Hobby Lobby Billionaires, Skeptical Scholars, and the Museum of the Bible

 
 

Candida Moss and Joel Baden sound an alarm about the Green family, owners of Hobby Lobby and founders of the Museum of the Bible. The real target here, though, is not so much the Greens as the evangelical Protestant view of the Bible that they embrace.

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In The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom, Candida Moss, then Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Notre Dame, asserted that a martyrdom complex among American Christians is poisoning social discourse. She argued that ancient persecution was really “prosecution,” that suffering for one’s faith is hardly unique to Christianity, and that many accounts of Christian martyrdom are unreliable. The Myth of Persecution serves as a case study in how scholarship becomes a means to an end, as Moss used her academic expertise to score points against her cultural opponents.

Ironically, the co-opting of scholarship to score cultural points is precisely what Moss is now warning against in her new book Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby. Moss, now the Edward Cadbury Professor of Theology at the University of Birmingham, is joined by Joel S. Baden, a professor of Hebrew Bible at Yale Divinity School. With Baden, Moss again targets those she considers the doltish faithful—in this case, the Green family, billionaire owners of the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores. Moss and Baden consider the Greens very likable and sincere but nevertheless guilty of “willful naiveté.” This naiveté, Moss and Baden argue, will be reflected in the Greens’ $500-million Museum of the Bible (MOTB), which opens today, November 17, in Washington, DC. The real target here, as in Moss’s previous book, is not so much the Greens as the evangelical Protestant view of the Bible that they embrace.

If the subject of Bible Nation were the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case that granted religious exemption from the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate, it might have been a predictable wound-licking to confirm Moss’s earlier complaint that American Christians are snowflakes who cry “persecution” at every slight. The stakes are much higher now. The Greens are not fighting a rearguard action. They are on the offensive, and their main weapon is the MOTB. Moss and Baden fear that the gates of academe will not prevail against the Greens, their money, or their museum.

Why Not Bart Ehrman?

Why is the MOTB such a threat? First, it will present a particular view of the Bible. Though the less-than-flattering portrait of the Greens’ staff often stands on its own merits, Moss and Baden’s main criticism of the Greens boils down to this: they didn’t hire Bart Ehrman. What explains the great gulf between the Greens and those like Ehrman? The answer is obvious: “David Green and his sons Mart and Steve have only a year of college among them.” Rather than spend their millions to advance what Moss and Baden benignly call a “purely academic, intellectual, historical, or cultural appreciation of the book,” the Greens’ museum is likely to enable an “underlying religious commitment” to the Bible. The nerve of these people!

Of course, Moss and Baden presume to know the Greens better than they know themselves. The Greens are “unable to see the assumptions they bring with them to this project.” Scholars, of course, bring no assumptions to their work. They are free of what Moss and Baden gently call “faith claims.” Faith claims, as characterized by Moss and Baden, are akin to what Natalie Wood is told when dubious about Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street: “Faith is something you believe when common sense [and the theology department] tells you not to.” These benighted worshipping masses think that the Bible is more than an ancient collection of contradictions, as Moss and Baden characterize it. The faithful eschew textual criticism and dismiss the findings of the Jesus Seminar as only so much argle-bargle. They probably do not even know that the Bible has been used for both good and evil!

This is the puzzling raison d’etre of the book: to continually chafe against the belief that the Bible just may be the Word of God after all. If Moss and Baden do not know by now that faithful communities consider many of their objections “asked and answered” (a problem with Moss’s previous book, too) and continue to believe, all one can do is take a cue from the Greens’ home state of Oklahoma: Well, bless your heart, professors!

Moss’s and Baden’s second main objection is to the Greens’ use of the word “nonsectarian.” Informed by their Pentecostal or Baptist theologies, the Greens believe that the Bible speaks for itself. According to their “faith-based understanding of the Bible,” the Bible is about Jesus, and to save souls it needs no other interpreter than the Holy Spirit. Without putting too fine a point on it, theirs is a Protestant view of the Bible. It is certainly neither Jewish nor Roman Catholic. Moss and Baden appoint themselves the protectors of faithful Jews and Catholics, bemoaning, for example, that Catholic families unable to take pilgrimages abroad might visit the MOTB and be subjected to the “anti-Catholic bias” they think implicit in the Protestant interpretation. Likewise, Moss and Baden wonder how a Bible curriculum funded by the Greens, abandoned for use in American public schools, could be adopted in Israel.

Moss and Baden’s presumption to sound the alarm against these Protestant tempters sounds noble enough—until one discovers that both the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Vatican have entered into unprecedented partnerships with the MOTB. Likewise, the supposedly crazy fundamentalism inherent in the MOTB has not deterred partnerships with a host of other scholarly collections including the Bodleian and Sackler libraries at Oxford. As for the Bible curriculum, it has been publicly lauded by the Israeli Ministry of Education, Youth, and Society.

Is Hobby Lobby Money "Big Pharma" for Scholars?

The implicit retort against all of this is that millions of dollars will buy lots of partnerships. Moss and Baden compare the Greens’ work to Big Pharma’s corruption of health care. Indeed, they argue that the Greens singlehandedly changed the market for Bible-related antiquities. They chronicle the “Green Scholars Initiative” or GSI (later renamed “Scholars Initiative”) in which students at colleges and universities, most of them Christian schools, were given an opportunity to study items held in the Hobby Lobby collection. Selection of the GSI’s faculty mentors appears haphazard. Research universities were rarely tapped. Papyrologists who asked for access to the collection were ignored. Honoraria were paid to GSI participants, and the investment is small considering how the program can provide cover for questionable provenance, raise the value of the Greens’ acquisitions, and give legitimacy to the MOTB. The GSI strikes Moss and Baden as a rah-rah ideological program akin to the “Students in Free Enterprise” program funded by Walmart. In the case of GSI, the goal appears to be encouraging Christian students and scholars in their faith that the Bible is reliable, not promoting disinterested analysis. Of course, it is easy to critique the selection process of any grant-making or research program—especially when it isn’t your money.

Moss and Baden make much of the fact that GSI participants are required to sign a non-disclosure agreement. While non-disclosure agreements no doubt come as second nature to persons who head a corporate empire, they certainly appear inimical to every inclination of scholarship. What’s more, the GSI’s non-disclosure agreement further complicates other obfuscations associated with the Greens’ collection. They hold a fifth-century fragment from Galatians (once displayed at the Vatican) whose bizarre and potentially unethical provenance includes a stint on eBay. Baylor and Pepperdine graduate students in the GSI presented a paper on the existence of a groundbreaking fragment from Paul’s epistle to the Romans, but cannot discuss it further.

The use of non-disclosure agreements does indeed seem unusual. But then, the Greens’ motive hardly necessitates a traditional approach. Their collection was not launched so that scholars could perpetrate frauds such as the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife or the Gospel of Judasthe latter protected at first by National Geographic with a non-disclosure agreement. Academe is, of course, famous for “faith claims” of its own, and its militant secularism can serve as an implicit nondisclosure agreement for faithful scholars. For example, Moss and Baden know of “more than one highly respected graduate program” that “turn[s] down applicants because of affiliation with the GSI.”

Could one go so far as to characterize the scholarly credentials of GSI as part farce and part fraud? Moss and Baden come close to suggesting as much, but must tread lightly on a program whose first published volume was co-edited by Emmanuel Tov, Professor Emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Editor-in-Chief of the international Dead Sea Scrolls Publication Project. Tov compares the restricted character of the Green collection to the Dead Sea Scrolls project that he led, which was itself closed to the wider scholarly community for over four decades.

The Virtues of Bible Nation

Bible Nation has many virtues, unlike Moss’s Myth of Persecution. Given their disagreements with the Greens’ “worldview” (a term that Moss and Baden criticize but deploy themselves), the authors are surprisingly gentle. They attempt only glancing blows against corporate practices at Hobby Lobby. Though Moss and Baden suspect that the Greens’ primary mission is to influence Washington politicians, they do not spin out the usual conspiracy theories about impending right-wing “theocracy” and note that the Greens stayed relatively quiet in political matters until provoked by the contraceptive mandate. Though Moss and Baden convincingly demonstrate that the Greens’ expenditure on antiquities, their valuation, and their subsequent donation to the MOTB are often calculated to make good financial sense for tax filings, they do not cast this too cynically. Likewise, they do not dwell on the scandal in which Hobby Lobby (the corporate entity controlling all Green family enterprises) was fined three million dollars for disguising imported cuneiform tablets as “tile samples” on shipping paperwork. The narrative of the book relies primarily on interviews with the principal parties and reliable corroboration. Of course, this is precisely the point. Moss and Baden feel that the intentions of the Greens are so suspect that letting them speak for themselves is the most damning indictment available.

There is no doubt that the Greens intend to make a point with their museum. Like Moss in her last book, they see scholarship as a means to an end rather than as an end in itself. Like Moss and Baden, they also think that every argument is only as good as its first principles. The authors of Bible Nation needn’t worry too much about the Greens’ billions, however. There are hundreds of colleges, universities, and seminaries, who together have far more money than the Museum of the Bible. They are also ready and willing to convert their patrons to the views of Moss, Baden, and Ehrman. Unlike visitors to the Museum of the Bible, however, their patrons don’t get in for free.

Glenn Moots is professor of political science and philosophy at Northwood University and author of Politics Reformed: The Anglo-American Legacy of Covenant Theology.

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