On a crisp Sunday morning in January in Oklahoma City, the Museum of the Bible set up shop at a big Baptist church. Just outside the sanctuary sat a table with an array of biblical artifacts, flanked by glossy brochures advertising the museum and a floor-to-ceiling poster with the logo of the Museum of the Bible (MOTB) and a depiction of its physical building in Washington, D.C. Church members were greeted warmly by Michael McAfee, MOTB director of Bible engagement and son-in-law to Steve Green, the Oklahoma-based visionary and principal backer of the museum. Donning blue plastic gloves, McAfee enthusiastically explained the artifacts he had brought and suggested their role as historical precursors to the Bibles that church members held in their hands.
Opposite this display was another table lined with books for purchase authored by that morning’s speaker, Jeremiah Johnston, a self-described Christian apologist and founder of the Christian Thinkers Society, an institute at Houston Baptist University, where he is also an associate professor. According to the organization’s website, its mission is “to teach Christians to become Thinkers and Thinkers to Become Christians.” Johnston, whose persona combines inviting affability and brash confidence, repeated this catchy refrain as part of his sermon that morning and during a complementary evening Q&A program.
The day’s events comprised one stop on the nationwide “Unanswered” speaking tour for which the MOTB has partnered with Johnston and CTS. What is to be made of this collaboration between the MOTB and a Christian apologist? After all, the MOTB has consistently presented itself as independent from any particular faith tradition. By now, it will surprise few that the public face of the MOTB as inclusive and nonsectarian has been called into serious question since its November 2017 opening. Observations about the events held in its impressive facilities, its financial connection to conservative religious organizations, its lending relationship with fundamentalist Christian museums, and even the MOTB exhibits themselves have led to criticism that the MOTB has a stealth agenda to normalize the Protestant Bible and to wield influence in support of political causes that mobilize evangelicals.
In spite of these critiques, representatives of the museum continue to insist that the MOTB is neutral—an enterprise that promotes study of the Bible in a merely educational, if entertaining, way. When asked how the MOTB reconciles its relationship with CTS in light of its own identification as religiously unaffiliated, MOTB Director of Communications Jeremy Burton stated, “These promotional opportunities have not changed the mission or the non-sectarian approach of the museum.”
What I observed at Southern Hills Baptist Church, though, was a public event that betrayed a private purpose. I had made my way to the church that morning out of curiosity, sparked by a local news article. I wondered: What would MOTB officials say when they thought no one else was listening? What I saw was an attempt to define, appropriate, and paradoxically combat my academic field of inquiry—biblical studies—the very field that the MOTB has claimed its aims are consistent with and some of whose eminent participants the MOTB has managed to recruit as paid advisors and consultants.
I suspect that those scholars would recoil at the way in which McAfee, followed by Johnston, framed the MOTB and the academic guild of biblical studies.
McAfee’s talk in front of the crowded sanctuary closed with a fundraising pitch, but before he spoke of money, he spent some time introducing the vision and purpose of the MOTB. He had two books in his hands. I recognized the first as Misquoting Jesus, a standard account of how New Testament texts were copied and edited, written by Bart Ehrman, who is a religious studies professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The other book was a Bible. Given the MOTB’s apparent scholarly credentials, one might expect a museum official to lift up biblical scholarship like Ehrman’s as a useful tool for helping readers have a greater understanding of the history of the Bible. He didn’t.
McAfee opened with an anecdote from his time as a student minoring in religious studies at the University of Oklahoma, the department in which I now teach. It turns out that Ehrman, whom McAfee referred to merely as “this scholar,” had given a public lecture at OU in which he presented information that McAfee found challenging to his personal faith. He went to Ehrman’s lecture, he said, for bonus points. “Good Lord knows I always took advantage of extra credit,” he joked to the congregation. “I desperately needed it.” He went on to say, “There was a scholar who came and told me some things about the Bible that I wasn’t aware of. Told me some problems that he had with the Bible.” According to McAfee, Ehrman had said the Bible had transmission issues, that there were mistakes made in the successive copying of the text, that “there had been not just one or two mistakes made but many mistakes made.” Afterwards, he said, “I walked out of there with my faith a little shaken, unsure of what to do with this information. This scholar wrote this book, Misquoting Jesus.” He added soberly, “That was a book that really kind of shook me to my faith.”
Ehrman’s basic description of how we got the biblical text that we have today is uncontestable: We have no access to any original documents, and the manuscripts we do have are different—sometimes vastly—from each other. An entire sub-discipline of biblical studies called textual criticism exists because of these circumstances. It is a fascinating, vibrant academic field. It is not necessarily opposed to the faith claims around the idea that the scriptures were divinely inspired. It cannot give an answer about divine involvement one way or another: Questions about God are outside of its bounds because text critics, many of whom happen to be Christians, ask historical rather than theological questions.
Having held up Ehrman as a representative of biblical scholarship whose facts sometimes challenge faith claims, McAfee did not go on to recount an attempt to reconcile what he had learned in the lecture with his faith experience. Biblical scholarship was held up as a foil—as an adversary, a threat that needed answering. As McAfee continued the story, he gestured to his Bible, his demeanor shifting toward enthusiasm. The answer, to him, was to turn to the “Word of God.” He went to pastors at his Baptist church and asked their help to understand the Bible—“not just from a faith perspective.” He asked his pastors, “What are the facts about this book?”
It seems that McAfee didn’t like Ehrman’s findings because they weren’t consistent with his faith. He wanted different facts, and he found them at church. In other words, McAfee suggested that there exist alternative facts that could bolster, rather than threaten, faith. To my astonishment, he went on to suggest that the MOTB is poised to offer such (alternative) facts. “It’s to help people interact with the facts about how we got this book that we call the Bible,” he said, aligning the MOTB with his faith-affirming facts rather than those generated by biblical scholarship. It is no coincidence, then, that the D.C. museum completely ignores thorny issues of textual transmission—a stunning oversight in any educational discussion of biblical literature. But while the museum merely neglects to address textual criticism or the need thereof, McAfee named it and attempted to combat it with a Bible—which biblical scholars know can’t itself explain where it came from or how we got it.
Pastor Daniel Snow went on to introduce Johnston, the scholar with whom the MOTB had partnered for this event. Johnston’s academic credentials sound impressive: “He has studied at Oxford,” the pastor said. The CTS website’s bio for Johnston includes a list of presses with whom he has published, led by one of the most prestigious in the guild: Oxford University Press. During his talk to the congregation, Johnston repeatedly performed such credentials for church members by dropping academic words the average churchgoer would not have encountered (shema, protois, verisimilitude) and by flagging his own academic work: “I want to give you 7 reasons—based on the archaeological evidence, based on history, based on what I have done in my work doing a 93,000-word thesis on the physical resurrection of Jesus—why I believe in the body of proof: the physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus.”
Given that the MOTB wants to be taken seriously as an educational and research institution, Johnston seems a counter-intuitive partner. A closer look at his curriculum vitae reveals that his educational pedigree is unrelated to Oxford University, a premiere institution of scholarship. The “Oxford” mentioned by Pastor Daniel is actually the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies—identified by its website as “an independent Christian charity.” Johnston’s publications with OUP amount to four brief, co-authored contributions to encyclopedias and edited volumes, which are not subjected to the rigors of peer review. During the church service, Johnston went on to peddle ideas from which the MOTB has had to officially distance itself, including the false notion that archaeology provides proof of the historical and faith claims found in the Bible. “This book is historically reliable,” he proclaimed. “It is trustworthy … And we are living in a time when right at your fingertips there is more evidence available to prove the truth claims of Christianity than at any other time in history.” He then lamented widespread “biblical illiteracy.” He went on, “And that’s why, I thank God for the Museum of the Bible.”
And so a reason for the partnership between the MOTB and the Christian apologist suggests itself. Johnston named for the museum what MOTB officials cannot: This museum exists not to educate the curious but to equip the Christian and to convict the unconvinced.
Interestingly, I have been unable to find any mention of the arrangement between the MOTB and Johnston’s organization on any official publicity materials or press releases distributed by the MOTB, including its website. When reached for comment, Burton confirmed that the museum “has not promoted the Unanswered Tour.” In an emailed statement, he described the museum’s relationship with CTS as “pre-marketing,” stating that such “promotional opportunities” occurred only prior to the MOTB’s opening in November 2017. The evidence, however, does not support this claim. I observed the MOTB and CTS partnership in action in January, months after the museum’s opening.
It is also clear that the connection between MOTB and CTS is deep and longstanding. A Houston Baptist University news release dated from last June announced the partnership and the 50-state speaking tour, which is also advertised on the CTS website. The museum’s official logo appears on the CTS publicity materials, and a click on the Twitter hashtag #ctsmotbtour leads to photos of the events (some of which depict Johnston with MOTB reps, including Cary Summers) at multiple churches in Florida, Virginia, Texas, and London. The partnership does not appear to be over, either. The CTS website displays a photo of the museum with a link to a fillable sign-up page where the tour can be requested for future dates.
It’s also worth pointing out that Steve Green—identified as president of Hobby Lobby and chairman of the MOTB board—authored the foreword to Johnston’s most recent book, Unimaginable, a work Johnston dedicates to “[his] friend, Cary Summers, President of the Museum of the Bible,” and that is for sale in the museum gift shop. It is published by a popular Christian press, not an academic one, but in his foreword Green praises the “depth and breadth” of Johnston’s “scholarship” within it. Green also mentions the MOTB, writing that the museum is an educational endeavor even as the context of these words belies the claim. The same type of doublespeak characterized the event at Southern Hills Baptist Church.
The MOTB masquerades as an educational institution, all the while quietly partnering with organizations like Johnston’s CTS who are able to do the work the MOTB’s official mission statement precludes museum officials from doing directly. What we are left with is a mutually beneficial pseudo-academic partnership. What we are left with is a museum pretending to be something it’s not, an evangelical wolf in scholarly sheep’s clothing—whose officials are more than happy to stand by, and even encourage, slippage around what the aims and claims of biblical scholarship actually are. It is not a pretty picture.
For my part, I am accustomed to smiling in a Baptist church. I grew up in one. I think it is possible to be a kind, honest, and—yes—thinking Christian. But not the way the Museum of the Bible is doing it.
Jill Hicks-Keeton is assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma. She is the author of Arguing with Aseneth: Gentile Access to Israel’s “Living God” in Jewish Antiquity (forthcoming from Oxford University Press). Follow her on Twitter @JillHicksKeeton.