Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby
By Candida R. Moss and Joel S. Baden
Princeton University Press, 240 pages, $29.95
The members of the Green family, who own the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores, are evangelical Christians and billionaires best known for persuading the Supreme Court that their religious principles entitled their company not to cover the costs of their workers’ contraception. Oddly, they also possess what must be one of the world’s largest collections of Torah scrolls, 640 of which are in the Museum of the Bible, in Washington, D.C.
The accumulation of precious Jewish artifacts by a private, evangelical Christian family is unnerving. The Greens have literally appropriated Jewish culture, ignoring our taboo on touching scrolls, and also using our sacred objects to shill for Jesus Christ. But their collecting is also somewhat odd: How and why did the Greens come to stockpile Torah scrolls?
In “Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby,” Candida Moss and Joel Baden examine the Green family’s Bible-oriented philanthropy, which extends far beyond Torah scrolls. The Greens have assembled a world-class collection of Bible manuscripts, some of which remain unpublished and unstudied, and a team of well-paid scholars to study them. They have created their enormous, multistory Bible museum and have given untold millions to missionizing and to Bible-translation projects. They have even sponsored the writing of a Bible curriculum, which has proved too controversial (and likely unconstitutional) for American public schools but is catching on in Israel. Alarmingly, Moss and Baden show that in the process, the family has ignored basic tenets of biblical scholarship, antiquities preservation and academic ethics. The Greens have pursued single-mindedly their narrow religious mission, yet, as Baden and Moss write, “none of these projects has proceeded smoothly.” Their story, then, is both a cautionary tale about big money attempting to muscle an intellectual culture into submission and a slapstick comedy about the pratfalls along the way.
The Greens emerge from a peculiarly American religious and economic milieu. Self-made businesspeople who did not graduate college, David and Barbara Green opened their first crafts store in an Oklahoma City studio. They manufactured their goods in their home, where their children assembled picture frames for pennies apiece. The business grew rapidly, and it now brings in annual revenue of $4 billion. Hobby Lobby has always been family owned, and it adheres to Christian values: The family pays a minimum hourly wage of $15, has been reluctant to sell Hanukkah paraphernalia (they sell countless Christmas tchotchkes) and closes their stores Sundays. The Greens have given half a billion dollars to missionary, evangelical charities. For decades they have paid for newspaper ads advocating prayer in schools and bemoaning the 20th-century Supreme Court decisions that secularized the American state.
Moreover, the Greens ascribe to a version of “prosperity gospel,” in which doing God’s will produces material rewards, and material success proves one’s godliness. This theology divinely sanctions a peculiarly American penchant to believe that where there’s wealth, there’s wisdom. Scholarly study is treated with some suspicion in the Greens’ evangelical Protestant world, which privileges direct, democratic and individual reading of the Bible over elite mediation and interpretation. David Green even remains agnostic about whether his children needed to go to college. Where philanthropy is concerned, Baden and Moss point out, prosperity gospel and Protestantism tell rich, pious donors that they can reshape the world of biblical studies without deferring to or even consulting credentialed experts.
When they started collecting biblical artifacts in 2009, they did so on a grand scale. Introduced to antiquities by a Texan hawker who wore, in Baden and Moss’s colorful phrase, “pocket squares, chunky gold rings, and fur coats,” and who touted rare objects’ tax benefits, the Greens entered the business of old, precious biblical texts. They acquired anything that could be bought low and donated high. In the depressed antiquities market that followed the financial crash of 2008, that meant, Baden and Moss write, “something akin to a shopping spree”: the Rosebery Rolle, the earliest non-fragmentary English translation of the Bible; the Codex Climaci Rescriptus, a late-antique Aramaic palimpsest that hides a second, secret layer of Greek text, and, only a year in, some 30,000 other artifacts.
But as Moss and Baden show in painstaking detail, the Greens paid little attention to the ethics of collecting antiquities, the standards of antiquity restoration or even American law. To reduce both individual theft and the collective looting of postcolonial violence, museums and libraries insist on checking the artifacts’ “provenance.” That is, they look for a paper trail that shows the artifact’s “chain of discovery.” This scrutiny guarantees that the purchase complies with international and national laws, which forbid the unauthorized removal of artifacts from their countries of origin. Blog posts by the Green family’s collection staff show basic misunderstandings of the concept of provenance, and much of the collection was acquired sloppily and without the careful work required to ensure that the Greens were not buying stolen goods.
Further, the Greens’ employees sometimes have been known to treat the artifacts quite sloppily. To retrieve manuscripts hidden inside precious Egyptian mummy masks, for instance, they dissolved the masks with Palmolive. They even ran afoul of American customs law. A batch of several hundred cuneiform tablets was delayed, reportedly because they “were described on their FedEx shipping labels as samples — bound for a crafts store — of ‘hand-crafted clay tiles’” and valued at just $300, to avoid formal customs checks and taxes (the details of the investigation are not public, and the Greens deny any wrongdoing). Such blithe incompetence would be funny if we were not talking about priceless, unstudied artifacts. Imagine entrusting Shakespeare’s first Folio, or a particle accelerator, to someone whose sole qualification was a prodigious gift for selling picture frames.
Other portions of the Greens’ cultural empire are unsettling because they reflect not only a bumbling amateurism but also the deployment of tremendous wealth and rare, valuable artifacts to promote a narrow, extreme theological agenda. Take their program for academics, the Greens’ Scholars Initiative. The Greens recruit junior scholars lacking the relevant expertise and often selected for being religiously sympathetic. Partnering with universities, the Green collection and the junior scholars enlist students to work on rare manuscripts. This is supposed to be educationally enriching: In practice, that means undergraduates with no language skills doing laborious data entry under the rubric of coursework. Further, the Greens require scholars and students to sign nondisclosure agreements that prevent them from answering other academics’ basic questions about the texts on which they work.
Finally, Baden and Moss argue that the Greens seem to choose which manuscripts to study based on the likelihood that those texts will buttress evangelical dogma. They thus privilege texts that will “confirm” the immaculate transmission of a singular text, ignoring (and possibly even hiding) texts with variant readings, as well as Gnostic gospels or noncanonical evidence of the diversity and heterodoxy of early Christianity. Thus they implicitly privilege evangelical dogma, which posits the inerrant transmission of the Bible and the similarity of modern Protestantism to early Christianity, over reliable scholarship. In sum, the Scholars Initiative is managed hierarchically rather than democratically, conceives of scholars as employees rather than intellectuals, and aims to produce a singular, ideologically coherent project rather than to promote open-ended debate. That is, the Greens have taken prosperity gospel a step further, imagining academic study as a godly business.
The chapters covering the Greens’ vision for secondary education and their Bible museum are similarly damning, and the picture that emerges from “Bible Nation” is very bleak. Our cultural institutions — universities, museums and libraries — are either so financially weak or so greedy that any fool with a checkbook can hijack them. These institutions are rapidly being taken over by highly ideological, poorly informed megadonors who will customize and buy their vision of American culture as easily as they would buy bespoke suits or architect-designed mansions. And if the culture is for sale, then we should have no illusions that space will remain for open debate or skepticism. Critical Bible scholarship is a fragile project. It requires an incredible investment of resources and time to learn, but it has no natural market: It scandalizes religious people and bores the secular. A world in which study of the Bible rotates around the Greens and their ilk is a world in which the Bible is not seriously studied.
It is easy to recognize the foolish evil of the Green Bible industry. The Greens are déclassé, uneducated and ripe for elitist scorn. To be clear, that scorn is mine, not the book’s. Baden and Moss, despite their deep worries and misgivings, are scrupulously fair to the Greens, who are presented as sympathetic, sincere and thoughtful. “Bible Nation” is so damning precisely because its critiques are both thoroughly documented and understated. And it is a welcome surprise that two scholars who write technical, academic monographs about the Bible tell an engaging, well-paced story — slightly brainier than a New Yorker story, but no less readable. The book coolly dismantles the Greens’ cultural project, showing both its intellectual limits and its pernicious effects on our public culture.
If the Greens’ flaws are painfully obvious to us, it is worth remembering that the cultural dystopia of “Bible Nation” does not come from only cornfield, Protestant Middle America. Similar dynamics to those that produced the Green collection — the widening wealth gap in America and the spread of market-thinking to every corner of the country — are at work in the American Jewish community. Since the early 1990s, the cultural and religious world of American Judaism is increasingly both sponsored and controlled by the fabulously rich.
Megadonors sponsor day schools and summer camps, Israel trips for the disaffiliated and Israel lobbies. If a mutual-fund salesman has a spiritual awakening and decides to forge an alliance between Orthodox Jews and political conservatism, then as fast as the incorporation papers can be drafted, there is a quarterly journal and funded seminars at Ivy League schools. Instead of learning to read Talmud, young Jews learn to write grant applications and to grub for money. (To be clear, I am as guilty as anyone I know on this count.)
Our tycoons are better educated than the Greens. They don’t believe the earth was created 6,000 years ago, and they have fewer hang-ups about sex and abortion. Nonetheless, their increasing grip on Jewish culture and religion is ultimately just as anti-intellectual. Although some of the story in “Bible Nation” is specific to evangelical Christianity, much more is an indictment of neoliberalism — of how American intellectual culture is increasingly becoming merely a luxury good. And in that sense, it actually doesn’t matter whether it’s rich Christians or rich Jews buying Jewish culture: In either case, they are appropriating it from the commons and enclosing it off for their own purposes. The Greens’ hoarding of Torah scrolls should disturb us, not because it is so strange but because it is so familiar.
Raphael Magarik is a doctoral candidate at the University of California at Berkeley.