Washington Post religion team (thank God) gets to offer first look at the Museum of the Bible

From the very beginning, there have been several ways of viewing the Museum of the Bible, the ambitious project near the National Mall spearheaded by the wealthy Christian family that owns Hobby Lobby. For example:

* This is Washington, D.C. This is all about politics, like everything else.

* Some critics claimed that it would be a church-state violation to allow the museum to be built close to the mall, and the Smithsonian museums -- even with private money on private land. That argument might work in France, but in the United States of America?

* There's no other way to say this, except to say it: Many folks inside the DC Beltway simply thought this whole idea was TACKY, a kind of Religious Right theme park near sacred secular ground covered with Real Stuff.

* From the beginning, there were tensions between people with evangelical dreams that the building would witness to their brand of faith and scholars around the world -- in a variety of traditions, including evangelical Protestantism -- whose expertise would be essential to completing the project.

* A more subtle point: Is the Museum of the Bible simply too big, too ambitious, to survive as a tourism-driven project? The natural comparison is to the Newseum, a massive, expensive, valid project (I used to take Washington Journalism Center students there every semester) that is now swamped in millions of dollars of red ink. Note, however: Admission to the Bible museum will be free. Can that last?

You can see all of these themes, and more, swirling through the recent Washington Post feature about the Bible museum, which -- here is the crucial point -- was produced by the newspaper's religion-desk professionals (as opposed to the Style section or even the political desk). The headline: "Sneak peek: D.C.’s huge new Museum of the Bible includes lots of tech -- but not a lot of Jesus."

But "not a lot of Jesus"? What's that all about? Here is the overture:

The Museum of the Bible, a massive new institution opening next month just south of the Mall, is just as notable for what it ­includes -- vivid walk-through re-creations of the ancient world, one of the world’s largest private collections of Torahs, a motion ride that sprays water at you, a garden of biblical plants -- as for what it leaves out.
The $500 million museum, chaired and largely funded by the conservative Christian family that owns Hobby Lobby, doesn’t say a word about the Bible’s views on sexuality or contraception. The museum doesn’t encourage visitors to take the Bible literally or to believe that the Bible has only one correct form. And on floor after gleaming floor of exhibitions, there is very little Jesus.
This isn’t the evangelism that the billionaire Green family first promised a decade ago when they set out to build a museum dedicated to Scripture.

In the end, the Post religion-desk team concluded that this is the museum's bottom line:

All the museum asks about the Bible: Just try reading it.

A key figure adds:

“Our goal isn’t to give answers but to arouse curiosity,” said Seth Pollinger, a biblical scholar who is the director of the 430,000-square-foot museum’s content.

Critics aren't buying that, of course, and they get to have their say in this report -- as they should. Museum planners get to answer some crucial questions. The story also fills in details of talks between museum planners and African-American church leaders, as well as Jewish scholars. (I found myself wondering how talks went with conservative and liberal Catholics). There is, miracle of miracles, minimal Donald Trump noise.

But back to the Jesus issue. Here is a report's crucial passage, which pivots on the always tricky words "might be."

The museum could quickly become a popular draw for evangelical families -- about one-quarter of the U.S. population -- for whom the Bible is daily reading in many homes. In a 2014 Pew Research Center poll, 45 percent of Americans said they seldom or never read Scripture, but 63 percent of evangelicals said they read it at least once a week.
Some conservative evangelicals might be frustrated with parts of the museum, both in what is and isn’t there. This museum doesn’t try to prove the historical veracity of the Bible or argue that Earth is about 6,000 years old, as the Creation Museum in Kentucky does. It devotes a display to the Virgin Mary, a biblical figure who evangelicals say has been elevated too highly by Catholics. “Some people are going to walk up and say, ‘That’s not the Bible,’ ” Pollinger said about the historic paintings in the museum that depict Mary as a saint.
Jesus is also curiously not central to the museum’s presentation of the biblical story. Visitors walk through a multiroom saga of the Old Testament, and they can visit a re-creation of a 1st-century village in Galilee where actors will tell them what the villagers think of this controversial preacher Jesus. They can watch a movie about John the Baptist. But the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection is almost absent.

Might be? Have any top-self evangelicals on the intellectual and cultural right dropped out? Have any put their concerns into writing? If there are honest-to-God fundamentalists who now oppose this project, that would be a valid story in and of itself.

With that in mind, let me conclude with two statements.

First, this story needed to be way longer and, if you note the range of people quoted, I would assume the religion-desk pros wanted more room.

Symbolic detail: Two sentences from an interview with historian Mark Noll, in a story that hints at tensions among Christians in modern America? There wasn't even room to note that Noll is best known as author of the groundbreaking book, "The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind" and that he taught at Wheaton College before moving to Notre Dame.

So, second, I think intense religion-news readers can assume that this story is the first of many on the museum, the events surrounding it and early reactions from evangelical supporters and evangelical critics of its contents. Dear Post editors: Please let the religion-desk people handle this project, even if Trump is involved in opening day rites.

Stay tuned.

FIRST IMAGE: Museum of the Bible graphic, from public-relations materials.

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