A unique exhibition was held from March 1 to April 15 in the Vatican’s Braccio di Carlo Magno (Charlemagne wing) next to St. Peter’s Basilica. Entitled Verbum Domini, it was dedicated to telling the story of the Bible amid a mounting wave of anti-Christian secularization.
“This is the most valuable exhibition the Vatican has ever had the chance to host,” archivist and librarian Raffaele Cardinal Farina stressed during the exhibition’s inaugural evening reception, “and neither will there ever be anything comparable with this in the future.”
Verbum Domini comprised some 150 items, including rare biblical manuscripts and related materials dating as far back as the third century b.c. Remarkably, two thirds of the items on display came from the Green Collection, a massive array of biblical antiquities consisting of over 40,000 pieces. The largest private collection of its kind, it is owned by the Green family of Oklahoma City.
The items on display in Verbum Domini came from Jewish, Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant traditions, reflecting the interconfessional heritage and cooperation behind efforts to preserve and pass on God’s Word.
According to Steve Green, who, as representative of the Green family, is the Green Collection’s chief benefactor, the exhibition was inspired by Pope Benedict XVI’s apostolic exhortation Verbum Domini, which followed the 2008 Synod of Bishops on the Bible.
The official opening of the exhibition was preceded by a conference the day before, which included presentations by Steve Green; manuscripts scholar and director of the Green Collection Scott Carroll, who is also curator of the Verbum Domini exhibition; and two senior emissaries of the American Bible Society, President Lamar Vest and Mario Paredes, presidential liaison with Roman Catholic ministries. “Our job in the exhibition and through the American Bible Society,” Mr. Vest pointed out, “is to say that it is time to take the Bible off the shelves and put it into our hearts and lives.”
Public response has been tremendous. “The exhibition was attended by 45,000 people from 80 different countries during the six weeks at the Braccio di Carlo Magno,” Cary Summers, Verbum Domini’s chief operating officer, said during an April 19 dinner held at the majestic Columbus Hotel on the other side of St. Peter’s Square.
I decided to find out more about the purpose of the exhibition, and so I approached Steve Green, who graciously granted me an interview. Mr. Green is the president of Hobby Lobby, the Oklahoma City-based retailer of arts and crafts supplies, including frames, floral arrangements, and seasonal items. Each of the 469 stores in the chain (founded by Steve’s father David) is roughly 35,000 square feet, and together with its affiliates, the company employs around 18,500 Americans. The stores are closed for business on Sundays.
Could you briefly recount your adventure leading to this extraordinary Bible exhibition?
Steve Green: We started our collection in 2009 under the direction of Dr. Scott Carroll, with the long-term goal of opening a museum of significant size that would tell the story of the Bible. But knowing that our museum was going to be several years off, we wanted to get started, because the Bibles don’t do us much good sitting in a closet. So we decided to build a traveling exhibition. Upon completion, it was on display in Oklahoma City for six months. We moved it to Atlanta in November 2011. It will move from there to another location, possibly Charlotte, North Carolina, in August 2012. We then created our second exhibition, which was held here at the Vatican because of the opportunities and the connections that we have through the American Bible Society.
How did you develop this interest in the Bible, its history, and the collection?
I was raised in a Christian home, and my family has always had a love for the Bible. When we met Dr. Scott Carroll, who has expertise in biblical antiquities, we heard of his love for the Bible and his desire to create a Bible museum. We, of course, said we would help him to do that, but realized he did not have the resources and that we were going to have to be more involved in order for it to happen. So, it was through our connection with Dr. Carroll that our collection got started. We built the exhibition, and it has grown rapidly since the end of 2009 to what it is today.
How would you assess your experience of interacting with the Vatican in this regard? Are you fully happy with it? Any shortcomings, particular problems?
Our connection with Mario Paredes and the American Bible Society was what first got our relationship started, and there were a lot of hurdles to overcome—not just with the Vatican, but with the city of Rome and the requirements for hiring people, working hours, and all that. There were a lot of things that had to be worked out, such as getting items transported from America, getting our cases built here in Europe, and a lot of logistical challenges. Cary Summers was in charge of working through all that. The Vatican and everyone else here have been very pleasant to work with. There are just guidelines, rules and regulations that you have to comply with. Without the help of many people here we would not have been able to have done this, and it has been a pleasure working with them. But there has been a lot of bureaucracy that we had to work our way through.
Any plans for this experience to be repeated sometime in the foreseeable future?
There has been talk, and we would definitely be interested in doing that at some point. There had been interest in extending the exhibition, but other exhibits coming in behind us were not able to be rescheduled, so the most recent discussion has been about the idea of coming back and having it exhibited again. So we will definitely look into that.
I read in some exhibition-related reports that the point was made that it’s not enough to own a Bible, but that the word of God must be put into practice in one’s daily life. Do you share this vision?
Yes. In America almost every home has a Bible, so it’s not a matter of people owning a Bible, because most everyone does, but it’s not being read and applied. So, what we are hoping to do is to encourage people to have an appreciation for the Bible, to read it and then apply the teachings of the Scriptures to their own lives, by bringing awareness to people of this incredible book.
And how are you pursuing this aim?
Right now our main plan is going to be our museum, raising awareness through the traveling exhibition, and doing things like what we have done at the Vatican with our exhibition here. I know there are several institutions like the American Bible Society and others that are trying to figure out how to become more engaging. But our focus right now is primarily on the museum and to tell the story of the Bible, in order to generate interest and encourage people to become more involved with it.
Do you think that your Bible initiative could form a basis for all Christians to come together and perhaps unite again?
Absolutely! In one video shot for a local TV station, where I am standing talking with Cardinal Farina, you can see in the background a case that contains Torah scrolls. In that one shot you can see a representation of three different traditions: the Jewish tradition, the Protestant tradition (where I personally come from), and the Catholic tradition. So what is exciting is to be able to see these traditions come together, although we have our differences, and to share what we all agree upon, which is that this is the Word of the Lord, the Verbum Domini.
Could this common legacy also form the basis for a Christian “strategic alliance” (in the words of Metropolitan Hilarion of the Moscow patriarchate) in defense of our identity, which is being threatened by an increasingly aggressive secularism sweeping the West?
Exactly. I think that the more we can be unified, the more we can stand upon our commonalities. The more unity there is, the more people will take a look and consider this Book. When they see the different traditions coming together to say, “Here is what we agree upon,” we hope there will be more people around the world who will take notice of what this Book really is all about.
Do you agree that the fact that society is growing more hostile toward Christians by the day is the result of our Christian roots being forgotten and becoming more and more irrelevant?
As a matter of fact, another aspect of this exhibition is that it will become a powerful tool for rediscovering our Christian heritage. The more we can show how these once-forgotten items have impacted our world in so many ways—even in the sciences, literature, and the arts—the more appreciation there will be for this Book. The Vatican is a great example of that.
Are you planning to expand your collection further?
Yes. In fact, we are continuing to look and to see what artifacts might be available out there to add to our collection. We want to tell the story in a very powerful way, and the larger we can build this collection, the better we can do just that.
Any final thoughts?
Again, we are just so appreciative of the warm reception that we have had here at the Vatican, and we would love to be able to come back sometime, possibly in 2014, and share more of the story as we continue to grow and advance. It has been a wonderful experience for us, and we are very grateful.