The Washington Post invited a handful of faith leaders and scholars to visit the brand-new Museum of the Bible, which opened Saturday near the National Mall, and to share their initial observations. Here are some of their thoughts:
Johari Abdul-Malik is an imam and former director of outreach at Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Virginia. He was Muslim chaplain at Howard University:
This beautiful facility is too large to fully experience in one full day (I would estimate that one needs a full week to fully experience it), much less a few hours, but what I experienced was a high-tech walk through the “Epcot Center” of the Bible; short on the history, explanation and evolution of New Testament thought. For example, the museum, while heavily grounded in the Old Testament, Torah and history of the Holy Land, does not mention the Palestinians living in the land today.
Although, the facility was not intended to be a “Come to Jesus” experience, I was disappointed by the lack of depth regarding the ministry of Jesus. The role of the influence of the Apostle Paul and others on the writing of the New Testament was an obvious oversight.
Although the Museum of Bible displays many Bibles, I found little in the way of critical analysis of varying content and numbers of chapters in each version, and the divergent theological directions they take. The various New Testament Bibles are presented as a matter of fact, and the exhibit moves on. I find that the museum could be better named the “Museum of the Bibles.”
After experiencing the “wow” factor of the movie theaters and performances, I found that the museum leaves too much of the theological development, compilation, content analysis, authorship and so much more to the mind of the visitor to decipher. Having said that, I plan return to study and reflect upon the collection and exhibits as they evolve.
HHHRobert R. Cargill, assistant professor of classics and religious studies at the University of Iowa, is editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review:
As a vocal public critic of Steve Green and the Museum of the Bible, I was surprised to receive an invitation from museum content director Seth Pollinger to tour the museum several months ago.
It turned out to be the first of four private tours Dr. Pollinger led me on between March and this fall, allowing me to watch the Museum of the Bible grow from an old warehouse into one of the most beautiful, technologically-infused museums in the world.
But it wasn’t just the physical development of the museum that impressed me. As an archaeologist and biblical scholar, I had been critical of two key issues: Museum founder Steve Green’s initial stated goal of showing “what God has taught through the Bible,” as well as Green’s practice of purchasing unprovenanced antiquities - objects whose origin and history of ownership are unknown - from the black market.
Pollinger told me about the museum’s new, more scholarly direction. The museum had decided to present the early history of the Bible factually, including replicas of ancient texts similar to those in the Bible that predate the text of the Bible. The museum had also chosen not to attempt to prove the historical accuracy of the claims made in the early books of the Bible. Both of these are positive steps toward being a more objective, professional and historically accurate museum exhibition.
As for the display of unprovenanced objects purchased on the black market, while some have been pulled from the exhibit and others have signage placed next to them stating that some experts believe that piece to be a forgery, the display of these objects will continue to be a point of contention for scholars seeking to eliminate this practice altogether.
Only time will tell if the Museum of the Bible can atone for its early missteps in the eyes of the scholarly community. But the Museum of the Bible should be applauded for its recent steps to make its exhibits more objective and its curatorial practices more responsible.
HHHThe Rev. Barry W. Lynn, a United Church of Christ minister, served from 1992 until this fall as executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State:
Not surprisingly, there are many Bibles in the new museum. One is suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s still resonant feminist critique, “The Woman’s Bible.” Sadly, though, the museum presents the powerful theological and legal controversies that help keep the Bible in the news in such a sterile fashion that it is possible to miss them completely.
Yes, the exhibits acknowledge that the Bible was used in all sides of debates about civil rights, war and the role of women - because people interpret the Bible differently. Biblical interpretation is complex, but the museum barely touches on these diverse methods of study.
The primary funders of the museum have claimed that biblical teachings led to corporate refusal to cover many forms of effective contraception in insurance plans. Other religious observers, like myself, suggest that the Bible is not, in its particulars, a systematic moral guide in the 21st Century: It is not to be read literally in many cases and is not a sufficient moral guide on its own.
This difference is profound, yet one would be hard pressed to find that acknowledgment in this venue. Very short shrift is given even to the very creation of the Biblical “canon” - what is in the Bible versus what is out. Scholars are deeply divided over the process used to make decisions at the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. Some demonstrate convincingly that the choice of which “gospels” to include reflected a profound patriarchal dominance.
This sin of omission is also to be found in discussion of the Supreme Court and the Bible, particularly cases involving prayer in school and the teaching of evolution. The exhibits make it appear that these issues are now resolved. I’d suggest that the funders spend a week in my office, and they would see how wrong they are.
HHHSince 2004 , Sister Simone Campbell has been the executive director of NETWORK, a social justice advocacy group that lobbies in Washington. A Catholic nun, she is also a key organizer of cross-country “Nuns on the Bus” advocacy tours:
Warm hospitality and exquisite electronic wizardry are two anchor points of my visit to the new Museum of the Bible. The ceiling in the entry hall, the not-to-be-missed Washington Revelation experience and various introductory videos were all superbly crafted. The staff are welcoming.
I was relieved to see that many of the “ancient artifacts” are facsimiles. I had been horrified by the fact that the museum sponsors had purchased thousands of black market artifacts from the 2003 looting of the Iraq museum and other sites. I was grateful that this had been brought to public attention, and I trust the originals have been returned to their rightful home in Iraq.
But I was disturbed to see the white Jesus at the top of the stairs to the second floor. And this seemed to be only the beginning. White people played Jewish men in the First-Century Nazareth Village. I came away with the feeling of Christian as European colonizer. It caused me to wonder: “Was this Museum once again making a colonial golden idol out of a sacred text?”
A lot was missing in this triumphal portrayal of domination and victory. Where is the call to care for the poor or love one another? Where is the biblical call to justice? To not be seduced by money or power?
In Sunday morning reflection, I realized that this museum does not even get close to my experience of the sacred texts as a daily invitation to love, live simply, strive for the marginalized. The Bible Museum is a temple to a book but has little to do with the heart of faith. Those of us who go will be well advised to remember that distinction.
HHHBishop Harry R. Jackson Jr. is senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in the Washington area and presiding bishop of the International Communion of Evangelical Churches:
As I walked into the state-of-the-art museum for the first time, I was struck by the simplicity and beauty of the $500 million structure. I asked myself, “What are they selling here?”
By the end of my first hour, I concluded that they were simply sharing their faith in the life-changing power of the scripture. The founders and donors believe that exposure to the origins of the book, the cultural context of its pages, the history of its human scribes and the key figures of its narrative will cause any person with an open mind to desire to experience more of the message of the Bible.
For years, Christian denominations and other faith traditions have argued about the interpretation of this mysterious book called the Bible. It seems that the museum does not argue about the meaning of the book; it simply argues for the authenticity and relevancy of what Christians call the Word of God. They believe that the book will speak for itself.
Christians like myself believe that the Holy Spirit, the ultimate author and inspirational force behind the writing of the scripture, will reveal to each person who voluntarily enters the museum what he or she needs to receive from almighty God.
I am an African American evangelical who was raised first as a Methodist and then as a Pentecostal. My family attempted to read the Bible daily and live by its precepts. But this generation of visitors to Washington is less likely to read the Bible regularly than previous generations.
Surprisingly, in a nation in which 71 percent claim to be Christians, only 35 percent of Americans say they read the scriptures at least once a week. And 45 percent of Americans seldom or never read the Bible, according to 2014 data from Pew Research’s “Religious Landscape Study.”
The Museum of the Bible extends an invitation to all who enter to learn more about this most amazing book.