You know how, when you have typed a word thousands and thousands of times, your fingers tend to fall into that same pattern when you are trying to type a word that is very similar to it?
The same thing can happen to a reporter who is taking notes during an interview. Sometimes you hear what you are used to hearing when, in reality, the person said something else. This can cause major mistakes.
Godbeat writer Frank Lockwood of the Lexington Herald-Leader — also known as the Bible Belt Blogger — discovered a really interesting case of this familiarity-breeds-mistakes syndrome in a major Newsweek article that the GetReligion gang already thought it had picked at pretty good. That would be that Billy Graham cover by soon-to-be-editor Jon Meacham.
When Lockwood got around to reading this piece, he noticed something interesting in one of the haunting images near the beginning, as the elderly evangelist wakes up in the middle of the night confused:
On this particular night, Graham lay in the darkness, trying to recite the 23rd Psalm from memory. He begins: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want …” Then, for a moment, he loses the thread. “I missed a sequence, and that disturbed me,” Graham recalls. It was frustrating — the man who has preached the Gospel to more human beings than anyone in history does not like to forget critical verses of the Bible — but in the end the last line comes back to him: “Surely thy loving-kindness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Relieved, he drifts back to sleep.
Wait a minute, thought Lockwood.
Surely thy loving kindness and mercy shall follow me? Any self-respecting Southern Baptist knows that the final sentence, in the King James Version, begins “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me …”
Intrigued, I decided to investigate. I Googled “Surely thy loving-kindness and mercy shall follow me” and could find no Bible translation that uses that language. However, the same wording is included in the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer.
Is Billy Graham, in his twilight years, reciting the Book of Common Prayer as he enjoys life in rural North Carolina?
Now this is a very interesting question, because Meacham is an Episcopalian and, to say the least, Billy Graham is not an Episcopalian (no matter what his many fundamentalist critics think).
So Lockwood dropped Meacham an email and, to his credit, Meacham wrote back to say:
“I suspect the discrepancy you detected is mine, not Mr. Graham’s; after he told me the story, I read the lines back to him on the telephone from the translation I had at hand, and he said yes, those were the lines, but I suspect he actually spoke the KJV. So I would not say that Mr. Graham misquoted the psalm, but that I misunderstood which translation he had recited.”
That’s easy to understand.
The question that many people have raised about this article, including Graham himself in that gentle way of his, is whether some of the nuanced, moderated, “mature” theological positions attributed to the evangelist in this article have more to do with Meacham’s beliefs as an Episcopalian than with those of Graham as an evangelical.
Was Meacham hearing what he wanted to hear, what he was used to hearing? All journalists struggle with this, I think, when we are interviewing people whose beliefs are radically different than our own.