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Maximal Museum of the Bible

February 26, 2015



Museum of the Bible (Museum of the Bible and SmithGroup JJR)

Even people who know me well may not be aware that my first salaried job in journalism was at the Biblical Archaeology Society (BAS), a small nonprofit in Washington that published the magazines Biblical Archaeology Review and Archaeology Odyssey. I worked at BAS for about a year and a half and edited articles for both magazines. Odyssey, devoted to the remains of the Greek and Roman civilizations, was basically a side project—Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) was the main event.

The subject may seem like a niche one. However, BAR—a secular publication—had a circulation of well over 100,000 at the time, swelled by public interest in the Dead Sea Scrolls and by Sunday and Hebrew schools around the country that used the magazine as a teaching aid.

My job, and my colleagues’, was to turn manuscripts by scholars into illustrated articles a layperson could understand. We spent a lot of time trawling online photo archives like Art Resource for images of ancient mosaics, ossuaries, and cuneiform tablets. We also spent days, even weeks, with each manuscript we received, carefully turning academic prose (often written by non-native speakers of English) into clear and digestible copy.

Little did we know, when we started, that we were bit players in a debate that had polarized the world of Biblical scholarship: the fight between the Minimalists and the Maximalists.

The Minimalism vs. Maximalism debate has to do with the historicity of the Bible, specifically the Bronze and Iron Age societies described in the Old Testament. “Minimalists,” as the clumsy nomenclature has it, downplay the historical value of the early Bible stories: Abraham was not a real person, the stories of King David and Solomon were likely written centuries after the events they recount and cannot be taken at face value, and so on. “Maximalists,” on the other hand, see the Bible as a largely reliable account of the Bible lands before about the 6th century BCE as well as after.

Every academic discipline has its schisms, of course; as Shaw famously said, the debates are so vicious because the stakes are so low. But this is not quite true of Bible scholarship. The Bible is a sacred text to millions of people, including many scholars, Christian and Jewish. For those who believe its word is divine, there would appear to be a strong incentive to find proof of its historical veracity, even if the material record should conflict with the text.

Archaeological evidence is not crystal clear—dating is tricky, and suspected forgeries abound. Still, it won’t surprise you to learn that many of the leading “Maximalists” teach at Christian institutions, while “Minimalists” tend to be on the faculty at more liberal and/or secular universities. (The divide is not absolute, however, and there are Christians and Jews on both sides of the question.)

Which brings us to the Museum of the Bible, under construction right now in D.C. (I reported on its quite tasteful renovation for Architectural Record.) Steve Green, the museum’s board chair and the president of Hobby Lobby, has amassed a huge collection of Biblical manuscripts, cuneiform tablets, and other artifacts. This is known as the Green Collection, and scholarship around it will be a linchpin of the new museum. Green has hired scholars to lead the museum’s research and education arms, and sought out expert advice as he purchased the items in his collection.

Naturally, one of my first questions when I learned of the museum project was whether both the Maximalist and Minimalist views would be represented. Steve Green is a Southern Baptist, and the rest of the Green family is Pentecostal. He has said before that he believes the Bible is a reliable historical document. I wondered if we were going to see the Biblical patriarchs described as historical figures, and contentious issues like the united kingdom of David and Solomon presented as established fact along Maximalist lines. (Maximalists see Israel in the 10th century BCE as a grand and powerful kingdom, while one Minimalist went so far as to call Jerusalem an insignificant “small hill town” during the same period.)

Green has hired three scholars at the museum. The director of the Green Collection is David Trobisch, a respected New Testament scholar who has taught at Yale Divinity School and the University of Heidelberg in Germany. Michael Holmes leads the Green Scholars Initiative. He has a doctorate from Princeton Theological Seminary and specializes in New Testament textual criticism. Jerry Pattengale, the museum’s education director, holds a doctorate in ancient history.

So contrary to the fears of some early critics, the Museum of the Bible’s founders have engaged scholars with solid (more than solid) academic credentials. But notice: both of the Bible scholars focus on the New Testament. Pattengale is known for pioneering “purpose-guided education” at the evangelical Indiana Wesleyan University. And looking at the museum’s roster of board members, a pattern starts to emerge.

There’s Carlos Campo, the former president of Pat Robertson’s Regent University. There’s Robert E. Cooley, the former president of the evangelical Gordon-Conwell Seminary, and Rev. Bob Hoskins, the founder of OneHope ministry. Gregory S. Baylor is a lawyer with the Alliance Defending Freedom, a group that advocates for the rights of Christians on university campuses. Evangelical pastor and author Rick Warren (The Purpose Driven Life) is on the board too.

The group is not monolithic in every way: Campo is half Cuban (and happens to be George Clooney’s cousin), and there are a couple of women on the board, including the founder of Auntie Anne’s pretzels. But an evangelical Christian faith seems to be the common denominator.

I’m no longer worried the museum will take an overly Maximalist approach to the Old Testament. That seems moot, wherever Trobisch and Holmes may stand on the question, and despite their obvious expertise. Now I’m worried the museum will show the Bible through an evangelical Christian lens and, as a result, will privilege the New Testament over the Old (the Hebrew Bible). If so, it would give short shrift to the books that make up most of the Bible—the Proverbs, the Psalms, the suffering of Job and Daniel in the lion’s den. The rich artistic and literary traditions that have sprung from the Bible may be neglected or bowdlerized, if they are uncomfortable for evangelicals, or if they don’t adhere to a Christian narrative of salvation.

The museum has revealed very little about the contents of its exhibits, no doubt because they are still in development; we know that Green’s preeminent treasures include a number of Dead Sea Scrolls (dating roughly to the era when Jesus lived) and that the museum is building a replica of a village in first-century CE Nazareth, neither of which allays my concerns.

I really hope the Museum of the Bible does not turn out to be an evangelical Museum of the New Testament. A scholar who visited the museum’s traveling exhibit on the Bible through the ages, Passagesfound it “decidedly Protestant in conceptualization, positioning Jewish scriptures as incomplete antecedents to Christian scriptures and collapsing the sweep of Jewish history—no matter how recent—into an uncontested ‘past.'” Passages also portrays Catholic history, she writes, as being full of inaccuracies that the Reformation “corrected.”

If this is the case and the museum sticks with this approach, it will find as limited and self-selecting an audience as its critics fear.

Double Whammy

October 4, 2012


A couple of weeks ago, Architect magazine published its September issue, which included a feature article I’d been plugging away at for a long, long time. In “Double Whammy,” I look at the status of women in real-estate development and find a lot of parallels with architecture. Women are entering both architecture and commercial real estate in droves, but they’re still poorly represented at the principal/partner/C-suite level. Getting the chance to work on big projects, and to borrow big money, remains rare for female entrepreneurs in both professions.

I diagnosed a lot of common ailments, but couldn’t find an obvious cure. One change that would be helpful would be for larger architecture and CRE firms to aggressively recruit and promote talented, ambitious women into their executive ranks. Women can’t launch their own firms without experience working in established firms at this level. Women need better access to capital, too, without a doubt.

Even after 15 great interviews, I’m still not sure why women architects have become well-known designers in the cultural and educational spheres (think of Marion Weiss or Julie Snow), but not the commercial world. So what, some might say — but to me it’s a problem, the glass box as glass ceiling.

Whether it’s due to the clients (developers) being almost all men, or the bias that steers women architects into interiors and away from curtain wall assemblies, or female attrition from corporate design firms — I find it troubling. For one thing, women architects are missing out on some incredible PR, the kind that comes from building really tall (or big). Is it any wonder that Jeanne Gang won a MacArthur grant after the Aqua opened?

Here’s me saying the same thing (more or less) on camera for Architect.

Reviving the Flower Theatre

August 11, 2012


It’s been a busy summer, and I haven’t had time to update this blog, what with launching a new website at my day job and writing about D.C.’s architectural renaissance in The Architect’s Newspaper. I’ve also been working on a longer piece about architecture, real-estate development, and gender.

But for the past couple of weeks, I’ve focused on a community project. The goal is to find a viable temporary use for an Art Deco movie theater in my neighborhood that’s been shuttered for four years. Located in Long Branch, one of the densest areas of Montgomery County (17,000 people per square mile–the same density as San Francisco!), the Flower Theatre and the early 1950s shopping center around it are well-placed to become an attractive, pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use node for East County.

At the moment, the shopping area is in need of streetscape improvements and (most important, in my opinion) some new uses that aren’t characterized by convenience. The businesses there now include a Domino’s, a 7-11, a county liquor store, a few bodegas, and a drive-through bank. Customers park, quickly buy what they need, and then drive away. (To be fair, there’s also one sit-down restaurant and a medical clinic, both stay-a-while kind of places.)

Could a revived Flower Theatre convince the transient patrons of Long Branch to stick around? That was one question posed during a charrette on August 4, an open community discussion about the theater’s future. Organized by my friend Dan Reed of Just Up the Pike fame and held at Fenton Street Market, the charrette drew 25 or 30 participants, whose suggestions ranged from setting up a benefit corporation, to screening second-run foreign-language movies in the space, to studying Philly’s Reading Terminal Market as a model.

We’ll publish a report on the charrette soon, and we’ll keep talking to local residents, county officials, and business and nonprofit leaders. So stay tuned. I’m optimistic that finding the right temporary use for the theater will spark interest in the Flower Ave./Piney Branch crossroads ahead of the Purple Line arriving (a stop is planned for Arliss St., just two blocks away).

Thinking about the Long Branch we want now means we’ll be ready when developers start thinking about it for us, come 2015.

The Mechanic Theatre and Brutalism’s imperiled legacy

May 16, 2012


Today over at Architect magazine, I write about the convoluted and still unresolved saga of the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, an important Brutalist structure designed by John M. Johansen. A member of the Harvard Five (along with Marcel Breuer, Philip Johnson, Eliot Noyes, and Landis Gores), Johansen was a protege of Walter Gropius who married Gropius’ daughter, Ati.

The Mechanic, with its blocky concrete piers, inspires both derision and affection among locals. But its architectural significance is beyond doubt. Five years ago, Baltimore’s historic preservation commission deemed it worthy of landmarking–only for the landmark designation to be denied, unusually, by the city’s planning commission. Their rationale was that the redevelopment plan at the time would preserve and reuse 80 to 90 percent of the building’s shell. Landmarking would have been moot, and could have hindered the execution of that plan.


Of course, the economy has changed in the intervening years, and this high-minded plan gave way to one that will deliver better ROI, replacing the theater entirely with apartments and retail. The developer recently filed a demolition permit–effectively exploiting the landmarking loophole that was brokered back in 2008.

Detractors say the theater is obsolete and resistant to reuse. Whether or not that’s true, the push to demolish seems hasty and a bit underhanded, given that the theater should have been protected in 2007, but the developer was given a special pass.

The city’s preservation commission has now re-initiated the landmarking process, but that depends on further approvals by the planning commission (the former naysayers) and the city council.

I wonder: how many more years before Brutalism comes back into fashion, as Mid-Century modern did about a decade ago? With several buildings by Johansen and Paul Rudolph under threat, much of their legacy could disappear just as people start to miss it.

The site that will be Ike’s

April 19, 2012


Have you heard about Frank Gehry’s design for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial? You may have read about it in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, or any number of conservative media outlets. (You may even have seen my articles about it in The Architect’s Newspaper.)

It has been called monstrous and innovative, a monument to Gehry’s ego and a fitting tribute to a humble war hero and president. But one thing that both its detractors and champions seem to agree on: the site is just too damned big.

Frank Gehry’s design for the Eisenhower Memorial

Located where Maryland and Independence Avenues meet in downtown D.C., the planned memorial site is four acres, roughly the size of four football fields. Gehry had no hand in selecting or defining it. The National Capital Planning Commission identified it years ago as suitable for a memorial, and then another federal body, the National Capital Memorial Advisory Commission, approved it specifically for the Ike memorial in 2005.

Gehry didn’t come on the scene until 2009, when he beat out Rogers Marvel, Peter Walker, and Krueck & Sexton for the plum job (or so it must have seemed back then).

Should Gehry have reined himself in–made do with one or two acres instead of four? Even the Washington Post’s Roger Lewis, a vocal critic of Gehry’s proposal, has conceded that that idea is not very realistic (scroll down to 12:28 in this transcript of The Kojo Nnamdi Show). Give an architect a site, and he’s going to produce a design for it–all of it.

I stopped by last weekend and took some photos. It doesn’t feel as vast as I’d expected, partly because Maryland Avenue bisects it on the diagonal (it’ll be closed off when the new memorial is built). But the internal road makes the “square” feel all the more disjointed. The main attraction is the Department of Education Plaza, so forlorn and dysfunctional that it’s been inducted into the Project for Public Spaces’ Hall of Shame.

The site does have two redeeming smaller features: a Capital Bikeshare station and a well-tended community garden.

It’ll be a shame to lose the garden to the sweep of Gehry’s design. But bikes and flowers don’t make a place Amsterdam. The tract could use some love, and a new memorial park should help revive it.

Four acres, by the way, is the same size as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.


Department of Education Plaza, soon to be the Eisenhower Memorial square

Community garden