The Museum of the Bible opened in Washington, DC last November. The owner is Steve Green, who also owns Hobby Lobby. Green is a conservative Evangelical who is anti-gay and anti-choice. He appears to seek political influence and to court the press. Some of the recent press was negative because he acquired artifacts from Iraq illegally, for which he was fined.
Because of all these reasons, I wasn’t in a hurry to visit the museum. But a couple of my congregants went and were enthusiastic about their experience. As their pastor, I knew it was important for me to go. Also, I am preparing to return to Israel and Palestine in March (my first visit since I wrote Chasing the Divine in the Holy Land) and I was curious to see how the exhibits treated the land and political situation.
When cold weather closed school for a day, my husband (who’s a teacher) and I decided to draw on our steely Minnesota backbone and venture downtown. We used the website to print free timed tickets (there’s a suggested donation of $15). I would not have gone if I had to pay because I will not support Steve Green and his agenda.
The museum is big on drama, in terms of scale, lighting, and sound effects, with heavy use of films featuring Dave Stotts. We spent three hours there (including a lunch break) and got an overview of what’s available. I tried to pay attention to what’s not said, as well as what’s said. I noted some attempts at balance — for example, one exhibit about “The Bible and Slavery” included the fact that people used the Bible to support slavery, as well as to abolish it. Much more could have been said, but at least there was not a complete whitewash. There was plenty of information to absorb here, from archeology to Gutenberg to Bible translations. I could quibble with many details, but I enjoyed the exhibits about the Bible in culture — one showing film/stage, and the other playing music/lyrics.
The immersive exhibits are called “The World of Jesus of Nazareth” and are divided into Old and New Testament. The OT section begins with sitting down for a film. The creation story is told with a very effective use of dark and light, then continues with much less effective cartoonish figures. In a moment, surprise, you get out of your seat and move to the next room. Abraham, the twelve tribes, Moses, the judges, David, Ruth, and others make appearances. Some of it is actually quite wonderful. You sit in a tent, and see a burning bush. You follow Moses through the parting of the waters of the Red Sea, then walk past an ebenezer. One of my favorite stops was the Passover — which revolves around a large statue of a family and the use of the question “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Again, I could quibble here, but I loved the overall effect.
As a pastor who teaches confirmation classes, I couldn’t help but think how well the exhibit does what I try to do — teach the “one story” of the Bible so its parts fit together.
The NT section of the exhibit is a wander into Nazareth — you’re suddenly surrounded by enormous olive trees, a carpenter shop and synagogue, and costumed interpreters. My husband is an educator and one of our daughters is a drama/museum geek, so we have talked a lot about how people take in information. This was done well, the way Disney is well done. The docent in the synagogue did a great job involving a number of boys who were present. I was irked at the heavy attention to boys (over girls) even as I recognized how historically accurate this style was. To my mind, that imbalance should be continually pointed out rather than merely replicated.
A word about lunch, which we ate in the restaurant on the top floor of the museum. It was served cafeteria style and was crowded when we were there, but surprisingly quiet and pleasant. The food comes in platters with a Middle-Eastern vibe for around $15. They still need to streamline the ordering/paying functions, and I would avoid the noon hour.
Some people say that the museum is simply an advertisement for the curriculum. If that’s true, I suspect that the curriculum will advance a purely literal interpretation of the text. I didn’t see any exhibits about biblical scholarship — historical-critical method, literary criticism, textual criticism, form criticism, source criticism and so on. Perhaps it’s there and I missed it. Let me know if you saw something! Also, we saw absolutely no mention of the political situation in Israel and Palestine. That felt like an elephant in the room.
If you visited, I’d love to hear your reactions. Or if you won’t visit for some of the reasons I cited in the first paragraph, I’d love to hear your thoughts as well. Is this a wonderful new teaching tool or a bellwether of the catastrophic collision between state and church in contemporary America?