Sunday, December 31, 2017

8 Sins You Commit Whenever You Look at Porn

We know that pornography is an ugly and harmful sin. We know that those who indulge in porn have  committed the sin of lust, but there is so much more to it than that. When you open your browser and begin to look at those images and videos, you are sinning in ways that go far beyond lust. Here are 8 sins you commit when you look at porn.

In the moment you begin to look at porn, you have allowed it to replace God as essential to your happiness.

You commit the sin of idolatry. All sin is idolatry, an attempt to find joy and satisfaction not in God himself but in what God forbids (Exodus 20:3-6). Matt Papa says it well: “An idol, simply put, is anything that is more important to you than God. It is anything that has outweighed God in your life—anything that you love, trust, or obey more than God—anything that has replaced God as essential to your happiness.” In the moment you begin to look at porn, you have allowed it to replace God as essential to your happiness. You’ve committed the sin of idolatry.

You commit the sin of adultery. This is the most obvious sin you commit when you use porn. In Matthew 5, Jesus draws a clear connection between lust and adultery. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (27-28). Pornography is lust and exists to foster lust. But lust is simply a form of the wider sin of adultery, the deed or desire to be sexually involved with someone other than your spouse.

You commit the sin of deceit. Deceit is the act of concealing or misrepresenting your actions. Because pornography generates shame, you will hide it, cover it up, or refuse to confess it. When you erase your browsing history to keep your parents from finding out, when you use it in secret to keep your spouse from learning about your addiction, when you refuse to proactively confess it to an accountability partner, when you participate in the Lord’s Supper even though you are unrepentantly given over to it, you are practicing deceit. And the Bible warns of the dire consequences: “No one who practices deceit shall dwell in my house; no one who utters lies shall continue before my eyes” (Psalm 101:7).

You commit the sin of theft. The porn industry is being badly damaged by piracy, by people illegally distributing copyrighted material. Some estimates say that for every 1 video that is downloaded legally, 5 are downloaded illegally. Fully 60 percent of all illegal downloads are of pornographic content. While we can be glad that the industry is in dire straights, we have no right to participate in such theft, for God says clearly, “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15). When you use porn, you are almost definitely watching material that has been stolen and, in that way, you are participating in its theft.

You commit the sin of greed. Sexual sin is greed, a form of taking advantage of another person to defraud them of something that is rightly theirs. In 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul insists “that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter [of sexual sin], because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you” (6). The word translated “wrong” in this context refers to greedily taking something from someone else. It is to allow greed to motivate fraud, to unfairly and illegitimately use another person for your ignoble purposes.

You commit the sin of sloth. We are called in all of life to “redeem the time,” to understand that we live short little lives and are responsible before God to make the most of every moment (Ephesians 5:16). Sloth is laziness, an unwillingness to use time well, and reflects a willingness to use time for destructive instead of constructive purposes. In that way pornography is slothful, a misuse of time. It is using precious moments, hours, and days to harm others instead of help them, to foster sin instead of kill sin, to backslide instead of grow, to pursue an idol instead of the living God.

The person who voluntarily watches sexual assault for purposes of titillation is rightly guilty of that sexual assault.

You commit the sin of sexual assault. A person who drives a getaway car for a band of bank robbers will rightly be charged with murder for anyone who is killed in committing that crime. The person who voluntarily watches sexual assault for purposes of titillation is rightly guilty of that sexual assault. And a nauseating quantity of pornography is violent in nature, displaying men taking advantage of women. Sometimes these women have volunteered for such degradation and sometimes they are forced or raped into it. To watch such horrifying smut is to be a participant in it and to bear the moral blemish of it.

You commit the sin of ignoring the Holy Spirit. As a Christian, you have the tremendous honor and advantage of being indwelled by the Holy Spirit. One of the ways the Spirit ministers to you is in giving you an internal warning against sin. Paul assures that the Spirit warns against sexual sin in particular, then provides a stern caution: “Therefore whoever disregards this [warning], disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you” (1 Thessalonians 4:8). To commit sexual sin is to ignore the Holy Spirit, to actively suppress his voice as he warns that you need not and should not commit this sin. He provides everything necessary to resist this temptation (1 Corinthians 10:13). To resist the Spirit and ignore his ministry to you is a serious offense against a holy God.

It is sinful to lust after another person and to enable this lust through pornography. Yet the sin bound up in pornography goes far deeper than mere lust. It extends to idolatry, adultery, deceit, theft, greed, sloth, sexual violence, and ignoring the Holy Spirit. Romans 14:12 warns: “So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.” Thankfully, what God demands God provides, and he does so through the gospel. Those who have trusted Jesus Christ can have confidence that Christ has satisfied our account, that he has satisfied God’s wrath against our sin, that he has provided us with his own righteousness. Yet we must also know that he has done this not so we can remain in our sin, but that we can “put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24).

By Tim Challies, a pastor at Grace Fellowship Church in Toronto, Ontario, blogger, author, book reviewer, co-founder of Cruciform Press

Saturday, December 30, 2017

A New Year Prayer for 2018

This prayer is based in part on the two new year’s prayers in the classic devotional Valley of Vision with thanks to Tim Challies:
My Good and Gracious Father,

You have brought me safely through another year. This was a year in which I saw and experienced so much of your goodness. You were good when you gave, and you were good when you took away; you were good when the sun shined upon me and you were good when the night fell around me. You were only, ever good.

In your Word you give the sure promise that you have loved me since before the foundation of the world. That love was always with me and held me fast through another year. You led me in each step I took. You led me around the wilderness to the places of cool rest and quiet. You led me through dark valleys to the joy beyond. You were there even in times when I wandered and went astray. There was nowhere I could go that was beyond your love, beyond your reach, beyond your care and compassion. You are so good and I am so grateful.

Father, I trust and I believe that your love and your kindness will be my theme in the year ahead. I entrust the future to you and I do it with joy and with confidence. I do it with sure hope that you already know each step I will take and that you will be with me to direct each one of them.

If you have appointed trials and tribulation, I know that you will guide and comfort me through them all. If I have to pass through persecution or times of deep temptation, I can have full confidence that you will never leave me nor forsake me. If this is to be the year you call me home, I can receive that with joy, knowing that I will rejoice to be in your presence at last. If this is the year that Christ returns—Please, may it be the year that Christ returns!—, then I will join with all Creation in rejoicing and praising your name.

But if you grant me length of days, and if you grant me health and safety through the year ahead, it is my prayer and my deep desire that I would live them all in your service and to your glory. Please grant me a grace that guides, sustains and sanctifies me every day and every hour, that in this new year I would not live a moment apart from you. Let me rely on your Spirit to supply every word I need to speak, to direct my every step, to prosper all I do, to build up my faith, and to grant me the heartfelt desire to display your glory, to advance your kingdom, and to declare your gospel.

Whatever may come in the year ahead, I pray that you would glorify yourself through me. In times of joy or sadness, in times of security or trial, in times of peace or temptation, make yourself known and make yourself great through me.

I pray this in the mighty name of Jesus. Amen.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Crucial Lessons To Teach Your Kids in 2018

The rewards of being a brave dad are great. First you have to be willing to follow God's job description for dads as given in the Bible. Pastor John MacArthur in his highly recommended book Brave Dad: Raising Your Kids to Love and Follow God draws lessons out of Proverbs 1-10 for fathers to teach their children.

  1.  Children to Fear God

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (Prov. 1:7). MacArthur talks about the fact that we must teach our kids the attributes of God. When we do so properly they will come to fear him. Not only will they fear Him in a reverential way but also they will fear sinning against Him, this will help your children to recognize that God is worthy of honor and invokes in them a desire to live righteously. In order to teach this properly the parents must fear God as well and in turn, sin will be hated in the family. If we don’t teach our children to fear God, the devil will teach them to reject and hate God.
  1. Teach Your Children to Guard Their Minds

Proverbs 3:3-4 says, “Do not let kindness and truth leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. So, you will find favor and good repute in the sight of God and man.” The word “heart” here refers to the mind in the Hebrew. The mind is the seat of thought, emotion, and will, this passage then is calling parents to teach their kids to guard their minds. Macarthur goes on to say that as a father you are the guardian of your children’s minds. Our duty is to protect them from the world. But it doesn’t stop there. We must then do our best to fill their minds with truth, kindness and ultimately God’s word. We are to tell them, “Guard your mind, for out of it comes your conduct.” If we don’t teach our children to guard their minds, the devil will gladly teach them to have an “open mind”.

  1. Teach Your Children to Obey Their Parents

The proverbs are filled with statements like, “Hear my son your father’s instruction.” In doing so the writer of Proverbs is reinforcing the “first commandment with a promise,” namely, to honor your father and mother. MacArthur goes on to say that when your children learn to obey you, they will learn to obey societal authority, and more importantly this is how they learn to obey God. A child who is taught to obey will be a child who learns self-control and true wisdom. If we don’t teach our children to obey their mother and father, the devil will teach them to rebel and break our hearts.

  1. Teach Your Children to Select Their Companions Carefully

This parental responsibility is one where you go on the attack. We can’t sit back and wait to see how our children turn out and what friends they naturally choose. We need to teach them how to choose their friends. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:33 that “bad company corrupts good morals.” The friends our children hang out with will have a direct influence on who they will become and that’s why we go on the attack in helping them choose the right type of friends. Proverbs 1:10 says, “My son if sinners entice you, do not consent.” Excitement, adventure, and ill gain are what worldly people will entice our sons and daughters with, but we are to train them to resist such enticements. We must equip our children with wisdom so that they will develop the discernment they need to choose friends wisely. If we don’t teach our children to select their companions carefully, the devil will gladly choose their companions for them.

  1. Teach Your Children to Control Their Body

The dominant theme throughout the early chapter of Proverbs is on the topic of controlling our bodies. (As a father of three boys, this scares me). Proverbs 2:16-17 warns about this, and Solomon says that only wisdom will, “deliver you from the strange woman, from the adulteress who flatters with her words; that leaves the companion of her youth and forgets the covenant of her God.” The parent warns his children of people like who seek adultery, knowing that the consequences of adultery are devastating even unto death. As extreme as that sounds, MacArthur says that lust for sex in some men outweighs their desire to live. We must teach our kids sexual purity, to keep their hands to themselves, to stay far away from temptation and to guard their eyes. If we don’t teach our children to control their bodies, the devil will teach them to give their bodies over to lust.

  1. Teach Your Children to Enjoy Their Spouse

Sex outside of marriage is obviously forbidden, but inside marriage it is exalted. Proverbs 5:15-19 says,“Drink water from your own cistern and fresh water from your own well. Should your springs be dispersed abroad, Streams of water in the streets? Let them be yours alone and not for strangers with you. Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth. As a loving hind and a graceful doe, let her breasts satisfy you at all times; Be exhilarated always with her love.”

In others words, a man or woman who is sexually thirsty must find satisfaction in their spouse alone. The way we treat our spouse will be a great way to teach our children to be satisfied in their spouse alone. If we don’t teach our children to enjoy the marriage partner given them by God, the devil will teach them how to destroy their marriage through adultery.

  1. Teach Your Children to Watch Their Words

Proverbs 4:24 says, “Put away from you a deceitful mouth and put devious speech far from you.” We must teach our kids to speak the truth and only the truth. MacArthur provides some great questions for our children to ask before they speak: Is what I’m about to say edifying? Is it appropriate? Is it gracious? Our speech as Christians must be uplifting, instructive, and helpful. If we don’t teach our children to watch their words, the devil will fill their mouth with gossip, slander, lies, and foul language.

  1. Teach Your Children to Work Hard

We must teach our children how to work. This must be done by both word and example. In Proverbs 6:6-8 the father tells his son to, “go to the ant…observe her ways and be wise, which, having no chief, officer or ruler, prepares her food in the summer and gathers her provision in the harvest.” We must teach our kids to work hard even when there is no supervisor. Self-motivation is key to being successful in life, and planning ahead is a part of that. The father in Proverbs also warns against being a sluggard; one who gives excuses for not working and always procrastinates when it is time to work. The consequences for the lazy person are hunger, poverty, and failure. We must teach our kids to work hard and to avoid the pitfalls of laziness. If we don’t teach our children to work hard, the devil will teach them to be lazy, which will impoverish them.

  1. Teach Your Children to Manage Their Money Well

Money plays a huge role in life, and that’s why Proverbs speaks so often about how we manage it. If we are careful with our money it can be very useful, but if we’re careless, money can become the source of much anxiety and heartache. MacArthur goes on to provide two lessons the book of Proverbs teaches about money. The first is to be generous with God. Proverbs 3:9-10 says, “Honor the Lord from your wealth and from the first of all your produce; so that your barns will be filled with plenty and your vats will overflow with new wine.” Our money does not belong to us. It is God’s and we must teach that to our kids. Our kids will know if we are generous with our money and will follow our example. Secondly, Proverbs warns us not to cosign with a stranger. We are not to become liable for other people’s behavior that we can’t control. This includes get-rich-quick schemes and other businesses that can have serious consequences if done in partnership with untrustworthy people. We must then teach our children to use their money as the Lord leads. If we don’t teach our children how to manage their money properly, the devil will teach them to spend it carelessly and go into debt.

  1. Teach Your Children to Love Their Neighbor

Although Proverbs does warn against partnering with untrustworthy people it doesn’t say that we shouldn’t be generous to those in need. Proverbs 3:27-28 says, “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due when it is in your power to do it. Do not say to your neighbor, ‘go, and come back, and tomorrow I will give it,’ when you have it with you.” If we have it, we should help those in need. In order to honor God, we must be generous in showing sacrificial love to our neighbor. Jesus included loving our neighbor as one of his two greatest commandments. And so, we too must not only teach our children to love God, but also we must teach them to love their neighbor. If we don’t teach our children to love their neighbors, the devil will gladly teach them to love only themselves.

Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg and my summaries of each point are lacking.

Some words of reminder are in order. First, ultimately God is the one who will save our children. Even the best of parents have experienced heartbreak with their children. Secondly, our children learn a lot more from our example than from what we teach them verbally.

May we take what we’ve learned here from Proverbs, strive to live it out in our own lives and to faithfully teach it to our children, praying that God may make it fruitful in their lives for His glory.

Thanks to Jordan Standridge, Cripplegate

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Bible Under the Nose of Secular Washington

Two blocks south of the National Mall in Washington, DC, a stately brick building with a recessed entrance faces Fourth Street. On either side of the entrance, two bronze doors the height of upended school buses stand adorned with the text of the Gutenberg Bible. They are perhaps the largest-scale homage ever made to the printing plates that brought Scripture into the age of mechanical reproduction, and, as with the original plates, the text on them protrudes backward. It is as though the doors are waiting to come unhitched and fall through a perfect 90-degree arc onto the street, indelibly impressing the city with the Word of God in the Latin of the Vulgate.

Each stacked line of text weighs roughly 380 pounds and was individually affixed to the doors. They don’t close, however; their function is purely decorative, and the recessed entrance plaza remains open year round. Beyond these doors opens an enormous hall paved with marble tiles. 

Mr. Green Goes to Washington

In an interview with CT, Hobby Lobby president and Museum of the Bible founder Steve Green shares about the museum’s origins, its controversies, and his dreams for how it could impact the world.

Looking up, a visitor might see a sprawling digital canopy of trees, one of five possible scenes playing on a ceiling-mounted 140-foot-long LED display. The light emitted by the false sky intensifies in surrounding glass walls and polished floors; bystanders are awash in illumination. At the end of the hall, a floating staircase winds up into the air without the aid of steel supports; docents clad in Ancient Near Eastern garb shuffle by to assume stations in the world of the distant past.

On November 17, Museum of the Bible (MOTB) will open its doors to the public for the first time, claiming to be the most cutting-edge museum in DC. Lavish exhibits, futuristic technology, and hitherto-unseen artifacts await visitors on the upper floors, as do lingering questions about the museum’s perceived association with antiquities smuggling. But the most enduring questions surrounding the museum will undoubtedly concern its intent. As its leadership has walked back the apologetic messaging of its early days in favor of a more open-handed mission of “engaging” all people with the Bible, skeptics may smell a ruse while some Christians may wonder if the museum is holding back.

Founded as an organization by Hobby Lobby president Steve Green in 2010, MOTB is the newest addition to DC’s legendary and vast museum community. MOTB professes to “invite all people to engage” with the impact, narrative, and history of the Bible “through museum exhibits and scholarly pursuits.”

There is no precedent for an operation quite like this one. The purchase, partial demolition, and rebuilding of the property cost half a billion dollars. The 430,000-square-foot space has been outfitted with technology so advanced that a staff of 100 technologists had to develop platforms simultaneously with content. Permanent exhibit floors contain, among other items, fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the museum’s own replica of the Liberty Bell. On the roof, there is a biblical garden next to a cafeteria in which one can buy biblical foods (and hot dogs).

Beyond the museum’s main location and its traveling exhibits, which have since 2011 visited Jerusalem, the Vatican, Cuba, and Germany, the operation comprises two other important components. One is the Scholars Initiative, the museum’s research arm. Senior scholars in the program mentor students and younger colleagues in the study of artifacts and texts. They are given unique access to these items through the museum, which houses lodging facilities for visiting scholars alongside a lecture hall equipped to broadcast their talks around the world. Last year, too, prestigious academic publisher Brill released Dead Sea Scrolls Fragments in the Museum Collection, the first volume in a new series that will carry the name of MOTB and present the Scholars Initiative’s results.

The second component is a high-school Bible curriculum, developed by MOTB and already being used by over 100,000 Israeli public-school students as well as American private-school students. The long-term hope is to adapt the curriculum for use in American public schools, a complicated process with myriad legal complexities that attests to what Director of Collections David Trobisch calls the museum’s ever-expanding “global vision.”

I visit DC in late July to see the museum for myself. MOTB president Cary Summers meets me, and we don hardhats and safety vests to enter the worksite outside the building. A 40-year member of Gideons International and a deacon in his hometown Southern Baptist church in Springfield, Missouri, Summers has an air of genteel politeness. I find his casual idiom and mild drawl immediately endearing.

We stop for a moment to survey the exterior. First built in 1923 to store refrigerators, the original four-story brick shell has been transformed. When MOTB rebuilt the property, it dug out an extra level below an existing basement and added a two-story glass superstructure. The upper floors of the museum extend over the office building at its east end, like an L-shaped Tetris piece. The museum reaches DC’s legal height limit of 130 feet, but including the basement levels, it contains eight floors’ worth of space. The glass superstructure lights up and “can be seen at night throughout all of Washington,” Summers tells me as we go inside.

“We’re building in about half the time any museum this size has ever been built [in DC],” Summers adds. “During the major construction period, we had 24-hour [shifts,] seven days a week.” Actual construction began in early 2016, meaning the museum went from a giant crater encircled by the historical brick façade to a finished building in about a year and a half.

On the ground floor, a rotating exhibit from the Vatican Museum and the Vatican Apostolic Library sits next to a space that will contain two exhibits at the November opening: one from the Jewish History Museum of Amsterdam and the other from the Bavarian State Library. Jewish and Catholic contributions to MOTB give the exhibits a degree of interfaith imprimatur; rotating exhibits will likely change on a six-month basis. “We have a whole list for the next three years of incoming libraries that will be showcased here,” Summers says.

The world-renowned Israel Antiquities Authority is another partner with MOTB, agreeing in 2015 to showcase archeological discoveries at the museum. In November, they will display items recovered from a first-century ship discovered in the ruins of Caesarea Maritima, including gold currency and what Summers calls “bronze heads from Rome.”

International and interfaith involvement is not limited to partnerships with outside organizations. Summers will later show me a thick information packet containing the academic profiles of more than 100 scholars from around the world who helped to develop the content of the museum’s displays. N. T. Wright, Father James Martin, Dead Sea Scrolls expert Emanuel Tov, and American historian of religion Mark Noll are some of the names I recognize. Though aiming to achieve “the highest level of academic credibility,” Summers says, “we’re not speaking from any one voice”—a choral metaphor that echoes in conversations with other staffers during my visit. MOTB uses its second, third, and fourth floors to house the permanent exhibits these scholars helped develop around three themes: an Impact of the Bible exhibit, an immersive Narrative of the Bible experience, and a more traditional History of the Bible section.

Around us on the first floor, columns of Jerusalem stone border the LED-lit entrance hall, its marble floor proceeding through gradations from a dark brown to a light cream to represent the movement from ignorance “into information dealing with the Bible—sort of a psychological thing,” Summers says. The marble comes from Tunisia and Holland.

The amounts of money behind these lavish building materials are huge, the aggregate of donations large and small. MOTB took in $156 million in private donations in its 2015 fiscal year, placing it 93rd on Forbes’s list of the largest US charities.

Museum visitors will be asked for a $15 suggested donation upon entry, but in keeping with a time-honored Washington tradition, admission will technically be free. Everyone who enters will receive a digital guide—or “digital docent,” as Summers refers to them. (Traditional costumed docents will also roam the museum.) These handheld touchscreen devices are central to the experience of MOTB, as Jeff Schneider, vice president of information and interactive systems, will later tell me.

Something between a traditional audio guide and a tagalong human expert, the digital docent is meant to help visitors create durable memories out of the raw stores of information in the museum. At registration, guests configure variables such as level of depth of information, time constraints, and stated interests and then receive a custom itinerary. The digital docent keeps track of the visitor’s progress through the museum while making real-time adjustments based on pace and can identify areas of high traffic for visitors to avoid.

Deploying the high-tech tour guides required developing an indoor navigation system that can locate any digital guide within four inches of its actual location in the museum—a technology that “didn’t really exist” when MOTB began to develop it and that opens new possibilities for museum accessibility, Schneider says. The digital guides can translate English-language placards on the fly and can reproduce signage text onscreen in large fonts or even read it aloud. Augmented reality also gives children a gamified, Pokémon-GO style experience of their parents’ itinerary that involves robots and a quest to dispel encroaching fog.

Other novelties in the museum’s design will go unnoticed by all but a few. Pry loose any of the magnetized wooden panels that make up the exhibit floors and underneath you will see part of a metal housing grid containing miles of cords and cabling for the museum’s displays. Workers can easily open up this grid to make low-cost wiring changes, enabling MOTB to accommodate new exhibits at speeds and scales unfathomable at many museums. While I am in DC, I will hear rumblings of other museums holding off on major changes to first see how these new approaches to old problems work for MOTB.

To reach the technological apotheosis of the museum, however, we climb into the glass superstructure of the fifth floor, where a performing arts theater with 472 seats spreads across three levels. Cloth shapes of varied sizes rib the ceiling and walls, creating three-dimensional surfaces on which 17 4K projectors cast ultra-high-definition backgrounds, static images, and footage. For opening week, the theater will run 12-minute shows involving dramatic readings of Scripture, augmented by a score and wrap-around visuals. “It hits all the senses in an amazing way,” Schneider says. Simply testing the theater’s capacities required the use of virtual reality.

In the non-virtual world, I find myself under a canopy of artificial olive branches. “This whole area acclimates you to the time of Jesus,” Summers says. We are in Nazareth Village, an immersive walkthrough experience on the New Testament side of the third-floor Story exhibit. “Even on the olive trees, you can see the olives up there—they’re all hand done, handmade, hand glued,” he says. “Every part of Israel had distinctive rock formations, so we built 14,000 stones.” I draw my fingers over the uneven ridges of an artificial stone wall. “Every rock is handmade, hand painted, because we wanted the exact color and feel of the rocks of Nazareth, which are quite different from the rocks in Tiberius, which are quite different from the stone and rocks found in Jerusalem.”

We came here after visiting the Impact floor, where a 254-foot woven scrim hangs like a billowy wall behind a translucent plastic tarp. I caught glimpses of Martin Luther King Jr. and Billy Graham in an exposed length of the tableau before nearly stumbling into the museum’s blanket-covered Liberty Bell, a 3,200-pound replica forged at the same foundry as the original in Philadelphia. “The whole issue of slavery we address here,” Summers told me. “You know both sides used the same Scripture to justify [and condemn] slavery.” Though the museum will forthrightly describe this and other contradictions in the social history of Scripture, Summers and Executive Director Tony Zeiss say MOTB will largely avoid contemporary cultural flashpoints.

In Nazareth, we are far from such issues. Every 90 minutes the sky above the ancient town changes from day to night, and the little oil lamps that sit on windowsills and ledges flicker to life. At one end of the town, one can look out over the Sea of Galilee, painted on a curved wall using techniques of perspective to create an illusion of depth and continuity with the rocky outcrop that borders the wall.

We leave the past to enter the History floor, which Summers describes as “the heaviest artifact floor.” Alongside exhibits dedicated to the display of the museum’s permanent collections, one-third of which are classified as Judaica, this floor features a working lab where visitors can watch demonstrations of highly specialized research methods.

Around us, I envision the inventory that Summers lists for future display in the exhibit: “manuscripts that date back from the oldest manuscripts . . . 240 Torah scrolls, Dead Sea Scrolls, medieval manuscripts . . . a Gutenberg press is in here . . .” A working Israeli scribe “is moving over here for one year” to write “a Kosher Torah scroll” for five days a week while explaining the process to visitors. He will also train other scribes, who will become purveyors of the same tradition.

The materials and artifacts on this floor come primarily from two sources: the museum’s own collections and the Green Collection, which lends items to the museum. Owned by Hobby Lobby, the Green Collection has become a lightning rod for controversy. Steve Green, Hobby Lobby’s president, bought the first item for the collection in 2009, and today it is one of the largest collections of privately owned biblical artifacts in the world. The rapid, fairly recent, and large-scale acquisitions have fueled speculation about illicit antiquities trading in violation of the UNESCO 1970 Convention and further sanctions imposed on the trade of Iraqi antiquities in the 1990s after the Gulf War. “The antiquities trade runs on layers of ‘plausible deniability’: not asking too many questions, leaving things implied but not said, opaque business practices, lack of regulation,” Donna Yates, an antiquities crime expert and Glasgow University lecturer, blogged after the government brought a civil forfeiture complaint against Hobby Lobby that targeted thousands of artifacts smuggled into the US in 2011 with falsified customs forms.

Cultural property lawyer Rick St. Hilaire described a civil forfeiture to me as “a legal action against property that is alleged by prosecutors to have been involved in unlawful activity.” Importantly, a forfeiture “is directed against property and not a person.” Government lawyers have alleged criminal activity “to argue that the defendant artifacts need to be forfeited,” and the federal prosecutors in the Hobby Lobby case “deliberately singled out the shipper, not the importer, as the party who violated federal criminal law.”

Most of the targeted items were clay bullae and cuneiform-covered cylinders, and the forfeiture required them to be returned to Iraq. When I spoke with Yates over the phone, she told me they likely came out of Iraqi soil between 2003 and 2008, when large-scale unrest in Iraq drove so many desperate civilians to loot archaeological sites that the crowds were visible in satellite imagery. Hobby Lobby also paid a $3 million fine as part of a settlement with the government over the smuggled items.

Though the forfeiture complaint made no mention of MOTB, the Green Collection donated items to the museum collections after MOTB was formed in 2010, and critics insinuated that illicit items might have been among those donated. “I do think that there are looted antiquities in the Museum of the Bible,” Yates wrote in the wake of the government’s case. “I can’t prove it to an extent that would let some country make a return claim, but please understand: There is no legit source of these kinds of artifacts.”

When I asked Summers about this accusation, he said that absolutely none of the illicit items targeted in the forfeiture complaint were donated to MOTB. I also spoke with Trobisch, the collections director, about the provenance of the items on display.

“We don’t collect [archaeological] artifacts,” he told me. “We look for books; we look for copies of texts,” which he said have a provenance and ownership history that is far easier to ascertain. Artifacts in MOTB can “create atmosphere” for visitors, but “they don’t have to be genuine.”

Trobisch told me MOTB has no interest in collecting items of actual archeological value and often uses reproductions in place of originals to generate the same visual interest. “[Vetting] is a very straightforward process,” he said. “I came on three and a half years ago, and there wasn’t a single item that we accepted where there were questions. If there were questions, [the item didn’t] come through.” He said they turn down “something between 40 and 50 percent” of items offered for donation to MOTB or that the Green Collection is interested in acquiring. “Everything that [goes] through the vetting process . . . has been vetted to the highest possible standards,” and any item chosen for display in the museum undergoes a second round of scrutiny. The process involves specialists at the top of their fields, and Trobisch solicits multiple opinions to make sure there is no reasonable doubt about a given item’s history.

Questions about provenance will likely remain. In a recent twist, MOTB-funded researchers suggested that nearly half of the museum’s Dead Sea Scrolls fragments may be forgeries. When I asked Trobisch about the likelihood of publishing the full provenance of everything in the museum, he told me the MOTB intends to “make the database of all items in our care accessible in electronic form,” but that the project “will take more time.”

There is another axis of criticism concerning MOTB. “The Greens want to influence Americans and bring them back to the Bible,” wrote Joel Baden, a Hebrew Bible professor at Yale, and Candida Moss, a New Testament professor at Notre Dame, in The Atlantic. “They’re unlikely to promote their socially conservative views openly in the museum, but its exhibits may give them a prominent, seemingly authoritative platform from which to push back against what they see as the secular tide in American politics.” Baden and Moss released a book in October about the Green family’s conservative religious activism and philanthropy.

Given Summers’s past consulting work for the Creation Museum in Kentucky, which MOTB once visited with a traveling exhibit about “dragon slayers who appear in a medieval book of hours,” it seems reasonable to ask whether MOTB intends to take up Ken Ham–style cultural apologetics. Trobisch responded with an anecdote: After finishing a site tour, a potential donor once asked where the design team was planning to put a “decision room” where visitors might commit their lives to Christ. After discovering that none was planned, the man withdrew his donation.

“The Bible is the center,” Trobisch said, and by this, the liberal New Testament scholar indicates what he shares in his approach with the more conservative Greens, who hired him. But he also said, “We are not going to tamper with anything that is descriptive” in the museum’s exhibits, reiterating that each exhibit received input from diverse scholarly voices.

When I raised the prospect of conservative evangelicals being challenged or even discomfited by what they find in MOTB, however, Summers demurred. Zeiss, the executive director, was more candid, saying that he had high hopes for challenged visitors “to be enlightened” in their encounters with unfamiliar sides of the Bible.

But sprinkled throughout my conversations with MOTB leadership are tiny tells. Summers described a virtual “flythrough” survey of scriptural references on monuments and buildings around the capital in a theater on the second floor as a way to convince “skeptics,” as though there are those who think that the Bible has never played an important role in American public life. Zeiss—reported in The Charlotte Observer to have been under consideration for the role of secretary of education in President Donald Trump’s cabinet before he came to MOTB at the end of 2016—described the need to “bring the Bible back to the center of discussion,” as he claimed it was at the time of America’s founding. “Today, that standard isn’t on everybody’s mind, because they don’t know about it.”

In the words of its mission statement circa 2011, MOTB’s original goal was to inspire confidence in “the absolute authority and reliability of the Bible,” placing it firmly in the heritage of apologetics-oriented evangelical cultural attractions. Today, Trobisch and others refer to the museum’s currently stated purpose, which is to invite all people, regardless of background, to “engage” with the Bible. There will be nothing in the museum “that would offend someone who is unchurched” or LGBT people, Trobisch said. Zeiss also avowed, “We don’t take any political or cultural positions.” Even so, it’s hard to imagine that vestiges of the original intention will not remain.

And what about MOTB’s prominent location, with the dome of the Capitol visible from its upper floors? “If we all had to wave a magic wand, we’d be in Dallas, because it’s close” to Hobby Lobby’s headquarters in Oklahoma City, Summers told me. “I brought in a third party . . . to find the best site in America” where the museum would see the largest number of annual visitors. The third party determined that DC was the best option, but even so, “we kept looking elsewhere.”

Two days before I visited MOTB, I visited another Washington museum: the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. I was curious to see its first faith-themed exhibit, titled “Religion in Early America.”

In a single room, curators have gathered Martha Washington’s personal Bible, George Washington’s inauguration Bible, and two books of Thomas Jefferson’s. One is his famous The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, a denatured version of the New Testament that excludes virtually everything but Christ’s moral teachings. The other is an English Bible from which Jefferson clipped passages to include in his other book.

Its pages are so cleanly disfigured they appear to have been die-cut. They hang open like blasted sails, texts attesting to Christ’s miracles printed next to the excised spaces that contained his sermons.

This is the Bible of Washington, DC. It isn’t the Bible George Washington spontaneously kissed at his inauguration, the vellum three-volume Gutenberg Bible housed in the Library of Congress, or even Jefferson’s Life and Morals. Rather, it’s the tattered and abandoned source document for Jefferson’s redaction. Politics tends to encounter the Bible as Jefferson did, through the cut-up method, appropriating what is useful for its purposes and leaving the rest behind.

All of which offers another way to view MOTB. The much-documented rise of the “nones” presages an era of widespread unbelief in American culture, a crisis of religious identification to which some respond with calls to back away from the public square to conserve and strengthen what remains of authentic Christian life and practice. For those who mourn the erosion of a robust American Christianity—as well as those who celebrate it—the great brick edifice of MOTB may appear in a certain light as akin to a tomb.

For all its assurances of prioritizing “engagement” with people of all backgrounds, the museum can’t engage an audience that doesn’t cross the threshold in the first place. Zeiss told me that 1,100 groups have already signed up for tours, and he expects the museum will become a place of “pilgrimage” for American churches. But it’s too soon to tell how many people of other faiths—or people for whom faith is a matter of indifference—will join them.

Museums exist to preserve stories of our past that we don’t want to be forgotten. They are as often engaged in the work of reclamation and advocacy as that of preservation and display. Green, Summers, and those presiding over this country’s newest and most state-of-the-art museum clearly intend to tell the story of the importance of the Bible for American society. The technology, collaborations, and scholarship at their disposal equip them to do this better than anyone.

But what exceeds the museum’s purview is also the root of its existence: the private relationship between Scripture and the individual believer. The museum will almost certainly engage the audience that shares the beliefs and values of its founder and leadership. But in an age of disaffiliation and religious apathy, its exhibits may for many stand as a lavish tribute to a book that once shaped the world and now sits in a glass case. As for those nonbelievers who care to enter, could mere “engagement” with the Bible draw them closer to its subject? God has certainly done it before. In any case, the giant bronze doors will remain perpetually open toward Fourth Street, waiting for people to enter and see for themselves.

From Christianity Today - October 20, 2017 by Martyn Wendell Jones is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His most recent Christianity Today cover story was “Kingdom Come in California?” (May 2016), exploring the Bethel Church movement.