Here in the Buckle of the Bible Belt our Tennessee Legislature seems destined to drive us nigh unto insanity.
In the name of transparency, I voice three things: One, I've spent more time with the Bible open before me than any other book. I would not be who I am today, whether for good or ill, apart from the book. Two, I draw a paycheck from my day job of teaching theology, and, moreover, teaching theology here in the buckle of the Bible Belt, in our beloved Nashville, which always makes for an adventure I can assure you. Three, I happen to believe the big claims of the Bible, though I would not hold myself up as any paragon of virtue with regard to the way of life to which the good book calls us.
With that said, I would like to say I think this bill is, in my carefully considered and nuanced vocabulary, altogether stupid. And I think the bill to make the Bible the official state book of Tennessee is stupid for the following articulate and Biblical reasons:
One. As anyone who has read the book can tell you, it was never intended to be a "state book." The "Old Testament," or "Hebrew Bible," could have served something like that function for the ancient people of Israel, like two thousand 750 years ago, but it does not serve that function for the modern state of Israel (which should have been a clue that this is a bad idea). But more, the "New Testament" clearly has in mind a people who are, we might say, "trans-boundaried people." Yes, I did just make that up, but I think it's actually a fairly clever term, to indicate that one of the big developments in the New Testament is that those who follow this way of life do not depend upon any geographical bounded citizenship. And that is another way of saying that the whole idea of a "Christian nation" or a "Christian state" is NOT a biblical idea. (The whole point, for example, of baptism in the New Testament is to overcome the boundaries that separate and divide people groups from one another, to become a new people that, at the level of their most basic identity, are neither Tennessean nor Texan, neither American nor Russian, neither rich nor poor, and so on.)
Two. Christians who get themselves in positions of governing power, and then start pulling such stunts, become an affront to Christianity. It damages the name of Christianity. It wastes time and energy. It unnecessarily offends. If you feel so obligated to offend in the name of Christianity, please offend us by praying for your enemies, seeking good for those who do ill to you, forgiving seventy times seven, giving to any who ask of you, turning the other cheek, and caring for the poor, marginalized, and ostracized, all that radical stuff that is actually in the Bible. That will give you plenty to do, will also give you an outlet to offend Western cultural sensibilities, but will have the added benefit of contributing some salt and light to our cultural debates, instead of fostering yet more hostility and confusion.
Three. Versions of your kind of Christian governance have been around ever since Emperor Theodosius made Christianity the only legal religion in the Roman Empire. It was not a good move then, and it's not a good move now. By the end of the eighth-century A.D., this sort of approach had no less a stellar figure than Charlemagne conquering the pagan Saxons, and telling them he was going to let them exercise freedom with regard to whether they wanted to be baptized: they could come freely and be baptized, or they could absent themselves from the baptismal services, and thereby choose death for themselves.
Four. This sort of Christianity -- of which the Tennessee House Legislature is only exhibiting a more recent, and less lethal, form -- may (or may not) be good at spreading particular forms of "religion." But it is awful at getting people to actually do the stuff Jesus teaches in the Bible. This is beyond dispute, a claim easily supported by even the most casual reading of the Bible and books about Western history.
Five. To pass such a bill is bad governance for pragmatic reasons. In a world of such need -- in a state in which there are thousands without health insurance, a point to which I shall quickly return -- you are wasting time and money. If the bill passes the Senate (which I hope it does not), and if the governor does not veto it (which I hope he does), then we are set for wasting millions of dollars on legal fees as the law will undoubtedly be the source of as-yet-unimagined litigation, mockery, and public relations fiasco.
Six. I am altogether dumbfounded by what can only appear as legislative hypocrisy, if there ever were such a thing. One legislator who voted in favor of the bill says that it is the "the morals, the values" that have "made me what I am." But one of the persistent "morals" and "values" of the Bible is justice, fundamental fairness, especially for those with less social capital. So, here we have a legislature that has voted to make the Bible the official book of the State; and yet when given an opportunity of late to provide health insurance to thousands and thousands of uninsured working-poor families, in a creative strategy that would cost very little to the state, would require zero increased revenue needs at the federal level, and would create and preserve thousands of jobs, all while protecting rural hospitals, the legislature has refused to even let that bill get out of committee for a full vote by the legislature.
Seven. This brings to mind some other words of the Bible, about "white-washed sepulchers, full of dead men's bones," and "ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?"
Eight. Dang, I shouldn't have gone there. Once I start quoting those fire-breathing passages it gets me all worked up, gets me all tempted to go John the Baptist on you, refuse to shave, fantasize about standing on the lawn of the Capitol wearing nothing but some sack cloth underwear, maybe eat some grasshoppers for lunch and wash it down with some wild honey, and start shouting: "You brood of vipers! Somebody ought to warn you of the wrath to come! Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not say to yourself, 'we have the Bible as our state book,' for I tell you, God is able turn all that limestone of your Capitol building into Bibles if He needs them. Why don't you just read the thing and do what it says?"
Nine. Dang it again, now that I started pseudo-quoting John the Baptist, I want to start calling even more names, want to start saying "you fools," and all that. But I am reminded that the Bible says I must not do that, lest I be judged myself. So I shall not. But I do confess the rather strong desire to do so.
Ten. Hmm. That confession on my part, and the counsel of the Bible not to call such names does, in fact, make me pause long enough to recollect that, no doubt, those who voted for the bill, have good intentions. But brothers and sisters who voted thus, please listen to the many brothers and sisters around you who are asking you not to make Tennessee legislative play with our faith tradition. Please do not. Please do repent. Let it go. There's much better work for us to be doing all together.
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