Sorry, Tennessee, but making the Bible your state book is probably a bad idea

Today, the Tennessee Senate approved House Bill 0615, which designates the Bible as its state book. I think that’s a well-intentioned mistake.

While the Bible speaks to every person in Tennessee and to all the world and while the Bible is considered the unique words of God by many in Tennessee (and the rest of the world), tying the Bible to those who ignore or reject it trivializes it.

As the state book, it stands beside Tennessee’s state beverage (milk), bird (mockingbird), fruit (tomato), rock (limestone), dance (square dance), and nine state songs. Putting it alongside the sappy sentimentality of “Rocky Top” makes me squirm. (My apologies to Volunteers everywhere.)

The effort smacks of an attempt to make the Bible relevant to a culture that is more and more dismissive of it. But the trivializing of it only makes it that much more irrelevant.

Appeals to the historical role of the Bible in Tennessee’s past fall flat when the misuse of the Bible to prop up slavery in the state’s past is also considered. That’s the problem with any appeal to history. There’s always some sort of sullying downside, because our histories are so filled with tragedy and mixed motives.

Rather than looking to a secular state in a secular nation to honor the Bible and listen to its Voice, who should be doing that? You got it! The Church.

And that’s the real problem. Too few of us who claim to follow the way of Jesus actually read the Bible that tells us of Jesus. Too few of us who worship the God of the Bible honor the Scriptures and listen to it as the Voice of God to us.

The Bible is the Word of God to the people of God. Anyone else is free to listen in, and those who do may actually hear God speak to them through its printed pages. The truth it speaks is for all people. But it is primarily for the people of God, not to a general audience.

There is a reason why Colossians (as an example) begins with: “To God’s holy people in Colossae, the faithful brothers and sisters in Christ: Grace and peace to you from God our Father” (Col. 1:2). It’s written to a bunch of Christians, whose God is “our” Father. This is inside language. Even though much of what follows in Paul’s letter can be extended more generally, this is “our” letter. And the same is true with every other book in the Bible.

So, yes, let’s honor and listen to and learn from and obey the Scriptures. But let’s start by elevating the role of the Bible among those who ought to love it, rather than foisting it on the people of Tennessee, many of whom are rolling their eyes right now.

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