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I just returned from a week in Asheville, North Carolina, where a lot of the talk is about HB2, the new LGBT-related law that allows businesses and others to disallow transgendered persons and others from using certain public facilities or receiving other services. Most of the folks we heard from are unhappy with the law, not least because it made Bruce Springsteen cancel a concert in North Carolina. A number of other authors and artists have also cancelled scheduled appearances.
But that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about that other story from the South and that is Tennessee and its recent announcement that the Legislature has sent the governor a bill to make The Bible the Official State Book. I have not watched much TV the last week but I am sure pundits and comedians have been all over this. After all, the Bible’s becoming an official state symbol would mean it would join the raccoon as the Official State Wild Animal, the Tennessee Cave Salamander as the Official State Amphibian, the Small Mouth Bass as the Official State Sport Fish, and the Eastern Box Turtle as the Official State Reptile. There are also Official State trees, flowers, fruit, rocks, minerals and insects and you can see them all here if you are having a slow day.
Hence the Bible would join a curious company of creatures if it became a State Book. (I am not even sure if any state has an official book but if you’re going to blaze a new trail, Holy Scripture is perhaps a good place to start.) Part of me wants to point out that although it may seem odd to see the Bible nestled in next to the honeybee, the firefly, and the mineral agate, it might make some sense. The Bible after all declares that God is the Creator of every one of those things as well as of the State Rock of limestone and the State Fruit of the tomato. So it makes some sense. The Bible declares God to be the Creator of all things and so it can join that company of creatures who exist thanks to the endlessly creative imagination of our God in Christ.
But I have a feeling that a robust theology of creation is not behind the bill that was sent to the governor. Some legislators who voted in favor of the bill said that the Bible is first of all “a history book” albeit not a history book to stay on the shelf. The Bible has created a great historical and cultural impact on Tennessee, others were quoted to say, and so deserves to be the State Book. Doubtless the latter is true. Arguably the Bible has had a profound impact on the history and culture of the entire world. Those of us who are Christians believe the entirety of the Old and New Testaments are the very Word of God and so we cannot imagine a more important book now or ever. Scripture is a living Word of God and so is not finally even just a “book” in any ordinary sense of that term.
But perhaps that’s just it: the Bible is finally a living Word from the Living God. It is a proclamation of Good News, of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. However, that message of hope and joy gets muted every time the Bible gets turned into a political football much less–as I fear deep down is the real reason behind the Tennessee legislation–when the Bible gets turned into a club with which to beat religious opponents over the head. With the Bible as THEE State Book, it would be hard to imagine living in Tennessee and expecting to garner respect from anyone if what you want to talk about is what is proclaimed in the Koran or in only the Hebrew Scriptures or in what can be learned in the Bhagavad Gita. Away with the dribble in those other religious books: we’ve made the Bible the Book of the State and all else falls away before that. The Bible as such would not start conversations–it would end them.
True, you cannot quite imagine this happening to people who prefer squirrels to raccoons (I am sure squirrel lovers would be tolerated just fine). You can’t really see conversations taking place debating the Official State Drink of milk versus those who prefer apple cider. But that’s probably because before last week and this flap about the Bible, few people in Tennessee had a clue about the raccoon’s status, milk’s status or about Tennessee River Pearls as the Official State Gem or the Pterotrigonia as the State Fossil. (Reader, quick now: name your own State Tree. Probably can’t do it, can you?) But if the Bible becomes the State Book, it will be widely known and talked about for all the obvious reasons. And very few of those reasons will be a joyful proclamation of Good News.
God loves salamanders and fireflies and the Bobwhite Quail (State Game Bird). He made all those official state wonders. But his Word exists to preach Good News, not to score political and cultural points over people who don’t share your faith. So talk about the Bible, share its beauty and truth, and live in ways that display the Grace that is at Scripture’s core. Just don’t use it as a point of pride in ways calculated to shame and cow others. The Author might not much care for that at all.