The Museum of the Bible: Washington, D.C.’s next battle zone?
“It’s a museum of biblical proportions— and it is stirring controversies to match,” said David Smith in TheGuardian.com. The new Museum of the Bible opened last week in a block-wide, eight-story building near the National Mall, welcoming visitors to a collection of exhibits as high-tech as any in the world. The $500 million project is the brainchild of Hobby Lobby president Steve Green, the evangelical billionaire who won a Supreme Court case freeing business owners to opt out of providing employees insurance coverage for contraceptives. Though “not the monument to creationism that some liberals feared,” the museum hasn’t escaped criticism of either its message or the provenance of certain holdings. In July, Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million for illegally importing thousands of artifacts that had been smuggled out of Iraq. Those items, at least, never reached the museum.
“There is little controversial about the museum space itself,” said Christine Rosen in The Weekly Standard. The building looks the part of a contemporary exhibition hall, and the museum’s mission seems simply to be to encourage people of all faiths to engage with the Bible—its contents, history, and impact. The three main exhibition floors mix interactive kiosks with traditional displays of ancient scrolls and tablets. But the structure also houses a Broadway-style theater, a children’s area, a theme park–style thrill ride, and a re-creation of 1st-century Nazareth, complete with olive trees. When I asked one of the actors dressed in period garb where I could find Jesus, he told me there would be no Jesus in the museum—too controversial. “Indeed, so dogged are the museum’s creators in their determination not to offend anyone’s sensibilities that they will no doubt receive some criticism from devout Christians.”
Non-believers will have different complaints, said Philip Kennicott in The Washington Post. Behind every exhibit lie certain unstated assumptions—“ that the Bible is the most important book in the world, that it has been transmitted through the ages with remarkable accuracy, and that it is fundamentally a blessing to mankind.” Sure, the museum acknowledges dark chapters such as the way Scripture was used to justify slavery and women’s second-class status. But it treats all the Bible’s stories as literally true, which not all Christians believe. To its credit, the museum deftly fuses entertainment and education “as well or better than any museum in the country.” But the curators also promote the idea that one sweeping story is carrying humanity forward to better things, with the Bible at the heart of the action. That’s an exciting idea—“unless, of course, you don’t believe it.”