(Courtesy of Passages Exhibit)

(Courtesy of Passages Exhibit, Museum of the Bible)

On a humid afternoon in early July, I pulled into the parking lot of a nondescript warehouse just off Highway 65 in Springfield, Missouri. Flanked by a used luxury car dealership and organic food grocer to the west and a Sam’s Club wholesaler to the east, this was the 30,000 square foot home of Passages: Treasures of the Bible, a traveling exhibit comprised of a selection from evangelical business magnate Steve Green’s private collection of biblical artifacts. A Southern Baptist from Oklahoma and the president of the highly profitable craft store chain Hobby Lobby, Green has made headlines this year as chief litigant in the fight against the contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act. Yet as consequential as the Hobby Lobby decision has been, Green’s footprint in American public life extends beyond the arenas of policy and law. Passages is one aspect of a larger effort to shape the very narratives Americans use to make sense of their lives, their faith, and their nation.

I grew up in Springfield, “the Queen City of the Ozarks,” in the southwestern corner of Missouri. I’ve never met Green or his family, but I recognize them in my own family and childhood community, in the people with whom I often disagree on matters of politics and religion but whom I love and admire for their faith and their convictions. It would be easy for many commentators to reduce Passages to the periphery of American culture, or to prop it up as a pivot point in the unrelenting culture wars. I had a hunch that this was bigger, of greater consequence, than a Hobby Lobby coattail. Still, I found something curious in the promotion of a “Founding Father’s Exhibit” on the Passages website and in the installation’s glossy presentation of academic credentials. Was this Sunday School or civics? Biblical scholarship or public history? Could it be both, and to what end? I had to find out.

Passages is one arm of the Museum of the Bible, the official name of the Greens’ nonprofit organization. In 2012 the organization purchased the Washington Design Center for $50 million as the location for the Green Collection’s permanent home in the still-to-be-named museum—scheduled to open in 2017—a location five blocks from the U.S. Capitol. The Museum of the Bible also includes the Green Scholars Initiative (GSI), which focuses on research relating to the collection’s artifacts and oversees the development of an “elective Bible curriculum for high school students.” (The Greens had planned to launch the curriculum this fall semester in a school district near Hobby Lobby’s Oklahoma headquarters; in July they announced a delay until January, after experts deemed their textbook needed revisions to correct bias.) Speaking directly about the planned D.C. museum, but indicative of the Museum of the Bible generally, the nonprofit’s public relations firm stated its intent “to showcase both the Old and New Testaments, arguably the world’s most significant pieces of literature, through a non-sectarian, scholarly approach that makes the history, scholarship and impact of the Bible on virtually every facet of society accessible to everyone.”

But beyond official rhetoric emphasizing accessibility and inclusion, there is also a subtle message that is communicated in the collection’s arrangement of artifacts, historical data, and exhibit space. This other, tacit but quite palpable, message is the cultural work that shapes visitors’ interpretation of the objects on display and that, like museum dust, is carried out of the exhibit and into the world around them. This message is the good news affirmed by insiders and extended to outsiders: we are on the right side of history. The Museum’s collecting habits, exhibit curation, and academic efforts combine technological savvy and strategic planning to advance a particular history of the Bible in American public life.

From its debut at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art in 2011, through installations in Atlanta, Charlotte, Colorado Springs, and Springfield, Passages has changed in modest ways in each of its five locations. The installation in Springfield, which will run through January of 2015, is a professionally curated exhibit of approximately 400 artifacts ranging from ancient papyrus fragments to medieval illuminated manuscripts to a full-scale, operating replica of Gutenberg’s press. As the eager khaki-clad docents remind patrons, despite the expansive breadth of the traveling exhibit—my self-guided tour was five hours, and I skimmed a great deal of the Renaissance and Reformation periods—Passages comprises a mere one percent of the Green Collection. Internal calculations gush that the entire collection amounts to “more than 40,000 antiquities [and] includes some of the rarest and most valuable biblical and classical pieces … ever assembled under one roof.” All told, Green has spent more than $23 million amassing his collection, which he began in 2009.

On the day I attended Passages, almost all of the other visitors were women, some with school-aged children; but the website claims a far more diverse audience. My request for attendance figures was declined by the Museum of the Bible’s marketing manager, but it seemed well attended for a stormy Tuesday afternoon. Location likely matters as much as anything when observing an audience—Springfield is nearly 90 percent “white alone,” overwhelmingly Protestant, and the warehouse is located in the city’s affluent southeast. Admission is just shy of $16 for adults, with another $3 for the self-guided iPod Touch tour.

Passages’ displays are designed to immerse patrons in situ, or in an imagined context of direct encounter with the artifacts—the caves of Qumran, a monastic scriptorium, the door to Wittenberg’s Castle Church, an early modern English print shop, Anne Boleyn’s chamber in the Tower of London, a Holocaust ghetto. The orchestration of a wealth of technical historical information—carbon dating, multispectral imaging, scholarly commentary—within an ideological framework of evangelical politics is not a new strategy. The collection joins a trend in antiquities collecting by affluent evangelical enterprises, such as the Scriptorium exhibit at the Holy Land Experience theme park in Orlando, Florida, and the Dunham Bible Museum at Houston Baptist University, each of which asserts their academic qualifications to audiences both sympathetic and critical. That such collections are founded on evidence, and not faith alone, is the unstated claim. Passages emphasizes that artifacts have been studiously acquired through the counsel of the Green Scholars Initiative, an arm of the Museum of the Bible that includes “Distinguished Language Scholars,” “Senior Scholars,” and “Senior and Distinguished Scholars and Consultants” from institutions including Pepperdine, Baylor, University of Chicago, Oxford, and King’s College, London (among a host of largely evangelical liberal arts schools conducting GSI Projects).

But, like most exhibits, Passages is as concerned with interpretation as it is with display. The Museum of the Bible is particularly successful at ironing the seams between data and interpretation (at least one early consultant has severed ties with the Museum, citing concerns over the “balancing” of history and evangelical message ). The Museum conveys political arguments through various spokespersons—Martin Luther, Anne Boleyn, St. Jerome—who speak directly to audiences either as video displays or animatronics and who bear witness to the twin virtues of accessibility and individual authority in matters of scriptural interpretation. Passages is decidedly Protestant in conceptualization, positioning Jewish scriptures as incomplete antecedents to Christian scriptures and collapsing the sweep of Jewish history—no matter how recent—into an uncontested “past.” A display early in the exhibit, for instance, moves seamlessly from first-century papyrus fragments to nineteenth-century Torah tiks with no reference to the intervening centuries of cultural, social, or theological development. Catholic history is likewise presented as a historical backdrop, full of textual inaccuracies, deliberate obfuscations, and compulsory interpretations that the Reformation corrected through vernacular translations that “folks like us can understand,” as a peasant woman pleads with her unconvinced neighbor in a video display; and the theological privileging of individual interpretation, as Martin Luther explains in an imaginatively staged video debate with Desiderius Erasmus and Johann Eck in the “Reformation Theater.” The entire sweep of Western history is stitched into a synchronized narrative of the birth of freedom.

These messages are materially reinforced in the exhibit’s gift shop, where patrons can purchase full-scale reproductions of Sebastian Adams’s 1871 Chronological Chart of Ancient, Modern, and Biblical History. Demonstrating a nineteenth-century obsession with classification, the Chronological Chart is an ambitious catalogue of world history divided into epochs, empires, and nations, from the beginning of time through the presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes. Adams was a Unitarian born in Ohio who ended up teaching in Oregon, but his chart has been reclaimed by twenty-first century evangelicals who promote it as a model for conceptualizing history. The illustrated and color-coded chart is a conceptual fragment of the exhibit—a token—that patrons can take home (for $39.95) and, along with the exhibit catalogue, experience the marvels and promises anew. Not unlike the theories in Adams’s chart, Passages is designed to demonstrate not only the history of the Bible as a religious document but also as a narrative of political and religious interdependence.

Throughout the exhibit, political messages surface in oblique references to individuality, religious freedom, technological discovery, and popular sovereignty. The exhibit’s conclusion, however, leaves little room for ambiguity. The final displays break with the chronological organization of the rest of the installation and take visitors back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to the founding of the American republic and to the Civil War that threatened to sever it. A new addition to the Springfield location, the Founding Father’s display case, is anchored by an oversized poster board facsimile of the Declaration of Independence and Thomas Jefferson’s 1809 letter to Richard Douglas of the Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church. A selection from Jefferson’s letter is quoted in such a way as to nudge attentive patrons to the Greens’ contemporary political battles:

No provision in our constitution ought to be dearer to man, than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprizes of the civil authority. [I]t has not left the religion of it’s citizens under the power of it’s public functionaries …

Using eighteenth-century erudition, the display frames “civil authorities” and “public functionaries” as threats to citizens’ “rights of conscience.” In his 2011 book, Faith in America, Green attributes a great deal of his training in early American history to the counsel of David Barton. Barton is a highly polarizing evangelical historian whose credibility among many earlier sympathizers evaporated after his book, The Jefferson Lies, was recalled by its publisher, Thomas Nelson, in 2012 for gross factual errors. Despite the additional blow to his credibility, Barton remained influential among Americans who found reassurances in his narration of history. Central to Barton’s historical imagination are founding fathers seeking to establish Christianity in American law—rather than creating a public commons that protected individual conscience and conviction—and his influence has remained especially palpable in energizing forms of evangelical patriotism in conservative American politics. The selective framing of Jefferson’s 1809 letter is indicative of Barton’s influence.

The conclusion to the exhibit, however, is not Jefferson but the holographic testimonies of Abraham Lincoln and Julia Ward Howe, the nineteenth-century Unitarian abolitionist who composed the lyrics to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The display includes the manuscript of the original lyrics that Howe composed after a restless night in the early days of the American Civil War. The song, audiences learn, “derives much of its imagery directly from the Bible, particularly the Book of Revelation, which deals with the Final Judgment.” The connection to the rest of the exhibit may seem tenuous, but the display is the final punctuation in an orchestration of history that positions today’s political landscape not only as the most recent cultural battle in which the Bible will emerge victorious, but also as analogous to the sectional division of the 1850s that erupted into Civil War in the 1860s. We, too, live in a house divided. The holograms do not speak to each other so much as they make direct appeals to the audience. Here, no one has to mention abortion—the exhibit is careful not to reduce its message to a specific issue—but within the exhibit it is difficult not to anticipate this as one of any number of unspoken political, ethical, and religious scourge to the twenty-first century that the morally charged political issue of slavery was to the nineteenth. And as were Howe and Lincoln, today’s Americans must answer “the trumpet that shall never call retreat.”

Passages is a carefully crafted public history that demonstrates to receptive audiences how, in Julia Ward Howe’s voice, the Bible is “the book that assured the very foundation of our country.” This is a space in which, not unlike Sebastian Adams’s illustrated chronology, biblical history and national heritage are part of a common story that is still unfolding. Modern-day political battles emerge quite clearly as the “hidden transcript” to the official message of the Bible’s “indestructability”—as another layer of meaning lying just beneath the surface. The traveling exhibits, no matter how extensive, will reach limited audiences. But the national museum is another matter entirely. Sitting a stone’s throw from the nation’s cathedrals of national mythology—monuments, museums, and the landmarks of each of the three branches of federal government—the permanent location of the Green Collection in Washington, D.C., will undoubtedly attract national and, just as likely, international attention. There is, of course, nothing wrong with making ideological claims, particularly within the context of religious convictions. But the Museum of the Bible offers a particularly timely example of the house of mirrors refracting history, religion, and politics in the United States—of how the accumulation of facts is preamble to the consequential work of storytelling. Perhaps it is worth our while to pay attention to the museum dust.

Rachel McBride Lindsey is associate director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.