In his 1967 lecture “On Other Spaces,” Foucault describes the museum as a heterotopia that is also heterochronic, “linked to slices in time.”[i] In the modern museum,
Time never stops building up and topping its own summit […]. The idea of accumulating everything, of establishing a sort of general archive, the will to enclose in one place all times, all epochs, all forms, all tastes, the idea of constituting a place of all times that is itself outside of time and inaccessible to its ravages, the project of organizing in this way a sort of perpetual and indefinite accumulation of time in an immobile place, this whole idea belongs to our modernity.[ii]
A museum’s position outside ordinary space and time – literally surrounding other spaces and times like a box or shell – makes it a heterotopia. “The heterotopia,” he continues, “is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible.”[iii] From Foucault’s description, we gather that the function of heterotopia is to critique or relieve ordinary space, sometimes by perfecting it, sometimes by giving the lie to it. It is one of his more hopeful-sounding pieces; he does not analyze the possible insidiousness of the heterotopia, or how power itself might use heterotopias to construct pasts and futures. He describes his examples – the library, the festival, the ship, the museum, and, oddly, the colony – as spaces of freedom, of less restricted movement, other-spaces for imagining otherwise and perhaps enacting a “different economy of bodies and pleasures.”[iv] But, as Foucault insists throughout the rest of his work, power is polymorphous, polycephalous, perverse – it uses bodies, souls, and matter for its own ends.[v] We know this – we attend to it – when we trip on that word “colony.” This is because we know the deleterious effects of colonization on heritage, the land, and bodies. Perhaps we should trip in the same way on that word “museum.” We should attend to the stories museums and colonies tell about themselves; we should be cognizant of their designs on the body.
I am concerned here, then, with two specific heterotopic stumbling blocks: not just any museum, but the Museum of the Bible; and not just any colony, but the Land of Israel – a term which demarcates a concept which masquerades as a place. The Land of Israel is not the political entity of Israel, though it is hooked into the same political apparatus and is used to validate and govern many perspectives on Israel and Palestine today particularly evident in the attitudes of evangelical Christians in the U.S., who, as we will see, crave an attachment to a Land of Israel that is “linked to slices in time” – particularly the first century, when Jesus walked. By incorporating the visitor’s ambulant body, the heterotopic Museum of the Bible provides access to this Land of Israel, to this particular space-time. Images of Israel recur throughout the museum – a flowery meadow in the elevators, a night cityscape of Jerusalem on the Impact floor, even, from a certain point of view, the rooftop garden full of plants mentioned in the Bible – but here I’ll focus on the romanticization of archaeology as a route to that heterotopic, heterochronic Land of Israel and on the replica Nazareth Village’s strategies of reenactment and realia.
Christians have been obsessed with Israel for a long time. Understanding the Christian tradition as one which supersedes Jewish practice shades quickly and easily into understanding Israel as a Christian homeland, a Christian belonging, which is always a religio-political move. Christian pilgrimage in Israel is documented quite early – the fourth century – and Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, was one of the first Christian political agents to engage in the construction of the Land of Israel from the Christian imaginary. Artifacts miraculously delivered themselves up from the earth into her hands; she built churches over sacred topoi, pinning down and materializing the story of the Gospel in ways that would set pilgrims’ itinera for centuries to come. This religious colonization with the feet continued apace through the centuries – even into Green family endeavors adjacent to but not within the Museum of the Bible. This fall, for example, Mark Chancey reported on the Passages initiative, in which the MOTB sponsors Christian college students to take trips to Israel using verbiage and imagery that is strongly reminiscent of Taglit-Birthright Israel; students are urged to “discover your roots; encounter Israel; tell your story.”[vi]
The construction of a Christian topography of Israel as a traversable locus, a spot on the map, is one strategy for the expansion of the Christian imaginary through space. But early on, there was also an urge to collect and disseminate the Land of Israel outward through relics and souvenirs like holy dust and ampullae, and even the replication of the land of Israel on the European mainland. Replicas of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher sprouted in France, Germany, and modern Poland beginning in the eleventh century.[vii] These impulses all continue today in the U.S. We see the feverish urge to collect in the Green family’s stunning rate of acquisition (over 40,000 pieces in six years, a compelling tale with global effects best told in Candida Moss and Joel Baden’s Bible Nation [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017]). There is even a consolidation of replica holy spaces at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America; at MOTB, replication is most obvious in the Nazareth Village analyzed below but also through the large percentage of facsimiles in the display cases. At MOTB, the body is implicated in all of these strategies of producing and traversing other-spaces, heterotopias, which hinge on the desirability and inaccessibility of the land of Israel as it was for Jesus in the first century CE.
As a final introductory and indirectly methodological note on the somatic experience of MOTB: When I began to plan this paper, I had not yet visited the Museum of the Bible. I assumed – I’m quoting my abstract – that “the body is incorporated into the narrative; simultaneously, a book which was written by many hands over many centuries is condensed into one linear narrative that can be traversed by a single body.” So let me refine: The Museum of the Bible is intentional and strategic in its use of space and its manipulation of the visitor’s body. But the course set is neither linear nor simple; it is immersive, cyclical, repetitive; it works in arcs and curves and spirals rather than lines. There are moments I would describe topographically as high points, peaks where you get a sense of the sweep of the story all at once. But it’s not the story of the history of the book, as the publicity materials insist. These high points where my senses popped forward to engage thankfully were also the moments where the message of a Christian Bible – again: not, to be clear, the history of the Bible – was presented quite tangibly, moments where time and space collapsed around the visitor’s body, often where the visitor’s body was moving or experienced simulated movement. And they were moments tied to the Land of Israel.
History: or how to dig till you can touch the past
MOTB is separated into three floors: Impact, Narrative, and History. (You can explore the set-up here.) The History section includes the “story of the Bible” – singular, as Jill Hicks-Keeton notes – from its emergence in a polyvocal Canaanite context all the way to present global translation efforts. The portion that has explicitly to do with the Bible’s origin in Palestine—a half-floor of exhibit space—is the most traditionally museum-like of the museum’s permanent exhibits overall, but to the right of the entrance is an introductory video component hosted by Dave Stotts, the same host who will hosts the “Drive Thru History” video component. People cluster here on benches to seek orientation. Stotts invites us in: “Allow me to give you a peek at what Israel has to offer.”
As he pulls us to the archaeological sites of Jericho and Tel Lachish, Stotts asserts, “Research leads to better understanding of the people, places, and events of the Bible.” Jericho and Tel Lachish are battle sites with vivid destruction layers – archaeologists love these kinds of layers that allow sure dating and vivid storytelling, but the museum’s interest in these towns is broader. The Battle of Tel Lachish is attested in I Kings, in the archaeological record, and in an Assyrian wall relief now held at the British Museum. The film focuses so much time on it because few other biblical narratives can be attested across media this way. The soil of Israel can be mined, that is, for corroboration of the Bible’s truth as a historical record; and when it works, it’s included in the museum. “This traumatic experience triggered centuries of reflection and writing,” Stotts concludes about the battle, tying the material record to the textual record with a slender string of affect. Here Stotts uses the trauma of the Assyrian conquest, substantiated by the story of one locus, to make a claim that is difficult to prove: that the battle’s most important product was the Bible.
This hope in the potentialities of archaeology recurs throughout the museum. In his book Lifting Up the Bible, president of the museum Cary Summers describes how in the future the museum aims to livestream archaeological excavations in the museum. This bridging of faraway exotic archaeology with the promise of illuminating the biblical past is another historically powerful strategy in bulwarking the Christian imaginary; one can sketch a genealogy from Empress Helena to biblical archaeologist William Foxwell Albright’s work and beyond to remember how archaeology in this form has been a major strategy for hegemonic Christian colonization of the land of Israel. In Albright’s words in 1921, “The Holy Land and its antiquities are the possession of the whole world, and all should collaborate in their recovery, share in their ownership.”[viii] Yet as a commonplace maxim in archaeology reminds us, excavation is primarily an act of destruction; and objects can’t speak for themselves but require contexts. The idea of “an origin that speaks by itself,” as Derrida describes Freud’s archaeological fetish, is a myth – and even in the myth of the origin that speaks through archaeology, the land can’t stay intact but is rather dug up and dispersed.[ix] That is, the urge to collect the Land of Israel, to import it to MOTB, to replicate it, is only satisfied by destroying that land at the level of dust – or as archaeologists say, destroying the context. That’s the thing about Foucault’s heterotopia – if you bring there over here (to make it “inaccessible to [time’s] ravages” in a “project of organizing in this way a sort of perpetual and indefinite accumulation of time in an immobile place”), there isn’t there anymore.
After the orientation video, visitors move toward the exhibits, which include facsimiles of the Mernepteh and Meshe stelai and loop back again, to a Dead Sea Scroll exhibit. These tiny fragments occupy a sizeable footprint; the exhibit is a c-curve, enveloping the visitor who is drawn in and shuttled from tiny scrap to tiny scrap. Each scrap has the same disclaimer in the placard: “Are these fragments real? Research continues.”
Flowing around the body is ambient noise: men’s voices reading Hebrew scripture together all at once. I watch the visitors on two separate days. They don’t pool here as much as I expected. There’s a fundamental disconnect, I think, between the scandals of provenance which have preoccupied the scholarly community and the goals of the average MOTB visitor.[x] Instead of eddying here where the very space seems to invite them, they seek out videos and maps where the land comes to life; I follow them.
Taking my cues from my fellow visitors, I watch the thirty-minute “Drive Thru History of the Bible” section, ft. again our friend Dave Stotts, whose videos are produced by Coldwater Media (other notable clients include the Heritage Foundation and Focus on the Family) and marketed by religio-political groups like David Barton’s Wallbuilders. The video showcases sweeping panoramas of the leather-tan desert. It shades into inked parchment more than once, visually tying land with text – a strategy that repeats in, e.g., the animated Walk through the New Testament video, where evangelists traipse down a road of unrolling papyrus. The Stotts video continues the romantic notion of archaeology as mediator to an accessible and tangible past. It opens with Stotts landing a helicopter uncomfortably near (perhaps atop?) an open site and greeting a nonplussed – even bored – archaeologist. The video proceeds to Germany and England – less relevant for my purposes, but still jarring, especially when Stotts proclaims that “the power of the Bible, the invention of the printing press, and worldwide colonialism led to the global translation and transmission of the Bible,” as if this were an unalloyed good.
The objects (even the facsimiles), then, are mute ambassadors of the land where Israel and the Bible came to be. In the midst of these ambassadorial objects, the land of Israel – the dirt of Israel – is construed as a quarry for truth, a source of light, valuable only for its life before the first century CE. This is communicated most strongly in precisely the places where visitors’ ambulant bodies found rest, where they sought orientation, and where they expected entertainment. The focus on archaeology, while not in itself necessarily pernicious, is a tool for connecting the visitor to a Land of Israel that has blown away with the dust – if it ever really existed at all. As we will see, this has implications for ethics and the consolidation of Christian power.
Narrative: Walking where Jesus did, kind of
The Narrative Floor relies on the collapse of space and time to enfold visitors into the Bible. One walks through the Hebrew Bible, sits through an animated video on the New Testament, and explores Nazareth Village. The museum harnesses the powers of replication, performance, and the body to maximize these effects. In all the Narrative modules, the message of the Christian gospel is communicated, but the experiences are careful to suggest rather than command, invite, or implore. I focus here on the synagogue experience.
This Nazareth is the first-century one or something like it; there are no vestiges of imperial power or even of real labor; it is serene and dusky; soothing natural sounds of birdsong and water cushion the journey. Publicity materials, including Summers’ book, describe the intensive detail in replicating the “real” or the “actual”: “Notice the gnarly olive trees that adorn the columns? Bark and all, they are replicas of actual olive trees in Israel.”[xi] Similarly, eleven thousand rocks that form the walls and embankments in Nazareth Village are “sculpted, hand crafted, and painted” based on photographs from a group visit to Israel – Summers mentions these rocks three separate times in the book. He notes that the lead designers felt it necessary to return to the source – Israel itself – “to experience firsthand the atmosphere they intended to create – sights, smells, sounds, textures, and feelings.”[xii] It is, says designer Jonathan Martin, “hyper detail.”[xiii] Designer Dan Murphy explains it this way: “Seeing where it happened changed everything for us. […] Going ourselves took everything to the next level. It helped us to see it and feel it. The colors, lights, and smells – you can’t capture it any other way.”[xiv] Again and again, team members are quoted: Visiting Israel meant that they “got it;” they were transformed by a phenomenological encounter in which the entire sensorium was implicated. But note the parts of Israel that do not appear in the museum or in team reports: people, politics, history after the first century CE. This language of the real and the actual evinces a strategy that enthusiastically believes in this essential Land of Israel that can be distilled from the natural landscape and wishes to share the life-changing experience with others.
The experience of the synagogue was for me the most vivid experience in the museum. This is owed, I think, to a heady blend of spiraling exhaustion, a vocal set of co-sojourners, and an affable rabbi-impersonator; cooler heads have found it saccharine and overdone. You can tell, though, that Summers likes it too: “In every way, the synagogue is real. Every detail is accurate and authentic, from the stones to the colors and from the columns to the seats. The fact that you can listen to and learn from the rabbi only makes the experience all the more impressive. You feel you are really there, transported back in time. And that, of course, is the goal.”[xv] It’s unclear how one could measure accuracy and authenticity when there are no archaeological remains of a Nazarene synagogue; rather, the Nazareth Village in Israel (on which this entire experience seems based, though it goes uncited) has a replica synagogue based on remains in Masada.[xvi]
I peek in the door; the rabbi invites me to join approximately thirty adults seated on benches.
“Have you heard of Jesus?” Loud murmurs from my companions: YES!
“He studied Tanakh with all of us men. He’s now thirty years old.” The rabbi glosses the story in Luke 4, where Jesus reads from the scroll of Isaiah and hints that he’s its fulfillment – then he tells us that he and the other Nazarenes drove Jesus out of town and tried to throw him off a cliff, but the rabbi is puzzled: Jesus just…disappeared! But they’ve heard rumors about his teachings, the rabbi says. For instance, the mikveh next door springs from groundwater. “Do you know what we call the water?” Some clever audience member surprises me: “Living water!” “Yes!” chortles the rabbi. “Let me tie this together for you – he got that from our mikveh, didn’t he?!” He rounds out, concluding: “If you see Jesus, will you come tell us? You see why we’re confused. We hope someone will write this down so we can engage with it someday.”
We should be alarmed at several components here: the climax of the whole story is a germ of Jews-versus-Jesus that has found its own terrible material reenactments for two millennia; the Jewish tradition is seen as the literal fountainhead of Christian teaching; and the Nazarenes are parodied as confused folk in need of a New Testament – neutrally called “engagement.” The evangelical version of earliest Christianity and the Nazareth Village vividly manifests the surreal spatio-temporality of the Land of Israel concept, and we see in the spatial and performative rhetoric of the Village that certain romantic notions of both natural land and Jewish practice as fonts of Christianity are foregrounded: But what work does sitting through this story do on the body’s relationship with the Land of Israel? The strategy of including reenactments within the hyper-detailed replica village raises questions about the ways ideologies are circuited through the heterotopic MOTB. The reenactments compel the visitor’s whole-body interaction with an arrangement of sites, epochs, and objects but also other bodies in a pedagogically powerful process. In historian Vanessa Agnew’s work on reenactments of early 20th century Germany as a particular kind of historiography, she notes that “reenactment has the the tendency to collapse temporalities, and this implies forms of historical continuity that are not only potentially inaccurate but exploitable for ideological ends.”[xvii] Both Agnew and anthropologist James Bielo index the affective work that reenactment and other immersive pedagogies do on the body; Bielo notes, “The human body and its materialities are used as the primary medium for teaching ideology, ethics, and normative emotion. […] While we are often suspicious of words and emotions, we trust our bodies to bear truth because we listen to them as responding in an unmediated way.”[xviii] The same effects are at work in the MOTB’s Nazareth Village. In this micro-pilgrimage to a place that fractures, replicates, and dispenses the land of Israel, the visitor’s body is wooed into a false intimacy with a fictive Land of Israel that bears little resemblance to either the true Nazareth of the first century or the lived experience of the millions of people who have lived there since. One is tricked into thinking, “I’ve been there. I know that place.”
Agnew also notes the numbing effects of reenactments on ethical reasoning, since they “tend to elegize certain aspects of the past and elide what remains uncomfortable and troubling. […] This approach is tantamount to an exercise of mastery, not one of confrontation with the past.”[xix] The ethical effects of the Nazareth Village, like the ethical effects of the exoticization of archaeology, are subtle but real. For example, as Monica Potts notes in a recent piece, the static Nazareth Village has the odd effect of negating or fossilizing any idea of continuing Jewish practice; when she interacts with the docent about the mikveh, she is alarmed: “In my head, I protested: ‘[Mikveh] still exist!’ Everything about the Jewish people was in the past tense, as if they didn’t reside in our current world as a people and a faith.”
Probably very few visitors to the Museum of the Bible would consider this a problem. Anthropologist Hillary Kaell, for instance, interviews U.S. travelers on pilgrimage to the “Holy Land” and finds that although they are aware that there is political tension, they prefer to attend to the perceived spiritual power and past of the place instead of the lived, material difficulties in it. In Kaell’s interviews, she finds that most respondents actively steer conversations away from Israeli-Palestinian politics “because it had ‘nothing to do’ with the trip.” One says, “It would be interesting to hear about it within reason but not essential. As I said, the reason I’m going is to know my Christian roots.”[xx] It’s not Israel or Palestine that pilgrims seek or that MOTB seeks to access: it’s the Holy Land, the Land of Israel, a spatio-temporal construct manifested and exhibited within the physical space of MOTB.
Why does it matter that the Museum of the Bible labors feverishly to consolidate space and time into one edifice in order to develop an intimacy between Christians – particularly American evangelical Christians, and particularly legislators – and the Land of Israel, construed here as a timeless, eternally ancient font from which all Christendom – and implicitly America itself – flows? The work of this museum to open and construct other places and other times is thus fraught; it is circuitry for power. And that was, as Steve Green acknowledged in 2014, always the point: “As many people as we can educate about this book, the better. I think seeing the biblical foundations of our nation – for our legislators to see that a lot of that was biblically based, that we have religious freedoms today, which are a biblical concept, it can’t hurt being there.”[xxi] There is a way that a certain intimacy, stirred up in the body via affective and visceral historiographies of replication and reenactment and via spatial and kinetic strategies, shades into belonging and thence into ownership. This affect undergirds and vivifies the same logic that allows an entire subset of the U.S. population to believe that Jerusalem is and has always been the eternal city of God and capital of Israel, the same logic that authorizes the President of the United States in 2017 to simply declare it in a sort of performative utterance that values perceived spiritual realities over material contexts and consequences – an act whose materializations remain anxiously unknown and uncharted – an act which reverberates in a world’s worth of bodies.
[i] Foucault, “Of Other Spaces,” trans. Jay Miscowiec, Diacritics 16.1 (1986): 26.
[ii] Foucault, “Of Other Spaces,” 26.
[iii] Foucault, “Of Other Spaces,” 25-26.
[iv] Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 153.
[v] Spatial theorists and geographers like Edward Soja (Postmodern Geographies, 1988) and David Harvey (Spaces of Hope, 2000) have critiqued, nuanced, and widened the impact of Foucault’s work on heterotopias; they draw attention to the ways power circuits through space. I make the same move here.
[vi] For a different version of the work of Passages, see Cary Summers’ description (Lifting Up the Bible: The Story behind Museum of the Bible [Franklin, TN: Worthy Books, 2017], 50-53). Throughout his description he emphasizes the “unbiased,” “balanced perspective” offered on Passages trips: “One lecture might be led by a Palestinian journalist, another by a member of the Knesset (the Israeli parliament), or another by a Christian Aramaic pastor working with refugees” (51-52). Interestingly, Summers’ account here is one of the only places in Hobby Lobby materials where I find a focus on understanding the continuing story of Israel, instead of this conceptual Land of Israel. Of course, the fascination of U.S. evangelicals with Israeli politics is not new and does not contradict their love for the Land of Israel; it is one of those places in the evangelical mythos where space and time collapse and entangle most thrillingly. See, for example, Mathew Gabriele’s overview of evangelical apocalypticism in the wake of President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017; for a more sustained scholarly overview of evangelicalism’s simultaneous philo- and anti-semitic politics, see Yaakov Ariel, An Unusual Relationship: Evangelical Christians and Jews (New York: New York University Press, 2013).
[vii] Much of this story is helpfully traced from antiquity to modernity in Annabel Jane Wharton’s Selling Jerusalem: Relics, Replicas, Theme Parks (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), for which the Museum of the Bible would make an apt epilogue. She notes how Jerusalem has been, in her words, fragmented, replicated, fabricated, mechanically reproduced, and spectacularized – and these are all ways, she says, of possessing Israel. James Bielo notes the effects of replication on collapsing temporalities and manipulating affect in his “Replication as Religious Practice, Temporality as Religious Problem,” History and Anthropology 28.2 (2017): 131-148.
[viii] W. F. Albright, “A Tour on Foot through Samaria and Galilee,” BASOR 4 (1921): 7–13.
[ix] Jacques Derrida, “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression,” Diacritics 25.2 (1995): 58.
[x] Treatments of MOTB and issues of provenance include: Joel Baden and Candida Moss, Bible Nation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017); or their more readily accessible “Can Hobby Lobby Buy the Bible?” The Atlantic (January/February 2016); Kipp Davis, “Gleanings from the Cave of Wonders? Patterns of Correspondence in the Post-2002 Dead Sea Scrolls Fragments,” Dead Sea Discoveries 24.2 (2017): 229-270 [accessible on Academia.edu].
[xi] Summers 158.
[xii] Summers 81.
[xiii] Summers 128.
[xiv] Summers 82.
[xv] Summers 157.
[xvi] Cary Summers, president of MOTB, is listed as a major supporter of the Nazareth Village in Israel. Dr. Nakhle Bishara, a medical doctor at the local Nazareth Hospital, is the visionary who originally conceived the “living museum.” He says: “There is a deep desire on the part of all who come to Nazareth to see Jesus. But for centuries, all they could see was dusty stones. That is why I proposed a place where visitors could see those ancient stones come to life and witness the vineyards and olive trees Jesus used to teach spiritual truth.” Replication and reenactment are seen as strategies to link visitors with Jesus himself.
[xvii] Vanessa Agnew, “History’s Affective Turn: Historical Reenactment and Its Work in the Present,” Rethinking History 11.3 (2007): 309.
[xviii] Bielo 142.
[xix] Agnew 302.
[xx] Hillary Kaell, “Age of Innocence: The Symbolic Child and Political Conflict on American Holy Land Pilgrimage,” Religion and Society 5 (2014): 167.
[xxi] Michelle Boorstein, “Hobby Lobby’s Steve Green has big plans for his Bible museum in Washington,” The Washington Post, September 12, 2014.
Sarah Porter is a Ph.D. Candidate in New Testament and Early Christianity at Harvard University. Follow her on Twitter @portersf
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