If I Seem Self-Confident, It’s Because I Am

In its March issue, The Atlantic published a story about how the Green family, owners of the now-infamous Hobby Lobby retail chain, are currently in the process of creating a new Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. The article raises some specific, detailed questions regarding the legality and ethics of the methods by which the Greens acquired their artifacts. It ends up questioning the very basis of the museum’s creation, accusing the Greens of engaging in pedagogy rather than stimulating open and honest discussion. The ways in which Joel Bader and Candida Moss characterize the Museum of the Bible enterprise reveal the subtle ways in which pundits influence the public. In the end, “Can Hobby Lobby Buy the Bible?” ends up doing exactly what it accuses the Greens of doing, making me wonder if the authors simply wish to smear the undertaking because of the Supreme Court’s ruling on Hobby Lobby’s birth control policies.

I feel that I must, in the interest of full disclosure, say that I think the Greens are completely off base in their views of the immutability of scripture. By showcasing the earliest available written fragments of the Bible, they wish to demonstrate the truth of Biblical teachings, showing how little they have changed over the years of retelling. They cite the Authorized Version (the “King James” Bible) as the ultimate expression of what a religious text should be. The article’s authors are correct that, “The main story that [this exhibit] tells about the Bible, in short, is a Protestant one.” The Greens either do not know, or are ignoring, that the King James I, who came from Scotland, ordered the compilation of his authorized version to create religious unity throughout Great Britain. He wished to sort out the many translations that existed in his kingdom by having experts from all parts of the country meet to decide the single best way to express the passages that conflicted. Often, they made their decision based on what sounded most poetic in early 17th century English. As Adam Nicolson points out in God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible, it is “the greatest book ever written by a committee.” This hardly makes the case for the unchanging nature of the work.

Baden and Moss do not base their criticisms on history, though. They seem to think that people should question the Museum of the Bible because the Greens are out-of-step with modern American culture. Take a seemingly-innocuous passage about the authors’ interview with Steve Green, the president of Hobby Lobby. They state:

Not once during our time together did he check his phone or watch.

When I read that, I thought, “Wow, here’s someone who respects the time of those who are interviewing him. He wants them to know they have his full attention, so he is behaving politely.”

Baden and Moss do not agree. The next sentence reads:

He had the air of a man who knew that people would wait for him.

They have managed to turn manners into a form of narcissistic tyranny. How dare he not look at a cellular device from time to time! Doesn’t he know that someone might need to send him a joke, show him a picture of a meal, give him a coupon, make fun of Donald Trump talk to him? He does not bow to the machine the way we all do! He does not share our addiction! He just does not get it! There is something wrong with him! Burn the witch!

Worse, The Atlantic’s correspondents hint that the Green family may be in league with terrorists as they attempt to create their museum. They point out that archaeologists have been shocked by the amount of artifacts that have come into the family’s collection. Since many of these objects were previously unknown to scholars, questions arose as to their provenance. It turns out that the Greens have been less than meticulous in their record keeping and their investigation of the legality of some of their purchases. These actions certainly warrant scrutiny. It would be appalling to break laws in order to bring your view of religion to the world. But while they don’t come right out and say it, Baden and Moss hint that there might be something more nefarious at work:

The rise of the Islamic State, or ISIS, has brought heightened attention to the antiquities trade. That’s because the group considers the looting and trafficking of antiquities a valuable source of revenue. “Such funding,” the UN Security Council recently declared, “is being used to support recruitment efforts and to strengthen operational capability to organize and carry out terrorist attacks.” In May, when U.S. forces assassinated Abu Sayyaf, a senior ISIS officer, and then raided his compound in Syria, they found it stuffed with hundreds of ancient Iraqi artifacts.

 

What image could possibly come to mind other than one of Steve Green not checking his phone while buying papyrus fragments out of a windowless van filled with automatic rifles and rocket launchers in a back alley? The authors back off a little:

For these reasons, the issue of provenance—the record of how an artifact was discovered, and who has owned it since—has become crucial in the study of antiquities, especially for newly announced artifacts. In 1970, UNESCO drafted a landmark convention calling on member nations to delegitimize the sale of cultural artifacts. If an item can be shown to have been removed from its country of origin before 1970, collectors can generally be secure that its purchase is legal. Records of sale, however, are not always well maintained (if they are maintained at all)—and, of course, they can be forged.

But the damage is done. They certainly don’t say Hobby Lobby is not knowingly funding terrorism.

The article’s final strategy works in a most subtle way, but that makes it the most insidious and dangerous ploy. The authors present their overall concerns about the Museum of the Bible as questions of open-mindedness and intellectual dialogue:

The thousands of artifacts they have so rapidly acquired could become merely the pictures that accompany this story, which, put simply, is this: The text of the Bible has essentially never changed, and its authority is timeless.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this message. From a faith perspective, it’s no better or worse than any other. What’s striking, though, is that the Greens have potentially figured out a way to make one story of the Bible seem like the story of the Bible.

Think back to the last time you watched a documentary on evolution or visited a museum detailing the incredible age of the Earth. Did the producers feel obligated to say, “This is simply one theory. Many people believe that God created the world in a week and species never change”? Of course not. Science feels sure it has the story of the Earth, and wants to educate you so that you know the truth as well. Even though new research constantly changes the currently-accepted picture of cosmology or geology, scientists always speak to the public of their current models as certain. Only they themselves are allowed to question them.

I remember another example from the time when I lived in Washington, D.C. The issue involved how to address the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in the display of the B-29 Enola Gay. As originally designed, the exhibit questioned President Truman’s decision to drop the bomb and blamed that action for ushering in the age of the nuclear arms race. Protests by veterans’ groups resulted in a redesign of the exhibit, and this triggered outrage on the part of historians. In essence, they were demanding the right to teach their beliefs to others via museum displays. This doesn’t sound all that different from what the Museum of the Bible will try to do. But how many of those historians would stand up in support of the Greens now? You can’t have it both ways.

It seems as though Baden and Moss also wish to have their ideas accepted as the story. [Should we listen to closed-minded supporters of terrorism who don’t even check their phones during interviews? Only an ignoramus would do that!] And remember, all of this criticism is taking place before the museum actually opens. The editors of The Atlantic clearly do not want visitors to the nation’s capital influenced by the Museum of the Bible. I believe they unintentionally show why:

Hobby Lobby, [Green] explained, is not just a business. It’s a business that enables a ministry, and at the center of that ministry is the Bible.

I guess that’s too dangerous an idea for some people to allow.

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Ad Astra per Aspera- Chapter One

In Which I Find the Object of My Search, Only to Wonder if it was Better Not to

     As I ascended the slight grade on the sun-dappled forest path, I had a hard time believing I was finally here.

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For twenty years, I had looked forward to this day, seeking relevant volumes in dusty used bookstores, poring over topographic maps, driving through this place while trying to look nonchalant. No Howard Carter in the Valley of the Kings, no Indiana Jones in an Amazon jungle, had ever felt more anticipation than I did that August morning. The fact that I was probably trespassing only added to my tension, and I have never been one to break rules, but a slight tingle of thrill drove me onward.

As I rounded a bend, a clearing materialized before me, and at the far end, the object of my quest gleamed white like some long-forgotten temple. Millbrook School Observatory, at last.

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As soon as I recognized the building from photos in fifty-year-old books, part of me wished I hadn’t. This incredible structure, built entirely by the blood, sweat, and tears of high school boys, lay abandoned and neglected in a corner of the campus now given over to the storage of machinery and scraps of lumber, themselves seemingly long-forgotten. A dumpster out in front of this facility? Really? Is that all the respect they can muster for what these young men accomplished?

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The small clearing was surrounded by tall trees, which made it difficult to recognize where everything I thought I knew so well was situated. Weren’t some of the photos I had seen taken from this spot? I thought they had been, but where was the concrete patio on which the nice young men in jackets and ties displayed their home-made telescopes? Had this three-foot-high mound of earth always been here? Had the site of the observatory once lauded by Scientific American magazine become a landfill? How had they even seen the sky from here?

I waded through thigh-high weeds, moving ever closer to what had been a center of science, community outreach, and geophysical research a few short decades ago. Vines had overrun and started to penetrate the doors covering the dome’s slit. They seemed to force it open, making it appear rather more vulnerable to the ravages of time than it ought.

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The whitewashed finish of the building’s cinder block exterior had crumbled away in places, revealing construction details that should, by right, have remained seamlessly incorporated into the facade.

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A blue tarp that had once protected equipment that did not even belong here now hung forlornly in tatters, exposed in its impotence against the elements.

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I found myself wishing the school had demolished the observatory years ago, rather than let it be shamed like this.

I approached the door that sat forlornly open, feeling more than ever like an archaeologist about to enter the burial chamber of an ancient monarch. It seemed to invite my approach.

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I can see they don’t value this, but will they mind if I do? After all, not having found anything marked as visitors’ parking, I had left my truck on the other side of the campus and walked all the way over here, feeling as conspicuous as a fox among the hens. But nobody seemed to pay me any heed, so after glancing over my shoulder one last time and listening for the sounds of maintenance or security personnel, I ducked inside and entered.

Immediately, my mood improved a bit. There was the student astronomers’ masterpiece, a 12″ reflecting telescope pointed to the south at an angle that meant it could be looking at the rich Milky Way star fields in summer or star birth regions in Orion during winter. The floor was relatively uncluttered, allowing me to examine the scope closely from all angles. Although its paint was flecked and peeling, the instrument gave off a feeling of solidity and dignity, as if it knew its own power.

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Cautiously, I reached out a hand and attempted to slew the magnificent structure in right ascension. It complied without a sound, with just the right amount of friction to prevent an observer from overshooting his target. I did the same with the declination axis, pointing the massive framework tube ever-so-slightly more northward, and once again the instrument responded perfectly, almost with pride in the quality of its construction. So far, so good mechanically; what about optically?

I located the knob used to remove the primary mirror’s wooden cover and decided to lift it off. This was really my Rubicon. If anything went wrong now, I could easily be prosecuted for trespassing and destruction of private property. Hang on! This telescope deserves to have someone care about it. My righteous indignation fueled me on.

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As I reached for the cover, I became aware of an almost-invisible inscription. What ancient knowledge would its decipherment give me? Raised slightly from the mirror cell’s surface, but painted in the same gloss black, were the words “MILLBROOK SCHOOL FOR BOYS.” I chuckled for a moment, trying to imagine how the makers of this behemoth expected it to go missing and need identification. Then it dawned on me: this was not meant to help recover a stolen telescope. It was written by a group of people feeling pride in their accomplishment, and wanting future generations to know about it.

I removed the cover to reveal a slightly tarnished surface, no worse than others I had successfully cleaned in the past, with…a postage stamp stuck to the middle of it?!

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Someone has vandalized…no; wait a minute. The stamp, I realized, had once been a reference mark for the collimation of the mirror in the optical train. While it’s customary to place a tiny magic marker spot on the center of your mirror for this purpose, I had never seen one an inch by three quarters in size. Still, as long as it was smaller than the portion of the mirror shadowed by the telescope’s secondary mirror, it was no problem.

All of a sudden, I was back in archaeologist mode. Stamps change. If I could find out when this particular specimen was issued, I would have an earliest limit on when someone had last maintained the observatory’s equipment. On further inspection, it was in the denomination of 32 cents, and carried an illustration of a man with a glorious Victorian mustache, in a military band uniform, playing a trumpet. Across the bottom near the perforations was the inscription, “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” Sousa. 32 cents. That should not be hard to track down.

I replaced the mirror cover and in doing so noticed the crudely-bent metal strips and cardboard spacers holding the mirror in place.

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I could not imagine that Neale Howard, the science teacher who had inspired the creation of this observatory, would stand for such shoddy workmanship. After all, his students had machined every metal part of the tube themselves. What could account for this deviation from his usual standards? I glanced at the eyepiece end of the telescope and observed that the secondary, directing the light to the eyepiece at the side of the tube, was a mirror.

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That’s strange. Didn’t Howard’s book specify that a prism was a better choice in this particular configuration? Something was afoot. People had tampered with this telescope!

Feeling appalled, I next examined the clock drive mechanism. I don’t remember being able to see the drive gear from his pictures. And what’s with these twist-on plastic connectors?

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When I had first found that the mount’s bearings were in good shape and the mirror was cleanable without needing re-aluminizing, my mind immediately leapt to thoughts of Millbrook Observatory’s glorious re-opening. How many people had been introduced to the wonders of the universe through this instrument? Why could this not continue? Now, seeing some of the other problems, including the infestation of the sun-warmed dome by wasps and hornets, I wasn’t so sure.

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Two decades after my quest to see Millbrook Observatory had begun, I had finally accomplished that objective. But, like all scientific and historic investigations, mine had left me with many more questions than answers.

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I retreated down the forest path still hoping not to be discovered.  As I walked back to my truck, I reflected on my life in amateur astronomy. It had begun in the days of robotic planetary probes, led to an unsuccessful attempt to make astronomy my career, driven me to create my own equipment, and revealed to me the educational oasis that was and is Millbrook. Its history was meaningful to me because of my particular interests and hobbies, but the more I learned about it, the more I realized it was a paradigm of how education should happen. America needed Millbrook as much as, or more than, I did.

I knew my involvement with this place had just begun.

Finders Keepers?

Recently, my wife’s daughter and son-in-law asked her if she were listening to any good podcasts. [There’s another word I just don’t understand. It sounds like something out of science fiction. “They spread the virus to the unsuspecting planet via a podcast.” And isn’t that how the Droids We Were Looking For got off of the Imperial star cruiser?]

databank_escapepod_01_169_2d71b62d

“Podcast”

 

My wife replied that she was under the impression podcasts were so ten-years-ago. Did anybody listen to them anymore? They assured her that such broadcasts were, indeed, making a comeback among the technically-savvy, and they recommended some they thought she would like.

When we take road trips, we like to listen to audio books. It’s incredible how short Simon Vance’s reading of a James Bond novel can make a four-hour drive. I have an uncle who was infamous in the family for reading actual books when he drove long distances in the 1970s. I read whenever I get the chance, but I’m not willing to go that far. So the last time we traveled, my wife chose to play a recording of Neil MacGregor’s podcast A History of the World in 100 Objects. [I’m sad to admit that I have owned the book since its publication,

History of the World

but I have never gotten around to reading it. My wife was not surprised to learn that I was familiar with this work; we knew we were perfect for each other when we discovered, during the dating phase, that each of us owned the same edition of Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo.]

Galileo Book

Anyway, the book/podcast series starts off by examining the Mummy of Hornedjitef, from Egypt in the third century B.C. MacGregor, the director of the British Museum in London, asks an Egyptian writer what she thinks about the mummy’s location in England instead of Egypt. Her reply is so unexpected that it deserves quotation verbatim:

Ultimately, it’s probably no bad thing to have Egyptian obelisks and stones and statues sprinkled all over the world.  It reminds us of ages of colonialism, yes, but it also reminds the world of our common heritage.

As I did, you probably thought she would launch into a diatribe about the culturally-insensitive and blatantly-unfair pillaging of ancient art treasures by the western world. It seems to be a part of everyone’s talking points. In November of 2011, Smithsonian ran a cover story about the legal battle between the Italian government and the Getty Museum in California over possession of a statue of Aphrodite.

Smithsonian Statue

Italy’s argument hinged on the claim that looters had obtained and exported the statue illegally. Deeper down, of course, lives the idea that ancient art treasures belong with the culture that produced them. Who could take issue with that?

[You guessed this was coming, right?]

When I listened to Ahdaf Soueif’s words in A History of the World in 100 Objects, I suddenly realized that the cultures and governments of countries such as Egypt, Greece, and Italy have little or no relation to the cultures that produced the archaeological objects in question. The Egypt of the Pharaohs came under the control of the Greeks during the time Hornedjitef lived, then Roman, Byzantine, Persian, and Muslim/Ottoman rule in turn. Islamic law and culture dominate today, and these would view polytheistic ancient Egypt, with its highly-representational art, as heretical. The Egypt of romantic imagination did not beget modern Egyptian society.

Similar stories describe the post-classical histories of Greece and Italy. [Did you notice that the Italian government was fighting for the return of a statue made by Greeks during their colonization of the Italian peninsula? Is there no end to empire building?]  The artistic, cultural, and political traditions of the peoples who built the pyramids and mummified bodies, carved the Elgin Marbles and invented democracy, and built the Colosseum and made Christianity official, disappeared to history. Their accomplishments were not passed down to us in a direct line from the source. We only know of them today because of western archaeologists (who weren’t responsible for ending the cultures in question) and the looting of artifacts. As Soueif hinted, this may not be a bad thing.

Consider the following: a former United States president goes on safari to Africa in the early twentieth century. There, he shoots hundreds of animals of different species.

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Unconscionable, right? Not so fast. His expedition brings back the taxidermied animals and populates the American Museum of Natural History with them. These displays educate and fascinate budding zoologists in a time before before easy travel and electronic communication, and inspire them to create the environmental conservation movements of today. In effect, a few individual animals gave their lives so their species might have the chance to survive.

Or this: colonizing Spanish introduce wine grapes to the American southwest and California in the sixteenth century. [Oh, the humanity.] There, the grape plants develop resistance to insects that cause a blight in France during the nineteenth century. Grafting these American plants with the European ones helps to save the French wine industry.

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Sometimes removing a thing is the only way to preserve it. Recall what happened to the Egyptian antiquities which were displayed in Cairo during the most recent revolution. I’m not saying that civilized nations and people should go around the world randomly taking over countries and stealing objects. But the only real connection between modern Greeks and ancient Greeks is an accident of geography. They happen to be living in the same place.

Say you moved to the town of Princeton, New Jersey for a job, found a house you could afford, and bought it. While doing renovations, you discovered a box of old notebooks in the attic, and when you read through them you discovered they contained previously-unknown scribblings of Albert Einstein, who had been friends with an earlier owner of the house. Of course they would legally belong to you, and you could keep them, sell them to the highest bidder, use them to start your wood stove, or do anything else you wanted with them. If someone broke in and stole them, it would be theft. But, of course, the “right” thing to do might be to send them off to a museum, where they could be authenticated and studied for the increased knowledge they could give to all of humanity. Maybe the thief was an employee of the Institute for Advanced Studies, which desperately wanted Einstein’s notebooks where he had worked while in the U. S. But wait- didn’t Einstein do his best [read: “only Nobel-winning”] work in Switzerland? Doesn’t the Swiss government have some claim on the newly-discovered writings? No matter what, the court of public opinion finds you selfish if you keep the notebooks. What a mess.

In truth, everyone who has the chance to see a masterpiece in person, rather than in a book or on television, becomes better for it. No modern electronic replica can ever replace the experience of an up-close encounter with the real thing, any more than reading about an ancient idea called “democracy” could ever replace living in a free and representative society. Even better, the preservation of democracy in western countries can come full circle and inspire modern Greeks, living in the birthplace of the idea, to replace a monarchy with a republic, as they did in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The statues, mummies, art, and ideas may not have left their places of origin willingly, but in a way, I’m glad they did. Think of them as ambassadors.