Opened last fall and located not far from the National Mall in Washington, DC, the Museum of the Bible was a source of controversy even before it opened its doors, in part because of its founder, Steven Green, the president of Hobby Lobby and a devout evangelical Christian. Scholars of the Bible and archaeology were prominent among the museum’s critics, in part because they objected to the museum’s framing of certain issues in ways that differ from accepted scholarship, in part because of serious concerns regarding the provenance of certain artifacts—some of which turned out to have been looted from Iraq. But Alex Joffe argues that something else is at stake:
For academics, [at] issue [is their] loss of public authority over the Bible. The intellectual monopolization of the Bible by academics in the post-World War II era coincided with the gradual collapse of biblical literacy in America, along with many mainline [Protestant] denominations. With this went an important part of the language of American identity, conversation, and consensus. The Bible in the public square was taken over by professors.
Inevitable or not, this was not healthy in social or political terms. Invocations of the Bible, religion, or God in politics today—[whether] earnest, banal, or grotesque—are condemned instantly. And yet this [habitual condemnation] cuts Americans off from not only a vernacular but from history; [for instance], the national, personal, and spiritual agony that Abraham Lincoln expressed in his second inaugural address is explicable only by reference to the Bible. . . .
Academics have hardly been faithful stewards of the Bible any more than of other forms of canonical knowledge; efforts to reclaim the Bible on the part of faith were also inevitable. If these also lead to more earnest engagement with the Bible as literature, tradition, and [a source of] morality on the part of academics and intellectuals, all the better. Unfortunately, I see the opposite occurring; [such] reclamation will be met with further academic criticism, which will only increase the distance between academia and society, heightening mutual suspicion and alienation, and setting up at least one side for a nasty surprise. . . .
The families and church groups visiting the Museum of the Bible are unlikely to be troubled by [issues of provenance] or converted to one denomination or another, but they might have elements of their faith, in the Bible and in America, reaffirmed. They are also likely to come away interested in Biblical history and archaeology. Many will go on to the Air and Space Museum for other sorts of reaffirmations, in technology and the human imagination, or to the National Gallery, filled with silent tributes to religious faith and to beauty itself. None of these is an unalloyed good, but that is the nature of museums. The good that one comes away with depends in part on what one goes in with.
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