Last month the much-anticipated Museum of the Bible opened in Washington DC. The project is the brainchild of the Green family—evangelical Christians and owners of Hobby Lobby. Josh Shepherd recently offered a comprehensive look at the details, scholarship, and history of the museum.
With the bold mission to “Invite all people to engage with the Bible,” it is to be expected that some may assume bias or inaccuracy in the museum. But just as anyone should think critically about the narratives of any educational institution, Museum of the Bible offers ample room for each visitor to interpret the experience differently.
Whether you think the Bible is an out-of-date relic or the inspired word of God, the museum helps you to engage with the ancient text and its legacy in a revolutionary way. With free admission, here’s why you should make Museum of the Bible part of your trip to DC, whether you’re an atheist, a rabbi or anything in between.
If You Don’t Believe Anything the Bible Says
The Bible has affected history more than any other book has. Even if that thought discourages or angers you, it is unavoidable. The Bible affects your life because it has shaped the world you live in. Museum of the Bible shows throughout its exhibits how normalized the Bible is in Western and American culture.
In the “Bible in the World” exhibit on the museum’s second floor, visitors can see how even commonplace expressions like “there’s nothing new under the sun” or “an eye for an eye” have biblical origins. For the English-speaking world, the Bible has been the lingua franca of art and literature, from Shakespeare to Kanye.
Visitors can flip through book covers displaying how many well-known books have scriptural themes and titles. Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” comes from the book of Ecclesiastes, where King Solomon talks about the cyclical and fleeting nature of life. John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” refers to the land where Cain was banished for killing his brother Abel in the book of Genesis.
Even for visitors who find the Bible unconvincing, it has shaped millennia of history. Billions upon billions of people throughout the ages have found it convincing. Even if it is just superstition, what about the Bible’s message has resonated with people across the globe for millennia? To consider this, you may enjoy the “History of the Bible” exhibit on the fourth floor. It offers perspective how the Bible has affected individual lives and why so many have found its beliefs compelling.
If You Don’t Know Quite What to Make of the Bible
Perhaps you were raised in a nominally Christian or Jewish household. Maybe you come from a different faith background that has similar beliefs. Maybe you just think that the Bible has made a big impact, but you don’t have any strong opinions on it. You won’t be disappointed either.
An interesting place to start is the “Bible in America” exhibit on the second floor. You’ll walk through artifacts, such as a Bible brought over on the Mayflower and a replica of the Liberty Bell with its biblical inscription (Leviticus 25:10). A great number of the pieces are on loan from the private collection of Ted and Sarah Steinbock, longtime collectors of Americana.
The exhibit also has dramatic readings on the beliefs of the Founding Fathers and how their views of the Bible influenced their politics. Often the ideological fault lines of the Founders traced back to their view of the scriptures. The exhibit does not shy away from the Bible’s complicated history in the New World. It explores the relationship between Christian settlers and Native Americans, as well as inter-denominational persecution.
Naturally and justly, the issue of Christianity and American slavery is given its proper attention. Different pieces highlight how during the Civil War, both the North and the South used the Bible to justify their stances on slavery. The same paradox would occur a century later with the civil rights movement and segregation.
Your visit may not affect your personal views of the Bible, but you will leave with a clearer picture of how America’s history and the Bible are both inseparable and imperfect.
If You Believe the Bible Is God’s Word
Not surprisingly, this crowd may be Museum of the Bible’s biggest fans. I was particularly struck by the “History of the Bible” and “The Hebrew Bible” exhibits. To a believer, walking through the museum displays an overwhelming picture of God’s complexity and greatness. We may see God’s presence in the everyday, mundane ways that he is good to us, but humans are not subtle animals. We enjoy being confronted boldly with God’s character.
Walking through this massive building, with objects and stories from around the world, stretching back millennia, it is hard not to be awestruck by God’s masterful orchestration of history. Across continents, centuries, languages, and peoples, only one thread unites this story: God’s Word.
But even more amazing than the universality of scripture and an omnipotent God who orchestrates history is that he speaks to us as individuals. We can see how God has carried this text through the eons, through upheaval, revolutions, hidden jars in the desert and paper made from the stomach of a cow—all so that I might know him.
As you look at first editions of the Gutenberg Bible or scraps of the Dead Sea Scrolls, you encounter the billions of people God has spoken to in the past. Just as he made sure he was known to them, he has made sure his word has come to you. For those who believe, we know that we are just as priceless a part of this story as any of the treasured artifacts under the glass. For us, it is not a history museum. It is the first few chapters in the story of a God who endures and keeps his promises. He is not distant. We are characters in his story.
In the exhibit “The Bible Today,” visitors meet massive screens showing real-time pictures of Jerusalem, Bible-related social media, and an interactive screen that patrons can write on. The prompt is, “In a word, how does the Bible make you feel?” Thankful.