Honors College Dean Lynda Coon’s fall 2018 Retro Readings course on the Bible came with an added bonus: an optional field trip to the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. But once at the museum, the students discovered they had some reservations about the provenance of some of the artifacts on display, as well as the “nonsectarian” label claimed by the museum’s founders. Here, sophomore anthropology major and evangelical Christian Jacob Huneycutt outlines those issues and touches on the Bible’s rich legacy as artifact, as narrative and as sacred text.
On Tuesday, December 18, 2018, a group of students including myself, led by Dean Lynda Coon and Dr. John Treat from the University of Arkansas Honors College, made a pilgrimage into biblical times and explored the newly built Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. Throughout the previous semester, we had participated in a discussion-based class on the Bible, moderated by Dean Coon, where we investigated selections from the Tanakh (Old Testament) and the New Testament, placing them in their historical contexts and examining how these texts have been employed throughout history. Each student in the class was assigned either a specific text from the Bible on which to become an expert or a particular employment of the Bible to investigate. One of the latter was the newly constructed Museum of the Bible, which has been an effort spearheaded by the Green Family of Oklahoma, who owns Hobby Lobby. This new museum seeks to comprehensively put the Bible on display and do so in a “nonsectarian” manner, which includes both telling “the narrative” of the Bible as well as discussing its historicity. Given the close relation of these subject matters to those of our class, Dean Coon decided it would be an educational experience, for those of us who were able to travel to Washington, D.C. during winter break, to explore this new museum.
Before we made our pilgrimage to D.C., we took time to learn about the museum, including its background. Needless to say, the museum has been the source of much controversy among academics. First off is the issue of the ways in which many of the artifacts within the museum had been acquired – copious amounts of evidence point to a trend of associates of the Green Family having a disregard for international law regarding cultural artifacts. Secondly, as Professor Jill-Hicks Keeton discussed when she visited our class and gave a guest lecture on her analysis of the museum, despite its claims of being “nonsectarian” and inclusive of Jewish viewpoints, it is consistently biased in favor of Evangelical Protestant Christianity in narrative material, its presentation of the Bible’s history, and overall format.
As a result, when we journeyed into the Museum of the Bible, we were determined to analyze whether or not these criticisms of the museum were legitimate or not. In my opinion and in the opinion of most of the other students, the criticisms are legitimate. As an Evangelical Christian myself, I was excited to potentially get to experience a museum that would be enriching for my faith, but I came away feeling that the museum curators had been academically lazy and that the museum is dishonest about its intentions. First, we all journeyed through the narrative section, which began with a flashy interactive tour through stories from the Tanakh/Old Testament. We agreed afterwards, however, that this section was strangely compiled, as, for example, it heavily emphasized Ruth while mostly ignoring Moses and the revelation of the Law – a cornerstone of the Tanakh. Next was a section that was intended to reproduce the world Jesus of Nazareth grew up in, but in my opinion, it seemed like a lazy reproduction of a generic “ancient world” aesthetic – and the events in the Gospels themselves were hardly discussed! These eccentricities left me wondering what agenda the curators of this museum had. Similar eccentricities were also present in the section about the history of how the Bible was employed, and these were more transparent. Medieval employments of the Bible seemed to be emphasized less than how the Protestant Reformers employed the Bible, and in particular, the translation of the Bible into vulgar languages by the Reformers was given a central place in the museum’s discussion.
The Museum of the Bible, though, despite these flaws, is an impressive collection of artifacts relating to the Bible, and a discussion of the Bible in an amazingly high-technology way. It also had compelling exhibits discussing how the Bible was edited to justify slavery, and how it is being employed by artists today. It does seem to be biased in favor of the Greens’ version of Christianity, which is mainly a problem because of its claim to be “nonsectarian.” For those of us who visited the museum, it was a pertinent case study of one way in which the Bible is employed in our culture today.