Although the United States is a religious nation, according to all polls, not many Americans know about the American Bible Society. This organization, based in New York City, has been vastly influential in the history of the nation. Even more influential, however, has been the Bible itself. It pervades every aspect of life in America, whether acknowledged or not. It is an integral part of the fabric out of which the nation is cut. I used to ask my Rutgers students: if there were some unseen force that impacted your life every day in ways that you couldn’t imagine, wouldn’t you like to know about it? Of course they would! But our society has very little tolerance for actually learning about the Bible. As a story in the New York Times states, the American Bible Society had to sell its historical Manhattan property recently. I visited the site on my first trip to New York as a seminary student. Here amid the towering secular concerns of money and greed, was a building dedicated to Sacred Writ.
The New York Times piece, however, is pointing to the fact that the selling of the building has led to the closing of the Museum of Biblical Art. As Randy Kennedy makes clear in his piece, the Museum was (technically will have been) dedicated to showing the impact of the Bible in secular contexts. The American Bible Society is an evangelistic organization. They arrange for the distribution of Bibles not for secular reasons, but for good, old fashioned conversion of the heathen. This set the Museum a little bit at odds with its host. The Museum, critically acclaimed according to Kennedy, is (was) generally secular in outlook. It recognized that the Bible has influenced us in ways far less than obvious, pervading into our artistic sensibilities.
Although I’ve worked in Manhattan for about four years now, I never had occasion to nip into the Museum of Biblical Art on a lunch break. (Lunch break? What’s that? Money takes no breaks.) This is unfortunate. It seems that the message I had been trying to pass along to my temporary charges was being openly displayed here for New York society to see. Little do people realize, I suspect, that the principles of capitalism—the very system that transfuses the lifeblood into the city—developed out of biblical outlooks on private property. Not that the Bible itself is capitalistic, but it gave a society the basis to develop a form of thought that is, honestly, quite foreign to the biblical outlooks themselves. And ironically, the American Bible Society will continue, even though its intent may be less in keeping the spirit of the very book whose impact the Museum attempted to display.