Earlier this year, by chance I picked up Sarah A. Tobin's "Everyday Piety," which chronicles her sojourn in Amman, Jordan, studying Islamic banking practices. It seemed like such an esoteric topic, and yet I was sucked in, as Tobin lifts the veil on a Muslim society that's layered and straightforward, exotic yet familiar.
A similar feat unfolds in "Bible Nation," a deep dive into the mission of the hyper-evangelical Green family of Oklahoma City, whose arts-and-crafts retail chain, Hobby Lobby, has yielded billions of dollars to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The authors — Candida R. Moss, a professor of the New Testament at the University of Notre Dame, and Joel S. Baden, a professor of the Hebrew Bible at the Yale Divinity School — touch on the recent Supreme Court case that bears Hobby Lobby's name, but home in on another enterprise: the Green family's acquisition of ancient papyri and artifacts into one of the world's largest private collections of biblical antiquities.
The Green collection grew quietly over the years. The patriarch, David Green, and his wife, sons and daughter started their business at their kitchen table. As the franchise expanded and the money rolled in, they funneled profits into pet evangelical causes, from home-school curricula to archaeological proof of the Bible's inerrancy.
David Green has purchased a king's ransom of archaic Torahs and New Testament papyri, many of which will eventually be housed in the Museum of the Bible, set to open in November in Washington, D.C. The majority of these texts lack the proper provenance, or documents, to ensure authenticity. The museum, while ostensibly ecumenical, will showcase a fundamentalist Protestant worldview.
Moss and Baden deftly highlight the cognitive dissonance at the heart of the evangelicalism, how and why the faithful cherry-pick Scriptures that buttress their own beliefs while dismissing contradictions among the texts themselves, "variants that include a very different book of Samuel from the traditional Hebrew text, a book of Jeremiah that is approximately one-eighth shorter than the traditional text, and a number of Psalms that are not part of our Bibles today. … This attitude goes back to the Reformation notion of sola scriptura, 'the Bible alone.' "
"Bible Nation" is a geek's delight, seasoned with the historical skulduggery and theological debate found in a Dan Brown novel or an Indiana Jones film.
Moss and Baden draw on extensive research and interviews with a revolving-door cast of so-called experts and hangers-on, leaving no proverbial stone unturned in their quest to determine the value and validity of the Green collection, the Bible Museum's underlying purpose.
"Bible Nation" peels away the bark on one of the largest branches of the American family tree, using an academic story to tell a broader one: the evangelicals' unshakable conviction in their own fantasies and the demonization of anything, or anyone, that dares to challenge them.
Hamilton Cain is the author of "This Boy's Faith: Notes From a Southern Baptist Upbringing" and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Brooklyn.
By: Candida R. Moss and Joel S. Baden.
Publisher: Princeton University Press, 223 pages, $29.95.