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 advertising, 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.