Opinion: The Museum of the Bible is an intellectual travesty. Here’s why.
Beneath a gleaming exterior, new D.C. museum disguises history with omission
Its richly-textured bricks suggest age. Yet its dazzling atrium crowns the building with the apparent gleaming legitimacy of the future.
Three blocks south of the National Mall’s complex of Smithsonian institutions, a new museum has opened its doors. And though it has been deliberately sited to be in close proximity to those public, free museums, the message it bears does not seek to stimulate thought. It delivers an archaic political statement through means that disorient and confuse. And as such, it is the emblematic symbol of our dumbed-down, Twitter-rant world.
Welcome to the Museum of the Bible. Its $500 million cost was mostly borne by the fabulously wealthy and evangelical owners of the Hobby Lobby craft supply chain. In this case, they have crafted what can be generously called an ‘experience,’ and what can be more accurately described as ‘Christian-Manifest-Destiny-fantasy-world.’
An adventure 2000 years in the making
When you pass through the Museum of the Bible’s doors, you are greeted by newfangled security measures that seem straight out of the disease-containment procedures in The Andromeda Strain. A hexagonal grid of microwave-like boxes is where you deposit your bags for screening. As you close the door on your valuables, a red light behind the opaque plexiglass door shines. After you make your way through a metal detector yourself, you can retrieve your bag from the corresponding microwave-looking-device on the other side, where another opaque plexiglass door flashes green. With this high-concept technology, you half-expect a security guard to affirm, “Welcome to Westworld.”
Instead, as you make your way further into the museum’s great hall, you are greeted by a blast of music that strongly resembles the generic ancient Mediterranean yearnings of the 2000 Ridley Scott film, Gladiator. The evocative strings and distant female wailing suggest you’ve entered a mystical world — the world of the Bible.
Despite the overproduced ancient aura, the Museum of the Bible shares its business model with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and therefore purports to have the same intellectual validity. “Do you have tickets?” a docent asks. No, you don’t, but guess what? You don’t actually need any to enter. Admission is free, except not really, because they ask for a suggested donation. No tithe is required, but the naïve, painfully-friendly faces behind the desk inflame your pity.
After you navigate that transaction, you at last enter the museum. Even on a Friday afternoon, it’s packed with church groups, and like many Washington museums, you notice the voices of more than one language. Perhaps the Bible just has that kind of transnational appeal. Bottom-line, it seems like a perfectly ordinary museum.
And since most museums tend to “start” at the top and their exhibits descend in some sort of order, you assume the same must be true here. You enter the elevator, which is flanked on all sides by a looping, digitally-remastered video of wheat-fields on a Mediterranean shoreline. The Gladiator-esque music is in full force here, fomenting anticipation for such a mystical past.
When you arrive at the penthouse level, you note that the museum has a “Manna Restaurant” and a “Milk & Honey Cafe,” where visitors can indulge in fast-casual, modern Middle-Eastern dining. With fresh local ingredients and even Kosher options, how can one not feel enticed to travel back to the ancient Middle East and dine farm-to-table and fast-casually, just like Joseph and Mary at the Roman highway rest-stop en route to Bethlehem?
As for the level below, it boasts a large theater, important for the multipurpose nature of museums; the need to generate revenue through cocktail events for Washington insiders. But the true adventure begins with “The History of the Bible” exhibition on level 4.
The “History” of the Bible
At the entrance, you are greeted with a world map and the varying words for the bible across the planet. Still, little attention is paid to the fact that “bible” is simply the word for “book” in Greek. As you enter the glass doors, you are greeted with a series of rooms in an open-plan exhibition space. At first, you notice the artifacts of the ancient Hebrews, along the lines of the Dead Sea Scrolls, placed in glass boxes all around. If you are looking for some sort of overarching wall of text to help explain what’s in front of you, well — you’re not in luck.
What you do have is a large screen displaying a video of a man dressed in adventure clothing — the film’s titles even use an uncannily Indiana Jones font. Segments of the video, placed at strategic corners throughout the exhibit, comprise what is in fact a knockoff of a History Channel documentary, where the vaguely archaeologist-looking host beckons you to take part in his globetrotting National Treasure adventure, as if to say, “Hey, I’m going to find the secret of the Bible. The first stop is Jerusalem. Why don’t you come along?”
As you pass through the ancient Judaic biblical origins, you suddenly transition into the Roman and Byzantine periods, but you might note that the exhibit does little to distinguish that, in fact, Judaism and early Christianity are, well, not exactly the same thing. But something distracts you again. Bibles are all around. Tons of them. Just different crusty books in glass cases, and they’re the same book. You wonder if the inevitable Harry Potter museum will just be a series of rooms with different Scholastic paperback editions, but only of Deathly Hallows. Two thousand years in the future, who knows?
Alongside the Indiana Jones-like films, videos in the frame of stained glass portals feature reenactors portraying famous Biblical scholars, such as the Roman theologian Jerome. The apparently Anglo-actor portraying Jerome is dressed in a toga and recites a monologue about his beliefs, complete with a British accent. It’s too bad Jerome was from the 3rd Century A.D., during the Byzantine phase of Roman civilization, and thus probably didn’t dress like Emperor Claudius — or sound like a Shakespearean actor, for that matter. Of course, these are the ahistorical tropes Hollywood perpetuates in movies like — you guessed it — Gladiator. The presentation, however, does seem to be a subtle and insidious clue as to the museum’s underlying message.
For what is most telling about the exhibits is not what they say, but what they don’t. A telling caption titled “The Bible Spreads Globally” in the exhibit reads:
“As the British and other colonial empires spread European culture around the world, they carried their Bibles — Christian and Jewish — with them. But occasionally, they discovered that the Bible had gotten their first!”
With such a short phrase, there were never so many omissions and baffling editorial decisions. First off, we must look at the phrase, “the British and other colonial empires.” In this telling, the British imperial project is privileged over, I don’t know — the Spanish? The French? The Portuguese? The Dutch? All of which had some missionary activities at points. But Britain is emphasized above all the rest, yet another indication that this museum is placing the United States as the ultimate successor of Anglo-Christian civilization — a place where other, non-Anglo cultures are apparently not welcome.
Next — “British and other colonial empires spread European culture around the world.” Spread? This is a remarkably benign term for what is omitted — the slave trade, imperial resource extraction, the genocide of native peoples; we can go on and on about these crimes. An easy, still euphemistic fix would be “the colonial empires spread, in many cases forcibly,” but that would no doubt still make some visitors uncomfortable, and therefore unacceptable to Bible Museum management.
Third — Jewish bibles? That’s a weird way of putting it. While Judaism is frequently invoked in the museum as the apparent equal to Christianity — and both are inaccurately essentialized as continuous, monolithic religious traditions — Islam is totally minimized. Sure, it’s true that the Torah and the Old Testament share common books, most famously Genesis and Exodus. But by that same logic, the Quran should also be mentioned — at the very least. That key Islamic text was written in the 600s A.D., during a vibrant context of Judaic and Christian influences. In such fashion, the Bible and Quran share figures and stories. Heck, Jesus is a figure of significance in the Quran. Wouldn’t that be an interesting fact to share?
Finally — “the Bible had gotten there first!” We return to grade-school English class. It’s passive tense. The Bible should not have its own agency. It is not alive. It is not a glorious virus spreading its teachings far and wide. It is one ancient book out of many — many! And it is here, in this comparison, that the entire lens of the Museum of the Bible comes crashing down like the walls of Jericho.
The failure of the metaphor
It’s abundantly obvious in the Museum of the Bible that the holy book is a secular euphemism for Anglo-Christianity, as exhibits awkwardly talk around religion through the lexicon of the old book. In the second-floor exhibition, the “Impact of the Bible,” major scientific revolutions of the world are solely seen as divinely inspired — through the Bible. Isaac Newton invented gravity — and he had a Bible! Guess what the Liberty Bell is inspired from? The Bible. During the Civil War — the Bible was used by both sides. And though the abolitionist movement is upheld has a force for good in the museum’s exhibits, a condemnation of the Confederacy’s troubling biblical interpretation is muffled and underwhelming. This universalizing argument is confused and confusing.
Fast forward to the present day, and video interviews of modern CEOs describe their Bible-inspired leadership. These sentiments also come off as confusing and generalizing — and awkward. These people aren’t really talking about the Bible. They’re talking about Christianity. But if you haven’t had the privilege to study for a liberal arts degree, would you be able to tell?
What’s worse, the widespread use of videos makes it seem like the museum is your Facebook feed, the Fox News-tuned television blaring in your physician’s office. There is constant distraction, pulling you from one object to another, before you can barely assess what you’ve seen. The “History of the Bible” exhibit is perhaps the loudest museum display I, for one, have encountered. In this way, the Museum of the Bible is the perfect emblem of our Internet age. How can you think for yourself, when you are constantly bombarded with flashing sounds and images?
The simple answer is, you can’t. And you won’t.
On the third floor is an exhibit called the “Stories of the Bible.” In fact, it is an absolute fantasy, delivering on the promise of the Gladiator-styled music you heard at the beginning. There, you can enter the world of the Bible and experience Judea as Christ did. Perhaps. There’s a recreated village of Canaan, and reenactors dressed in the garb of antiquity explain what it was like to live back then. A man describes village life, and a woman explains how food was prepared in the ancient home (here the gendering seems intentional). Meanwhile, a bearded, fiery preacher simulates an early sermon. Welcome to Westworld.
Throughout the museum’s displays, you see countless visitors who are enthralled, tired, and hungry — displaying the behavior no different than visitors of any other museum. To the average guest, this museum is just as a reliable source for information as anyplace else. Most visitors seem blissfully unaware of the ulterior motives demonstrated by this particular institution.
While it’s true that many museums have political agendas, the Museum of the Bible is unique in its insidious dedication to the culture war. In France, the Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée strives to show the common ancient similarities of Mediterranean peoples as a way to foster geopolitical unity. In Athens, the Acropolis Museum strives to legitimize Greece’s demand for the return of the stolen Parthenon marbles, still currently housed in London’s British Museum. But never in modern American history has an agenda been so shamelessly put forward in a museum of our nation’s capital. While the Museum of the Bible does not go so far as to claim that dinosaurs were born 6,000 years ago, like at the infamous Creation Museum of Kentucky, it does something far more sinister — it hides in the bells and whistles of modernity and contemporary distraction to promote a whitewashing ethno-nationalist message that disguises the complicated historical legacy surrounding religion.
Below this revisionist political narrative, more damning truths about the intentions of the Hobby Lobby executives have been submerged. This includes the story of how Hobby Lobby smuggled thousands of ancient tablets out of Iraq. In 2014, Hobby Lobby won a case before the Supreme Court so as to disallow the requirement for family-owned corporations to cover contraceptives under Obamacare. And based on the donation-centric language of admission, it’s easy to miss that Hobby Lobby may have created the Museum of the Bible not out of the goodness of their scrapbooking-supply hearts — but as a tax shelter.
As you leave the museum, you exit through the inevitable gift shop. For sale are the merch, the swag, the cheap-looking pop history books you might also find in a Barnes & Noble checkout line, if you can still find a Barnes & Noble. But as you depart, a strange question forms in your mind, one you never thought you might entertain. Of all things, why would anyone buy a ‘Museum of the Bible’ hoodie?