Why the Museum of the Bible Angered So Many Academics
Sept 14, 2018
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 [at Ancient Near East Today] 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.”
This articulates well the unease that many of us have felt at some of the criticism of the Museum of the Bible project. I’m very glad to see it.
The criticism from a few scholars has been disturbingly intemperate, for no obvious reason. Surely any project that brings money and public interest to papyrology is welcome, even if we don’t agree with the political or religious views of those doing it? Instead every possible objection was made.
For me the breaking point was when the people working at the Museum of the Bible were attacked for dismantling cartonnage in order to recover documentary or literary papyri embedded within; a practice undertaken for a century or more now, yet suddenly criticised. One scholar even suggested that it was better for the texts to remain lost than to dare to lay a finger on the (near-worthless) cartonnage. Everybody knows better than that.
Nobody benefits from this. Not even the scholars objecting benefit.
I see more and more signs that US Republicans are getting irritated at the use of public money to fund the humanities in the US universities. I read article after article suggesting that some departments in this area – subjects like Gender Studies for instance – are pseudo-disciplines, staffed entirely by people hostile to the Republicans. It doesn’t matter if this is so; the perception is there. That perception goes a lot further than just Gender Studies. The Campus Reform site publishes article after article on bias, bigotry and absurdity, mostly directed at Republicans on-campus. Its articles are widely read by the rightists.
By chance today I saw the following report in the Wall Street Journal – hardly a bastion of the alt-right:
Fake News Comes to Academia: How three scholars gulled academic journals to publish hoax papers on ‘grievance studies.’
Oct. 2, 2018. Jillian Kay Melchior.
… Beginning in August 2017, the trio wrote 20 hoax papers, submitting them to peer-reviewed journals under a variety of pseudonyms, as well as the name of their friend Richard Baldwin, a professor emeritus at Florida’s Gulf Coast State College. Mr. Baldwin confirms he gave them permission use his name. Journals accepted seven hoax papers. Four have been published.
This will only add fuel to the perception that the US humanities are a fraud on the taxpayer.
May I make a plea to academics to be responsible. Don’t gratuitiously annoy the heck out of any political or religious group. It is irresponsible to cause others to lose trust in the academy. It is utterly irresponsible to deserve to lose that trust, by peddling our political or religious opinions as if they were the assured results of scholarly investigation. It is damnably irresponsible to use the academy as a platform to indulge our ever-so-privileged hatreds of those who pay for us.
We may have to hold our noses. I rather doubt that most British people, of any political or religious views, would be able to pass through the Museum of the Bible without wincing. British people find a lot of American culture cringeworthy. But it doesn’t matter.
The archaeologists are way ahead of most of us in the field of classics and patristics. Every archaeologist is Indiana Jones, in the public mind. They get free labour, free advertising, and television series. Everyone “knows” that archaeology is objective, is “science” (which is not true, of course). Whatever money is around, in these straitened times, they get. Not enough, I know; but a fortune compared to classicists. Every county has a county archaeologist. Not many have a county classicist! Or a county patristics scholar.
Wouldn’t it be nice if they did? So let’s not pick fights with people bringing money and publicity into the subject.