A Review of
Does Scripture Speak for Itself?: The Museum of the Bible and the Politics of Interpretation
Jill Hicks-Keeton and Cavan Concannon
Reviewed by Rob O’Lynn
This book is not about interpretation. This book is not about exegesis, the drawing out of meaning from a biblical text through the study of the text’s original language, context, and meaning. This book is not about inspiration, how God worked through the Holy Spirit to bring lived history into written scripture. This book is not about illumination, how that same Holy Spirit opens our hearts and minds to spiritual truth through discernment as we read and contemplate the meaning of scripture. This book is not about rhetorical discourse, how we move from reader to communicator of scripture through the medium of the media. This book is not about discipleship, the ultimate end-game of scripture—to cultivate a community that follows God into the missional endeavor that is the kingdom of heaven. Nothing covered in a traditional course in exegesis or interpretation is covered in this book. This book is not about interpretation.
Well, that is not entirely true. It is about interpretation, however not the traditional kind of interpretation. This book is about exegesis, the drawing out of meaning from a biblical text through the study of how these texts have been used to promote a certain ideology (eisegesis). This book is about inspiration, how God gave us exactly what we need without any involvement of the human authors who composed the books contained with the canon (inerrancy). This book is about illumination, how reading the Bible will immediately and only lead us to a singular set of conclusions about any and all religious debates (infallibility). This book is about rhetorical discourse, how we move from reader to communicator of a particular point of view shaped by the echo chamber we have found shelter in (subjectification). This book is about discipleship, the ultimate end-game of politics—to cultivate a community that follows preachers, politicians, and pundits into the political endeavor of nationalism. Nothing covered in a traditional course in exegesis or interpretation is covered in this book. However, this book is about interpretation.
This book is about the Bible. Specifically, it is about the Museum of the Bible that is located in Washington, D.C., among all the other museums on the National Mall. And while the museum boasts display and interactive activities that bring patrons up close and personal with the Bible, the main thrust of the museum’s focus is how the Bible has been used to perpetuate the ideologies of American Evangelicalism and nationalism. The argument at the heart of this book is how do we quantify “the Bible.” A historical museum that contains artifacts. Yet, what artifacts would a museum dedicated to the Bible hold? One would think it would hold various ancient manuscripts such as Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Vaticanus or the Vulgate. It does not because those artifacts are in the Vatican museum. Perhaps it holds one of Gutenberg’s Bibles. Nope, which brings the question front and center. The authors argue that there is no such thing as the Bible because the Bible “exists as a social construct, a cultural icon, a conceptual category that can variously offer affiliation and designate boundaries, platform political aims, and provide theological resources” (3). If you are like me, you own way more than one Bible and probably multiple translations. Even sitting on my desk are three Bibles—one in English, one in Greek, and one on my phone. There really is no such thing as the Bible.
In addition to this concern, the authors also raise the questions of the ethical conduct of the museum. One concern, again, are the artifacts. How legitimate are they? One example is the discovery of the 16 forged Dead Sea Scroll fragments that the museum reportedly spent millions to acquire only to discover that the fragments were not even twenty years old. Only two years before, the museum found itself in a difficult situation because it was discovered that the museum had procured over 4,000 artifacts that had been smuggled out of Iraq and into the United States. In 2019, the museum returned thirteen fragments it had purchased from an Oxford professor who had stolen them from another museum. A second ethical concern is with the more legitimate artifacts, such as the Bibles of Nat Turner, the slave who led a deadly rebellion, and Thomas Jefferson, the Founding Father who owned numerous slaves. How can the same set of scripture lead persons created in God’s image and imbued with God’s Spirit to such disparate conclusions? This leads to the final ethical claim that courses through the book—the point of view promoted in the museum. Founded and funded by the family that owns Hobby Lobby, the museum sides clearly with a more conservative view of religion and politics. This is not necessarily bad in and of itself, despite the ire raised by the authors. The problem comes, as is rightly noted by the authors, when the political positions dictate the religious views. Throughout the book, the authors build the case that the museum promotes not historical discovery but religious and political indoctrination built on a gross manipulation of the message of the very scriptures the museum claims to honor and revere.
As I read through Hicks-Keeton and Concannon’s exposé of the Museum of the Bible, I could not shake a memory from June 1, 2020—the day that Donald Trump stood in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C.’s Lafayette Square and held up a Bible after a peaceful protest was gassed and forcibly removed from the church grounds. There are some ironies from that moment that stand out: the protest was welcomed by the church, the church’s sign that can be seen behind Trump clearly reads that “all are welcome,” and Trump’s action was technically a violation of the Establishment Clause from the Bill of Rights. That moment, especially Trump holding the Bible as some kind of magical talisman, encapsulates the critique leveled by Hicks-Keeton and Concannon—the belief that the Bible grants power, privilege, and authority to those who hold it up.
Rob O'Lynn is Associate Professor of Preaching and Ministry, Director of Graduate Bible Programs, and Dean of the School of Distance and General Education at Kentucky Christian University. He has served congregations in Arkansas, Texas, West Virginia and Kentucky. You can follow him @DrRobOLynn on Twitter or Instagram.
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