The July 2-8, 2016 issue of The Economist is (rightly in my opinion) dominated by dire predictions about Britain’s exit from the European Union. But the column of “Lexington”, which regularly reviews American developments, deals with a rather different topic of less gravity—the plans for a Museum of the Bible to be opened in Washington, DC next year. Perhaps this is the sort of American curiosity that might get British readers off the lamentable topic of Brexit?
The story is about this huge project sponsored by the Evangelical Green family, which owns Hobby Lobby, the chain of crafts stores that won a landmark case before the Supreme Court in 2014. (The company, because it is predominantly owned by one family, was granted a religious exemption from the requirement by Obamacare that contraception be included in health insurance offered to employees.) The project has already spent $3-6 million (much of it family money) on a buying spree of Bible texts and artifacts, recently including a Torah scroll dated 1189 CE from a medieval synagogue in England. These objects are stored in a warehouse in Oklahoma City, where Hobby Lobby has its corporate headquarters. Some objects have been loaned to the Vatican and the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. Plans for the Hobby Lobby Museum include reconstructions of a synagogue, a village square and a carpenter’s shop (“Joseph and Sons, Handmade Shoes”?), as they would have appeared at the time of Jesus. Apparently these exhibits will be staffed by actors dressed in period costumes (I don’t know if they are being trained to speak Aramaic). There will also be a restaurant serving “Foods of the Bible” and a simulation of the parting of the Red Sea. Obviously there is to be fun for the whole family. The Greens have been generous to various Evangelical causes. They gave $62 million to Oral Roberts University, founded by the famous televangelist in 1965 and also located in Oklahoma City.
“Lexington” interviewed Steve Green, the president of Hobby Lobby. Green emphasized that the Museum of the Bible had no intention of propagating Evangelical Protestantism. It would only present the “facts” concerning the Bible, taking no position as to their veracity. If one means by “facts” reports of archaeological explorations (a video of such a dig in Israel is being prepared), or materials showing the historical influence of the Bible translations of Luther or King James, I can see how this can be done. That is a bit more difficult in the depiction of the parting of the Red Sea. I would imagine that Hobby Lobby, especially after having won its Supreme Court case, gets good legal advice making sure that the First Amendment rights of its owners continue to be distinguished from the IRS status of the company.
The contrast with the aforementioned Creation Museum is instructive. It was opened in 2007, at a cost of $27 million. It is visited by a yearly average of 250,000 persons. It is owned by an organization defined as promoting advocacy of so-called creation science, the idea that the story of creation in the Book of Genesis is literally true and that the theory of evolution is no more than a theory (if you like, not “factual”) which is either unproven or can actually be falsified. It seems that the program is very up to the highest standards of secular theme parks—three-dimensional depictions, live actors, interactive games for children. As far as I know, the federal courts have pretty much decided that creation science is not science but an article of religious faith. Americans are the most litigation-prone people on earth. Some lawyers might think otherwise, but I doubt if even the most ardent secularists would want to argue at this point that the Creation Museum is not a religious institution. Indeed, some lawyers have based a case against the Museum because it is a religious advocacy group. It seems that the state of Kentucky has a program of financial support for projects advancing tourism and has been considering the Museum as a recipient. Unlike Hobby Lobby, it is not owned by individuals who have First Amendment rights and it has no product apart from its religious message. [The law is a curious thing. Imagine that a very traditional Hindu temple in Nevada, where prostitution is legal, has re-instituted the traditional practice of devadasis, sacred prostitutes (literally “servants of a god”) whose earnings go to the temple represented by the priests. I further imagine that this project being very lucrative. An imaginative law firm in Las Vegas is challenging the tax exemption of the temple, because it is conducting a business and its devadasis are “sex workers” who should pay income tax on the portion of their earnings the temple allows them to keep—after, I assume, deducting expenses for rent and medical care…]
Can religion be presented in an objective and theologically neutral way, be it for educational or entertainment purposes? In secondary and college education this has been done successfully, for example in courses with the title “The Bible as Literature”. In American universities, where there are both departments of religion and schools of theology, there are often tensions between the two faculties: Those in religion departments usually emphasize that they have no theological agendas, while the theologians often question the formers’ claims of objectivity.
A few months ago I attended a conference about religious pluralism in Germany—very timely particularly because of the issue of the integration of Muslims. The mayor of Hamburg gave a lecture about the unique policy there on religious education in the public schools. The German constitution guarantees the right of parents to have their children receive the religious instruction they choose, or to have no such instruction at all. The different religious communities take care of this requirement by running separate classes for “their” children. The Hamburg model is to have courses on “religious knowledge”, which all children attend together and which is supposed to teach about different religions objectively. Parents are free to augment this instruction by separate classes set up by the different religious communities. The mayor was very proud of this model for fostering understanding and respect; there were positive comments by Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Muslim spokespersons.
Religion has often provided entertainment, sometimes with a propagandistic purpose, sometimes not. The wild entertainment of Mardi Gras ever since the Middle Ages was rarely propagandistic, indeed often made savage fun of church and clergy. On the other hand the Jesuits, who were the shock troops of the Counter-Reformation, stage entertaining plays to turn people away from the stern messages of the Protestants. Hollywood has produced films for mass audiences with no hidden religious message, such as “Ben Hur” and “The Ten Commandments”. One of the still ongoing huge cinematic projects under Evangelical auspices is the “Jesus Movie”. It was begun in 1979 with the stated purpose of synchronizing a film about Jesus in all languages spoken on earth today. At least some of the film makers believe that Jesus will return once all people on earth will have been given the chance to accept or reject him. The film (rather Hollywood in style) has thus far been translated into at least 1500 languages, all from an English text of selected passages from the Gospels (In the King James version). Thus if the film is shown in, say, South Africa audiences can hear Jesus, the Apostles, even Pontius Pilate speak in Zulu, Xhosa and so on, A few years ago a colleague and I interviewed one of the film makers. He was very proud of the technological innovations—the film can be shown simultaneously on both sides of a large screen. He described the operating procedure: The film would be shown. Then people would be asked whether they want to learn more about Jesus; if so, would they give their contact information to one of the ushers. This information would be sent to nearby Protestant churches, who would then follow up. I have not done research about the effectiveness of the project.
Both religion as part of education and as entertainment have a long history. The Jesus Movie could, I’m sure, be shown in South Africa today. It would not be allowed in India or China. In most of the Muslim world it would be risking death either by a court or by an enraged mob. During our interview with the film maker I asked him, without mentioning countries, whether it could be dangerous in some places to show the film. He replied quite calmly that witnessing for Jesus has often led to martyrdom. I don’t really envy this kind of certitude.