National Mall

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

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.

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

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.

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A story of biblical proportions: WPost tackles plans for $800 million Bible museum

A story of biblical proportions: WPost tackles plans for $800 million Bible museum

I have a confession to make: I"m typing this in a hurry.

I'm headed to Atlanta for the Religion Newswriters Association's annual meeting (see our 5Q+1 interview with RNA president Bob Smietana, if you happened to miss it, and follow #RNA2014 for live tweeting).

So I'm going to make this post short and sweet. Real sweet.

Earlier, we critiqued some media coverage of a planned Bible museum in the nation's capital and found it lacking — here and here, for example.

But the Washington Post's award-winning religion writer, Michelle Boorstein, has produced an excellent, magazine-length story on the gigantic project.

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NYTimes warns: Evangelistic speech near the National Mall!

NYTimes warns: Evangelistic speech near the National Mall!

Are there any GetReligion readers out there who remember the mini-media storm back in 1999 when the Southern Baptist Convention published a series of booklets to guide church members in their prayers for the conversion of members of other faiths?

As you would expect, some faith leaders were quite offended by this, especially Jews who -- readers with really long memories will recall -- had previously been involved with a Southern Baptist or two about issues linked to prayers and Judaism.

I went to an event in 1999 at a Washington, D.C., think tank in when some Jewish leaders dialogued with Southern Baptists, in a very constructive manner, about the wisdom of these guides, the centrality of evangelism to Baptist theology, etc., etc.

In the question-and-answer session, a Washington Post scribe asked, in a rather blunt manner, why Southern Baptists were allowed to print and circulate these kinds of materials.

I was stunned. So was the very liberal rabbi in the chair next to me. I asked a question that went something like this: "Did I just hear someone from the Washington Post question whether evangelistic speech is covered by the First Amendment?" The Reconstructionist rabbi said, "I think that's what just happened."

Why do I bring up this story? Well, this is what I thought of when I hit an interesting passage in a New York Timesstory about the Green family (of Hobby Lobby fame) and its attempt to build a massive Bible museum on prime land in Washington, D.C.

Here is the key pasage from the report:

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