A new museum has opened in Washington, D.C. Funded by wealthy Evangelical patrons, the Museum of the Bible presents the ancient text in a modern form, through the use of cutting-edge technologies. The idea of the museum is to engage an increasingly secular population with the history, narrative and impact of the Christian Bible.
The cost of the new museum is estimated at over half a billion dollars. Exhibits include fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, although questions abound regarding their provenance, costs and even their authenticity. One exhibit is a simulation of the world of Jesus in his boyhood town of Nazareth: artificial olive trees are complete with life-like leaves and hand-made olives hanging in bunches, and every ninety minutes the sky changes from day to night so that visitors can live through a day in the life of Jesus.
The scholarly wing of the museum has produced a number of works, including a syllabus for a course in the Bible suitable for use in private high schools; the hope is that the same syllabus will be attractive for use in the public school system in the United States.
Despite all the impressive displays using the latest technology, the artifacts which may or may not be genuine and the life-sized dioramas, at the heart of the museum is the Bible itself. It is not the physical object, of course, that is on display, although there are many examples of different Bibles to be viewed; it is about the sacred text which is also the story, the centre of the faith which is revered almost to idolatrous levels by some evangelical Christians. The mission statement of the Museum of the Bible captures this devotion to the text in its goal of inspiring confidence in the “absolute authority and reliability of the Bible.”
I may be branded a liberal, or even heretic, when I suggest that the Bible does not deserve a museum, but should instead be seen as a living document, continually being read, reinterpreted and differently understood. I suspect that to enshrine the Bible in a museum suggests that it is somehow dead and worthy only of veneration rather than allowing it to be a living tradition that continues to shape life. From the medieval four-fold reading of the Bible (in literal, allegorical, topological and analogical ways) to the modern historical-critical methodologies of analysis to newer readings of the text from liberationist, feminist, post-colonial perspectives, the Bible is still a living work that speaks to people in living, and different, ways. The stories are significant not just because they are rooted in an ancient past, but because they intersect with our own stories in the present.
The Bible, for me and for countless other Christians, is not an artifact to be honoured in museum displays, but a story that lives in people and communities of faith, inspiring, encouraging, comforting and challenging them. It is not limited to its past and our attempts to read it literally, with or without impressive technological support; rather, it is open to being read vibrantly by God’s people in their various contexts in the world. The Bible is, as Paul wrote of faith in echoes of the prophet Jeremiah, not written on tablets of stone, but on the human heart. That cannot be enshrined in a museum, but only made tangible in lives of faith and action.