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.

CBC News on the Museum of the Bible

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Canadians are apparently interested in this week’s opening of the Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C.  I was happy to help Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reporter Matt Kwong make some sense of this museum.  Here is a taste of his piece at CBC News:

A museum attraction on the second-floor Impact collection called Washington Revelations is feeding evangelical scholar John Fea’s doubts. The multi-sensory “4D” ride takes visitors soaring over D.C. landmarks to highlight scripture inscribed on landmarks, such as the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress and the Lincoln Memorial.

To Fea, who teaches history at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, the idea mirrors evangelical activist David Barton’s WallBuilders movement, which promotes a view the United States was founded as a Christian nation. A signature program of the WallBuilders is to bring ministers and state politicians on tours of Washington to show them places bearing biblical verse.

“There’s a temptation there to send the message that America is a certain kind of nation, a Christian nation,” Fea said. “A nation where the Bible should be important and prominent in shaping public life. In other words, [suggesting] we were a Bible nation from the beginning.”

Though he admires the museum project in concept, he questions whether the building just three blocks from Congress will service a conservative vision of American Christian nationalism.

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.

Can the Museum of the Bible Avoid Controversy?

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In the past week I have done a few interviews with reporters about the Museum of the Bible, a Washington D.C. museum scheduled to open next month.  I have written about the Museum before and with the opening less than one month away, I expect to write about it again.  A few days after the official opening I will be at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) to speak on a panel devoted to Joel Baden and Candida Moss’s new book Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby.

A recent Washington Post piece on the museum is revealing.  Evangelical historians Mark Noll and Grant Wacker both weigh-in on their experiences with the museum.  So does Steven Friesen, an officer at the SBL.

Here is a taste:

Mark Noll, one of the country’s most prominent experts on American Christian history, served as an adviser. He compared the Museum of the Bible to the Newseum, another huge private museum.

“Obviously the museum is there to make people think better or think kindly about the effects of Scripture in U.S. history,” he said. “But I did think they were trying to be as nonpartisan as they could.”

Some remain skeptical that the museum’s viewpoint will be neutral. Steven Friesen, an officer at the Society of Biblical Literature, the largest association of biblical scholars, said there is debate in the academic community about whether to do research involving the Greens’ collection. He would advise fellow scholars to steer clear.

Friesen hasn’t seen the museum, but he believes from reading the website that its materials subtly promote a singular version of Scripture; indeed, the museum mostly omits discussion about how the Bible was compiled and which religious traditions believe which disputed books belong in the Bible. Museum staffers say the place for discussing issues such as sexuality and abortion, which aren’t mentioned in the exhibits, might be at events hosted at the museum; Friesen thinks those events are meant to draw in influential people to hear the Greens’ opinions on the culture wars.

“My guess is that they’ve worked very hard at covering what they would like to do, trying to hide the agenda that is behind the museum,” he said, defining that agenda as the promotion of their deep faith in the literal truth of the Bible.

The Bible has shaped cultures from Africa to Asia, Muslim to Mormon. But the 20-member leadership of the museum is almost entirely white, male and evangelical.

Grant Wacker, an expert on Christian history, said that he declined an invitation to join the leadership team because he was asked to sign a statement of faith. Wacker said he considers himself an evangelical Christian but that the statement went too far for him.

“It stressed, shall we say, factual accuracy [of the Bible] more than I could endorse,” he said.

Instead, he agreed to be one of the many scholars from diverse religious traditions to weigh in on drafts of some of the museum displays. The leadership team sought input repeatedly during the three-year construction process from experts from Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and secular backgrounds.

Read the entire piece here.

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.

Is There Time for Candida Moss and Joel Baden to Add a Postscript to Their New Book on Hobby Lobby?

Hobby LobbyBible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby is scheduled for release in the early fall. (I will be part of a panel on the book in November at the annual meeting of American Academy of Religion in Boston).  I’ll bet Moss and Baden want to add a postscript after recent news that Hobby Lobby, the family-owned company behind the Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C., will pay $3 million as part of a settlement after they illegally purchased ancient artifacts stolen from Iraq.

This does not bode well for the reputation of the Museum of the Bible, which is scheduled to open in November.  I hope the Green family, the evangelical Christians behind the museum, have some good public relations people.  They are going to need them in the next few months.

Here is Emma Green at The Atlantic:

Hobby Lobby purchased thousands of ancient artifacts smuggled out of modern-day Iraq via the United Arab Emirates and Israel in 2010 and 2011, attorneys for the Eastern District of New York announced on Wednesday. As part of a settlement, the American craft-supply mega-chain will pay $3 million and the U.S. government will seize the illicit artifacts. Technically, the defendants in the civil-forfeiture action are the objects themselves, yielding an incredible case name: The United States of America v. Approximately Four Hundred Fifty (450) Ancient Cuneiform Tablets; and Approximately Three Thousand (3,000) Ancient-Clay Bullae.

Under any circumstances, this case would be wild: It involves thousands of ancient artifacts that seem to have been stolen from Iraq, where the pillaging of antiquities has been rampant. The longstanding trade in antiquities of dubious provenance has become an especially sensitive topic in recent years, and a target of increased law-enforcement scrutiny: ISIS has made some untold millions—or billions—by selling ancient goods. While nothing in the case indicates that these objects were associated with any terrorist group, the very nature of smuggled goods means their provenance is muddy.

But the case really matters because of who’s involved. The members of the Green family, which owns the Hobby Lobby chain, are committed evangelical Christians who are probably most famous for their participation in a 2014 Supreme Court case, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which helped dismantle certain birth-control-coverage requirements of the Affordable Care Act. The Greens are big collectors of ancient antiquities; they’re also the primary visionaries and contributors behind the Museum of the Bible opening in Washington, D.C., this fall. Steve Green is the chairman of the board. The family’s famous name, now tied to a story of dealer intrigue and black markets, is likely to bring even further scrutiny and attention as they prepare to open their museum.

Read the rest here.

The United States of Hobby Lobby

Hobby LobbyIn October 2017, Joel Baden and Candida Moss will publish Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby (Princeton University Press).  Here is the publisher’s description:

Like many evangelical Christians, the Green family of Oklahoma City believes that America was founded as a Christian nation, based on a “biblical worldview.” But the Greens are far from typical evangelicals in other ways. The billionaire owners of Hobby Lobby, a huge nationwide chain of craft stores, the Greens came to national attention in 2014 after successfully suing the federal government over their religious objections to provisions of the Affordable Care Act. What is less widely known is that the Greens are now America’s biggest financial supporters of Christian causes–and they are spending hundreds of millions of dollars in an ambitious effort to increase the Bible’s influence on American society. In Bible Nation, Candida Moss and Joel Baden provide the first in-depth investigative account of the Greens’ sweeping Bible projects and the many questions they raise.

Bible Nation tells the story of the Greens’ rapid acquisition of an unparalleled collection of biblical antiquities; their creation of a closely controlled group of scholars to study and promote their collection; their efforts to place a Bible curriculum in public schools; and their construction of a $500 million Museum of the Bible near the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Bible Nation reveals how these seemingly disparate initiatives promote a very particular set of beliefs about the Bible–and raise serious ethical questions about the trade in biblical antiquities, the integrity of academic research, and more.

Bible Nation is an important and timely account of how a vast private fortune is being used to promote personal faith in the public sphere–and why it should matter to everyone.

In November I will be part of a review panel on the book at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion.  Here is the session:

S20-246 Use, Influence, and Impact of the Bible
11/20/2017

1:00 PM to 3:00 PM
Theme: The United States of Hobby Lobby

In this session, invited discussants will respond to Candida R. Moss and Joel S. Baden’s Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby (Princeton UP, 2017).

Mark Chancey, Southern Methodist University, Panelist
Malcolm Choat, Macquarie University, Panelist
Peter Manseau, Smithsonian Institution, Panelist
John Fea, Messiah College, Panelist

Looking forward to it.  Of course I wrote a bit about the relationship between Hobby Lobby and the American Bible Society in The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society.

The Museum of the Bible opens this Fall.