April 23, 2019
Antonin Artaud, the French doomsayer, poet, actor, and director, likely coined the term “virtual reality.” A play, Artaud wrote in 1932, was never meant to be a copy of everyday life. Realism was sweetened, soft; theater, when real, burned. If it was at all like life, it was like life in its rawest form, its twin, and maybe evil. Theater, Artaud felt, should sink you, hard, into a more original reality, one that forever existed just underground, and which was populated not by familiar faces and digestible psychologies (“Personal problems make me sick”), but by ancient archetypes and First Principles, whose shiny fucked-up heads would surface for a second only to slide back down into the darkness—like dolphins.1
The Museum of the Bible opened in D.C. in November 2017. It’s the baby of the Greens—the evangelical purebloods that own Hobby Lobby, the crafts chain, which is not a church, but which in 2014 convinced the Supreme Court in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that the company’s “sincerely held religious beliefs” gave it the right to deprive its female employees access to the pill—and it’s a beast.
A former refrigeration warehouse built in 1922, the Museum is tall, and squat, and internally sprawling, a kind of Protestant palace, with square rooms inside of Ensure-tinted halls inside of square rooms, and a central staircase wrapped around a six-story shaft of light. The rooms all feel half-done, McMansion style, and the light goes everywhere.
It’s kin to Kentucky’s Ark Encounter and the Holy Land Experience in Orlando, but the Museum is more the cousin who went to school in New England. It cost the Greens $500 million, give or take, and the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument are down the block. It had been meant for Dallas, but a number of business theologians, many of whom belong to a movement called Movement Day—which aims to “influence Christian […] marketplace leaders to catalyze millions of new leaders into strategic global cities”—successfully lobbied for the Museum to be moved to Washington.
Once in D.C., the Museum underwent a series of softenings. The Greens had wanted to model the entire thing after Versailles. And when that was nixed, they had wanted it to be a Bible-sized ark, like the Ark Encounter. But SmithGroup, the Museum’s architects, who had also been designing a now-abandoned LGBT museum in D.C. at the time, ground out a brick box with a glass hat.
After that the family bought lots of academics. They learned the word “ecumenical,” and they scored Pope Francis’s thumbs-up. Guests, I read, had been envisioned exiting the Museum singing “Amazing Grace,” as in, all day, but leadership settled for “Amazing Grace: The Broadway Musical” (“a […] saga that captures the spirit of history’s sweetest and most powerful sound: freedom”), which currently has a six-month run on the World Stage Theater.
The Museum changed missions, too. The IRS Form 990-EZ that the Museum of the Bible Inc. had submitted in 2010—in order to establish itself as tax-exempt—had been gloriously unsorry: “The Museum,” the form boasted, “aims to bring to life the Living Word of God […] and to inspire confidence in the absolute authority and reliability of the Bible.” But the Museum, the Greens now insist, has always existed “to offer all people […] an immersive and personalized engagement with the Bible, and its ongoing impact on the world around us.”
It was awful, Anaïs Nin said after seeing Artaud talk at the Sorbonne in 1933. He lit your guts on fire.
“We are not free,” Artaud wrote that same year. “And the sky can still fall on our heads. And the theater was created first of all in order to teach us that.” The vicarious did nothing. Theater became virtual when visceral, literally; if anything, it should be too real. Artaud wanted to administer theater intravenously. He wanted to stage presence uncut, which wasn’t far from what philosophers of VR such as T.B. Sheridan, Michael Heim, Jonathan Steuer, Michael Lombard, and Theresa Ditton would later dub “telepresence” (or “presence,” sometimes, for short). It wasn’t far, either, from what some Christians had long called Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist. But for Artaud his and yours were the bodies at stake.
A play, priestless, bursting with priests, should practice fire and brimstone.
More people, it turned out, annually go to museums than to sporting events or theme parks combined.2 But in its first months, the Museum publicly worried that black communities weren’t feeling totally embraced enough (“There has been a history of actions that could be perceived […] as favoring a white Protestant audience,” the director of curation, Seth Pollinger, who has a PhD, gurgled), so they commissioned a special exhibit on the Slave Bible in the basement.
“Go,” said Jesse Jackson.
The thing about a wolf in sheep’s clothing that’s so unnerving is how everybody knows that it’s a wolf. Artaud, who had been all but born unnerved, was convinced that faces were faker than masks, because faces rarely scared the shit out of you. Corporation, church, life, theater, scenery, sky, friend, enemy: one never knew which was which; one could always become the other; one was forever hounded.
Chicken Little was even more hysterical—Men of Reason likely felt—than the Boy Who Cried Wolf. The Boy only ever claimed that his world was about to end, but the Chicken screamed apocalypse. The sky was falling, and Artaud agreed. Also, the waters were rising. “The spectator is in the middle,” Artaud wrote of a production he would never stage, “and the spectacle surrounds him.” The space that Artaud envisioned would be crammed with cries, screams, and hardly human noises (“instruments made from new alloys of metals […] will shatter ears”), and thundering with hieroglyphs, and it wouldn’t stop, it couldn’t, until it had spread all over, and gone too far—safe words went out the window.
The spectator would be kept “in a constant bath of lights, images, movements, and sounds,” Artaud added, and crushed. Virtual reality turned, in other words, like it turns, still, on immersion.
Last December I took a Bolt Bus down to D.C. to visit the Museum. The façade is a sort of diet Baroque. Flanking the entrance of the Museum are two three-story brass reproductions of the Gutenberg blocks set with the first Latin lines of Genesis. And wedged between the blocks is “a glass impression of an ancient papyrus”—the Bodmer Papyri, a fragment of which the Greens own— “illuminated by varying light intensities and distributions to reveal multiple translations of the text,” according to SmithGroup, whose syntax really is a solid homage to their architecture.
I passed through a row of metal detectors manned by guards with dogs, and then I was in the Great Hall.
Inside everything is even more illuminated. Black and white trapezoidal tiles spill in every direction (the higher up you go, the fewer black tiles there are). Twelve pillars—for the twelve tribes of Israel—line the arcade. Staff beam. And when you look up, and you will, an “150-foot horizontal LED display bathes the lobby in changing imagery” (SmithGroup again), churning through psychedelic snippets of clouds, skies, trees, Jesus, God, Great Men, Bibles, stained glass, I want to say dinosaurs, and the Museum itself, including images of the LED display at that very moment, all of “which is meant to “creat[e] a dynamic experience before ever entering the Museum’s exhibits,” although I’m not sure for whom.
Immersion is a hard word to hear.
In the Christian West, the word has two first uses: alchemy—“the reduction of a metal in some solvent,” says the OED—which Artaud plays on. And baptism.
In English, “baptism” comes from the Latin baptīzāre, which comes from the Greek βᾰπτῐ́ζω, baptízō: “to immerse,” “to drench,” “to sink” (like a ship).
Only a few denominations today still perform immersion baptism, in which the person to be saved is dunked entirely in a baptistry, or a swimming pool, or the ocean itself. But deep into the Middle Ages, before the offshoots of aspersion (sprinkling) and affusion (pouring), immersion had been the norm. The old you was drowned. Before baptism was “reduced from a real wetting to a sprinkling and eventually to a mere moistening with as little water as possible” (to cite a furious Karl Barth, a Swiss theologian who, like Artaud, loved the living vortex engulfing darkness), it had “the character of a direct threat to life.”
A kind of loving waterboarding.
In VR philosophy, immersion—total immersion, although this is a little redundant, since immersion really only works when total—means the media at work is rendered invisible. The stage is gone, the computer is gone, the frontiers between here and there—between you and me, between the Bible and you—are gone. “All that’s there is you,”3 gloats Jaron Lanier, VR’s self-dubbed father. Marie-Laure Ryan, a Swiss literary scholar, describes VR as humanity’s first realization of the “language of the angels,” a terms she credits to the eighteenth-century Swedish mystical scientist Emanuel Swedenborg (although humans have been trying to think like angels since angels started): at last, Ryan writes, your mind can directly communicate with the world around it without any need for signs or words at all.4
Every angel was supposed to be terrifying.
And after the immersion, immersion. Blonde boys walked on projected water. A man projected onto a pillar recited Galatians 3:28 in Nahuatl. In Washington Revelations, an attraction, I flew through D.C. on a tour of the Bible’s hidden presence throughout the city (“you will feel complete immersion in the experience”), slicing through cracks in monuments as little farts of air were shot into my face—a boy screamed next to me, then vomited.
You’re solicited everywhere. The Slave Bible room is plastered with blank sheets tacked to the wall asking you what you think, and in the Bible Now the Joshua Machine—a sparkling booth springing up in the middle of the room—urges you to step in and record your Personal Experience of the Bible for your children and children’s children.
People watch you live from outside the machine. When you exit, you’re prompted to type the first word that comes to mind when you think of the Bible (“amazing” “good”), and as you do the word appears in a word cloud composed of all the words that came before yours. It’s colorful, and ripples, and grows. A screen shows a drone’s-eye view of Jerusalem, now, and Chillwave trickles from the ceiling as a live feed of global data (tweets mentioning the Bible, mainly) surrounds you.
“The idea that I can influence you is nuts,” said the Museum’s president, Cary Summers. “It’s up to you.” SmithGroup, taking its cue, says that its design was inspired by Choose-Your-Own-Adventure scenarios. But there’s nowhere to go but up, where the tiles are all white, and you can eat “Israeli” street food while looking down at the Capitol.
Before lunch I took a twenty-dollar tour. The teenage guide deadpanned. Then something happened on the top floor.
“Steve,” said the guide.
“Everybody—hey—if you’ve always wanted to know what a billionaire looks like, turn around, slowly—now.”
The Greens, I’m told, own more Torahs than anybody on Earth. Before a scholar-consigliere intervened, they had been letting visitors smell them. “We felt people should get a sense of touching [and] feeling,” Steve Green said. “One of the goals of the Museum is to bring people into closer contact with the Bible.” A year later a number of Hobby Lobby’s manuscripts, some of which had previously surfaced on eBay, turned out to be fakes. And, then, in 2017, the United States Attorney sued the company for stealing $1.6 million worth of cuneiform tables and clay bullae from Iraq. “The acquisition of the Artifacts was fraught with red flags,” read the complaint.
“We’re new to this,” Steve Green said in a statement, sheepish, and his family returned the booty.
Steve is the Museum’s face. In the wings, David, Steve’s dad, gobbles up relics and thunders about with his truth: “I believe once someone knows Christ as their personal savior, I’ve affected eternity,” he tells everybody. “I matter 10 billion years from now.” Steve is smoother. “I just want to let the facts speak for themselves,” he repeatedly tells Candida R. Moss and Joel S. Baden in their 2017 book, Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby, which lobs criticisms at the Greens like somebody lightly negging their crush. (Suggesting that the Museum is “subtly Protestant” is a little like wondering if maybe the Freedom Tower is phallic.)
Steve regales on: “…from day one it was always a nonsectarian museum”; “We can’t really cross the line of faith—we don’t want to”; “I can’t bring in my Protestant tradition”; “Man has misused the book, but the book is rock solid. That’s what nonsectarian is.”
The sweet nothings stick, hard. Words of protest get sucked into the torrent of facts speaking for themselves; enemies are kneecapped by open arms. The Museum is so … neutral. Still—it’s unreal. Moss and Baden, scholars, either crushing, or scared, or both, take the Greens at their word. The Greens, they write, perfectly echoing the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision, are People of Faith, “a sincere and well-intentioned family doing its best to improve the world in a manner consistent with their religious beliefs and cultural instinct.” As if a wolf with its heart in the right place wouldn’t eat their baby.
The Greens—minus the father—swear they’re not aiming at souls. Artaud was. Immersion was a grounding metaphor for him, too, but because he lived in a premodern world of humors and elements, the metaphor retained some of its teeth. Artaud really was going to restore your life to you by enacting a drowning.
“Let us be immersed in our own bodies,” Artaud wrote in 1925 to Pope Pius XI, seriously. But if theater was liturgical, it was even closer to alchemy. There was a difference here, too, though. In theater, the object wasn’t lead—it was our crap bodies, which were the prisoners of our stupid souls. (“THE REAL ORGANIC AND PHYSICAL TRANSFORMATION OF THE HUMAN BODY,” Artaud writhed.) Artaud, who had been ravaged by electroconvulsive therapy, wanted to jolt you back into being.
And the scene was biblical, if Christian. Cinematic, but less cozy. It was like the end of The Truman Show—evil sunshine, nasty blue skies—but more populated. “The spirit of the crowds, the breath of the event”—not God’s, not Ed Harris’s—“will move in material waves over the spectacle […], and the emaciated, rebellious, and desperate consciousnesses of a few lost souls will float on the face of the waters, like feathers,” Artaud wrote of his dream production.
You weren’t alone. Artaud’s insane dolphins leapt in and out of the first lines of Genesis (“[…] and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters”), and they made figure eights around you as you slapped, bobbed, gagged, and merged with the spectacle, purified.
One could feel, smell, the person next to them. The scene was a mess, anonymous, sticky, the special room in the basement of a dance club. This is where people came to life—in other people’s seeing hands.
I’m in Billy Graham’s childhood living room. A framed poster on the wall for a 1955 movie called The Mighty Fortress features Billy Graham as an adult: “AN EXPERIENCE THAT WILL LIVE IN YOUR HEART AND MIND FOREVER,” it says.
Graham, who wanted to save you, too, sold a personalized experience of God. But whatever is happening in the Museum of the Bible isn’t that, exactly. The Museum sells immersion not in the Son, nor in the Father, nor in the Holy Spirit, nor in the Word, but in the Book. It makes you one with the Bible.
The “Bible,” here, Now, is not bound by matter. Babe Ruth’s Bible neighbors the Codex Climaci Rescriptus because both incarnate the same fact: the Bible is at all times, everywhere, and it advances in an endless present tense (“[…] and its ongoing impact on the world around us”), and it is awesome. “History” means piling relics skyward to prove it.
Meanwhile, the minions sing Apocalypse.
“The Army of the Heavens marches into Washington D.C., and [it will march] out of Washington D.C.,” proclaimed a woman who headlined a conference on the Museum’s top floor in its first months, and whose LinkedIn profile identifies her as a prophet. “The Museum is God’s base camp.” And the Museum’s glass hat—it does look like an ark, from an angle. Svelter than the one in Kentucky, but a boat. A ship. Expensive, from the future. The sea rose up once more, and threw a dolphin on that self-same spot. Dead, red, and open. We scream.
- Antonin Artaud, “Le Théâtre Alchimique” in Le théâtre et son double, Paris: Gallimard, 1938. The essay was first published in Spanish translation (“El Teatro Alquimico”) in 1932 in Buenos Aires in the magazine Sur.
- According to the American Alliance of Museums, which wouldn’t lie. “Museum Facts and Data” [https://www.aam-us.org/programs/about-museums/museum-facts-data]. Last accessed April 6 2019.
- Jaron Lanier and Frank Biocca, “An Insider’s View of the Future of Virtual Reality.” Journal of Communications 42, no. 4 (1992), 150-72.
- Marie-Laure Ryan, Narrative as Virtual Reality 2: Revisiting Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media, vol. 2. Baltimore, Maryland: JHU Press, 2015, 44-45.