Why Tennessee making the Bible its official book is a waste of time


I've been fortunate enough to visit a couple of synagogues, both here in the UK and in Israel/Palestine. Although it's hard to follow the bits of the Shabbat service which are in Hebrew, there is one obvious highlight of the liturgy which doesn't need an explanation.

When the Torah scrolls are removed from the Ark, it's a moment of great reverence. The love and devotion that the rabbi and people have for the Scriptures is shown – some will touch it with the edge of their prayer shawl and kiss it.

Similarly, Muslims have a great deal of respect for the Koran. There are formal ablutions to be carried out before reading it and the book is not to be kept on the floor.

While some Christian traditions have maintained a similar level of respect for the Bible (in some churches it will be processed through the church before the Gospel reading and kissed by the priest after it is read) many denominations have no specific way to handle it.

This speaks of a key difference between Christianity and the other two monotheistic faiths. While many Jews and Muslims reverence their Scriptures as the highest revelation of God available to them, Christians ascribe that position to Jesus. So, even Christians with a very high doctrine of Scripture would say that Jesus should be the primary object of our reverence.

I thought of my Jewish and Muslim friends this week when a vote took place in Tennessee over whether to make the Bible the 'official state book'. To someone looking in from the outside, this is a curious debate. Tennessee, the buckle of the Bible Belt, is not a place where the Bible is in short supply. Unlike North Korea, Pakistan, Eritrea and many other parts of the world, possessing a Bible in Tennessee won't get you into any trouble. Indeed, there are thousands of churches across Tennessee where you could go and discuss the Bible with Christian sisters and brothers.

What, then, was the logic behind this bid to give the Bible special status? Republican Senator Kerry Roberts, one of the bill's supporters, told the Tennesseean: "This book has done more to bring us to where we are today than any other book in the history of mankind."

He's right of course. The history of the world would look very different without the Bible. It's been the basis of the moral code of Europe and North America for hundreds (indeed thousands) of years.

Here's the thing, though. The Bible had that influence without being the official state book of Tennessee, or anywhere else. The Bible was wrestled with by apostles, theologians, church fathers and the rest for generation upon generation – well over 1,500 years before Tennessee was admitted to the Union in 1796.

The Canon – the books that make up the Bible – were debated among the early Church. The Bible was at the heart of the disagreements which led to the Reformation, with Roman Catholics and Protestants arguing over which books comprised the Bible, and more importantly, who had the authority to interpret and teach it.

The Bible has been at the forefront of shaping cultural and literary life in the English-speaking world and beyond. More than that, it has had "immense influence on... politics: from its role in the formation of national identity and in setting limits on kingship in Anglo-Saxon times, through its impact on ideas of tolerance, democracy and equality" and much more besides.

Unsplash / Alejandro Escamilla

Under communism, Bibles were smuggled through the Iron Curtain – a practice which continues today in places where Christians are persecuted. It remains the worlds biggest-selling book.

In other words, the Bible is doing just fine. It doesn't need to become the official book of Tennessee to preserve its status. The Bible doesn't need us to stick up for it. As CH Spurgeon once said: "Defend the Bible? I'd sooner defend a lion!"

There may of course be other motives to the bill in Tennessee. Maybe it's a bid to try and prove the superiority of Christianity over Islam? Maybe it's yet another depressing salvo in the interminable culture wars? Maybe legislators in Tennessee simply don't have enough to do and needed a distraction...

Whatever the reason, let's not worry. The Bible can look after itself without being the official book of Tennessee or anywhere else. It will carry on being read, sung, wrestled with, preached, discussed, debated and absorbed well into the future. The Bible has lasted for generations and will last for generations to come – inspiring, challenging equipping, provoking and helping disciples of Jesus, in Tennessee and around the world.