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The Biblical Imagination and the Presence of the Saints | Righting America

by Peter Cajka

Today we feature the second in a five-part series by our colleague, Dr. Pete Cajka.  Dr. Cajka’s previous post introduced readers to his extended analysis comparing the Creation Museum and the Maria Stein Shrine of the Holy Relics. Below, Pete examines the ways both sites shape how visitors experience their faith within each space. 

II: The Biblical Imagination and the Presence of the Saints

The two sites have been created with divergent “religious imaginations.” We might say that the developers of the Creation Museum went about their task with a biblical imagination.

The biblical imagination is constructed with words, and these words police the boundaries of the imagination. The message of the Creation Museum, as the Trollingers show, is based on a selective reading of the bible, particularly the book of Genesis.  The words of the bible, as presented at the museum, clarify the past. Visitors are confronted with a stark choice in the present: obedience to the Word or a false elevation of Reason over the Word. Sin brought people to read the bible the wrong way (reason flowed from pride), and the Creation Museum exists to show people how the bible should be read. While Ken Ham and the architects of the museum tout the clarity of the bible, the Trollingers make the point that, curiously, very few bibles are made available for visitors to read.

Photo of the Maria Stein Shrine with the building being made out of red bricks and having a tall spire with a cross on top.

Front view of Maria Stein Shrine of the Holy Relics. Copyright: Maria Stein Shrine, 2017

The founders of Maria Stein, on the other hand, built a convent and reliquary with an imagination informed by “presence.” For Catholics, presence flows most abundantly from the Eucharist (the transubstantiated host), which brings the Real Presence of Christ into the world.1 Presence reifies in turn as saints and their relics place it more fully in into the mundane. A physical site built with concern for logos (even selectively so) concretizes in a different fashion than a building meant to house “Precious Blood” and relics.

If the words of the bible tell readers “what really happened” – presence does something very different. The reliquary and Victoria’s bones are “additions” to the Christian tradition, arriving in time well after the biblical story. Presence flows from words Christ spoke at the Last Supper (“take and eat, this is my body” Matthew 26:26) but it can be planted into fresh contexts by its practitioners. Indeed, presence must be brought into the world, often through rituals, and rooted in a soil. The creators of Maria Stein want to make the saints present – they are not attempting to show “what really happened.”

But the reliquary at Maria Stein still makes claims about how life should be lived on earth. The pilgrim is prodded to enter into a relationship with the communion of saints. Perhaps these visitors, like those to the Creation Museum, are confronted with a stark choice about eternity: live as a saint or risk the fires of hell! But the failure to make a choice to become a saint would not be responsible for a catastrophic, worldwide flood.

In tomorrow’s post, Dr. Cajka examines the problem of reading the artifacts, displays, and relics in the Creation Museum and the Maria Stein Shrine. 


1 On presence, see Robert Orsi, History and Presence (Harvard, 2016).