Is a state Bible a shallow Bible?

April 17th, 2015

In the state of Tennessee this week, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would make the Bible our state book. Although it was subsequently defeated by the state Senate, our state representatives spent several hours debating the passage of this bill. The topics of discussion ranged from the constitutionality of the bill to whether it denigrated the Bible to make it the state book, in the same category with the iris as the state flower and the mockingbird as the state bird.

Unfortunately, in political circles, the Bible has become shorthand for certain conservative political and cultural values rather than the vibrant, inspired, and sacred collection of history, law, poetry, proverbs, songs, letters, and parables that Christians believe the Bible to be.

Popular and political culture have hijacked the Bible to stand as a symbol without considering what it is we are really talking about. Politicians are sworn into office on a Bible. We debate whether it is appropriate to read the Bible in public schools. Anything with the adjective “biblically-based” is meant to connote traditional family values and a certain moral code. In political and cultural debates, people proof-text from the Bible, selecting individual verses to support their position as if to say, “See? God is on MY side.”

Several representatives argued for the importance of the Bible to the history and culture of Tennessee, which raises the question of whose history and culture we are valuing. Is it the history and culture of indigenous people who first made their homes in what is now Tennessee? Is it the history and culture of enslaved people or immigrants or those who do not identify as Christian? Making the Bible the state book of Tennessee appears to be less about promoting the Bible itself and more about making a statement as to what kind of values and culture a person will find in Tennessee.

Without getting into the possible political ramifications, the first error that the bill makes is to assume that we all mean the same thing when we talk about the Bible. The bibles of different Christian denominations contain a variety of books within their biblical canon. Orthodox and Catholic bibles include books written during the intertestamental period, sometimes called apocryphal or deuterocanonical, while most Protestant bibles exclude them. The Syrian and Ethiopian Orthodox churches include additional psalms and other books. The word “bible,” comes from the Greek biblia meaning “books,” or to trace the etymology back even further, “a collection of scrolls.” As a collection of books, the biblical canon varies from denomination to denomination, hence the Bible is not a monolith.

As anyone who has spent much time with their Bible knows, it contains a multitude of genres. Reading Psalms is very different from reading Leviticus, which differs from reading Ephesians. The erotic poetry of Song of Solomon is so beautiful and moving, but that is rarely what politicians appeal to when they talk about the Bible. The Bible contains stories of child sacrifice, rape, polygamy, slavery, and war. Parts of scripture are hardly family-friendly, and yet so often in the public arena, Bible is held up as a symbol of so-called family values.

Certainly not every part of scripture is meant to be prescriptive for our lives right here and right now. Poetry, proverbs, prophecy, lamentations, and letters make up the biblical text and serve as a challenge to the efforts to make the Bible mean just one thing or support just one viewpoint.

To me, the danger of seeing the Bible as a symbol of a certain political and cultural viewpoint is that we will lose what is holy, meaningful, and sacred about the biblical text. The reality of what the Bible is and what it contains is so much richer and significant than the shallow, symbolic version that gets trotted out for political gain. After hearing random verses thrown around by people yelling at one another, will people want to read and discover for themselves how God is speaking to them through scripture? Will people be called to pray in the words of the psalms or wrestle with the parables of Jesus or enter into the immense prophetic vision of the Revelation to John? Will people fall in love with the Bible as I fell in love with this collection of beautiful, challenging texts, inspired by God and containing what is necessary for salvation? Or will we let the Bible be white-washed, becoming a representation of a certain political and cultural worldview?

Surely the Bible is too significant to us as Christians to let that happen.

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