On the Road in Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University Museum and Gallery

Jim Peck is a UCC pastor and friend in California. We met when we were pastoring churches in southern Minnesota more than a decade ago. He was born in North Carolina, a pastor’s son, and grew up Southern Baptist in Atlanta. Jim also has a Master’s in urban planning from Cornell and worked in politics in the 80s in the Romer Administration in Colorado.

He also loves art. So when his sabbatical came and he was going to be traveling east and visiting his mother in Atlanta and we wanted to visit, he suggested we meet at the Bob Jones University Museum and Gallery in Greenville, SC, just 45 minutes from me.

In addition to being a main center of fundamentalist Christianity in the US—and known for racially discriminatory admissions policies until the mid-70s, for which it finally repented in 2008— BJU also has amassed a huge collection of Christian art and artifacts, begun after WWII by Bob Jones, Jr., a connoisseur of European art, on $30,000 a year authorized by the University’s Board of Directors. (See www.bjumg.org.) The Museum and Gallery now has two campuses, one at the University, and the other at Heritage Green, a museum cluster in downtown Greenville, which features interactive exhibits for children. The current feature there is on “The Art of Sleuthing,” about famous forgeries.

But back to why this excursion was interesting to me. I had two questions—one about images of God, and the other about what’s so attractive about art that supposedly promotes “false Catholic doctrine.”

Knowing that much Christian art precedes the birth of Protestantism, I knew from my one undergraduate Art History course that much of that art is Catholic and therefore viewed by fundamentalist Christians as somehow heretical.

After Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg Church door in 1517, setting off the Protestant Reformation, it wasn’t long before radicals in the movement began destroying all visual depictions of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, not to mention the Virgin Mary and the saints. The so-called Radical Reformation believed that only the written Word of God and a lived faith were a valid witness to the Divine. Even crosses were removed from churches, because supposedly, images promoted idolatry.

The collection is phenomenal, and even the docents I talked to admitted that they, too, soon reach a point where they can’t take it all in. But they have their favorite works.

One of those docents alluded to an answer to my second question, about what’s so attractive to fundamentalist Protestants about art produced by “apostate” Catholics. When Jim asked her if there were any favorites of hers not to miss on our visit, she told us of a very graphic depiction of the martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicity in the coliseum in Carthage, by Félix Louis Leullier from the 19th century.

As Jim and I were sitting in the museum’s lobby afterwards, pondering both of my questions, we agreed that part of the answer lies in heroism: BJU has always wanted to show a victorious Christian faith, with believers such as Perpetua and Felicity submitting to violent deaths while not resisting violence at the hands of their state-sanctioned executioners.

Triumph, it seems, has been a central goal of fundamentalist Christianity since BJU was founded in response to the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy in the 1920s. What remains to be seen is how that gets worked out in a world of increasingly religion-driven violence.

It was good to see Jim after such a long time, and I’m glad we met in Greenville at the Museum and Gallery. I’d highly recommend it—both for the collection, and the understanding of a part of Christianity I have little contact with.

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