Planned Bible museum gets an intelligent, literate look from WaPo

Last week, my colleague Bobby Ross Jr. briefly praised Michelle Boorstein's long-form feature in the Washington Post on the planned Museum of the Bible. In my own admiring review, let me count the ways.

Boorstein gives details on the look and feel and content of the museum, planned for Washington, D.C. by 2017. She presents the truly celestial numbers: a $50 million price for the 430,000-square-foot Washington Design Center, to be stocked with 44,000 biblical artifacts in Green's personal collection; the need to deal with a "dozen or so agencies" in starting the museum.

She offers an engaging look at Steve Green, president of the Hobby Lobby store chain, who expects to pay $800 million for the museum.

She traces how Green's vision for the museum has shifted, from promoting the truth of the Bible toward a scholarly, nonsectarian approach.

And  (insert Hallelujah Chorus) she spends only two of the 63 paragraphs on the Supreme Court case that won Hobby Lobby the right not to insure some forms of birth control. Some writers would have digressed and obsessed over that case, adding enough text to fill a Bible.

Boorstein often puts us into the scene with vivid wording. In one example, she says the future museum building is near the National Mall: "It’s just two blocks away, and from the roof it feels as though you can take a running leap onto the U.S. Capitol."

Here is the kind of intelligent, searching content you get when an actual religion writer like Boorstein writes a religion story. She avoids taking sides, yet compels you to read further:

Will it portray the Bible as a static, singular book with definitive teachings? Or as a mystery that is understood differently all over the world, an evolving body of texts that well may be transformed through ongoing archaeological finds? Will the D.C. museum be like the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., where dinosaurs are shown coexisting with human beings on a 6,000-year-old Earth? Or will it be as the Bible museum promoters described in presentations to the city, something akin to the Air and Space Museum, with an emphasis on scholarship and accuracy?
The project’s cast of leading players has only made the answers more confusing — and more tantalizing.
They include respected biblical scholars, a deeply religious theme park magnate, and hipster New York designers whose other projects include branding Yankee Stadium and the NBC logo.

Much of Boorstein's narrative appropriately centers on Green. She is frank but non-cynical about his evangelical faith in the truth and centrality of the Bible.

In one quote, he says why he chose the nation's capital as the location: “I think seeing the biblical foundations of our nation — for our legislators to see that, that a lot of that was biblically based, that we have religious freedoms today, which are a biblical concept, it can’t hurt being there.”

In contrast to his simple faith is the all-star lineup of worldly-wise pros he has assembled, as the article notes. They include men who have worked on Knott's Berry Farm and a proposed LGBT museum. They also include a Lutheran Bible scholar and an avowed liberal who will head the museum's collections.

The article systematically picks through the three layers of the planned Bible museum: from a traditional history section, to a "Disney-esque" storytelling section, to an "impact" section. The latter is meant to show the Bible's cultural impact, from social movements to Hollywood movies.

But Boorstein is no shill for Green. She presents some sharp issues surrounding the museum exhibits:

Building a major museum about the Bible lays bare an essential contradiction in our relationship to it: The Bible is probably the most influential book in modern times, a precious guide to billions of people, yet we don’t know that much about it. Only about 50 complete New Testament manuscripts (from Christianity’s early centuries) have been found, and there are tens of thousands of text differences among them.
And although Christians and Jews have been transmitting through words, art and song the stories of what they understand to be “the Bible,” the science of archaeology — which potentially can track and validate its actual transmission — is less than 150 years old. Just a tiny percentage of sites mentioned in the Bible have been excavated.
“The number of people who have worked seriously on it as a book are on the fingers of one hand,” said Gordon Campbell, a Renaissance studies professor at the University of Leicester, England, who is designing the museum’s history section. “At one level it’s the most studied book on the planet. But on many other levels it’s profoundly under-studied. Academics are reluctant to deal with sacred texts. It’s too controversial. You get cranky letters and all that.”

But Boorstein also spots a fascinating paradox: Some people break cleanly with Green's faith in the Bible, yet they still wish the museum well. "The truth is even the skeptics — including the executive director of the world’s largest organization of Bible scholars — desperately want the museum to be a success."

She adds:

The skeptics have another reason to embrace this new museum. Substantive funding for Bible scholarship and exploration is scarce. At a time when polls show that Americans are increasingly ignorant about the Bible and religion, the Greens are happily pouring hundreds of millions into preserving, researching and taking public what’s called the Book of Books.

The article comes with a few nice frills. One is a photo gallery of the planned museum and of a traveling Bible exhibition. There's also a 12-picture slideshow of the artifacts Green has collected over a mere five years. Among them is the 17th century "Wicked Bible," which has a typo commanding the reader, "Thou shalt commit adultery."

Finally, test your scriptural savvy with a Bible knowledge quiz. Choose carefully; you have only 10 questions.

To paraphrase a question from the Bible, can any good thing come out of Washington? The answer is yes -- among them, intelligent long-form religion stories by the likes of Michelle Boorstein. And I hope to God for more of the same.

Photo: The 17th century "Wicked Bible," from the collection of Steve Green, who plans to open a Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Judy G. Rolfe)

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