Review: Moss and Baden, BIBLE NATION

Within a few minutes’ walk from the United States Capital in Washington DC, a visitor might stumble upon an impressive eight-story structure dedicated to “reacquaint[ing] the world with the book that helped make it.” The Museum of the Bible opened just last month after several years of anticipation. In some ways, it is similar to other recent Evangelical enterprises, like the Ark Encounter in Kentucky, which seeks to guide Americans back to their biblical roots and avoid the secular perils of modernity. Yet it is also somewhat unique: it frames itself as a non-sectarian establishment focused on merely presenting the “facts” of the Bible. But as Candida Moss and Joel Baden outline in their new and riveting book, Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby (Princeton UP), this is merely the latest step in one wealthy family’s attempt to help America become a “Bible Nation.”

Most Americans know the David Green family for two things: their ownership of Hobby Lobby, and their Supreme Court victory over Obamacare, the latter of which allowed them to refuse contraceptive medicine to their employees. They might also be known for their devoted evangelical and philanthropic initiatives, including Steve Green’s founding of the Museum of the Bible. But many were surprised when the Greens were in the news a few months ago after federal prosecutors accused them of illegally importing 5,500 ancient artifacts. But you know who wasn’t surprised? Moss and Baden have been breaking news on the story for several years. Indeed, their Bible Nation is the result of several years of research into the Green Family’s Bible project, an endeavor that not only includes a museum but also an extensive amateur archival collection, robust scholarship initiative, and earnest curriculum proposals.

Each of the four chapters in the volume focus on one of these aspects. The first chapter dives into the world of artifact sales, an arena filled with strict laws, legal loopholes, and shady deals. When the Greens decided to enter the artifact game, they hired a series of collectors to act on their behalf. Many of the earliest purchases—they eventually came to acquire around 40,000(!) artifacts—had murky backstories and sketchy provenances. (The cuniform tablets that got the Greens in trouble were bought during this period.) Moss and Baden skillfully demonstrate how these activities affected the broader market, implications of which we are still dealing with today. The Greens, the authors explain, seem to “underestimate the degree to which provenance matters, and the real-world ramifications of the illicit antiquities trade” (44). The actions of reckless buyers and sellers jeopardizes real-world conditions, especially in the Middle East.

But what do they do with the material once they are collected? The Green Scholars Initiative (GSI) is a program in which the foundation chose academics—often at religious schools, and nearly always with little background in papyrus scholarship—to work on individual projects, along with student researchers. The theoretical goal was to produce published volumes in which ancient papyri are translated, transcribed, and introduced. While senior scholars would serve as mentors—and the list of GSI mentors became quite impressive—most of the work was done by people with little training in the field. The results were mixed. Nearly all who participated, including the students, were forced to sign non-disclosure agreements, which allowed the GSI to control the information stemming from the various projects. (While a common practice in the business world, it is unheard of in academia.) Moss and Baden hypothesize that those documents or ideas that would challenge traditional evangelical narratives were sequestered. The main story the Greens wish to prove is the Bible’s consistency and supremacy, and any challenges to that story gets relegated to the background.

There was a financial aspect to the Green’s archival collection and scholarly initiatives, and Bible Nation carefully spells out a potentially materialistic explanation for the whole initiative. When the Greens’ representatives originally purchased the artifacts, they were often relatively cheap due to an artificially controlled market and the items’ sketchy provenance. Yet by putting the materials through the rigors of scholarly analysis improves their relevance and increases their monetary value. The Greens could then get the documents newly appraised and then donate them to a non-profit organization—namely, their own Museum of the Bible. Whatever value the donated document, which is often far greater than the original purchase price, can now be used as a tax deduction. Through interviews, Moss and Baden were able to trace how the Greens expected to get a particular monetary reward over the years in order to assure a financial gain.

This places scholars in a difficult predicament. Research in the Green collections risks validating their questionable purchase history, a modern-day act of colonialism that the federal government is still trying to investigate. And participating in the GSI adds value to the Greens’ overall project. Even though it is tempting to provide students with much-needed research experience—though the experience is mostly rooted in using computer transcription tools to decipher digital scans—the requirement of non-disclosure agreements precludes them from even explaining their research background in graduate applications. Through this ingenious system, the Greens can doubly profit off of scholarly participation: academics both validate their evangelical agenda and aid their financial reimbursement. As Moss and Baden put it, “the Green Family will profit from the research of those in their organization, and they are able to control the way information about their holdings is published and disseminated” (97-98). From the Green perspective, it’s a win-win.

The family’s overall evangelical agenda is the focus of the final two chapters, each of which focuses on a different proselytizing initiative. First is the Greens’ semi-aborted education push in which they sought to implement a particular curriculum package across public schools. America’s education system had strayed away from biblical principles, the Greens argue, and they are anxious to reintroduce those elements into the public sphere. While their attempt to infiltrate Oklahoma City’s school district failed, they have seen success selling their materials abroad, in Israel, as well as at home, with American homeschoolers. In perhaps the most in-depth analysis in the entire book, Moss and Baden dig into the curriculum in order to display “an ongoing lack of self-awareness” within its pages. Though the Greens wish to appropriate secular—or, “sectarian”—methods, their message is still rooted in a particular evangelical reading of the Bible.

And then there’s the museum. Unfortunately, in order to capitalize on the site’s opening this Fall, Moss and Baden completed the book before the museum was actually finished. This makes sense sales-wise, but a decade down the road readers might wish the authors were less anxious and willing to wait another year. But the authors were able to dissect the Greens’ traveling Bible shows over the past few years, as well as extensive interviews with those involved putting together the project. Though the Museum of the Bible claims to present a non-biased history of the sacred text, Moss and Baden demonstrate how its very framing reaffirms, once again, a particular evangelical story: the Bible’s coherency, consistency, divinity, and importance. The very act of “letting the Bible speak for itself,” a common refrain of the Greens, is a Protestant notion—and a fundamentalist one at that. When it comes to the “impact” of the Bible, another key feature of the museum, they amplify and exaggerate its good influence, while marginalizing the bad (like slavery) as mere “misuses.” A common story, indeed.

While the Greens are the main characters in Bible Nation‘s narrative, I found their depiction somewhat inconsistent. There are parts of the book where it seems Moss and Baden are bending over themselves to present the Hobby Lobby owners in the best light. It’s a common scholarly paradox: how do treat your subjects charitably while still capturing the depth of their problems? “Part of what makes the Greens so compelling,” the authors explain, “is that they are both transparent in their essential faith commitments and at the same time often unable to see the assumptions they bring with them to this project and the impact that those commitments have on the projects they pursue” (19). This, then, is a common thread throughout the book: the Greens are “naive,” they “underestimate,” and they lack “self-awareness.” It’s not until the book’s conclusion that Moss and Baden finally spell out a full condemnation.

Despite the story’s importance and author’s skill, there are a few elements of Bible Nation that make it more journalistic than academic. This is to be expected, I guess, given it is covering a contemporary issue and grew out of a series of op-eds. But there are certainly some consequences that stem from this approach. The writing at times feels rushed, and there are several sections that are repetitive—two features that are natural in a co-authored volume. (For example, the book explains what the Greens mean by “sectarian” at least a half-dozen times, sometimes with the same quotes.) Further, the historical background for the Greens and modern Evangelicalism can be flat—mostly relying on Molly Worthen, George Marsden, and Mark Noll—and the narrative’s lessons focus on the Greens rather than their larger context. There are moments the book feels more like a 200-page essay rather than a scholarly tome.

I also could never fully grasp the ideal audience for the book. The general public will certainly be entertained with the riveting story, and the lessons of Bible Nation‘s tale are definitely crucial for our contemporary culture that is still debating whether America is a “Christian nation.” But there are portions of the text that also seem directed at the academy—and a particular sliver of the academy, at that. The chapters on the Greens’ archive and scholarly initiative, especially, seem meditative on the craft and ethics of research and publication, a chance for the field to genuinely debate how to handle the Green dilemma. And I couldn’t help but feel that Moss and Baden were, at times, quick to bundle what they call “Christian scholarship,” which is rooted in a particular devotional framework, with the Greens’ project (115). It seemed to reflect certain debates I hear in the halls of the annual meetings for American Academy for Religion and Society for Biblical Literature. Are faith claims truly antithetical to critical scholarship?

But I imagine those questions are just what Moss and Baden hoped to raise with this fascinating volume. I came away from reading it not only with a stronger knowledge of the Green evangelical empire, but also questions concerning both the practice and research of religion in modern America. Bible Nation is so captivating you’ll want to finish it within a few sittings, but so provocative that its argument will stick with you for much longer.

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