Damned if you do, damned if you don't: Museum of Bible is hot news, no matter what

The debates began during World War II and raged through the following decades among human-rights advocates, private art collectors, museum leaders and others.

The Nazis stole astonishing amounts of Jewish art on an unprecedented scale (something like the legendary 1204 rape of Byzantium by Crusaders). Some of that art vanished. Some went to art collectors, and museums, with leaders who argued that the greater good was to save it for viewing by future display. Some insisted these treasures must be returned to the heirs of the families who owned them. But what if there were no heirs?

Now, similar arguments are raging about antiquities looted by the Islamic State as it ravaged the ancient communities, monasteries, churches, mosques, libraries, etc., of Iraq and Syria. Treasures hit the black market in the Internet age and, again, arguments raged about whether it is legal or moral to purchase these items, rather than leaving them in the hands of ISIS. But did purchasing them fund terrorism? It would appear so. Would it have been better to have let these items vanish into the hands of collectors who would hoard them out of sight? How could these treasures be returned to religious communities that, in some cases, no longer exist?

To say the least, the Green family of Hobby Lobby fame and its Museum of the Bible got caught up in these scandals, producing waves of headlines. The crucial issue: At what point does trading for these items cross the line into theft and encouraging theft?

So what makes a museum controversial? That was the question at the heart of this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in).

As it turns out, there are all kinds of reasons for people -- secular and religious -- to argue about the new Museum of the Bible, just off the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Some of these issues ended up in a Washington Post feature that was the focus of my recent post on this subject. Headline: "Washington Post religion team (thank God) gets to offer first look at the Museum of the Bible."

At the heart of the Post piece was a fascinating, and perfectly valid, damned if you do, damned if your don't question about this museum.

That puzzle looks something like this: If the museum is openly evangelical in its contents and goals, then it is open to (valid) criticism by liberals, academics a leaders of other religious traditions. However, if the museum is not evangelical ENOUGH, will it be a long-term success in a land in which evangelical Protestants are the largest and most enthusiastic audience for an institution about the history and influence of the Bible?

You can see threads of some of these discussions in the bullet-points from my original post, summing up the Beltway-land battled over this museum:

* 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 this key question: This is a church-state controversy? How could that be, for a private project, with private money on private land?

Well, if you look at a new opinion piece about this project in The Politico, you will see that the editors displayed it under a "Church and State" heading. Then there was this dramatic double-decker headline:

Just What Is the Museum of the Bible Trying to Do?
The Hobby Lobby CEO behind it says it will be nonsectarian -- but it looks a lot like a Protestant evangelical’s take on the Bible.

Ah, so the museum will be too evangelical, which means it violates the SPIRIT of church-state separation in the secular Jerusalem of Washington, D.C.?

This Politico essay is not news copy, but is drawn from a book by theologian Candida Moss of the University of Birmingham and Joel Baden, professor of Hebrew Bible at Yale Divinity School. Here is some crucial summary material, containing an appearance (wait for it) of a crucial f-word:

... The most interesting part of all this is who’s behind it. The CEO of the Hobby Lobby craft-store chain, Steve Green, founded and funded the Museum of the Bible, and his family’s collection of artifacts -- which recently made news when Hobby Lobby was forced to forfeit thousands of cuneiform texts from Iraq, and pay a $3 million fine for illicit importation -- will make up a substantial part of the museum’s holdings. Green and his family are some of the country’s most prominent evangelicals, notable for their successful Supreme Court case challenging Obamacare’s contraception mandate in 2015.
Despite his fundamentalist background, Green claims the new attraction will be nonsectarian -- that is, open and appealing to people from any religious perspective. But, as biblical scholars who have reported on Hobby Lobby and the museum for three years for a recently published book, we have discovered that he’s mostly failing in his mission. After touring the site of the museum, visiting its traveling exhibit, and interviewing Green and others involved in the project, we have found that despite genuine efforts at nonsectarianism, the museum’s version of the Bible’s history remains beholden to the worldview of the Green family. The broader story it tells about the Bible, and especially the Bible’s place in American culture, is essentially a Protestant one, and it excludes other traditions when they might come into conflict with that basic story.

So, once again, the Museum of the Bible will be too evangelical and, by the way, it may even be fundamentalist. Then again, some evangelicals -- as the Post team noted -- may be disturbed that the museum has little to say about Jesus and, when it talks about the mother of Jesus, it deals with St. Mary as, well, Saint Mary.

Damned if you do, damned if you don't?

This is one of many stories that, in recent weeks, has left me thinking about something a Muslim scholar told me in the wake of those U.S. Senate hearings in which Sen. Bernie Sanders shouted down an evangelical Protestant nominated for an economics slot in the Donald Trump administration. The evangelical's sin was defending -- in a public article, not in actions in public life -- the ancient Christian belief that salvation was through Jesus Christ, alone.

Ismail Royer noted that any traditional Muslim facing the same panel could be attacked for a similar reason -- Islam's doctrines about the eternal consequences facing those who fail to reject belief in Jesus as the Son of God. In other words, Christianity is not the only world religion rejects "universalism."

What, I asked Royer, was this fight really about? Here is how I summed up his answer, in an On Religion column:

Many Americans who see themselves as "liberals" seem to transitioning from the strong tolerance of religious diversity historically seen in England and America to a "radical, almost Jacobin" style of secularism that is often associated with France, said Royer. ...

What does this have to do with the Museum of the Bible?

To be blunt: Would this project be damned, no matter who built it and what it contained? In today's political atmosphere in America, could any project near the civil-religion zone that is the National Mall, any project focusing on a deeply religious subject, be acceptable to secular and sacred elites at the same time?

Just asking. Enjoy the podcast.

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