Museum of the Bible Chairman: “The criticism resulting from my mistakes was justified”

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The Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C. will return 11,500 antiquities to the Iraqi and Egyptian governments.  Read Gordon Govier piece at Christianity Today.

Here is the press release from the museum’s founder and chairman Steve Green:

Washington, March 26, 2020 – Museum of the Bible’s Chairman of the Board, Steve Green, makes the following statement on past acquisitions:

In 2009, when I began acquiring biblical manuscripts and artifacts for what would ultimately form the collection at Museum of the Bible, I knew little about the world of collecting.  It is well known that I trusted the wrong people to guide me, and unwittingly dealt with unscrupulous dealers in those early years.  One area where I fell short was not appreciating the importance of the provenance of the items I purchased. 

When I purchased items in those early years, dealers would make representations about an item’s provenance, which the consultants I employed would say was sufficient.  As I came to understand taking a dealer at his or her word was not good enough, I cut ties with those consultants.  When I engaged with new advisors, I acquired a better understanding of the importance of verifying provenance and we developed a rigorous acquisitions policy that would help avoid repeating those early mistakes.

For the past several years, the many dedicated curators at Museum of the Bible have quietly and painstakingly researched the provenance of the many thousands of items in the collection.  That work continues. 

While this research was proceeding, beginning in late 2017, we also engaged with officials in several countries, including Egypt and Iraq, to open a dialog regarding items that likely originated from those countries at some point, but for which there was insufficient reliable provenance information.  Those discussions have been fruitful, and continue to this day.    

I long ago made the decision that when our research revealed another party had a better claim to an item, I would do the right thing and deliver such items to that party.  We have already proactively made several such returns. 

Today, I am announcing that we have identified approximately 5,000 papyri fragments and 6,500 clay objects with insufficient provenance that we are working to deliver to officials in Egypt and Iraq respectively.  As discussions with officials in Egypt and Iraq continued, we also engaged with officials in the U.S. government to determine the best way procedurally and logistically to make the deliveries, and are appreciative of their assistance.  We are working to finalize the deliveries in the near future.  We also hope to finalize agreements with organizations in Egypt and Iraq that will allow for us to provide technical assistance, and support the ongoing study and preservation of their important cultural property.

These early mistakes resulted in Museum of the Bible receiving a great deal of criticism over the years.  The criticism resulting from my mistakes was justified.  My goal was always to protect, preserve, study, and share cultural property with the world.  That goal has not changed, but after some early missteps, I made the decision many years ago that, moving forward, I would only acquire items with reliable, documented provenance.  Furthermore, if I learn of other items in the collection for which another person or entity has a better claim, I will continue to do the right thing with those items. 

I understand established museums, universities, and other institutions have evolved over the years and developed sound protocols for dealing with cultural property with insufficient provenance.  I intend to continue to learn from the collective efforts and wisdom of those institutions, and support every person and organization possessing such items to continue their research into the provenance of their items.

Steve Green
Chairman of the Board
Museum of the Bible

What Does the Bible Say About the Antichrist?

Anti-Christ-Luca-Signorelli2

I spent most of my late teens and early twenties getting schooled in dispensational theology.  We spent a lot of time trying to figure out when the rapture would come, the nature of the Great Tribulation, and the signs Antichrist’s coming.  I haven’t thought about this stuff in a while, but I have been struck lately by how many people–smart religious people–have been talking about the Antichrist.

A friend recently sent me a blog post by theologian Benjamin Corey, a self-identified member of the Christian Left with an masters degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a Ph.D from Fuller Theological Seminary.

Corey dug through the Bible and found every prophecy on the Antichrist.  Whatever you think about biblical prophecy, his list is very interesting, entertaining, and perhaps even revealing.

Here are a few characteristics of the Antichrist:

  • The Antichrist will be a leader of a nation that is a military superpower with the ability to trample and crush the entire earth. (Daniel 7:23)
  • The Antichrist will be a man who is exceptionally arrogant and will be known for giving boastful speeches. (Daniel 7:8, Revelation 13:5)
  • The Antichrist will be someone known for making a lot of public threats against the people (Revelation 13:2, Daniel 7:4)
  • The Antichrist will be a political outsider with despicable character and a contemptuous personality who wins an election that no one expects him to win. (Daniel 11:21)
  • The Antichrist will give speeches where he speaks “great things” and then about things that are even “greater.” (Daniel 7:20)
  • The Antichrist’s rise to power will seem like a miracle that God performed, tricking people into following Satan instead of God without even noticing. (2 Thess. 2:9)
  • Once in power the Antichrist will reveal that his heart wants to make alterations to the “appointed times” that are in current laws. (Daniel 7:25)
  • The Antichrist will make fake news popular and will be a chronic liar.  His followers will believe his delusions because they hate the truth. (Daniel 8:25, 2 Thess.2:10)
  • The Antichrist will draw strong support from many Christians as if they are willfully blind and outright delusional (Matt 24:24, 2 Thess 2:10)
  • The Antichrist will appear to receive a wound he can’t recover from, but will survive to put down the first attempts to remove him from office. (Revelation 13:3)
  • The Antichrist will worship the god of border walls. (Daniel 11:37-38)

Read the rest here.

Psalm 72

Endow the king with your justice, O God,
    the royal son with your righteousness.
May he judge your people in righteousness,
    your afflicted ones with justice.

May the mountains bring prosperity to the people,
    the hills the fruit of righteousness.
May he defend the afflicted among the people
    and save the children of the needy;
    may he crush the oppressor.
May he endure as long as the sun,
    as long as the moon, through all generations.
May he be like rain falling on a mown field,
    like showers watering the earth.
In his days may the righteous flourish
    and prosperity abound till the moon is no more.

May he rule from sea to sea
    and from the River to the ends of the earth.
May the desert tribes bow before him
    and his enemies lick the dust.
10 May the kings of Tarshish and of distant shores
    bring tribute to him.
May the kings of Sheba and Seba
    present him gifts.
11 May all kings bow down to him
    and all nations serve him.

12 For he will deliver the needy who cry out,
    the afflicted who have no one to help.
13 He will take pity on the weak and the needy
    and save the needy from death.
14 He will rescue them from oppression and violence,
    for precious is their blood in his sight.

15 Long may he live!
    May gold from Sheba be given him.
May people ever pray for him
    and bless him all day long.
16 May grain abound throughout the land;
    on the tops of the hills may it sway.
May the crops flourish like Lebanon
    and thrive[c] like the grass of the field.
17 May his name endure forever;
    may it continue as long as the sun.

Then all nations will be blessed through him,[d]
    and they will call him blessed.

18 Praise be to the Lord God, the God of Israel,
    who alone does marvelous deeds.
19 Praise be to his glorious name forever;
    may the whole earth be filled with his glory.
Amen and Amen.

The Use of Biblical Typologies for Political Gain

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Over at Baptist News Global, Rob Sellers, professor of theology and missions emeritus at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon Seminary in Abilene, Texas, offers a nice overview of the way that Trump’s evangelical supporters use biblical typologies (King Cyrus, King David, Caesar, Jesus) to advance their political agenda.  (Click here for some background on the image above.  For some reason Bob Smietana’s byline is on this article).

Here is a taste of Sellers’s piece:

Efforts to give Trump the standing of Abraham Lincoln or Ronald Reagan are strained, if not nonsensical, yet they don’t come close to matching the illogical contortions required to compare the president to positive, or even heroic, models in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. This growing tendency should concern all Americans who claim to revere the Bible and desire to live into its vision.

These biblical comparisons to Trump fall into two categories. One, not surprisingly, is those human figures who in their lifetime were a king, emperor or even a queen. Is it only coincidental that all of these counterparts are elite, wealthy and powerful royalty? Where are the ordinary, middle-class citizens, much less the impoverished, marginalized and powerless commoners, with whom this president is identified?

As if to correct the perception that Trump can only reflect the “top one percent” of ancient society, the other, much more startling typology is Jesus himself – a suffering servant “despised and rejected” (Isaiah 53:3), yet whose person and work were acclaimed in messianic phrases, both confessional and laudatory. These references especially satisfy Trump, who sees himself, especially during the impeachment proceedings, as a persecuted victim who is absolutely worthy of adoration and praise.

Read the entire piece here.

The New King Cyrus Wants to Bomb the Old King Cyrus’s Tomb

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The tomb of Cyrus the Great is located in Iran

Back in March 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo compared Donald Trump to Queen Esther, the Queen who persuaded the king of Persia not to destroy the Jews.  Watch this:

It now looks like the new Queen Esther may want to obliterate the tomb of the original Queen Esther.

Some of you may remember that Donald Trump recently threatened to destroy Iranian cultural sites.  Here is his tweet:

Today at Religion News Service, Yonat Shimron reports on the cultural sites in Iran that may some interest to American evangelicals.  One of those sites just happens to be the tomb of Esther.  Here is Shimron:

Located in Hamadan, the tomb is believed by some to house the remains of the biblical Queen Esther and her cousin (or by some accounts, uncle) Mordechai. It is the most important pilgrimage site for Jews in the country.

Esther, as described in the Bible, was the Jewish queen of the Persian king Ahasuerus. In the Book of Esther, Mordechai informs her of a plot to kill the Jews, and together they work to save Jews throughout the Persian Empire from annihilation.

The exact date of the 50-foot-tall brick dome’s origin is disputed. An outer chamber holds tombs of famous rabbis. The interior chamber features Hebrew writing along the walls and holds two carved sarcophagi, with the two burial plots for Esther and Mordechai.

Back in November, a court evangelical by the name of Jim Garlow, seemed to claim that Trump was another Daniel, the prophet who refused to compromise his Jewish faith during the Babylonian captivity.

Well, it looks the new Daniel wants to bomb the tomb of the old Daniel.  Here is Shimron:

There are many places that claim to be the traditional burial place of the biblical prophet Daniel, but this one, in Susa, Iran, is the most widely accepted. According to the biblical book by the same name, Daniel was taken to Babylon after the destruction of Jerusalem. There, he was rescued from lions with the aid of the prophet Jeremiah. The apocalyptic genre of the Book of Daniel is important to Jews, Christians and Muslims. Above the mausoleum of Daniel is a conical-shaped building.

But wait!  This gets better.  Many evangelicals believe that Donald Trump is the new King Cyrus.  Some of them even sell Cyrus prayer coins.

Well, it looks like Trump wants to bomb the tomb of the old King Cyrus.  Here, again, is Shimron:

Many evangelicals have compared Trump to King Cyrus, who became the first emperor of Persia. Cyrus is celebrated multiple times in the Bible for freeing a population of Jews who were held captive in Babylon — an act some consider to have made him anointed by God. Cyrus died in 530 B.C. and is buried in Pasargadae, an archaeological site about 56 miles from the modern city of Shiraz. According to literary sources, more than two centuries later, Alexander the Great ordered his tomb to be restored.

 

Some More Thoughts on the Populist Critique of “Elite Evangelicals”

Trump iN Dallas

For most evangelical Christians, the message of the Gospel transcends the identity categories we place on human beings.  All men and women are sinners in need of redemption.  Citizenship in the Kingdom of God, made possible by Jesus’s death and resurrection, is available to all human beings regardless of their race, class, or gender.

I also think that most evangelicals believe that good Christians strive to live Holy Spirit-filled lives that conform to the moral teachings of the Bible. In other words, evangelical Christians follow the 10 Commandments, Jesus’s teachings in  the Gospels (including the Sermon on the Mount), and the ethical demands of the New Testament epistles.

Since Mark Galli wrote his Christianity Today editorial calling for the removal of Donald Trump, the evangelical defenders of the POTUS have been playing the populist card. Let’s remember that the populist card is an identity politics card.

The opponents of Christianity Today have tried to paint Galli and other evangelical anti-Trumpers as “elites” who look down their noses at uneducated or working class evangelicals.  In their minds, Galli and his ilk are guilty of the same kind of supposed moral preening as university professors, Barack Obama, and the progressive legislators known as “The Squad.”  They view these educated evangelicals–some of whom they might worship with on Sunday mornings–through the lens of class-based politics rather than as fellow believers in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

This populist argument has come from a variety of sectors, including First Things magazine (here and here), the court evangelicals (here), and Calvinist Front Porcher and American religious historian Darryl Hart (here).

So I ask: Has Trump’s class-based identity politics co-opted Christian ethics?

Trump has openly lied or misrepresented the truth. He has engaged in speech that is misogynistic, nativist, and racist. He has advanced policies that have separated children from their parents.  He regularly demonizes and degrades his political enemies.  It seems like these things, on the basis of biblical morality, are always wrong, regardless of whether an educated person or an uneducated person brings them to our attention.  Last time I checked, the minor prophets and John the Baptist did not have Ph.Ds.

Mark Galli of Christianity Today has offered a stinging moral criticism of Trump.  We can debate whether Trump’s actions in Ukraine are impeachable, but Galli is on solid ground when he says the president is “grossly immoral.”

Is it right to say that a Christian is “out of touch” when he calls out such immoral behavior?  (Or maybe one might take evangelical theologian Wayne Grudem’s approach and try to make a case that Trump’s indiscretions are few and inconsequential).

Would a non-college educated factory worker in the Midwest who claims the name of Jesus Christ think that racism, misogyny, nativism, the degradation of one’s enemies, and lying are moral problems?  Wouldn’t any Christian, formed by the teachings of a local church and the spiritual disciplines (as opposed to the daily barrage of Fox News), see the need to condemn such behavior?  What does social class have to do with it?  Shouldn’t one’s identity in the Gospel and its moral implications for living transcend class identity?

For those who are lamenting disunion in the church, I have another question:  Shouldn’t the church be an otherworldly, counter-cultural institution that finds some unity in the condemnation of immoral behavior in the corridors of national power?  Or should we take our marching orders from the divisive, class-based identity politics of Donald Trump?

Is the United States of America in the Bible?

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Short answer: NO.

Bible scholar Pete Enns explains:

America is not in the Bible.

In no way, shape, or form.

Not a hint. Not a whiff.

America is not in the Bible, not even here:

If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land. (2 Chronicles 7:14)

This verse gets cited a lot in American politics. But “my people” refers to the people of Judah, the survivors of the 6th century BCE Babylonian Exile, who have returned to their homeland and are humbly seeking God to rejuvenate their kingdom.

This passage has nothing to do with America or any political entity other than the ancient theocracy of Judah.

It is not proof of God’s stamp of approval on our political actions, no matter how many speeches end with “God bless the United States of America.”

It cannot leap over the millennia and simply be mapped onto American democracy.

It is not a blueprint for how to ensure that God will “Make America Great Again.”

It is not justification for privileged Evangelicals to impose their moral vision through political means.

It is not an invitation to perpetuate tribal thinking and see ourselves as closer to God than, say, Canada or Mexico.

If anyone wants to bring this passage into the present, let it be on the level of their own lives and the life of their church (if I may restrict my comments to the Christian tradition).

See this passage as a call for followers of Jesus and public Christian leaders to be humble, pray, seek God’s face, and turn from their wicked ways. Let it be, in other words, a call to inner spiritual transformation.

When that inner work is taken to heart, it will be hard indeed to see how anyone could ever countenance thinking that the Infinite Creator of the infinite cosmos could be pinning the divine hope on one small landmass in the western hemisphere that decides to write itself into an ancient Jewish story.

Read the rest here.

Pete Buttigieg and Proverbs 14:31

Buttigieg 3

Some of you may recall that Pete Buttigieg quoted scripture on Monday night during the Democratic debate.  He said: “So-called conservative senators right now in the Senate are blocking a bill to raise the minimum wage when Scripture says that whoever oppresses the poor taunts their maker.” Buttigieg was quoting from Proverbs 14:31, which says “Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.”

Over at Christianity Today, Kate Shellnutt asked some evangelical leaders about whether or not Buttigieg used this verse correctly.  Most believed that he did use it correctly, but also could not resist mentioning (or implying) that he is pro-choice and gay.

Here, for example, is Shellnutt on Andrew T. Walker‘s response to Buttigieg:

Andrew T. Walker, senior fellow in Christian ethics at the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), tweeted his opposition to Buttigieg’s line: “It never fails to baffle how progressives can appeal to the Bible to arrive at an exact minimum wage ($15, according to Buttigieg), yet ignore, reject, or plead ambiguity on the Bible’s teaching on marriage and abortion.”

This is a strange response.  I don’t think Buttigieg was using the Bible to “arrive at an exact minimum wage” of $15.  He was simply articulating a biblical principle.

Read Shellnutt’s piece here.

Thinking Critically About the Museum of the Bible

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Over at Religion News Service, Yonat Shimron talks with Jill Hicks-Keeton, co-editor (with Cavan Concannon) of The Museum of the Bible: A Critical Introduction.  Full disclosure:  I have an essay in this book titled “Letting the Bible Do Its Work on Behalf of Christian America: The Founding Era at the Museum of the Bible.”

Here is a taste of the interview:

Why does this museum demand so much attention?

Part of the reason is the money invested in it. It’s in a very public place, near the National Mall in Washington, D.C. One might even think, mistakenly, that it’s a Smithsonian. This museum is poised to have some influence on the way that the public understands the Bible. Our job as educators in the field of biblical studies is to use the museum as an opportunity to teach a wider public about the academic study of the Bible and its history.

What are some of the major criticisms of the scholars?Museum of Bible Intro

If one were to read all essays, they make a case that the museum is deeply intertwined with the evangelicalism of the founding Green family. Many people say it’s not a problem for people to use private money to invest in something they think is important, (but) we bristle at the public representation of their project. They say they have no perspective and no agenda. We don’t think that’s possible or true.

Are scholars saying the museum should come out and say what its perspective is?

That’s one way to rectify what they think is wrong. But the volume is not written for the museum. Our job as scholars is to analyze and catalog and chronicle what’s happening with how the Bible is represented. If the museum leadership doesn’t make changes as a result of the book, we won’t feel like the book has failed. It’s written for a wider audience and not in order to change the museum.

Read the entire interview here.

The Bible: Whites Used It to Justify Slavery and Africans Used It to Promote Freedom

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Check out Julie Zauzmer’s nice piece on the Bible and slavery at The Washington Post.  It draws from some of the best scholars on slavery, American religion, and the Bible, including Mark Noll and Yolanda Pierce.  Here is a taste:

As America commemorates the 400th anniversary of the creation of representative government in what would become the United States, and the first documented recording of captive Africans being brought to its shores, it is also grappling with the ways the country justified slavery. Nowhere is that discussion more fraught than in its churches.

“Christianity was proslavery,” said Yolanda Pierce, the dean of the divinity school at Howard University. “So much of early American Christian identity is predicated on a proslavery theology. From the naming of the slave ships, to who sponsored some of these journeys including some churches, to the fact that so much of early American religious rhetoric is deeply intertwined . . . with slaveholding: It is proslavery.” Some Christian institutions, notably Georgetown University in the District, are engaged in a reckoning about what it means that their past was rooted in slaveholding. But others have not confronted the topic. “In a certain sense, we’ve never completely come to terms with that in this nation,” Pierce said.

The Africans who were brought to America from 1619 onward carried with them diverse religious traditions. About 20 to 30 percent were Muslim, Pierce said. Some had learned of Christianity before coming to America, but many practiced African spiritual traditions.

Early on, many slaveholders were not concerned with the spiritual well-being of Africans. But few had qualms about using Christianity to justify slavery.

Some theologians said it was providence that had brought Africans to America as slaves, since their enslavement would allow them to encounter the Christian message and thus their eternal souls would be saved, said Mark Noll, a historian of American Christianity.

Read the entire piece here.

Even White Evangelicals Oppose Trump’s Bible-Signing

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Check out journalist Joanna Piacenza piece at Morning Consult.  According to a Morning Consult poll, most white evangelicals think that Trump’s signing of Bibles at an Alabama Baptist church earlier this month was “inappropriate.”  U.S. adults, Republicans, Christians, white Catholics, and white mainline Protestants also think Trump’s signing of Bibles was “inappropriate.” The only identity group that thinks the president’s signing of Bible is appropriate are Trump voters, but only by a 43% to 42% margin.

Read the piece here.  I was happy to help Piacenza with her story.

How Do We “Render Unto Caesar” in a Democracy?

CaesarThe following exchange takes place between Jesus and the Pharisees in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 22: 16-22.

Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words.16 And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances.[b] 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius.[c] 20 And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.

Several Trump evangelicals are using this verse to justify their support for the POTUS.

Over at the Anxious Bench, Chris Gehrz asks a question about coins:

So how might we hear Matthew 22:21 differently if we’re looking at the metallic relief of a long-dead president who held limited power for a relatively short period of time, rather than that of a living emperor with the hubris to believe himself a figure of unimpeachable power?

Great question.

Gehrz, a history professor at Bethel University, adds:

Perhaps we’d then hear “render unto Caesar” as a reminder that, if American Christians owe limited allegiance to any secular authority, they owe it to no one person, but to the American people, who govern themselves through elected representatives sworn to protect the Constitution. The same Constitution that keeps even presidents from benefiting financially from their position, from obstructing the work of those who investigate lawbreaking, or from inventing fake national emergencies in order to subvert the work of those who make laws.

So render to God what is God’s: your image-bearing self commanded to love other image-bearers. And render to Trump what is Trump’s: your responsibilities as an American citizen to dissent from unwise and unjust uses of American power and to hold American demagogues accountable for their attempts to play Caesar.

Read Gehrz’s entire piece here.  It deserves a wide readership, especially for his thoughts on court evangelical Jerry Falwell Jr.’s use of this verse.

Trump is Signing Bibles in Alabama

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Some of my thoughts on this story can be found in Sarah Pulliam-Bailey’s coverage at The Washington Post.  Here is a taste:

John Fea, a historian at Messiah College, a Christian school in Pennsylvania, said he has never heard of any president signing Bibles before. The American Bible Society, he said, produced a Bible commemorating President Dwight D. Eisenhower, but it came out after his death. There’s a tradition in many families that generations would sign a Bible.

Trump’s actions, Fea said, fit his appeal to many white evangelicals in the South.

“The fact that people are bringing Bibles to him says a lot about them,” Fea said. “It seems to imply that they see him not only as a political leader but a spiritual savior for the nation.”

Trump has appealed to them as someone who can protect them from the decline of a Christian nation, Fea said.

“The message of the Bible represents for many white evangelicals a source of spiritual comfort in the midst of suffering,” he said. “It says volumes about how evangelicals see … Trump as a figure sent by God to protect them from all storms of life.”

Read the entire piece here.

It is worth noting that Trump is signing a Bible distributed for disaster relief by the American Bible Society.

Oh the irony of it all!

When Bibles Survive Fires

Bible Cause Cover

Over at The Washington Post, Lindsey Bever reports on Bibles that survived a church fire in West Virginia.  Here is a taste:

Within hours, the small West Virginia church where the Rev. Phil Farrington and his congregation had worshiped for the past several years was gone.

The pastor had received a call from the fire department early Sunday morning, telling him that there was a fire at his church, Freedom Ministries, in Daniels, about 70 miles southeast of Charleston.

“We rushed out there,” he told The Washington Post on Tuesday. “I sat down on the ground and cried and watched it burn.”

Firefighters from several departments worked for hours to beat the blaze — as the flames swallowed the structure and smoke billowed high into the air. Fire officials said the structure sustained heavy damage. But when it was over and firefighters were combing through the rubble, they uncovered church possessions that had survived: Bibles. Farrington said the sacred texts had been scattered throughout the sanctuary, most in seat-back pockets for parishioners and one that was kept on the pulpit for him.

The Coal City Fire Department posted pictures on Facebook showing the Bibles, which had been collected into a pile on the soot-stained ground.

“Though odds were against us, God was not,” the fire department wrote in the post over the weekend. “Picture this, a building so hot that at one point in time, firefighters had to back out. In your mind, everything should be burned, ashes. Not a single bible was burned and not a single cross was harmed! Not a single firefighter was hurt!”

Farrington said he sees it as a sign from God that nearly two dozen Bibles were untouched, as were three crosses — two wooden crosses on the walls inside the church and one on the rooftop made of stone.

“In the midst of the fire, God’s word will always stand,” he said.

Read the entire piece here.

This reminded me of the following passage from my book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (p.64).

In 1840, ABS agent Sylvester Holmes stumbled upon a woman near Nashville, Tennessee, trapped in an abusive marriage with a “whiskey lover” who became enraged whenever she read her Bible.  One day that husband, presumably in a drunken stupor, decided he was going to burn his wife’s Bible.  He ripped it from her hands and threw it into the fire where it was “consumed to ashes.”  As soon as the Bible began to burn, the “wretched” husband lost the use of his hand and could not speak.  In a similar story, a German man living in Syracuse, New York, took the Bible he received from an ABS agent and threw it into a fire, but he “could not make it burn.”  He eventually took the Bible out of the fire and, “in its singed state,” began to read it, leading him to request another Bible from the agent.  

Is the Push for Public School Bible Courses an Excuse to Spread the Gospel?

Bible in Schools

University of Pennsylvania historian Jonathan Zimmerman thinks so.  Here is a taste of his recent piece at USA Today:

The Supreme Court barred devotional Bible reading and recitations of the Lord’s Prayer in public schools in 1963. But the ruling also said courses about the Bible were permissible, so long as they were “presented objectively as part of a secular program of education.”  

Evangelical Christians promptly began a full-court press for Bible classes, which were hardly objective or secular. As I noted in my 2002 book, “Whose America?: Culture Wars in the Public Schools,” a Florida teacher of “Bible history” said his class had helped recruit more than 100 new members into an after-school “Youth for Christ” course. And in South Carolina, a graduate of her own school’s “Bible survey” said the course had persuaded her to become a missionary. “I want everybody to have what I have,” she told her teacher, “And I’d like to spend my life sharing it with them.”

Both of these accounts appeared in the evangelical press, which didn’t disguise the purpose of the Bible classes: to spread the Christian Gospel. And that seems to be the same goal behind a recent round of state legislative proposals to enhance “Bible literacy” in our public schools.

Read the rest here.

I agree with Zimmerman.  I see no other reason why evangelicals, and mostly evangelicals, are pushing for these Bible classes.  At the heart of all of this is the longstanding evangelical idea that God does not need human agents to spread his message in the Bible.  Just give kids a Bible and “let the Bible do its work.”  In other words, if kids are exposed to the Bible, God will miraculously illuminate the text and some will embrace its life-changing and live-saving message.  This is Evangelicalism 101.  And it has a long history.

For example, the American Bible Society regularly described its mission in terms of the “Bible doing its work” without a teacher or preacher.  Here is a passage from my book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford University Press, 2015):

The ABS believed that the Bible had the spiritual power to send people…on an entirely new trajectory of life….The agents working on behalf of the Bible Cause were appointed to deliver the word of God wherever it was needed, but they also believed that the Bible was a supernatural book that could lead people to salvation without the aid of a preacher or teacher….The Bible, without any commentary, could bring people into the Kingdom of God, defeat a growing Catholic menace, and advance the cause of Protestantism in America.  Though ABS agents often took opportunities to preach and teach, most of the time they just dropped off a copy of the Bible at a house, on a train or ship, or to someone they met on the road–and let the Spirit do the rest….Bible Cause Cover

ABS publications were fond of using the phrase “the Bible doing its work” to describe the effects the book had on sinners and potential converts.  For example, as he prepared to send his son off to college a Christian father worried that the young scholar would lose his faith during the course of the experience.  So he purchased an “elegant copy” of the Bible and, without his son’s knowledge, placed it at the bottom of the trunk.  Shortly after the son’s arrival at college the father’s worst fears were realized.  “The restraints of a pious education were soon broken off,” and the young man  “proceeded from speculation to doubts, and from doubts to denial of the reality of religion.”  One day, while “rummaging through his trunk ,” he found the “sacred deposit” that his father had placed there.  In a spirit of indignation, the young man decided that he would use the Bible to clean his razor after his daily shave.  Each day, he used the blade to tear a leaf or two out of the “Holy Book” until half of the volume was destroyed.  But one morning, as he was “committing this outrage”  to the text, several verses met his eye and struck him “like a barbed arrow to his heart.”  These verses were like a “sermon” to him, awakening him to the wrath of God and leading him to the “foot of the cross.”  There was no need to provide rational answers to the young man’s skepticism–the “Sacred Volume” had “done its work.”  It has led him “to repose on the mercy of God, which is sufficient for the chief of sinners….”

The managers and agents of the ABS lived in an enchanted world where books in barns could convict men of sin and those who burned sacred scriptures suffered negative consequences.  This was  a world in which men and women could pick up a copy of the Bible on a ship or a railcar and immediately turn to a verse of passage that spoke to a specific need.  Though there were some who probably believed that the Bible was a kind of talisman or amulet, most ABS agents believed that the Bible’s apparent magical powers could be easily explained by an appeal to the third person of the Trinity–the Holy Spirit.  When those in charge of the ABS talked about the Bible “doing its work,” what they were really saying was the Holy Spirit was illuminating the Bible in such a way that touched the hearts of those who encountered it and its message.  Though the influence of the Spirit’s work in shedding light on the message of the Bible could come quickly and abruptly, as in the case of an evangelical revival, it usually had a “slow, silent, effective influence” on the reader.  This was the same kind of spiritual power that “moved the deep tides of the ocrans and holds and guides the planets in their spheres.”  If the ABS could just get the pure word of God, without note or comment, in the hands of every person in America, a slow and steady spiritual and moral transformation would capture the nation.”

Today the final sentences in the paragraph above could be rewritten this way:  “If the Christian Right could get the pure word of God, even without spiritual or proselytizing teachers, in every school in America, a slow and steady spiritual and moral transformation would capture the nation.”

The Bible Never Left Public Schools

Trump and Bible

No one knows more about Bible courses in public schools than Southern Methodist University religion professor Mark Chancey.  Today Chancey weighed-in on the recent Donald Trump tweet about the Bible.  (Some of you may recall that we posted on this yesterday).

Here is a taste of Mark’s piece at The Washington Post:

I can’t heartily endorse Trump’s tweet because its words reflect a deep misunderstanding about the way the Bible, in the present and the past, has been handled in public school.

In fact, the measures to which he seems to be referring, state-level bills promoting study of the Bible in public schools, aren’t new and aren’t necessary. It’s already legal to teach about the Bible in U.S. public schools, but the topic has been swallowed in recent decades by politics and culture war that blur that fact. What American public (or private) schoolchildren in 2019 desperately need is broad religious literacy. The backstory of the measures Trump cites, unfortunately, instead makes clear that our youth are sometimes being subjected more to culture war than cultural literacy.

A little history: Courses like the one Trump mentioned, focused on teaching the Christian and Jewish Bibles, have been around for a century, and in most states, at least some schools teach them. But even in their heyday, they were never omnipresent. The president’s expression of nostalgic longing (“Starting to turn back? Great!”) reflects misconceptions of the Bible’s historical role in the schoolhouse.

But perhaps that’s not a coincidence. The idea that a certain Christian-centric view of the Bible was always taught to American public schoolchildren until very recently feeds into a narrative of loss and restoration popular with his base.

Read the entire piece here.

What Should We Make of Trump’s Tweet About Bible Classes in Schools

Here some context from

I have written about these Bible classes before.  So has Southern Methodist University professor Mark Chancey, who is an expert on such classes.

I would refer you to these posts:

post on Kentucky’s attempt to start Bible classes in public schools.  It draws from my own work on the Bible in America, including The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford University Press, 2015).

post on Mark Chancey’s work.

Finally, I have written extensively about this idea of “turning back” in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

Believe Me 3d

What is the Great Commission?

Great Commission

Yesterday I did a post on John Allen Chau, the missionary killed at the hands of an indigenous tribe on the island of New Sentinel off the coast of India.  You can read it here.

It is hard to gauge exactly how the post was received based on “likes,” retweets, and Facebook comments, but I think its fair to say that about half of the readers (or at least those who responded in some way) liked the piece and half of the readers hated it.  Most of my academic historian friends disagreed (some stronger than others).  Most of my evangelical friends seemed to like it.  This doesn’t surprise me.

I have received comments on almost every point in the post, but I was particularly struck by the criticism of something I wrote under point #1:

The Great Commission is one of the reasons I remain an evangelical. If you are a Christian and do not believe in evangelism, missions, or “making disciples” in the world then you need to explain to me why you take Jesus’s words seriously in some places of the Gospels (love your neighbor, caring for the poor, etc.) and not in Matthew 28:16-20.  It seems to me that the Great Commission of Matthew 28 is something more than simply, “go into the world and do acts of social justice.”  If this is what the Great Commission means, then I am not sure how Christianity is any different than the Peace Corps or some other non-religious agency.  It seems to me that the requirement to “make disciples” and “baptize them in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit” requires something more….

Here is one tweet that is representative of the criticism I received:

Several folks like Mr. Bailey have suggested that I don’t believe in social justice.  Not true.  Anyone who has read this blog or read Believe Me would know that this is not the case.  Here was my response to Mr. Bailey:

So I ask the question again?  What does the Great Commission mean to Christians?  Not just evangelical Christians, but Christians of all stripes?  Here is the passage from Matthew 28:16-20:

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go.  When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.  Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

As I noted above in the excerpt from my Chau post, I am specifically curious to hear how Christians interpret the phrases “make disciples” and “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  Is the Great Commission just about caring for the sick and feeding the poor?  Or is it something more? What does “baptize” mean here?  And if it does not mean literal water baptism (or baptism with the Holy Spirit?), then how do we distinguish what is a literal exhortation in the Gospels from a symbolic or metaphorical passage? It seems that progressive Christians take the words and message of Jesus very literally when it comes to his comments about the poor, the rich, or the stranger.  I take them literally too.  But is there something I should know about biblical scholarship on Matthew 28 that would lead me to conclude that I should not take literally Jesus’s words about “making disciples” and “baptizing” them in the name of the Trinity?

And if the Great Commission is just related to acts of social justice, then how is Christianity any different than a non-religious group that does these things?

I am not necessarily interested in hearing from conservative evangelicals.  I already know how you are going to answer this question.  I want to hear from progressive Christians (evangelical or mainline Protestant) or Catholics or even Mormons.  What does the Great Commission mean in your understanding of Christian faith?  How do your churches interpret it?

Maybe I need to go to the library and take out a few biblical commentaries.

I apologize in advance to readers who are not interested in this conversation.  Thanks for indulging me as I work out some of these questions in such a public forum.

The Bible and Refugees

Migrant-caravan-travels-towards-U.S

Roman Catholic theologian and College of the Holy Cross professor Mathew Schmalz reflects on what the Bible says about immigration and refugees.  The Conversation published this piece in January, but it has more relevance than ever right now.

A taste:

Of course, in Christianity the strong admonitions toward treating the stranger with dignity have coexisted with actions that would seem to indicate an opposite attitude: pogroms against Jews, slavery, imperialism and colonialism have been sanctioned by Christians who nonetheless would have affirmed biblical principles regarding caring for those who seem “other” or “alien.”

Indeed, when it comes to the specific questions concerning building a wall on America’s border with Mexico or welcoming immigrants and refugees, some Christians would argue that doing so does not violate any biblical precepts concerning hospitality to the stranger, since the issue is one of legality and, of course, a good number of Christians did indeed support Donald Trump’s candidacy for the presidency.

Other Christians have taken a diametrically different position, and have called for cities and educational institutions to be set apart as “safe zones” for undocumented immigrants.

It is true that the application of biblical principles to contemporary matters of policy is less than clear to the many Christians who have taken opposing sides regarding how the United States should deal with immigrants, undocumented workers and refugees.

However, in my reading of the Bible, the principles regarding welcoming the stranger are broad-reaching and unambiguous.

Read the entire piece here.