“The Holy Bible is hereby designated as the official state book.” This is the text in Senate Bill 1108. This begs a few questions. Which “Holy Bible?” Which translation? NRSV, CEB, KJV, The Message? Will we only accept the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek originals, or will there be room for the Latin Vulgate? Will the Apocrypha be included?
If you are unfamiliar with some of the concepts listed above, do not worry. However, if you are a lawmaker seeking to make the “Holy Bible” the official book of Tennessee, or simply a person supporting this bill, then you need to consider a few issues. To be frank, the entire notion of making the “Holy Bible” the official book demonstrates a simplistic, dismissive, and quite honestly, uninformed point of view. It should be widely understood that there are many different versions of the Bible, and not every group that identifies as Christian accepts all the books of “the Bible.”
For me, we do not even need to get to the debate of how non-Christians would feel with such a declaration. This should, I would hope, be obvious to anyone. Then one could launch into the typical church and state debates, religious freedom, etc. Those are all well and fine, but they also miss the fundamental problem that I have outlined here: Politicians and the general public, typically, do not possess knowledge of the Bible. Many people certainly are familiar with the Bible. It is widely read in Tennessee. But in my experience, people that approach the Bible from a specific faith point of view will not venture outside of that world view, unless prompted (i.e. a course on the Bible in an academic setting). Understanding some of the circumstances surrounding the Bible, both modern and ancient, provides an appreciation for the complexity of the text, one that is lost with the simple idea that there is only one Bible.
I’ll end with this: I agree with the conservatives that a Bible course should be offered in schools. Where I am likely to draw their ire is in the fact that it needs to be taught from a critical, academic point of view. This approach does not put forth a faith agenda, but merely demonstrates to the students how scholars have approached the Bible. I know this is dangerous as it leaves the student to make up his or her mind regarding their own faith and the role in which the Bible plays in that faith. As someone who has studied the Bible for years and has debated countless times with people who lean more towards biblical literalism, I do understand the apprehension to the critical study of the Bible, because it typically ends up contradicting their own beliefs regarding the text. While “liberals” and “conservatives” continue to battle for dominance, both sides remain locked in a one-dimensional view of a complex book that is typically informed from second hand knowledge rather than one’s own research or self-reflection. Then again, nuanced arguments never were a politician’s strong suit.