by William Trollinger
In conducting our research for Righting America at the Creation Museum we were surprised to discover that the museum is rather “loose” when it comes to factual accuracy, and not just regarding matters of science. For example, despite the museum’s oft-stated pronouncement that the Bible is inerrant – factually accurate and without error – a close look at the placards reveals, among other things, a willingness to edit the biblical text in “creative” fashion, including the excising of verses without providing ellipses to let readers know that text has been removed. (Righting America 136-137)
But the most dramatic example of factual “creativity” involved not science and not the Bible, but history. In the Biblical Relevance room we found – along with a model of Gutenberg’s printing press – the iconic tableau of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses on the door of Wittenberg’s All Saints Church in 1517. Or, at least, that is what we thought the Creation Museum’s Luther was doing. But then, in our fifth or sixth visit to the museum, we looked more closely at the tableau. To quote from Righting America:
The Luther figure is not actually posting the ninety-five theses, but, instead, the following: “If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the Word of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment are attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing him . . .” While the museum credits this call to culture war to “Martin Luther, correspondence,” it turns out that the quote does not actually come from Luther, but instead from a character named Fritz in a nineteenth-century historical novel by Elizabeth Rundle Charles. (139)
This fake history was on display at the Creation Museum for almost a decade after its 2007 opening. But at some point in the past year or two the folks at the museum – to their credit – took down the fictional Luther text. Not to their credit, they have not (as far as we know) publicly acknowledged the change they made, when they made it, and why they made it.
Still, the fictional quote is gone. But the iconic Luther tableau remains. Of course, one would reasonably assume that the speech from the Elizabeth Rundle Charles novel has been replaced with an excerpt from the 95 Theses. But no. Instead, what the Creation Museum Luther is now nailing to the door is a quote from Luther’s 1521 speech at the Diet of Worms, including this excerpt:
I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me.
It is fair to ask: Given that the museum has come this far when it comes to historical accuracy, removing the “Fritz quote” and replacing it with something close to what Luther actually said, why not go all the way and post text from the 95 Theses?
Obviously, we can’t say for sure what their thinking was. What we can say, however, is that the 95 Theses did not herald a break away from the Church. Instead, what Luther posted in 1517 was a series of debating points regarding the abuse of indulgences. He was not rejecting the notion of purgatory. He was not rejecting papal authority. He was trying to reform the Roman Catholic Church from within. Now, by 1521 (when he makes his speech at the Diet of Worms) his theology did pose fundamental challenges to the Catholic Church. That said, it was by no means inevitable that the “reform-from-within” Luther of 1517 would become the Reformation Luther of 1521.
Of course, this messy, nuanced, contingent historical narrative is not the linear Reformation story on display at the Creation Museum. Instead what visitors see, even with the change in the Luther tableau, is a convenient smoothing out of that story that keeps the much simpler, linear narrative intact. And, not incidentally, the quote from Luther’s speech at the Diet of Worms is so much more dramatic than the 95 Theses, and so much more in keeping with the museum’s commitment to culture war.
So it goes with the complexities of human history and historical accuracy at the Creation Museum.