Beliefs Culture

Exhibit showcases Indiana Jones’ quest for the sacred

The Ark of the Covenant from 'Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark' is on display at the National Geographic Museum in Washinton, D.C. Photo courtesy of the National Geographic Museum
The Indiana Jones exhibit on display at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of the National Geographic Museum

The Indiana Jones exhibit on display at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of the National Geographic Museum

WASHINGTON (RNS) The exhibit “Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology,” at the National Geographic Museum until Jan. 3, features 100 carefully crafted film props alongside real archaeological finds.

There’s the golden Ark of the Covenant from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” — the model for the container that housed the Ten Commandments, complete with two winged cherubs as described in the Old Testament.

There’s the cup representing the Holy Grail from “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”

And there are the oblong, translucent Sankara stones from “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” an imagined artifact based on symbols of the god Shiva.

What is it about Indiana Jones and, more broadly, the quest for religious relics that captures people’s imaginations?

The Ark of the Covenant from 'Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark' is on display at the National Geographic Museum in Washinton, D.C. Photo courtesy of the National Geographic Museum

The Ark of the Covenant from “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark” is on display at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of the National Geographic Museum

Exhibit curator Fredrik Hiebert said his archaeology students loved the movies when he used to teach at the University of Pennsylvania. So when George Lucas, creator of the film franchise,  reached out to National Geographic about an exhibit, Hiebert “took 20 seconds to say yes” to the proposal.

“I like the fact that George Lucas can entertain, make you laugh and make you think deeply about God, the afterlife and the past at the same time,” said Heibert.


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And that’s precisely the appeal of Indiana Jones, according to Peter Manseau, who holds a doctorate in religion from Georgetown University.

“It’s not simply archaeology but the archaeology of the sacred, the idea that once upon a time humans had this immediate capacity to connect with something sacred,” said Manseau, who writes about Jones’ connection to sacred objects in an upcoming issue of the magazine CrossCurrents.

Sacred artifacts also excite people because they lend legitimacy to religious stories, Manseau noted. As much as religion is a matter of faith, he said, these archaeological adventures are at some level quests for proof because sacred artifacts make religion “physical in a way that’s hard to ignore.”

In his own work, Manseau has often gone to see relics, particularly remains of saints, in the process of writing his book “Rag and Bone.” He recalled the impact of seeing the finger of John the Baptist in Florence, Italy, presented artfully in a glass and gold case.

“It was clearly a human finger, a real human life, and that gives stories associated with it all the more power,” he said. “These objects have been the receptacles of devotion for centuries and that also gives them their own significance.”

The Holy Grail from 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade' is on exhibit at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of the National Geographic Museum

The Holy Grail from “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” is on exhibit at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of the National Geographic Museum

The Indiana Jones films themselves, meanwhile, authenticate religious stories in a way that’s unusual for Hollywood, Manseau said.  For example, in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” when the Ark of the Covenant is opened, rays of fire strike Jones’ rivals, confirming the ark’s supernatural powers.


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But the films also critique certain religious ideas, Manseau said. In “The Last Crusade,” Jones finds that the Holy Grail is a simple unadorned cup from which Jesus may have drunk during the Last Supper or perhaps the Crucifixion, as opposed to a bejeweled gold goblet. This is arguably an understated endorsement of a simpler, non-ostentatious Christianity.

Today, Manseau sees a connection between Jones’ archaeology of the sacred and his own profession as a religion writer.

People’s overwhelming curiosity about quests for religious artifacts may not be unlike the search for religion stories. “You’re digging into people’s lives,” he said. “You’re digging into their experiences, looking for the most sacred moments to them.”

Meanwhile, the real-life quest for religious artifacts is ongoing. National Geographic is currently studying the oldest temple in the world, Gobekli Tepe in Turkey, Hiebert said.

“It gives me goosebumps,” he said. “I’m thinking this could be the next location for an Indiana Jones film.”

YS/MG END WEISSMAN

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Sara Weissman

14 Comments

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  • Good for you to require teaching of the whole bible. So that would have include all the animal sacrifice prerequisites in Leviticus. Great stuff! Go catch that calf and get the bonfire started…

  • Rionni you bad sinner you said the WHOLE bible and so it must be done. Grab that calf and put it on the fire now or god will whup your backside bigtime. Go do it quick you sinner. Repenting a million times won’t save you if you keep flouting god’s written orders.

  • Sam-Again the whole Bible needs to be taught but some Scripture was for
    a certain people and a certain time plus the part you mentioned no longer
    applies for today so get some context for what you are talking about.

  • Well, Karla, we are told over and over again that God’s word never changes, except of course when it does. How do we distinguish which Commandments were made for a particular time and a particular people, and those which are universal, always, and forever.

    The Levitical Commandments are A perfect example of this. Some Christians pretend that only the moral laws apply, except when you point out that the moral laws are very inconvenient for them. In which case, they no longer apply, anymore than the prohibitions against eating pig apply. homosexuality us toevah, eating pig is toevah, but we really want to eat that bacon lettuce and tomato sandwich, so we ignore the part about eating pig. Likewise, we ignore the part about slaying all the unbelievers, or stoning or daughters if they’re not virgin, or any of the rest of the things we ignore.

    Excuse me, any of the rest of the things that so-called Christians ignore.

  • Ben, the Jews of the Old Covenant were very earthy people, and were taught in very earthy ways by our Lord. The Epistle of Barnabas covers much of the underlying meanings of the Jewish dietary laws, the allegorical sense of those laws. As for the slaughtering and sacrifices, when the Jews were in slavery to the Egyptians, they began to worship bulls and calves, so God made them sacrifice those to him instead. In the New Testament we are more spiritual, and instead of offering animal sacrifices, we offer all of our work, joys, prayers, sufferings, and sorrows of each day to the Lord as a gift, offering our very selves in total Love. That is what it means to be a Christian. And of course we stay between the lines, keeping to the moral directives of the Lord Jesus, and when we fail, we ask forgiveness, and try anew. That is how we live both a happy life, as well as a happy eternity. We don’t try to tell God how it needs to be, but follow His Wisdom.

  • ” when the Jews were in slavery to the Egyptians, they began to worship bulls and calves, so God made them sacrifice those to him instead”

    Which isn’t in the Bible at all. You are confusing animal sacrifice which was done for the one God of the Hebrews with the Golden Calf of the Exodus which was a sign of slipping into polytheism.

    The excuses Christians use to rebut the issue of “cafeteria-style Old Testament” are always pretty dodgy. They use the Old Testament and claim its entirety as law when they want to sound tough to others and disavow it when it is applied to themselves.

    Hypocrisy is not an aberration of Christianity, it is an integral feature
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rolltodisbelieve/2015/07/16/hypocrisy-a-feature-not-a-bug/

  • Greg,
    the Epistle of Barnabas is interesting and was probably written around the time that several canonical books were being written as well, but it’s not part of the canonical New Testament. It does indeed make pretty much the arguments you cite here. This brief description (http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/barnabas.html) does a nice job situating it and provides tons of links for anyone interested in reading more.

  • As I said, Greg. when you want that bacon sandwich, or that divorce, god’s eternal laws no longer apply. Thanks for explaining it all more clearly than this poor atheist could.

  • I remain amazed at how much time and effort trolls put in trying to debunk religion on a religion news website. One wonders what the advantage is beyond some temporary, fleeting sense of moral superiority. If I were convinced that religion has no value, I certainly wouldn’t waste my time and pixels trying to sway believers to my perspective. So why don’t you trolls just go back under your bridges?

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