One thing you’ve got to say about the brand-new Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C: It’s certainly popular with the public. The eight-story, 43,000-square-foot museum, housed in a handsome Art Deco former warehouse just south of the Washington Mall, is in easy walking distance of my home, so I decided to pay it a visit a few days after its official opening on November 17. But a line that didn’t seem to be going anywhere stretched around the corner toward a nearby Metro station, and I had made the mistake of wearing just a thin jacket on a windy cold-snap morning—so I decided to come back another day. I don’t know who those hordes of parka-clad people were—representing a spectrum of ethnic groups and in many cases accompanied by small children—who patiently braved the gusty chill, but there were obviously things inside that building that they wanted to see.
One thing you could say about them: They were definitely not members of the journalist/academic/intellectual elite that controls public discourse these days. That group has almost nothing good to say about the Museum of the Bible, and it has been saying that nothing loud, clear, and often. The hostility has come in two waves, since construction began on the museum earlier this decade: fear, and later, condescension. That’s because the museum has been built and bankrolled—to the tune of $500 million—by Steve Green, the evangelical Christian billionaire-president of the family-owned crafts-store chain Hobby Lobby, which was founded by his father, David Green. Hobby Lobby is famous—or, among the elite, infamous—for winning a Supreme Court ruling in 2014, whereby under a federal religious-freedom law it didn’t need to provide its employees with insurance that covered certain Obamacare-mandated contraceptives that sometimes function as abortifacients. A vaunted Hobby Lobby boycott organized by the progressive left sank like a stone because there wasn’t much Venn overlap between right-to-choose feminists and the tradition-minded stay-at-home moms who shop for crafts supplies.
No sooner had the ink dried on Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby than the op-eds began. In a 2015 piece for the Washington Post, illustrated by an airborne Noah’s Ark headed 9/11-style for the Washington Monument, art historian Noah Charney expressed alarm that the Museum of the Bible would be so close to the Mall, since in his view, “separation of church and state isn’t just a principle of governance, it’s an architectural and geographic rule as well.” In 2016, Newsweek’s Nina Burleigh wrote: “This project is audacious, but it’s only a small part of Green’s master plan to ‘restore’ the Bible to its rightful place—as he sees it—in the center of American life and government.” She added: “The Greens are the Koch brothers of the evangelical movement and have spent hundreds of millions to blur the line between church and state.”
That was the fear—the usual “theocracy” ramble that returns like the swallows to Capistrano whenever an evangelical Christian sets foot inside Washington, D.C. But lately, it’s the condescension, the idea that the Greens aren’t qualified to run a biblical museum, that’s come to reign. The condescension is best represented by a book published earlier this year, Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby, by Candida R. Moss, a theology professor at the University of Birmingham, and Yale Hebrew Bible professor Joel S. Baden. (Full disclosure: Moss and I were colleagues at a summer institute a few years ago while I was finishing my doctorate in medieval studies, and I found her to be a very nice, very smart lady, although we agreed on almost nothing religious or political.) I haven’t read the Moss-Baden book, but I’ve read a number of excerpts from it in reviews and articles, as well as press interviews with the authorial pair. One of their main arguments seems to be that the Greens, several of whom are college dropouts, just aren’t up to the intellectual level of Yalies Moss (who did her PhD there) and Baden. “[T]he interventions in higher education of business-savvy self-made Christians without even college degrees creates an unstable hierarchy of values. For academics, qualifications and expertise are key.” Wow—“unstable hierarchy of values”! That’s heavy-duty!
“Qualifications and expertise” seem to mean to Moss and Baden training as “secular” biblical scholars, which, according to a summary on Vox, produces “views . . . roughly consistent with a great deal of typical, rigorous biblical scholarship.” And nowadays, “rigorous biblical scholarship” seems to mean subscribing to a tired and tiresome litany of biblical deconstruction: that the two accounts of the creation in the Book of Genesis contradict each other, and that people who mix up shepherds and wise men in their Christmas crèches are hopeless naifs who don’t realize that Matthew (source of the wise men) and Luke (source of the shepherds)—if those two evangelists even existed—were trying to tell two different and mutually exclusive stories about Jesus’s birth. It seems to mean subscribing to the fashionable idea that early Christianity was so “diverse” that there was no such thing as Christian orthodoxy of belief until a bunch of politically astute bishops imposed their views in order to keep themselves in power.
The Greens also finance the Green Scholars Initiative, which funds younger biblical scholars who profess traditional forms of Christianity. Moss and Baden assert, according to a summary in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “that the Greens often tapped Christian academics who hadn’t previously worked with ancient texts.” That seems rich. One Green Scholar who is deeply involved in the Museum of the Bible is Christian Askeland, now a professor at Indiana Wesleyan University, and with “qualifications and expertise”—a doctorate in ancient Coptic texts from Cambridge University—that ought to pass muster even at Yale. Askeland is the scholar who exploded—on the day after its dramatic unveiling in 2012—the much-publicized “Jesus’s Wife” Coptic fragment as a twentieth-century forgery. Perhaps if those “secular” biblical scholars hadn’t taken it for granted that some early Christians believed Jesus was married because they were so invested in the idea of Christian “diversity,” they wouldn’t have been so easily fooled.
Moss and Baden do seem to make some worthy points: that the Museum of the Bible apparently slights the Bibles of Ethiopian and Eastern Orthodox Christians, which are somewhat different from the Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish Bibles most familiar to Americans; and that the Greens, in their eagerness to acquire artifacts for their museum, bought, through Hobby Lobby, large quantities of apparently forged and almost certainly stolen documents and artifacts. (In July, Hobby Lobby agreed to pay a $3 million settlement and forfeit thousands of antiquities that were allegedly fraudulently smuggled out of Iraq.) But they—and the other critics of the Greens’ endeavor—could have made those points sans the intellectual’s perpetual knowing sneer.
The Museum of the Bible doesn’t sound like my kind of museum. I’m not fond of the “interactive” experiences that seem to be museums’ stock in trade these days: piles of burned Bibles, actors wandering around in costumes from Jesus’s time. At museums, I like to look at things: Vermeers, dinosaur bones, vintage biplanes. But as I discovered from the long, devoted line the day I tried to visit, the Museum of the Bible is speaking to a lot of people who are deemed beneath the attention of the educated elite who deem themselves their betters. I want to find out what moves them.
Charlotte Allen is a writer living in Washington, D.C.