In Does Scripture Speak for Itself? The Museum of the Bible and the Politics of Interpretation (Cambridge, out now), Jill Hicks-Keeton and Cavan Concannon present the MOTB as a five-story brick-and-mortar bible (written intentionally with a lowercase b), one that stands mere blocks from the U.S. Capitol and the National Mall. The authors contend that it is designed to establish the word of God, as mediated by a particular wing of Christianity— conservative white evangelicals— at the center of American power.

In their interpretation, the MOTB, a $50 million edifice that opened in 2017, may not be the Bible but it is a bible nonetheless, because, like all versions of Scripture, it has been shaped to suit the times, politics, and cultures of the people who claim it. One chapter is devoted to the birth of the MOTB, founded through the fortune, connections, and views of Steve Green and his family, the Hobby Lobby craft store chain billionaires. Hicks-Keeton (who co-edited a 2019 title, The Museum of the Bible: A Critical Introduction for Lexington Books/Fortress Academic) and Concannon walk readers through the museum's Gutenberg Gates entry and discuss the place floor by floor. Displays range from ancient-looking scraps of text (some actually ancient, some facsimiles installed after revelations that thousands of the museum's artifacts were either looted or forged) to a theme-park-style virtual reality flight over D.C. It highlights biblical verses and imagery on national monuments, presenting the capital as a Christian heritage tourism site and MOTB visitors as pilgrims.

PW spoke with the authors—Hicks-Keeton, associate professor of Religious Studies at the University of Oklahoma, and Concannon, associate professor of religion at the University of Southern California—about their goal for the book and their controversial, on-every-page, use of the term "white evangelicalism." The authors say they don't use this phrase with the intent to slander. Rather, they write in the book that they seek to highlight the ways in which, "the bible produced by the museum forges a path of redemption for white evangelicals that simultaneously works to excuse racist pasts, resist critique of the present, and ground a future in which white evangelicals can be moral authorities."

Your book situates the MOBT within a web of contemporary white conservative Christian social, political, economic, and educational institutions which, you write, "are producing, consuming, and marketing a bible—and why that matters." Why does this matter?

Concannon: We are talking about a sect within the larger umbrella of American institutions, linked by their theological and political commitments. It is a broad view of "whiteness." Not all evangelicals are white but many who are have forged their Christianity with a particular view, and they have a lot of power. It is beneficial to us as a democratic society to understand how their beliefs are created, internalized, and sustained by these powerful and wealthy institutions and the Museum is among them.

Hicks-Keeton: We are living in a particular moment when those of us who are white are reckoning with systemic racism and sexism. It is important for us to be analyzing what is authoritative in the MOTB, and how it impacts us. We are not interested in presenting the museum as a problem. We are more interested in how it projects a white evangelical version of a bible. If the Bible is popularly known as 'the Good Book; we have to ask, "Who is this book 'good' for?"

On the subject of slavery, the MOTB presents the abolitionists as "devotees" who followed God's word, while the enslavers are presented as victims of faulty interpretations of Scripture. Hence, you write, "White evangelicals can find salvation from the sins of the past by shifting their group affinity to join the victims rather than the villains of history." Why is this particularly "good" for white evangelicals?

Hicks-Keeton: This protects white evangelicals by placing the MOTB version of the Bible on the right side of history. It works by cutting out the possibility of viewing the past with moral doubt because if you are the victim, you're not the perpetrator.

The book mentions your hope that "mixing of American religious history with the cultural history of biblical literature will have something to say to our political present, particularly during a time in which our nation is wrestling with who belongs, who has access to resources, whose ideologies are normalized and celebrated, and whose are marginalized." What does it say to "our political present?"

Concannon: It says that we need to have public discourse where it is clear what motivates people to do what they do in the public square. We want people to pay attention, to know that their beliefs have a history, but that history is also entangled with money and institutions that shape these beliefs for their own ends.