Good News near the National Mall

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Ten minutes before the Museum of the Bible opens, the line wraps around the block. It's about as long as a grown-up par five, maybe 600 yards. But we got our timed tickets months ago, so there's no cause to worry.

Right? Maybe we should ask.

"We're letting everyone in, whether they have tickets or not," a cheerful woman in the blazer says. So yes, we need to troop around the corner and stand in that line. So we do. When the doors open, the line begins to move--about 20 feet. We wait, it moves again. It stops. Twenty more feet.

When we finally get to the door, we realize the intermittency of entrance is due to the limited number of full body scanners, which seem reasonable given the museum's subject matter and the sort of visitors it might attract. While the museum is huge (430,000 square feet) and could accomodate many times the number of people seeking admission this Sunday morning, we live in an age when it's prudent to electromagnetically frisk your clientele.

But as we're allowed into a foyer a couple of glass doors away from the screening area, all discipline and order breaks down. Our lines dissolve into a Boschian riot, and people begin to push past their neighbors. A heavy man in a blue sweatshirt that reads "agape" bolts ahead of everyone and ignores the docent's directions to wait for her signal before entering the screening area.

Certainly, the Bible must address this situation--isn't there something about how Thou Shalt Not Cut? Maybe not. Besides, there is that bit about how the last will be first and the first last (Matthew 20:16).

Anyway, we make it through and reunite on the other side of security at almost exactly the time printed on our timed tickets. We spent nearly an hour on line; if we'd waited until our ticket time to arrive it wouldn't have been as long but there still would have been a half-hour wait. "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience ..." (Galatians 5:22).

Much like commercial airlines and Congress, the museum doesn't seem prepared to follow its own rules. That's the extent of my beef with the Museum of the Bible, which is in many ways impressive. That's not to say it doesn't have an evangelical point of view, or that there aren't parts of it which devolve into "family friendly" kitsch, or that its 3,000-square-foot gift shop isn't low-hanging fruit for some would-be ironist; only that it seems earnest--at least half of it is a serious and non dogmatic attempt to illuminate the history of the Book that some hold out, despite apparent internal inconsistencies, as the inerrant revelation of Almighty God.

Since the $500 million temple is privately funded, I don't much care that it seems to downplay the deism of America's founding fathers or that it tends to uncritically embrace the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, the belief that Christian scripture provides the sole infallible rule of faith and practice. But hey, free specch.

MOTB has an agenda. It was founded and largely funded by Hobby Lobby president Steve Green, a literalist who has declared the Bible "a reliable historical document" and unsuccessfully attempted to make public schools in his home state of Oklahoma adopt a mandatory Bible course, which was not a good idea.

While the original mission statement declared that the museum was designed to "inspire confidence in the absolute authority of the Bible," smart people apparently got to Green and the rest of the board; they toned down the rhetoric (to the point that some believers have criticized it for being too light on Jesus) and delivered an extraordinarily handsome and restrained institution that remarkably seems not to promote biblical literalism (such as the idea that the heavens and the earth were created in six 24-hour days) or promulgate social conservative ideas about the evil of homosexuality or women needing to live under their fathers' roof until they're married. In a country where biblical ignorance is rampant--even (and maybe especially) among those who identify as Christians--MOTB is a social good.

Consider that in recent years polls have shown that many Americans have trouble recalling even five of the 10 Commandments, that fewer than half of all adults can name the four gospels, and many self-identified Christians cannot remember more than two or three of the disciples. In one poll, 12 percent of respondents thought Joan of Arc was Noah's wife. In another, more than 50 percent of high school students guessed that Sodom and Gomorrah were a married couple. And contrary to what some of my correspondents believe, the Bible doesn't mention guns.

I won't even make fun of the breathless Dave Stotts Drive Through History video segments that turn up among the serious scholarship the museum is conducting on the Bible's history, for they provide novices with an easily digestible survey. There are some controversial, possibly dubious shreds of the Dead Sea Scrolls on display, but there's also a little sign explaining the controversy. (Hobby Lobby says the smuggled antiquities it was forced to forfeit and pay $3 million in fines for possessing in July were not connected to the museum.)

And when you get upstairs, some of the cultural stuff is fun--and borderline irreverent. Maybe copyright clearance issues prevented the MOTB from using any Bob Dylan songs as examples of the Bible's influence on pop culture, but they do have some Elvis Costello and Leonard Cohen. And Alexander McQueen fashions.

My favorite moment occurred while watching a montage of clips from popular movies with biblical scenes. As computer animated animals boarded Steve Carell's suburban-erected ark in the 2007 family fantasy Evan Almighty (an awful film, by the way), somewhere in the dark behind me a woman stage-whispered to her friend: "I don't believe that is historically accurate."

If MOTB promotes that sort of critical thinking, what's not to love?



Editorial on 12/10/2017

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