he Bible has had more impact than any other book. Its stories, personalities, expressions, and themes―about the endless battle between the wickedness and grandeur of spirit―are pervasive, entrenched, and, often, unseen. There is no richer study in human psychology. It serves as a foundation for our ethics, morals, and civic order. The Museum of the Bible, the latest addition to Washington’s museum community, explores this single, transformative book. It’s a great place, unmatched in focus and impressive on nearly every front. The Bible is essential reading, and the museum, essential visiting.
The museum is a masterpiece in urban repurposing, taking the old, windowless, aggressively drab Terminal Refrigerating and Warehouse Company building near the Mall and transforming it into a spacious, seven floor all-purpose museum. A commodious, sleek, sun-bathed staircase leads to good exhibition space and auditorium, with room for big and small meetings, including Bible readings. SmithGroup, the Washington-based architects, did a great job.
The key permanent collection comprises four floors. Each floor has the thematic depth and abundance of material to make for its own freestanding museum. It’s impossible to cover the museum in a single day. I’ve visited it three times, each for most of an afternoon, saw what was on view, but didn’t attend anything on the impressive roster of lectures, readings, and Bible Study sessions. It doesn’t matter where you start. By picking any point among the hundreds of bays and cases, the visitor quickly understands that the Bible informs every aspect of Western culture. The museum is also unafraid to show that some of the Bible’s themes and stories coincide with those of other faiths, all having roots as deep and old as human self-consciousness.
One fascinating floor explores the Bible’s history. It’s a story of constant revision, and if it’s the incontrovertible word of God, He certainly seems to have changed His mind a lot. What we know as the Old and New Testaments started as oral histories and story telling before evolving into texts in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and other languages. Over time, ecclesiastical gatekeepers―Jewish, then Christian―dropped hundreds of stories in the interest of developing a sanctioned, establishment version. For instance, the Book of Revelations was one of hundreds of apocalyptic, End of Times stories. For reasons theological, political, and literary, only one made the cut.
For a text so central to Western thought, the Bible is, to a big extent, a work in progress. Advances in archaeology, driven as much by technology as connoisseurship, reveal new layers of truth in key Bible passages. The Dead Sea Scrolls caused an earthquake in Bible studies. New takes on the dating and authorship of individual books still happen. As new findings in ancient linguistics occur, meanings are tweaked. More discoveries are bound to appear.
The museum tells part of the story of the Bible’s dissemination through a series of videos entitled “Drive Thru History.” The videos, each about ten minutes, tell the story of the Gospels, Christianity’s emergence as Rome’s much feared and hated but later imperially embraced faith, the Reformation, and the composition of the King James Version. The video narrator―youngish, wearing jeans, just enough scruff to look edgy, talking and moving briskly―takes us to Palestine, Rome, Wittenberg, and Oxford, zooming along rural and city roads in different chic vintage cars. The production values are high, the tone breezy, and the sites can’t be matched for appeal. The content’s solid, too, and by the last video I was more than willing to go for the ride.
I especially looked forward to the floor devoted to the Bible’s narrative. What did the museum consider the key storylines? I know the Bible as well as most committed, longtime Protestant churchgoers, so the floor specifically on the stories of the Bible was important to experience. As there are hundreds of stories and thousands of characters, a mammoth editing project was required to compose a storyline. And this floor needed to be pitched to a broad audience―many with limited knowledge.
The museum is heavily committed to a high tech, slick delivery of the Bible’s narrative. There’s so much noise and visual gimmickry, and biblical figures are often so stylized―the animation sometimes jarring―that it seemed theological content got short shrift. It’s a style that began in America’s big evangelical churches, where services can seem like sound-and-light shows at European sites like the Forum in Rome. I don’t think people learn much, as entertaining as the show might be, which is a shame. I’m surprised and sometimes appalled by how little even consistent church goers know about the Bible. Churches have always been social centers, but the Bible is a wealth of knowledge and understanding beyond telling us Jesus and those Apostle dudes are our best friends.
Does the Museum of the Bible present the same thing? There’s certainly plenty of video and music. The museum presents the Old Testament through a 30-minute, controlled tour that is almost entirely video. Once you start, you have to find a gallery attendant to release you. I hate forced marches in museums and groaned when the guard told me that, barring sudden illness, claustrophobia, or the proverbial act of God, I was committed. That said, I grew to like this one. It’s engaging, covering high points like the Great Flood so immersively I felt waterlogged. I think visitors need to experience the introduction to the Old Testament in its entirety because the story from Genesis roughly to Samuel is an essential prelude requiring an intact presentation. This portion of the Old Testament leads to so much else.
The stories the museum presents about the Bible’s core, main characters are griping, instructive, and memorable. Early figures, ranging from Adam and Eve to Noah, get the most coverage. To me, the most difficult figures in the Old Testament are Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekial. These Major Prophets convey a violent, vengeful, seemingly arbitrary God who freely and endlessly whacks sinners and doesn’t seem to care about collateral casualties. In his own way, each predicts the arrival of a messianic, redemptive Jesus. It’s deep, dense, dark stuff and would stall any narrative aimed at basic, swiftly delivered understanding and uplift. They’re almost entirely missing from the museum. This isn’t a fault―they’re better subjects for a focused, temporary exhibition.
The introduction to the adjacent New Testament exhibition is mostly film covering different stories and figures in short ten-minute segments. Visitors can opt in and out. There’s some animation but mostly actors play parts, with one or two playing multiple roles. I thought the on-again, off-again Yiddish accents both funny and inappropriate. After the films, there’s a mock ancient village with costumed interpreters. It mimics the Nazareth of Jesus. I didn’t love it. It’s impossible to simulate the look and feel of Jesus’s home, I know, but if it’s going to be tried, there is no better model that the Dennis Severs house in London, which evokes the clutter, smells, and noise of eighteenth and nineteenth century Shoreditch. It’s less of a house museum than an imaginarium. The Museum of the Bible has given us something antiseptic, though I liked the way it was organized around simple subjects like bread, water, and wine and the dynamics of their production and use in ritual. After viewing the Old and New Testament stories, it was a relief to wander in this uncluttered, quiet, totally unrealistic space.
The museum devotes another floor to the Bible’s impact. It does a thorough job exploring how the Bible inspired not only the Puritans, but those leading the American Revolution and writing the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. The Bible molded and then guided American beliefs about justice, freedom, and the primacy of the individual. The curators often address slavery. At points, Biblical figures sanction it as God’s will, and antebellum defenders of slavery in the American South were quick to quote them. This point is clearly made. Liberation from slavery is a far more consequential theme, driving most of the Old Testament as Jews, God’s Chosen People, swing between extremes of bondage and freedom. The throwing off of chains is one of the Bible’s core themes―as is what the freeman does with his liberty.
The section on the Bible and prisoners and prison ministries is extraordinarily moving. Housed behind bars, this section uses video interviews and graphics to explore Death Row faith experiences, the explosive growth of prison-based Bible colleges, and the differences between retributive and restorative justice, both rooted firmly in the Bible. Overall, the museum portrays the Bible as a deeply penetrating and immensely subtle study of psychology. But the story told on this floor is a dense one, heavy on graphics and manuscripts. After a while I began to miss “Driving Through History,” with its nifty cars, fast talk, and fun scenery.
I thought the temporary exhibitions, overall, were very good. It seems every funeral features “Amazing Grace” now, so much so I began to loathe it as cheap sentimentalism and the default choice of funeral planning families who know no other religious music save Christmas carols. That is, until I walked through the museum’s temporary show on this most ubiquitous of hymns. Rooting it in the biography of John Newton, its writer, the song becomes a statement of sin, callousness, and redemption. Dramatic personal testimony takes us through Newton’s time as an impressed midshipman―later punished for desertion with eight dozen lashes―a near murderer and suicide, a slave trader, libertine, and tax collector, hitting rock bottom and then slowly reborn. It’s about embracing Christianity through experience―bad, character crushing experience―and absorbing Christian values through witnessing the experiences of others. “Amazing Grace,” once put to music using a folk tune meter, became an African American staple, a Methodist camp meeting favorite, and then a pop phenomenon. At the end of the show, visitors can choose to listen to versions by the English Chamber Choir, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, Mahalia Jackson, the Tennessee State Prison Band, the Lemmonheads, and many others. I loved it and will now listen to the hymn with new warmth.
Visitors need to pay for some shows and though the museum is free, the visitor service staff presses for voluntary giving. I can see an extra charge for the temporary David and Goliath show, which was an expensive, scholarly collaboration with the Bible Lands Museum. But it’s a shame to limit the audience for a show about Washington architecture―which powerfully reinforces the galleries on the role of the Bible in American social, economic, and political history―with an admission charge. After all, every worker, resident, and visitor in Washington sees this ubiquitous part of the city’s built environment.
I found the museum’s entrance and exit remarkable in two different respects. The centerpiece of the modest entrance is a metal detector that looks like Sputnik. It’s ugly, though rivetingly so, and consumes the small space. I marveled at how much space it occupies, how it worked, and wondered what all its flashing lights meant. There’s no such device at the National Gallery, and there is something to be said about a Bible museum needing to trust in God. As for leaving the museum, it requires a trek through a remarkably downscale shop heavy on t-shirts and plastic knick-knacks, threatening to drain the good feeling the rest of the museum inspires. I know the museum needs to make money―it’s privately funded and gets no federal money. Still, though shops can be big profit centers, museums aren’t theme parks.
On the issue of funding, the first thing I study during a museum visit is the donor wall. I was a museum director for years and have a fascination with who gives and how much. Missing among the big donors are America’s large, prestigious, elite foundations: no Rockefellers, Fords, Mellons, Waltons, or Basses. Maybe they weren’t asked. Maybe they said no. They should be banging on the door to get involved.
Steve Green and his family are the museum’s biggest funders. Green is the entrepreneur behind Hobby Lobby, the trail blazing arts and crafts retailer. Far too much has been made of the company’s successful litigation protecting a family-owned business from employee insurance mandates in Obamacare that violate the family’s faith. It’s entirely unrelated to their considerable philanthropy and the museum. The museum cost $500 million, much of which came from the Greens. They deserve a sustained, enthusiastic round of applause for what they’ve accomplished.
The Museum of the Bible is a temple for learning and inspiration. Far from being a “spot to visit,” no one can cover it in a single hour. That it’s our first museum devoted to the Bible says something about America today. The Bible was once ubiquitous, but in our a secular age many of its facets are gathering the feel of historical artifacts. This has happened before in the history of Christianity but never in the United States. Pendulums swing, though, on matters small and large. I’ve rarely been in a museum with so many young visitors. The museum has far exceeded its attendance goals. It’s off to a great start.