Smithsonian

Damned if you do, damned if you don't: Museum of Bible is hot news, no matter what

Damned if you do, damned if you don't: Museum of Bible is hot news, no matter what

The debates began during World War II and raged through the following decades among human-rights advocates, private art collectors, museum leaders and others.

The Nazis stole astonishing amounts of Jewish art on an unprecedented scale (something like the legendary 1204 rape of Byzantium by Crusaders). Some of that art vanished. Some went to art collectors, and museums, with leaders who argued that the greater good was to save it for viewing by future display. Some insisted these treasures must be returned to the heirs of the families who owned them. But what if there were no heirs?

Now, similar arguments are raging about antiquities looted by the Islamic State as it ravaged the ancient communities, monasteries, churches, mosques, libraries, etc., of Iraq and Syria. Treasures hit the black market in the Internet age and, again, arguments raged about whether it is legal or moral to purchase these items, rather than leaving them in the hands of ISIS. But did purchasing them fund terrorism? It would appear so. Would it have been better to have let these items vanish into the hands of collectors who would hoard them out of sight? How could these treasures be returned to religious communities that, in some cases, no longer exist?

To say the least, the Green family of Hobby Lobby fame and its Museum of the Bible got caught up in these scandals, producing waves of headlines. The crucial issue: At what point does trading for these items cross the line into theft and encouraging theft?

So what makes a museum controversial? That was the question at the heart of this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in).

As it turns out, there are all kinds of reasons for people -- secular and religious -- to argue about the new Museum of the Bible, just off the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Some of these issues ended up in a Washington Post feature that was the focus of my recent post on this subject. Headline: "Washington Post religion team (thank God) gets to offer first look at the Museum of the Bible."

At the heart of the Post piece was a fascinating, and perfectly valid, damned if you do, damned if your don't question about this museum.

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Washington Post religion team (thank God) gets to offer first look at the Museum of the Bible

Washington Post religion team (thank God) gets to offer first look at the Museum of the Bible

From the very beginning, there have been several ways of viewing the Museum of the Bible, the ambitious project near the National Mall spearheaded by the wealthy Christian family that owns Hobby Lobby. For example:

* This is Washington, D.C. This is all about politics, like everything else.

* Some critics claimed that it would be a church-state violation to allow the museum to be built close to the mall, and the Smithsonian museums -- even with private money on private land. That argument might work in France, but in the United States of America?

* There's no other way to say this, except to say it: Many folks inside the DC Beltway simply thought this whole idea was TACKY, a kind of Religious Right theme park near sacred secular ground covered with Real Stuff.

* From the beginning, there were tensions between people with evangelical dreams that the building would witness to their brand of faith and scholars around the world -- in a variety of traditions, including evangelical Protestantism -- whose expertise would be essential to completing the project.

* A more subtle point: Is the Museum of the Bible simply too big, too ambitious, to survive as a tourism-driven project? The natural comparison is to the Newseum, a massive, expensive, valid project (I used to take Washington Journalism Center students there every semester) that is now swamped in millions of dollars of red ink. Note, however: Admission to the Bible museum will be free. Can that last?

You can see all of these themes, and more, swirling through the recent Washington Post feature about the Bible museum, which -- here is the crucial point -- was produced by the newspaper's religion-desk professionals (as opposed to the Style section or even the political desk). The headline: "Sneak peek: D.C.’s huge new Museum of the Bible includes lots of tech -- but not a lot of Jesus."

But "not a lot of Jesus"? What's that all about? Here is the overture:

The Museum of the Bible, a massive new institution opening next month just south of the Mall, is just as notable for what it ­includes -- vivid walk-through re-creations of the ancient world, one of the world’s largest private collections of Torahs, a motion ride that sprays water at you, a garden of biblical plants -- as for what it leaves out.

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Hagia Sophia evolving into mosque? The Los Angeles Times omits crucial Christian voices

Hagia Sophia evolving into mosque? The Los Angeles Times omits crucial Christian voices

This past Sunday, I was at a lunch in Seattle that included someone who runs a retreat center in Turkey. She knew of only 4,000 evangelical Christians like her in the country, which under the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been encroaching on the religious freedom of non-Muslims for some time.

Evangelical Protestants are one of the smaller groups among Turkey’s 160,000 Christians, most of them Orthodox Christians linked to the city's history as a crossroads in the early church. The Christian community that was, in 1914, 19 percent of Turkey’s population is now a tiny group amidst 80 million Turkish Muslims.

So I was interested to read a Los Angeles Times story about the increasing pressure by Islamic activists to turn the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque. We've covered this before but the volume has been amped up.

So what is missing in this report on a topic that will be of special interest to Christians, as well as Muslims, around the world? Want to guess?

As the time for afternoon prayers approaches, Onder Soy puts on a white robe and cap and switches on the microphone in a small 19th century room adjoining the Hagia Sophia.
Soon, Soy’s melodic call to prayer rings out over a square filled with tourists hurrying to visit some of Turkey’s most famous historical sights before they close for the day.
The room Soy is in -- built as a resting place for the sultan and now officially called the Hagia Sophia mosque -- fills up with around 40 worshipers, drawn not by the modestly decorated space itself, but by the ancient building it shares a wall with.

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C'Mon Washington Post! Tell us more about that new Smithonian religion expert

C'Mon Washington Post! Tell us more about that new Smithonian religion expert

If you pay attention to sports, and I know that some GetReligion readers do, then you are probably familiar with the ESPN "C'Mon Man!" feature.

The whole idea is rather simple. When a player, referee or fan does something strange or inexplicable -- usually it's an embarrassing mistake -- this phrase is what you are allowed to shout at the field or television screen. When this happens in journalism today, people make references to spitting coffee on keyboards.

However, I do not drink coffee. So we are going with a "C'Mon Man!" reference when dealing with an interesting detail in that short Washington Post feature that ran the other day with this headline: "The Smithsonian now has its first religion curator since the 1890s."

Let me be clear: There is a lot of fun and fascinating material in this piece. I just have a question or two about the need for follow-up on one prominent detail right at the top. Let's see if you can spot it.

Peter Manseau was born for this job.
The son of a priest and a nun, Manseau was meant to be a scholar making sense of religion. Now his job, as the Smithsonian’s first curator of religion in more than a century, is to remind Americans of our nation’s religious history, in all its diversity, messiness, import and splendor.
“You can’t tell the story of America,” he said, “without the role of religion in it.”

Yes, I am talking about that phrase noting that Manseau is the "son of a priest and a nun."

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South Carolina flooding: Lots of 'biblical' references, but they don’t hold water

South Carolina flooding: Lots of  'biblical' references, but they don’t hold water

You know when mainstream media get interested in the Scriptures? When they have a chance to use a phrase like "biblical flood" over and over -- as several did in coverage of the disastrous flooding in South Carolina.

But that doesn't mean they’ll acknowledge where they got the phrase, or fill in any background. The shock value is more important than the power source of the words and concepts that provide the shock.

So we get USA Today with this mostly leaden lede:

The biblical flooding in South Carolina is at least the sixth so-called 1-in-1,000 year rain event in the U.S. since 2010, a trend that may be linked to factors ranging from the natural, such as a strong El Niño, to the man-made, namely climate change.

The Minneapolis Tribune piggybacks off USA Today with its own catchword headline, " 'Sept-ober' Weather Bliss Lingers -- Biblical Floods in South Carolina -- 6 Separate 1-in-1,000 Year Rains, Nationwide, Since 2010.' "

And another headline in a website called Celebcafe offers "a few unreal photos of South Carolina's biblical floods," even though the word "biblical" doesn't appear in the article itself.

But by now, reporters or editors are just tossing in "biblical" enroute to what word play and imagery really interests them. Mashable mentions "biblical rains and historic flooding in South Carolina this week," although the story is mainly about floating rafts of fire ants.

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About those Orthodox hermits in the Siberian wild

Every now and then, someone sends your GetReligionistas the URL for a story that is simply too good, too interesting to post right away. The problem is that it’s hard to know what to write, when dealing with one of those stunning long reads that reads like the summary of a 12-hour documentary series, with all of the imagery playing on a big screen in your head.

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