The Bible is big, according to the new Museum of the Bible. It’s also influential, easy to understand, relevant to everyday life, and very American. The museum also suggests that the Bible is not all that complex or challenging.
The museum announces its presence with a text-emblazoned portal, three stories of the first chapter of Genesis, presented as a massively resized version of the plates used by the Gutenberg Bible’s printer. The entrance hall features enormous overhead screens, on which an ever-changing rotation of evocative photographs signals the technological thrust of the museum’s displays. The building’s glass-walled, futuristic cap offers stunning views of the U.S. Capitol, just two blocks away.
Though founder Steve Green deflected attention during a press conference to the institution’s 50,000 founding donors, the Museum of the Bible is his brainchild. Green, president of Hobby Lobby, began collecting biblical artifacts in 2009, aiming to present them to the public in a format that would garner wide attention. A committed evangelical who has taken his turn in the culture wars, Green knows how to make a political statement. His museum aims to educate and to inspire, but those brassy yards of bas-relief text are also a way of claiming a permanent corner of the public square for his people, the people of the Bible.
The museum’s six floors include a 472-seat theater, a rooftop garden, two restaurants, and nearly a dozen halls for temporary exhibitions. The permanent collection includes a floor each devoted to the Bible’s history, narrative, and impact.
The impact floor is easily the most powerful space of the museum. Divided into three sections, the museum traces the influence of the Bible on American history, popular culture, and contemporary people. The American history section, with views toward the Capitol, provides an accurate and balanced description of the nation’s religious history. The personal Bibles of William Bradford, Abraham Lincoln, and Elvis are here, and one exhibit text describes the Bible’s understanding of kingship as “an early chapter in the history of limited government and constitutional thought.”
A series of point-counterpoint displays focus on a series of social disputes in which the Bible has played an important role. Samuel Seabury debates Benjamin Franklin about the theological propriety of revolution, while other believers debate the abolition of slavery and the place of religious instruction in public schools. The survey sidelines contemporary squabbles, ending when baby boomers were still adolescents.
The popular culture section exhaustively traces the Bible’s influence on literature, popular music, film, education, and medicine. A series of video screens feature contemporary entrepreneurs, scientists, humanitarians — and prisoners — offering testimony about how the Bible inspires and guides them. In another section, dropdown screens feature people speaking about their favorite Bible verses and times when the Bible has been helpful in facing personal crises. Many of the speakers are thoughtful and compelling, providing powerful models for sharing one’s faith.
The museum’s evangelical thrust is also evident in its contemporary room, which features a live-stream panoramic view of the Old City of Jerusalem, and a series of screens flashing the latest references to the Bible on Twitter, as well as the top Bible-focused web searches in countries across the world. Interactive screens invite visitors to offer adjectives to describe the Bible and to create Instagram-worthy placards of suitably uplifting texts (all from the NIV) against lush natural backgrounds.
The Bible’s narrative is treated through a three-section interactive experience. The center section is a village from the time of Christ, with costumed reenactors performing everyday tasks amid items that evoke Jesus’ parables. The New Testament is treated in an animated film, while a longer, 40-minute, Disney-style experience leads visitors through about a dozen stories from the Hebrew Bible, as the museum calls the Old Testament.
The narration of the film and the walk-through experience avoid any particular interpretive spin. The New Testament film sees Jesus entirely through the perspectives of different participants in the story (Peter, Mary of Magdala, the centurion, and Paul).
The Hebrew Bible section is careful to focus only on stories of deep importance to both Jews and Christians (there’s no sacrifice of Isaac). It does not mention prophets who promised a coming Redeemer. The closing scene of the spectacle is set in a darkened room lit by the many stars of Abraham’s vision. It includes a glowingly illuminated Torah scroll, as though the final goal and purpose of the Bible is really just the Bible.
The great weakness of the museum is its historical collection. The curators have purchased a massive quantity of material in just eight years, but most biblical artifacts and manuscripts of true significance are in the collections of national museums, universities, and religious institutions, which are loath to put them on the market.
The museum’s collection of antiquities is notably thin, focused especially on a few scraps of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and those of contested authenticity. Most of the large pieces in the biblical history section are reproductions (though one must often consult the fine print to notice). These have an apologetic aim, and include much of the archaeological evidence corroborating details of biblical history.
A visiting exhibition from Jerusalem in the museum’s basement, showcasing impressive discoveries from a single excavation in the Valley of Elah, shows just how meager the assorted pot fragments and partial stele in the permanent collection really are. The patristic-era and medieval material is slightly better, with a few handsome illuminated manuscripts, but all pale in quality to the few magnificent pieces from the Vatican Collection in one of the temporary exhibition halls.
The collection of Reformation and modern-era material is much stronger. Early English Bibles are represented in exhaustive detail, some in very fine copies. A striking room contains copies of thousands of contemporary Bibles, each in one of the world’s languages, with empty cases representing each human language that lacks a Bible.
There is some compensation for the quality of the artifacts in the extensive use of technology, a step that was probably inevitable given that most of the collection consists of books, otherwise viewable a page at a time. One interactive screen provides superb images of the Lindisfarne Gospels (they remain firmly in the British Library’s display case).
Another allows the visitor to use multispectral imaging to explore the different textual layers of one of the museum’s most important ancient manuscripts, the Codex Climaci Rescriptus, a palimpsest text originally from St. Catherine’s in the Sinai. The document includes ten different texts (biblical, liturgical, and devotional) that were written on the parchment over several centuries, each scratched off before being overwritten by the next.
Slightly more unnerving are the full-size video versions of John Wycliffe and Martin Luther who appear to state their case for personal Bible reading from behind realistic alcoves cut into the museum wall.
The Bible Museum fails in its aim to discuss the Bible’s place in history by sidelining its relationship to Christian worship. The connection of the Bible to the liturgical year and the Eucharist are ignored. One exhibit text suggests that medieval Christians largely printed biblical texts in their missals and breviaries because copying full biblical texts was too expensive, not considering that they might have thought prayer was an essential part of experiencing the Bible rightly. While there is a fairly large collection of Torah scroll covers, one searches in vain for a jeweled Gospel book. The canon formation process, which was presided over by bishops and placed major emphasis on liturgical use of texts, is ignored.
The museum also fails to account for the fact that Christians have traditionally read the Bible differently than Jews, as a text that finds its focus in the person and saving mission of Jesus Christ. Typology in any form has been scrubbed from its presentation of the Old Testament. I could not find a single artistic depiction of parallel stories from the two Testaments and the apocrypha is ignored.
At numerous press conferences, the Museum of the Bible’s officials have stressed their desire to gather many perspectives, to present a nondirective, journalistic experience to visitors. “We are not advocating for one faith perspective,” director Tony Zeiss said.
There’s a good deal of surface inclusivity. Important partnerships have clearly been formed with Jewish scholars and religious leaders, who have a prominent presence in the museum’s content. An Israeli rabbi will write a Torah scroll for several months as an artist in residence.
But the true convictions at play are not easily masked. Inevitably the Museum of the Bible reflects the Bible as Steve Green has encountered it in his life. This is a museum of the Bible as encountered in evangelical quiet time: personal, inspiring, applicable — and probably a little political.
There’s nothing wrong with that. Tens of millions of Christians experience the Bible in just this way every day. But in the Bible’s long and complex history, this approach is a minority report. The Museum of the Bible falls short in its failure to cultivate a churchly imagination. This challenges its claims to tell an authentic story about the founding text of the Christian faith.