Somewhere between the surround-screen animation of the New Testament and the backlit glass case containing Elvis Presley’s personal Bible, I began to feel a bit overwhelmed. It was bound to happen; the guide made it clear that the Museum of the Bible was meant to be a highly stimulating experience.
Educational too. The new museum’s purpose, as stated in its promotional materials and in the carefully bland speeches of its largely evangelical Christian board, is to invite all people to “engage” (their preferred word) with the most popular book in the world. There was a lot to see: more than $500 million worth of artifacts, interactive exhibits and performance space in a 430,000-square-foot building three blocks from the Capitol. But actual grappling with the Bible and its implications was an afterthought.
In that way, the Museum of the Bible reflects the discouraging state of Christianity — especially evangelicalism — in the United States today. It is lavishly funded and larger than life to the point of performance, often literally. Yet the approach is strangely superficial given the wealth of complexity inherent to its subject. There are dozens of illuminated manuscripts, but it’s unclear whether they’ve been read.
The museum is organized around the history, narrative and impact of the Bible, and a floor of the building is dedicated to each of these tracks. (Several other floors are included as garnish.) The history section is legitimately groundbreaking, presenting artifacts ranging from a first edition of the King James Bible New Testament — the only other known copy belongs to the British Library — to fragments of the contested Dead Sea Scrolls. The section on narrative is more whimsical. It features a recreation of the first-century village of Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown, that will soon be populated by costumed docents — a sort of biblical Colonial Williamsburg.
The “impact” floor is where the deeper shortfall becomes evident. The section offers high-tech exhibits on the Bible’s role in U.S. history, popular culture and the world at large. There’s a motion ride that flies you through Washington to explore biblical references around the city, spraying water at you for an extra thrill. (The tour guide winkingly noted that its designer worked on projects in Paris and Florida for a company beginning with the letter D.) As on the other floors, there is a baffling array of touch-screens and tablets, modern-day interactives and glossy timelines.
Yet while the exhibits dutifully touch on past conflicts involving the Bible (it was deployed in defense of and against slavery!) and play up its crowd-pleasing successes (verses from the book of Genesis helped to define human rights!), overall the museum eschews any difficult engagement with issues of the day. A timeline of the Bible in U.S. history conveniently ends in 1963; its role in our debates on sexuality, contraception and abortion are pointedly left undiscussed.
Therein lies the problem. It is increasingly clear that Christianity in America has been reduced to more of a cultural identity than a way of life. Fine, perhaps, if you’re part of the growing minority of Americans who identify as nonreligious or in active opposition to Christian belief. Less so if you had hoped it might yet inspire moral behavior among its adherents.
A cultural Christianity that reveres religious trappings and neglects their requirements is exactly the sort that props up figures such as Ten Commandments-toting, allegedly teen-molesting Senate candidate Roy Moore. (The Gospel of Luke warns that it’s better to be thrown into the sea with a millstone around one’s neck than to cause a child to stumble; the museum has a millstone replica Moore might want to investigate.) Cosmetic faith is the sort that displays charming engravings from Leviticus 19:34 — “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself” — while celebrating its achievements at Trump International Hotel.
“Half a billion dollars on a giant museum of the Bible? It’s a very American enterprise,” muttered one European member of my group near the end of our whirlwind tour. He wasn’t wrong.
The Museum of the Bible touts itself as nonsectarian and apolitical, but it’s obviously meant to serve as a stake in the ground, a glitzy signpost to indicate that biblical values remain foundational in the United States. Yet even as its narrative affirms America’s religious beginnings, its positive development and the primacy of the Good Book throughout, the museum refuses to complicate the story. Promoting the Bible is enough, apparently — no need to engage with its demands.