Steve Green is standing in the basement of the eight-story Bible museum he’s building in Washington. Plans for the $800 million project are coming together nicely: the ballroom modeled after Versailles, the Disney-quality holograms, the soaring digital entryway with religious images projected on the ceiling, the restaurant serving biblically-themed meals.
But one detail is bothering Green, and there’s nothing he can do about it. The building, he says, is not quite close enough to the National Mall. It’s just two blocks away, and from the roof it feels as though you can take a running leap onto the U.S. Capitol. Still, if it could just be a little closer. Green knows how much location matters.
“One thing I learned in our real estate office is, sometimes being a block down the street can mean a lot in terms of sales,” he says. “The Mall is where there are a lot of visitors. It’s not as visible to the Mall as we’d like, but it’s close.”
Green knows plenty about sales. He is president of Hobby Lobby, the multibillion-dollar craft store chain his father founded. But he’s just now learning the power of holding Washington’s attention. Earlier this year, Hobby Lobby became a household name for non-scrapbooking reasons when the company took on the White House in a controversial Supreme Court case over whether employers had to include no-cost coverage of contraception to employees. The Supreme Court ruled in Hobby Lobby’s favor in June, and among religious conservatives, in particular, the Pentecostal Greens were hailed as heroes.
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As the dust from that court victory settles, Green is focusing on a new mission in Washington. Construction begins next month on the as-yet-unnamed Bible museum, and when it opens in 2017, it will be one of the largest museums in the city, about the same size as the nearby Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.
The Bible museum’s proximity to the seat of U.S. government is no accident.
“As many people as we can educate about this book, the better,” Green said. “I think seeing the biblical foundations of our nation — for our legislators to see that, that a lot of that was biblically based, that we have religious freedoms today, which are a biblical concept, it can’t hurt being there.”
The product of an Oklahoma family filled with pastors, Green has long been driven to spread the story of the Bible. He has poured millions into translation projects in developing nations and is a major benefactor to conservative evangelical universities, including Oral Roberts and Baylor. But bringing the world’s largest Bible museum to Washington has required Green the evangelist to summon Green the salesman.
Two core tenets of sales are location and message. The Bible museum taking shape in the building over the Federal Center SW Metro station started out in a very different location and with a very different message.
The project was planned for Texas in the late 2000s. Green told reporters he intended to put it in Dallas because so many church-going Christians live there. The mission statement on its initial nonprofit filing documents was clear: to “bring to life the living word of God ... to inspire confidence in the absolute authority” of the Bible’s words. Green wanted to hand out Bible tracts to visitors, who would exit the museum singing “Amazing Grace,” said Scott Carroll, a specialist in biblical manuscripts who advised Green’s Bible-collecting and museum efforts from their start in 2009 through 2012.
Today, the message has undergone a drastic revision. The Web site for Green’s traveling Bible exhibit, “Passages,” says the museum “will be dedicated to a scholarly approach to the history, narrative and impact of the Bible.” Green says he now supports a museum approach that is nonsectarian and non-proselytizing.
“I personally have learned a lot about the Bible and had this clarification,” said Green, 50, on a recent site visit to peruse construction plans. “It’s not as important what I think when it comes to the Bible.”
The seemingly contradictory forces that have pushed to shape the museum reflect the core question of Green’s project: How will his belief that the Protestant Bible is historically accurate, word for God-given word, coexist with more modern, questioning views of the book?
Some scholars are skeptical. Public comments Green has made about the “danger” of an America that gets too far from the Christian God have raised eyebrows. Other Bible projects of Green’s — including a public school curriculum he is proposing about the Bible that’s under challenge by church-state separation groups and some Bible scholars — have created concerns about what he has in mind for this giant addition to Washington’s museum corridor.
Will it portray the Bible as a static, singular book with definitive teachings? Or as a mystery that is understood differently all over the world, an evolving body of texts that well may be transformed through ongoing archaeological finds? Will the D.C. museum be like the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., where dinosaurs are shown coexisting with human beings on a 6,000-year-old Earth? Or will it be as the Bible museum promoters described in presentations to the city, something akin to the Air and Space Museum, with an emphasis on scholarship and accuracy?
The project’s cast of leading players has only made the answers more confusing — and more tantalizing.
They include respected biblical scholars, a deeply religious theme park magnate, and hipster New York designers whose other projects include branding Yankee Stadium and the NBC logo.
More than one interested observer has asked: What exactly is this thing going to be?
Green begs off specific questions about the contradictions with a slow smile. He isn’t worried. Scholarship, archaeology — whatever comes up about the Bible, it will all reaffirm God’s word, he says.
The truth is even the skeptics — including the executive director of the world’s largest organization of Bible scholars — desperately want the museum to be a success. They want to find a way to reconcile these competing visions.
“There is no single subject that is more central to global peace today than religious understanding and respecting other religious traditions,” said John Kutsko, executive director of the international Society of Biblical Literature. Kutsko is raising questions about issues including the curriculum, the origins of the collection Green bought and the diversity of advisers to Green’s various projects. The museum’s board is almost entirely evangelical. “That’s why getting these questions answered isn’t insignificant.”
The skeptics have another reason to embrace this new museum. Substantive funding for Bible scholarship and exploration is scarce. At a time when polls show that Americans are increasingly ignorant about the Bible and religion, the Greens are happily pouring hundreds of millions into preserving, researching and taking public what’s called the Book of Books.
Green purchased his first biblical artifact five years ago: a circa 14th-century manuscript called the Roseberry Rolle. Today he is believed to be owner of one of the world’s biggest collections of biblical relics and manuscripts, some 44,000 items. Museum officials say the collection has been built too fast to estimate its worth, but Carroll, a consultant for wealthy investors, says it’s worth hundreds of millions.
Carroll, a sometime professor of ancient manuscripts, was Green’s initial guide to Bible-buying. After parting ways from the Greens, Carroll founded a consulting firm that advises artifact collectors. The Christian media call him “the Indiana Jones of Biblical archaeology.”
Carroll had a plan with a friend, an entrepreneur named Jonathan Shipman, to build a Bible museum in Dallas and says he tried in the early 2000s to woo Green to help. Carroll said he “was politely shown the door.”
The rare-manuscript world “is sometimes seen from the outside as seedy. I’m sure part of it had to do with trust of us,” Carroll said. He believes part of Green’s hesitance was cultural; the idea of spending millions on something akin to an art collection “to them would seem wasteful. They are understated, plain for the wealth they have.”
But things turned sharply in 2009, as Green worked with Carroll to start building his collection.
The economy crashed, and several private donors and major institutions started dumping assets. Green went on a three-year buying spree. “We were looking at good buying. We thought: ‘This is worth much more than they’re asking. Let’s buy it.’ ”
Green bought Dead Sea Scroll fragments, Babe Ruth’s Bible, the Codex Climaci Rescriptus — a bundle of manuscripts from the 5th to the 9th centuries that includes the phrase that Christianity teaches Jesus uttered on the cross: “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani” (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). Green owns the world’s largest collection of Torah scrolls.
As word spread of the Green Collection, some scholars panted at the possibility that items long held in completely private collections might be available for study.
By 2011 it was clear the collection would become a museum. It was just too vast to remain for private use, said Robert E. Cooley, a past president of the evangelical Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a founding member of the museum’s board. He remembers his first meeting with Green, in Charlotte, at which they hammered out the governing structure of the nonprofit that would oversee the collection, the museum, the curriculum and a research arm.
The driving purpose, he said, was to ask: “Why has this book been so translated and so transmitted from the ancient world into our modern American life?”
“The next question for us was: Where? Where is going to be the most influential?”
Green commissioned a research firm to look at different U.S. markets and found Washington had a huge tourist base and was somewhat protected from economic ups and downs. New York was considered, said Harry Hargrave, who handled the real estate search, but its size and intensity would overpower “the message.”
In July 2012 the museum’s board purchased for $50 million the 430,000-square-foot Washington Design Center, a massive red brick building that was built in 1919 as a refrigerated warehouse but in recent years was home to fabric, furniture and lighting makers, among others. With no windows, the building is ideal for a museum. The dozen or so agencies charged with approving the project embraced it.
After that, the museum’s founders lay low — no publicity.
“In this town it doesn’t pay to wave a flag,” said the nonprofit Museum of the Bible’s chief operating officer, Cary Summers, who served as a consultant to the Creation Museum and has led companies such as Abercrombie & Fitch, Bass Pro Shops and Silver Dollar City Inc. — a major theme park firm.
The museum hired the SmithGroupJJR, the architects working on the African American museum and a proposed LGBT museum. The challenge was to deal with both the inherent interest and inherent controversy involved in the subject matter.
“A lot of baggage could come along with this,” said David Greenbaum, SmithGroup’s vice president. “The building needs to communicate the long life of the Bible. We want to give a sense of a monument, that it’s been around for years.”
They prepared dozens of designs for the exterior that would rise up from the roof — the part they hope will be visible to the hordes of tourists walking down Independence Avenue. They considered designs inspired by a crown, a book opening and an ark.
Thomas Luebke, secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which rules on aesthetics around official Washington, suggested that the museum try “a more restrained architectural language — rather than the proposal’s reliance on communicating through superficial visual symbols and gestures.”
Overall, however, feedback was glowing. Commission staff said the museum could be one of this decade’s major projects in the city.
“A museum collection of such great cultural significance,” Luebke wrote, “will likely be a sought-after destination for the visiting public.”
Early plans show a project that’s part classic museum — labeled artifacts with descriptions — part theme park and part social media bonanza. It will be built with three distinct sections: the history of the Bible; the stories of the Bible; and the impact of the Bible.
The history section will look most traditional, with many of the collection’s artifacts on display. It will eventually be supported by another part of the new, multi-pronged Green Bible endeavor: a research arm currently funding 60 scholars who are studying items in Green’s collection.
The storytelling section — “call it ‘Disney-esque,’ ” Summers says — is being created by a Los Angeles firm that does shows for Knott’s Berry Farm theme park. They are still deciding which stories to highlight.
The impact section is being done by a New York-based design and branding firm and includes an area modeled after Times Square’s frenetic vibe, with real-time conversations about the Bible streaming in via Twitter, Facebook, YouTube “or whatever is the equivalent in 2017,” said Jonathan Alger, a partner at the design firm C&G Partners putting it together. This section will explore the Bible’s influence on such works as John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” the First Amendment and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Building a major museum about the Bible lays bare an essential contradiction in our relationship to it: The Bible is probably the most influential book in modern times, a precious guide to billions of people, yet we don’t know that much about it. Only about 50 complete New Testament manuscripts (from Christianity’s early centuries) have been found, and there are tens of thousands of text differences among them.
And although Christians and Jews have been transmitting through words, art and song the stories of what they understand to be “the Bible,” the science of archaeology — which potentially can track and validate its actual transmission — is less than 150 years old. Just a tiny percentage of sites mentioned in the Bible have been excavated.
“The number of people who have worked seriously on it as a book are on the fingers of one hand,” said Gordon Campbell, a Renaissance studies professor at the University of Leicester, England, who is designing the museum’s history section. “At one level it’s the most studied book on the planet. But on many other levels it’s profoundly under-studied. Academics are reluctant to deal with sacred texts. It’s too controversial. You get cranky letters and all that.”
In 2013, Green told an American Bible Association luncheon that America “is in danger because of its ignorance of what God has taught. We need to know it, and if we don’t know it, our future is going to be very scary.”
This summer, Green the evangelist sounds much more like Green the salesman. He uses more pragmatic, less End-Timey language. He points to surveys on American affection for the Bible, Bible sales at Christian bookstores and the idea of potentially unfulfilled niche.
“Here’s a book that’s changed our world, and yet there isn’t a museum out there for it,” he said. “Seemed to us to make sense; there’s a story to be told there.”
Asked why his vision changed, Green implies a personal journey.
“The intent has always been to build a nonsectarian museum. The evolution has been my understanding of what exactly that means. Growing up in a faith tradition, it is easy to get tradition and what the Bible says mixed up. Learning to distinguish between the two is our challenge,” he wrote in an e-mail.
In an earlier interview he described how the museum will square his concept of the Bible as God-given truth and a force for good with dissenting viewpoints and unanswered questions.
“The focus is often on our theological differences, and we want to say: Those are fun discussions to have. But can we come together and see what we agree upon, even between faiths?” he said. “As I put it, the hero of the museum should be the Bible. Just let the Bible speak for itself.”
Green made an interesting choice to head the museum’s collections. David Trobisch, a prominent liberal academic who taught at Yale University and an ecumenical seminary run by the liberal United Church of Christ, approaches Bible study and scholarship from a mind-set very different than that of Green, who often refers to the “evidence” that backs up the Bible as historical fact. A child of missionaries and a Lutheran, Trobisch says he’s part of “the scholarly branch of Christianity” and is more open to various interpretations of the Bible.
Trobisch characterizes Green as someone learning as he goes. The two men didn’t meet until after Trobisch was hired in March and have spoken only twice.
“Each time we meet, he has some kind of question. Both of our conversations ended with: ‘I didn’t know that, David, thank you.’ ”
Trobisch says he was called to again meet with Green this spring. A sermon the professor had delivered was making the rounds on YouTube. In it Trobisch was talking about a reference in the Book of Proverbs to God as “wisdom,” a word that in Greek calls for a feminine noun.
“Steve said to me: ‘God is not a woman.’ ” Trobisch said he then explained that he wasn’t making a declarative statement about God’s gender either way but was simply looking at the text.
“Then he read the text and said: ‘As long as it’s in the Bible, it’s fine.’ And that was the end,” Trobisch said. “I said: ‘You are all the way on the right side of the Christian spectrum, and I’m probably all the way on the other side. And if we can pull this off, this is something that hasn’t ever been tried in the United States.’ And then we shook hands.”
Michelle Boorstein is The Post’s religion reporter.
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Cost of the museum.
Square footage of the museum. About 300,000 will be open to the public.
Floors. Six are above ground.
Biblical artifacts owned by Green.
Year Green bought his first biblical artifact.
Year the museum will open.
Blocks from the Mall.
Number of D.C. locations considered for the museum.