Bible Society Museum -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

The closing of a museum on biblical art (I'm assuming art that stems from biblical stories) gives Martin Marty an opportunity to reflect on the Bible and its place in our culture. Interestingly the museum had a secular focus, but it was perceived differently. Apparently the Bible is seen as some-how conservative, right-wing. Marty suggests that perhaps that's a mistaken perspective. In invite you to read and contemplate the role that the Bible does play and has played in society.

Bible Society Museum
By MARTIN E. MARTY   MAY 4, 2015
Light 07 Et Dieu dit, Que la Lumière soit, et la Lumière fut            Credit: michel d'Anastasio / flickr
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“Museum of Biblical Art to Close, Despite Recent Crowds,” a New York Times headline read on April 28. The reviews of its current Donatello show were very positive, but, author Randy Kennedy explained, could do nothing to help prevent the closing.

Many readers may yawn: the Museum was not on the A-list for tourists, however convenient and appealing it was to those focused on the biblical heritage. Yawn, again? Museums come and go, so this one, often called “Mobia” is just one more?

Director Richard P. Townsend announced that the building had been sold and that he and the board, for all their efforts, couldn’t come up with alternate plans for funding and relocating the museum. Along the way, the museum was separated from the American Bible Society (b. 1816!), which has “distributed billions of Bibles.”

The Mobia website explained that the museum argued “from a secular perspective that the Bible is culturally foundational,’’ etc. The public and the American Bible Society and now Museum benefactors reportedly became confused about the mission.

One line in the NYT story roused me to reflection: “As a former publicist for the museum said at its founding, ‘Just having the word ‘Bible’ in the name says to many people that we’re a conservative, right-wing group, and that could not be further from the case.’” And the museum isn’t or wasn’t or shouldn’t have had that image.

That the benefactors of societies and museums devoted to the Bible get culturally slotted as “conservative right-wing” is an ironic comment on cultural change. The Bible and the right wing? Martin Luther King and the other Bible-citing civil rights and “war on poverty” leadership found it to be dynamite.

So did the leaders of the liberal American Social Gospel and many other progressive movements. Add to that the leaders of the Radical Reformation in the 16th century and its heirs, plus post-Vatican II social shakers and movers.

The Bible certainly has texts employable and employed by conservatives. Of course. But the image that Museum benefactors found dominant has real grounding in today’s religio-secular culture, evidently all on the “right-wing” image side.

The Bible and its image and thrust have been taken captive thanks to strenuous efforts, selective quoting, and astute organizing by “conservative right-wing” seekers of a monopoly on the Bible in our culture.

But those who are trying to account for the change and finding fault, note that a finger also has to be pointed at the relaxed acquiescence, the yielding in “culture wars,” by others to the “conservative right-wing,” the only wing that many communicators find convenient or credible.

The Bible prospers on many levels, thanks in part to the American Bible Society. Polls (see “Resources” today for a good sampling) find that decisive majorities speak well of it. We’ve appended a list of links to poll data indicating the favorable place the Bible holds and the lackadaisical element in the readership.

Still, though sad over the fate of the Mobia, New Yorkers and visitors will be well rewarded if they drop by the “terrific valedictory” Donatello show. There, they may ponder an observation by Glenn Adamson, director of the nearby Museum of Arts and Design:

“They present the topic of religion from a secular perspective and at a time in history when there are deep divides between secular and religious communities, that mission seems important to me.”

Some are trying to make analogous efforts and devise programs to recognize the variety of readers of the Bible across “the deep divides.” Now and then we will sight them and pass comment on them in Sightings.


Kennedy, Randy. “Museum of Biblical Art to Close, Despite Recent Crowds.” New York Times, April 28, 2015, Art & Design.

MoBiA Museum of Biblical Art. “Museum of Biblical Art Board of Trustees Announces Closure of Museum: Sculpture in the Age of Donatello Closing Sunday, June 14, 2015, Will Mark Last Day MOBIA Is Open to the Public.” Accessed May 2, 2015.

Smith, Jennifer. “Museum of Biblical Art Loses Its Landlord: ‘The nub of the issue really is not finding a place,’ museum director says, ‘it’s affording a place.’” Wall Street Journal, February 18, 2015, U.S./NewYork/NY Culture.

Saad, Lydia. “Three in Four in U.S. Still See the Bible as Word of God: But 21%, near the 40-year high, consider it fables and history.” Gallup, June 4, 2014, Politics.

Bell, Caleb K. “Poll: Americans love the Bible but don’t read it much.”Religion News Service, April 4, 2013.

MacArthur, John. “Recent Gallup Poll on American’s View of Bible Reveals Utter Chaos Regarding Nature and Authority of Scripture.” Christian Post, June 9, 2014, Opinion.

Kocman, Alex. “Poll Shows True Bible-Believers at Record Low.” Charisma News: Breaking News. Spiritual Perspective, June 6, 2014, U.S.

Marty, Martin E. “America’s Iconic Book.” An expansion of a paper read at the centennial meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, Dallas, Texas. November 1980.

Image: “Light 07” Credit: michel d'Anastasio / flickr some rights reserved.

To comment: email the Editor, Myriam Renaud, at If you would like your comment to appear with the archived version of this article on the Marty Center's website, please provide your full name in the body of the email and indicate in the subject line: POST COMMENT TO [title of Sightings piece]. For Sightings' comment policy, visit: @DivSightings
Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at
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