Museum of the Bible, funded by conservatives, avoids contentious issues

11/24/2017, 2:17 p.m.
Eight years ago, Hobby Lobby president Steve Green found a new way to express his Christian faith. His family’s $4 ...

“The museum is a massive advertisement for the curriculum,” said Mark Chancey, a religious studies professor at Southern Methodist University who has critically analyzed content of the Bible lesson plans.

A new book written by Mr. Green and his wife, Jackie, about how they developed the museum seems to send mixed signals about their goals.

In “This Dangerous Book, How the Bible Has Shaped Our World and Why It Still Matters Today,” the Greens write of the museum, “We’re not creating a place to proselytize.” They also write, “We believe there are multiple applications for Scripture, but only one interpretation,” and “time and time again, evidence has shown the Bible to be accurate.”

Still, the museum avoids debates over interpreting the Bible, and over contentious issues such as evolution and marriage.

Separately, critics have seized on a changing mission statement of the museum from its earliest days, when founders said they aimed to prove the authority of the Bible, to a new, more neutral goal of inviting people to learn more about the Bible. Museum president Cary Summers described the change as a natural progression as the project moved ahead.

But John Fea, a historian at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, points to the family’s goal of helping people “engage with” the Bible as a telling indication about what the Greens hope to achieve. He said the “Bible engagement” concept was popularized by the American Bible Society in the 1990s amid concern that people who owned copies of the Scriptures weren’t necessarily reading them.

Mr. Fea said advocates for this strategy ultimately hope the Bible will inspire a desire to learn more and maybe accept Christ.

“There’s a public face to this Bible engagement rhetoric and then there’s a private aspect of what it really means,” Mr. Fea said. “It debunks the whole notion that this is just a history museum.”

Mr. Green’s response to such arguments: Visit the museum and decide for yourself.

Located near the National Mall, the building has been designed to inspire a sense of wonder. The Gutenberg Gates flank the entrance. A 140-foot LED display runs the length of the entrance hall ceiling, bathing the lobby in a changing array of color.

The floors are a mix of shimmering marble from Denmark and Tunisia, complemented by columns of Jerusalem stone. From two high stories, a glass atrium curves from ceiling to floor, echoing the shape of a scroll and providing a clear view of the Capitol dome and the Washington Monument.

A section dedicated to the Bible’s modern-day influence includes a replica of the Liberty Bell, inscribed with a verse from Leviticus, and exhibits touching on slavery, abolition and the Civil Rights Movement.

A motion simulator, called “Washington Revelations,” creates the sensation of flying over the nation’s capital to see Bible inscriptions and references in buildings and monuments throughout the city.

The ceremony opening the museum aimed to underscore a message of inclusivity, and featured among the dignitaries a rabbi and two Roman Catholic cardinals bearing a message from Pope Francis.

“I think people will come in here and will be surprised at how much this book has impacted their life in ways that they probably don’t even know,” Mr. Green said.