The founder of the Hobby Lobby chain is building a Bible museum in Washington, D.C. That’s nice. But building a monument to the Bible runs the risk of compounding the serious problem of Bible worship that has plagued evangelical Christianity since the early 20th century. We continue to make the book more sacrosanct than the God who inhabits the pages of the book.
Museums are places where ancient things get memorialized, where tourists come to gaze at relics and remembrances. And even though this eight-story Museum of the Bible will include interpretive features to showcase biblical-era plants and foods, such an edifice situated near the monuments of the National Mall easily could become both a political statement and an idol.
The Bible must not become something we only look at and admire, even though plenty of American homes have unread family Bibles laid out on coffee tables or displayed on shelves. This sacred book is a living document that speaks to us across the ages and yet requires interpretive work that can’t be cast in stone. As the Bible ever speaks, we are ever learning.
Ironically, those who say they revere the Bible most too quickly forget two of the 10 commandments given therein: “You shall have no other gods before me,” and “You shall not make any graven images … (and) bow down to them and serve them.”
In reaction to advancing modernity, some evangelical Christians have made a cast-iron monument of the Bible, thus denying its ability to be the living Word of God. When certainty is required, the work of the Holy Spirit suffers.
Our pastor recently summarized the problem well in a sermon: “Too many Christians think of the Bible as the Word of God without thinking. They may do it innocently, but it becomes a way for them to stop wrestling with how to interpret the Bible. Their mantra is: ‘The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.’”
Yes, the Bible requires interpretation. And the heart of the battle that has divided Christendom in my lifetime is a battle for who will be the interpreter. Even those who claim the Bible requires no interpretation actually are giving their interpretation. Building a museum to the Bible adjacent to the halls of politics gives a certain interpretation, too, without saying a word.
We Baptists, of all people, should understand this danger. Especially for those of us who parted ways with the Southern Baptist Convention, Bible idolatry was a key factor. The 2000 rewrite of the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message strategically removed this key phrase: “The criterion by which the Bible is interpreted is Jesus Christ.” The result was to elevate the Bible above Jesus, to make the Bible the interpreter of Jesus rather than allowing Jesus to be the interpreter of the Bible.
Regarding the Word of God, modern Christians too often claim for themselves a knowledge and privilege the apostles and first Christians did not claim. The early church had no New Testament and needed none, because their leaders had walked with Jesus, who is the embodiment of the Word of God. And Jesus, repeatedly, when teaching from Hebrew Scripture gave new interpretations to illustrate the radical kingdom of God coming among us. Our New Testament is a record of these journeys and the way the early church learned to make decisions.
Bible idolatry has immediate real-world consequences. For example, the Bible nowhere claims to be a science textbook. And yet how many contemporary issues send Christians running to find scientific answers in the Bible, where they do not exist? The biblical writers knew nothing of advanced biology and chemistry, much less geology, earth science and medicine.
For this reason, I’m skeptical of pastors and theologians and politicians who justify their positions on scientific and social issues with the declaration that the Bible is “absolutely clear” on the matter. Too often, these spokesmen for God shape the Bible into a golden calf made in the image of their own biases and fears. And that’s the wrong kind of monument.
As a pastor, the Bible is a book I believe and teach and read from daily. But I’m not ready to build a monument to the book. What we already have is a monument to the Living Word of God, Jesus Christ. That monument is the gathered body of believers called the church. If we’re fulfilling that role properly, there should be no need to draw attention to the book from which we teach; our actions should bring to life the words of the book.
If anyone really wants to build a museum or a monument to the Word of God, start with a mind open to God’s truth and a heart open to the Spirit’s leading, and then let your life become a testimony to Jesus, who himself is the way, the truth and the life.