Building the Museum of the Bible
Q&A | President Cary Summers tells how God is blessing the first museum dedicated to the world’s most important book
by Warren Cole Smith
Posted 4/25/16, 04:00 pm
When finished in 2017, the Museum of the Bible will be 430,000 square feet of exhibits dedicated to the Bible. The total cost will exceed $1 billion. The Green family, the same clan that owns the Hobby Lobby retail chain, has put up the seed money behind the project, including about $50 million to purchase the real estate on which the building sits. The family also has donated or loaned its remarkable collection of biblical artifacts to the museum. The Green family picked Cary Summers as the museum’s president, and he has been in that role for about five years. Before that, he was the president and CEO of Herschend Family Entertainment, best known to many as the operator of Silver Dollar City and other family-friendly entertainment venues. Summers has also served in executive roles with Abercrombie & Fitch and Bass Pro Shops. We had this conversation in Nashville, Tenn., at the Teach Them Diligently Homeschool Conference.
You were instrumental in developing a place I’ve visited a couple of times in Israel called Nazareth Village. It’s a recreation of Jesus’ hometown during the time he was alive. How are you involved in it? That project started in 1995. It opened in 2000, and it’s the only site in Israel that we call Living Stones. Nazareth Village is like Colonial Williamsburg [with] full-scale actors. It’s a recreation of Nazareth at the time of Jesus, where he spent 82 percent of his life, if you look at the time scale. It’s to help people understand, why did he teach the way he taught using examples of the land and everything that surrounded? It’s the last piece of farmland in Nazareth that’s never been built on. It’s a historical piece of land. It was found through just cleaning up the land, honestly. [It had] two watch towers, the terraced walls, quarries for the first century, and all we did is just reconstruct that and then added the houses, the synagogues, and so forth.
Visiting Israel made the Bible come alive for me in ways it never had before, and visiting Nazareth Village was a key part of that. I see a connection between the long history you have in working in Israel and the work you’re doing with the Museum of the Bible. The Museum of the Bible, in a different way, is trying to make the Bible come alive, not just for Christians but for all Americans or even people that might visit from around the world. I just returned [from Israel], … and my secretary said that was my 102nd trip to Israel. After a hundred trips to Israel, it doesn’t get old. But I also realized that I’ve been fortunate to be able to do that. Most people will not be able to do that, and maybe they can get there one time. What we’re doing in Washington, D.C., is taking part of Nazareth Village and recreating it there so that it has an environment so you can understand why Jesus taught the way he taught, but the rest of the museum also has a high reflection. Some would say that we are extremely pro-Israel. No—we’re pro-Bible, and the Bible was written there, and this is where the parables of Jesus came from. What we’re trying to present is the accurate relationship to history and the Bible. The only way you can do that is [put] a heavy dose of Israel in there, because that is where it was written.
Museums are really the way we maintain and even propagate worldviews to our culture. It is a reflection on who we are, and I think about this because it seems odd to some people until you think about it. There are numerous Shakespeare museums around the world that have manuscripts of the time of Shakespeare or a little later. There is not a major museum in the world [about] the most sold book ever in history, the most debated book ever. [There’s been] more debate about the Bible than all books put together. It’s the most banned book in the history of the world. It’s the one book that has been burnt over and over and over. Cultures all over the world are trying to get rid of it. There have been wars over Bible interpretations. There have been miracles done because of the Bible. We have almost everything that we know around us. … Compassionate ministry is based upon the Bible. Education systems globally, governments globally, crime issues. How do you solve crime? Go back to the Bible. It was odd for us to think about it and say, “There’s no place in the world that really is honoring the Bible on the same level that we honor our neighbor,” which is the National Air and Space Museum. We thought it was really odd, and so we said, “Let’s do something about that,” and we did.
How far does the museum go to make an apologetic’s case for the authority and the reliability of Scripture? We are not an apologetic ministry, and we are nonsectarian. That word bothers a lot of people. They don’t really understand what it means. It means that we’re not going down any denominational roads. Isaiah 55:10-11 says, “For as rain and snow comes not from heaven, but it will bring seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my Word be that go forth out from my mouth, it shall prosper into where I send it, and it will accomplish that which I please.” We read that and say, the Bible is powerful. It stands on its own two feet. There are apologetic ministries that go deep into it. There are denominational ministries that take it into various denominations, and even faith traditions that take it into various faiths. We’re representing 13, but the Bible itself—be it the Hebrew text, the Hebrew and Greek text, the Greek text by itself—is strong enough to stand on its own two feet.
The Green family, which owns Hobby Lobby, is funding the Museum of the Bible. They’re only funding the initial start of it. You cannot launch this size project without having a very large lead gift, and that’s what they’ve done, but they have a cap. They said, “This is what we’ll do,” and we know what that cap is, which means that we’ve got to have a whole lot more people come in to finish it. They really want that to be known, that it’s not their project. They simply provided a very nice lead gift, or we couldn’t have done it.
A lot of times when families or organizations like yours raise their heads up and try to take a stand for the Bible or Christian ideas, a lot of people start aiming for the head. I know other museums, even the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial or the National World War II Memorial had to deal with political controversy. What about you all? We get shot at daily in national media. Name one, they’ve taken a shot at us over five years. … We hired the best attorneys in Washington, and we thought we would be in for a war. I gave a speech in Washington at the Mellon Center to about 500 people. In that was a crowd of city administrators, because it’s a federal government relationship with the city, and I said that Washington, D.C., has been the single most cooperative city we have ever gone into, which it is. You could say that’s God going before us. Probably so.
What we’re finding with our attorneys that have been present at all of the approval processes that we’ve had, one in particular, they said, “This committee will be your hardest committee to get an approval, and if you don’t get an approval you could protest it and it will delay the project another year.” And, “The one person,” they said, “you’ve got to watch, that’s the person that’s really going to lead the charge against you.” This lady got up, she was the first speaker from the council, and she said, “I want everybody to know, this is probably the best project that has ever come into our neighborhood in Washington, D.C., and it’s probably the most important.”
I turned around to look at seven attorneys that we’re paying $650 an hour, like, “Why are you here?” That’s what’s happened. It’s very hard for people to even believe it. We’ve had zero opposition. Zero. When I mean zero, I mean zero, in Washington, D.C. … Every single permit that we’ve needed has come in exactly on time. No delays, which is remarkable. Even our attorneys said, “Look, a secular project, they can’t get through this as far.” In fact, one of our attorneys, who is Catholic, and she’s very, very, very bright, she said, I’ve even started going to mass daily because I know that that cannot be done, but God was involved in it.
The project is a billion-dollar project. Half of that money goes to build the museum, the other half goes to outside projects. We were the first of anything ever to go into Cuba after 60 years. Not a car show, art show—it didn’t matter. Nothing from the U.S. for over 60 years, and our exhibit in Havana, which was in 2012, was the first time ever, and it changed Cuba. We have a lot of reports now of what’s happened because of that exhibit. We’re in Ulm, Germany, right now, and in Ulm, the exhibit there is dealing with the Jewish role within the Reformation. That’s a little controversial topic, but we said it was real, let’s take it on. We took the exhibit into Jerusalem and said here are the Jewish roots of Christianity. A gigantic success. A huge success. Both Jews and Muslims wanted to know the answer to that.
We have a second exhibit in Santiago, Cuba, today. We did one in Buenos Aires, and now we’re looking at one that will travel Asia into some very difficult countries in Asia. We’re saying, “You know what? If God is in the midst of this and He wants us to take His Word through these exhibits out to very difficult parts of the world, then He’s going to open up those doors and He’ll protect it.” And that’s what we do. Is it edgy? Is it risky? Yes. But we also know that God is blessing every single one of those. Every time we do something that’s on the edge—taking curriculum into Israel, into Muslim countries, which we’re doing right now—He blesses it. We use it as a cliché all the time. “If you do things that will bless Me, I will bless you.” Hey, folks, do you know what? He really does. It’s not a cliché with Him. He really does that.
Listen to Warren Smith’s complete conversation with Cary Summers on Listening In.