Acts of Faith | Analysis
November 20, 2017 at 8:51 AM
In Kentucky’s Creation Museum, visitors (who have already paid a $30 admission fee) come face to face with an advertisement for the nearby Ark Encounter, a full-scale replica of Noah’s vessel completed last year.
The mechanized patriarch warns an onlooking mannequin: “Judgment is coming, my friend. Why don’t you come along? You’ll be safe in the ark.”
In this display, the Creation Museum reveals its approach to the wider world, even relishing the doom awaiting those who disagree with its young-Earth chronology, without which (it claims) the reliability of the Bible collapses like so many dominoes. Its posture — despite resembling the kind of Christianity that upholds Roy Moore at any cost and that our current president has effectively exploited — is not consistent with historic evangelicalism. It is more accurately described as a resurgence of early 20th-century fundamentalism, from which evangelicalism has sought to distance itself since the 1950s.
But if the ark, which resembles a fundamentalist approach, represents escape from a doomed world, the covenant between God and all creation that followed the flood entailed both accountability and critical embrace.
This notion of covenant and the historic evangelicalism that goes with it are well illustrated not in the Creation Museum, but in the Museum of the Bible. The new attraction, centrally nestled near the Mall in Washington, welcomed its first official visitors this weekend. And although the institution may simply be trying to avoid the property taxes incurred by Washington’s for-profit museums, it is worth noting that unlike at the Creation Museum, admission to the Museum of the Bible is free.
While we toured the museum on opening day, as Christians trained in anthropology and art history, we were skeptical. The Museum of the Bible confronted us with living actors, whimsically bringing the Bible to life. We weren’t entirely comfortable with this risky curatorial decision, but the contrast between the mechanized Bible characters at the Creation Museum and the flesh-and-blood actors at the Museum of the Bible was instructive nonetheless.
The Museum of the Bible offers far more than replicas of Nazareth: room after room of maps, history, texts and documents. Concerns about the provenance of the biblical artifacts prompted our initial questions. We spent much of the day with curators, asked hard questions and received answers.
Where the provenance is in question or cannot be sufficiently documented yet, the museum adds disclosures and qualifications to the displays, according to Seth Pollinger, director of museum content. We were told that provenance issues will be thoroughly published, and while this does not answer all our questions, this is a promise we expect them to keep.
The museum also more fully addressed cultural and racial concerns surrounding the stories and histories it portrayed. Fundamentalism, as manifested by the Creation Museum, is happy to give a moment to questions of racial justice; it pins the blame for racism on godless evolutionists, Darwin chief among them. But evangelicalism, as reflected by the Museum of the Bible, unfurls this parenthetical aside into a magnificent, sprawling display.
In one installation, Sequoyah, a Cherokee Bible translator, appropriately dominates the entire American continent from which his descendants were evicted. The exhibit confesses the use of the Bible to both condemn and recuse slaveholding. But nearby is a copy of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, alluding to God’s judgment when the covenant with creation is unkept.
The waves of these reforming impulses ripple through the display alongside manuscripts of the first translation of the Bible by a woman (Julia E. Smith in 1876) or Walter Rauschenbusch’s “A Theology for the Social Gospel” (1917). It culminates in the towering faces of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr. Just around the corner, a display attends to more recent concerns such as mass incarceration, recognition that dismissive reviews of the museum seem to have unfortunately overlooked.
A copy of “The Fundamentals” essay series from the 1910s in one exhibit seems to warn us that fundamentalism is an episode within the wider story of evangelicalism, one to which it is frequently tempted to return.
The fundamentalist-resembling Creation Museum was at aggressive odds with its neighbor museums, such as the birthplace of American paleontology at the Big Bone Lick State Historic Site, whose chronology testifies to human habitation in North America long before the Creation Museum believes the world even existed.
But the evangelical-like Museum of the Bible, by contrast, included a Baroque meditation on the theme of Ecclesiastes that pairs perfectly with — and matches the curatorial standards of — the Vermeer exhibition of the National Gallery of Art a short walk away. In addition, the abstract ruminations of Makoto Fujimura’s “The Four Gospels” were nicely complemented by the “What Absence is Made Of” exhibition at the nearby Hirshhorn Museum. And there was also a sobering correspondence between Ai Weiwei’s Hirshhorn show dedicated to political prisoners and the activists outside the Museum of the Bible who called attention to persecution of Christians in China today.
The Museum of the Bible may not reach the exacting standards of the brilliant several year-run of the Museum of Biblical Art in Manhattan, but at moments, it comes close.
While we are not calling it a curatorial triumph, as professors at a historically evangelical institution, we recognize in the Museum of the Bible the evangelical context in which we teach.
Part of our education involves coaxing students from a fundamentalist “ark” mentality into more evangelical “covenant sensibilities.”
At Wheaton College, someone who believes in a literal six-day creation will be presented with evidence for the actual age of the universe, and a student skittish about diversity will be challenged to come to grips with the reality of racism. This intellectual growth offers not competition with, but a complement to a student’s Christian faith. But as the Museum of the Bible reminds us, while some East Coast schools are unearthing a history of complicity with slavery, we at Wheaton are digging into our abolitionist heritage — not to excuse racism, but to offer tools with which to resist it.
The ark of fundamentalism is satisfied with preservation, remaining within its comfortable confines. But like Noah’s dove, evangelicalism bursts from these strictures in pursuit of any olive branches it can find, troubling the waters with penetrating questions about justice and beauty that our former Wheaton colleague Larycia Hawkins (who emphasized solidarity with marginalized people such as American Muslims) once asked alongside us.
Fundamentalism anticipates God’s judgment with perverted delight, whereas evangelicalism’s covenant mentality pleads for God to show mercy and expands outward in ripples of influence beyond itself. This is well illustrated in the Museum of the Bible’s exhibit on the song “Amazing Grace,” which rippled from its 18th-century evangelical origins into the very styles of music born from the slaves that John Newton, its author, once bought and sold.
Current analyses of American culture still tend to lump the distinct fundamentalist and evangelical streams of American Christianity into the obfuscating category of “evangelical.”
But conveniently enough, these two spirits have now manifested themselves in separate museums hundreds of miles apart in every sense, sparing any further excuse for this easy conflation.
The embattled ark mentality of the Creation Museum and the engaging covenant approach of the Museum of the Bible finally help us see the historic difference between fundamentalists and evangelicals. We are therefore puzzled that visitors who caustically dismiss this new museum in Washington seem to have accidentally found themselves in Kentucky instead.
Christa Ballard Tooley (assistant professor of urban studies and anthropology) and Matthew J. Milliner (associate professor of art history) teach at Wheaton College. Milliner tweets at @millinerd.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece included an inaccuracy about whether the museum has materials with provenance issues on display. The piece has been updated.