogle, wrote to another correspondent, “the Supreme Court is 100% behind the idea of teaching the Bible in the public schools.” He added that the ABS was planning to launch a nationwide program to make sure that children would have access to the scriptures.  The ABS answers to these letters must have been confusing to members who did not understand the complexities of the Supreme Court decision.  Rather than seeing Abington v. Schempp as a blow to Bible reading in schools, the ABS saw it as an opportunity to promote Biblical literacy.

Third, parts of Kentucky HB 128 should raise red flags.  The bill says that a proposed course on the Bible must “provide to students knowledge of biblical content, characters, poetry, and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding contemporary society and culture, including literature, art, music, mores, oratory, and public policy.” This suggests that the course can and should move beyond the study of the Bible in its ancient context. It requires educators to apply the Bible’s teaching to current events.  And what does the term “prerequisite” mean here?  Are the lawmakers suggesting that the Bible is the only prerequisite for understanding these various dimensions of “contemporary society and culture?” The bill does not seem to realize that there is no scholarly consensus on the degree to which the Bible and its teachings influenced the American founding.

The architect of the bill, Representative D.J. Johnson, gives us a better sense of what HB 128 means when it says that the Bible is a “prerequisite” to “contemporary life and culture.” In a recent interview he said: “[The Bible] really did set the foundation that our founding fathers used to develop documents like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights…All those came from principles in the bible.”  This quote comes straight out of the David Barton Christian nation playbook.

In April 2017, during the debate over HB 128 in the Kentucky House of Representatives, Stan Lee of Lexington said, “This country–whether some people want to believe it or not–wasn’t founded as a Muslim nation, wasn’t founded as a Hindu nation, wasn’t founded as a Jari Krishna nation.  It was founded as a Christian nation.”  He added: “It’s been said on the floor today that teaching the Bible ain’t going to get it done.  Well, let me tell you what didn’t get it done: Kicking God out of school, kicking the Bible out of school, kicking prayer out of school.”  It doesn’t get any clearer than that.  Like D.J. Johnson, Lee is channeling Barton.  He is also, I might add, coming very close to violating Abington v. Schempp.

And then there is Dan Johnson (not to be confused with D.J.).  In addition to representing Kentucky’s House District 49 he is a bishop in the Heart of Fire Church in southeast Louisville.  In his 2016 campaign for a seat in the Kentucky House he came under fire for defending Southern secession, “white pride,” and posting a picture on Facebook of Barack Obama as an ape.  When confronted about the picture Johnson said, “It wasn’t meant to be racist. I can tell you that. My history’s good there. I can see how people would be offended in that.  I wasn’t trying to offend anybody, but I think Facebook’s entertaining.” My history’s good there?  Oh, by the way, Johnson won his election. He now sponsors HB 128.

Representative Tim Moore is also a sponsor of the bill.  He co-chairs the Kentucky Prayer Caucus.  According to its website, the members of the Kentucky Prayer Caucus are “state legislators committed to advancing policies and initiatives that promote religious freedom, America’s Judeo-Christian heritage, and prayer.  It is part of a larger “Prayer Caucus” movement in state legislatures around the country. There is nothing on the Caucus’s website that explains how it reconciles its support for religious freedom with its promotion of America’s Judeo-Christian heritage.  David Barton promotes the Prayer Caucus Movement on his Wallbuilders website.

David Barton peddles really bad history about the American founding, but more importantly his faulty understanding of the American past has influenced public policy in places such as Kentucky.  (Barton has made it abundantly clear that he is a big fan of Governor Bevin).  In the end, it appears that HB 128 is a subtle and shrewd attempt by the Kentucky government to promote a Christian nationalist agenda without violating Abington v. Schempp.  If they cannot bring Christianity and the Bible back into the schools in an overt pre-1963 way, they can at least bring it into the curriculum under the guise of history and social studies.

Watchdog groups have a close eye on how the bill will be implemented in Kentucky schools.  Kate Miller of the ACLU put it best: “A Bible literacy bill that, on its face, may not appear to be unconstitutional, could in fact become unconstitutional in its implementation.”

Miller and other critics should make sure the Bible is not being used in this class for devotional purposes or Christian preaching.  But they should also keep an eye on how the Bible is being used to teach civics and history in Kentucky schools.  On the later point, the defenders of the bill will ward off criticism by arguing that this is an issue about competing historical interpretations (David Barton and the Christian nationalist view of history versus mainstream historical scholarship written by real historians) and not a violation of Abington v. Schempp.

In closing, it is important to remember that the ultimate implementation of HB 128 rests with the educators who will be teaching this Bible course. (We are only talking about an Revisedelective course, so I imagine only a small groups of students will take it.). I hope many of these teachers turn to the resources page on Mark Chancey’s website to get a sense of what is permissible and what is not.  I also hope that they are responsible when they attempt to connect the Bible to “contemporary society and culture, including literature, art, music, mores, oratory, and public policy.”

As some of you know, I wrote a book called Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.  In that book I talk a lot about the Bible’s influence on the American founding.  I also spend a lot of time, both at Messiah College (an evangelical Christian college in Pennsylvania) and around the country, working with history and social studies teachers. I am happy to help Kentucky teachers think about all the ways the Bible has influenced, and has not influenced, American society and culture.