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D.C. Bible Museum Will Be Immersive Experience, Organizers Say

Steve Green in the basement of the Washington Design Center, which was recently demolished as part of the construction for the Museum of the Bible. Green and his family, owners of Hobby Lobby, are building the Museum of the Bible.
Andre Chung for The Washington Post/Getty Images
Steve Green in the basement of the Washington Design Center, which was recently demolished as part of the construction for the Museum of the Bible. Green and his family, owners of Hobby Lobby, are building the Museum of the Bible.

In Washington, D.C., construction is underway on the Museum of the Bible, an eight-story, $400 million enterprise funded by Hobby Lobby President Steve Green.

Green is a Pentecostal known for donating to conservative evangelical universities and developing a public school curriculum based on the Bible. After the craft store's controversial victory in this summer's Supreme Court ruling over contraception, some people worry the new museum will come across as evangelical propaganda. But organizers behind Green's latest venture say it won't be a memorial to evangelism.

The Museum of the Bible will house the more than 40,000 artifacts in Green's personal collection, including Jewish Torah scrolls and papyrus fragments of the New Testament.

But the museum won't just put relics on display. As museum President Cary Summers explains, visitors can stroll through the biblical garden.

"So people can actually see what a Rose of Sharon is," he says. "And what does a Hyssop bush look like?"

They can visit the cafe for flatbread, date honey and other biblical foods. It's part of what Summers calls an "immersive" experience.

"We want this to be highly engaging for people of all ages, all cultural backgrounds, all faiths, no faiths," he says.

But some people, like Jewish civilization professor Jacques Berlinerblau of Georgetown University, are skeptical.

"Oh, those crafty white conservative evangelicals!" he says. "They're so savvy. They're so politically cunning."

Berlinerblau also questions the museum's location, just two blocks south of the National Mall.

"When there's an anti-abortion rally, an anti-gay marriage rally, an anti-Affordable Care Act rally to be had, what a convenient thing to have church groups coming to see the museum," he says, "and then while they're at it, next step on their itinerary is to march down to the Mall for a protest."

Summers says that's not the plan. He says they chose the site for its crowd drawing potential. After all, more than half of the Smithsonian's 19 museums line the National Mall.

But those museums are public, and the Museum of the Bible is private. Summers consulted for the Creation Museum in Kentucky, which shows humans and dinosaurs co-existing on a 6,000-year-old Earth.

This leads some scholars to wonder how the museum will interpret the world's most famous book. Martyn Oliver, who teaches religious studies at American University, says he applauds Green's collection for showing so many facets of the Bible.

"The texts and artifacts suggest the Bible as a text that has been in dispute, that is always changing, that is open to question," he says, "and this contradicts some theological positions that understand the Bible to be static, unchanging and the literal word of God."

Summers says more than 100 scholars and experts of different religious stripes have weighed in as the museum's developed. And guests can choose from five different religious viewpoints on the handheld devices that will serve as virtual tour guides.

Tim Krepp, a D.C. resident and tour guide, says he's not a religious guy.

"I grew up Catholic; it didn't take," he says. "I'm certainly not fundamentalist at all."

And he says he expects to bring all kinds of groups to the museum.

"As a secularist, if you will, I can't be afraid of the marketplace of ideas," he says. "And this adds to that marketplace of ideas. So, like any other tourist attraction in D.C., any other place to visit, I'm going to be knowledgeable about it and be ready to share that if guests are so inclined."

He has some time to find out. The Museum of the Bible isn't scheduled to open until November 2017.

Copyright 2015 WAMU 88.5

Rebecca Sheir
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