All the Biblical literacy that’s fit to print

A couple of weeks ago, we looked at the widely circulated error that William Butler Yeats was the author of Hebrews. The New York Times messed it up. So did the Associated Press. The BBC, too. All in a story about the death of George Whitman, a Paris bookstore owner.

Commenter George Harper wrote:

Yesterday I emailed the Times to request a correction. As of today I’ve received no acknowledgment and there’s been no correction.

Well, I’m happy to report that while it took a week, a correction was obtained:

Correction: December 21, 2011

An obituary on Thursday about George Whitman, the longtime owner of the Shakespeare & Company bookstore in Paris, referred incorrectly to a quotation written on a wall of his store. The words “Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise” are a variation on a passage from the Bible; although Mr. Whitman himself attributed them to the poet W.B. Yeats, they were not written by Yeats.

I don’t believe other outlets have gotten around to correcting their error. I’d still like to know why Whitman thought this was attributable to Yeats. It’s a poetic line and Yeats certainly knew his Scripture. Perhaps it was contained or referenced in something he wrote and the allusion was lost on Whitman? I’m unsure. Do let us know if you’ve heard.

In any case, Eric Metaxas — author of this year’s hit Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy — was the first person I saw complaining about the error and he wrote something about it headlined “Does Anyone in the Media Ever Read the Bible?

Don’t answer that. Just kidding, but here’s a snippet of his jeremiad:

[T]his obit must have been written years before, as such obits usually are, waiting quietly in the files for their elderly subjects to pass on. It would have been dusted off every few years and updated and — presumably — rechecked.

So when I read the Yeats supergoof, I wondered: where were the fact-checkers? Is the secular bias at the Times so pervasive that it has affected not just the writers but the fact-checkers too? Or has being out of touch with middle America so hurt the Times’s subscription base that they cannot afford fact-checkers anymore?

When I first wrote about this on my Facebook page I was excoriated by an acquaintance who writes for the Times. He thought I was simply being too harsh. Perhaps I was. After all, as Sammy Davis, Jr. once remarked, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”

But to get serious, if I had one wish for American in 2012, I wish that we would get to know the Bible better. Even if you aren’t a believer there are incredible stories in the “good book” that I guarantee you will keep you glued to the page. The Bible is no less a part of our cultural heritage than Shakespeare is — and by the way, Shakespeare’s plays are absolutely loaded with Biblical references.

Of course, ignorance about Scripture is not limited to members of the media. I’m surprised at how many of my irreligious friends are ignorant about how many literary works allude to the Scriptures. When one of my friends became Christian, he kept being surprised at how things he thought were from Shakespeare were actually from the Psalms or other parts of Scripture.

Maybe the folks at the New York Times should just read their own paper. Here’s the first line of Marilynne Robinson’s interesting look last week at great works that engage Biblical questions:

The Bible is the model for and subject of more art and thought than those of us who live within its influence, consciously or unconsciously, will ever know.

It is funny, though, to have the paper that wants to issue a religious litmus test to political candidates fail the entrance exam on Biblical literacy.

Bible picture via Shutterstock.

Print Friendly

  • Dave

    After all, as Sammy Davis, Jr. once remarked, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”

    spews drink

  • Joan Collins

    I had a co-worker a few years ago who thought that The Book of Revelation was written in about 1930. Bible illiteracy is rampant in our society. So sad.

  • Domingo

    St Jerome once remarked: ‘Ignorance of Scriptures is ignorance of CHRiST.’ CHRiST has been waiting for us all this time. Venite adoremus!

    Well, no less than Hillary Clinton asked who painted ‘Our Lady of Guadalupe’. And for many years, the Shroud of Turin had been regaled as fake. “The truth shall set you free!” Now, who said that phrase again?

  • carl

    People don’t read that which they don’t value. Why should we expect that journalists would have read the Bible so as to recognize its content? As a group, they don’t value it. The culture in which they live doesn’t require them to value it. The only possible place most of them might have encountered it is in a University course, and there likely only in a Religion class based upon the writings of Bart Ehrman. This all makes perfect sense based upon the demographic that produces Journalists.

    The Scripture is not like Aesop’s Fables after all. One can’t read it in an afternoon. It has to be studied. That takes time and effort – effort that most journalists don’t want to expend. Certainly not on a book they consider indistinguishable from The Illiad. In truth, I suspect they see the connection between Western Civilization and Christianity as tangential at best and adversarial at worst. In other words, they see Western Civilization as emerging from the struggle to cast off Christianity. As a result, they don’t find the Scriptural imagery contained within to be all that interesting or important.

    The EU made a few waves a while back by refusing to acknowledge the debt of Europe to the Christian church. The underlying assumption was that Christianity retarded European civilization. The same attitude is in play here. We shouldn’t be surprised when journalists public despise that which they consider despicable.


  • Con Man

    In the days of Rome, the Christians did the sign of the fish thing to fly under the radar. These days, Christians can mention a simple scripture and see by the reaction whether the listener is Christian. E.g., I’ll say, “The harvest is plenty but the workers are few.” Very few people recognize it. Yet the same people, who are incredibly ignorant of Christianity, are quick to judge it.

    Nowadays, Christians aren’t burned as lamp lights but are held in disdain by the so much wiser secularists. Christianity civilized and made the modern world. Individual liberties are respected only in Christian countries. We see that individual liberties are being lost week by week in the West as the West invents their new religion of the Government being the giver of rights. One of those freedoms is freedom of the press that is rapidly being eroded. Really scary.

  • michael henry

    Perhaps like other segments of society, since journalists are no more intelligent than any other segment, the person or persons responsible were just plain lazy. Perhaps we see bias in errors now, when in previous decades the smallest error would have been ferreted out.

  • Steve Weatherbe

    I just read a novel in which the protagonist was described as the prodigal son: the reference was exactly backwards: the character was working for his father after perfectly following the career path laid out by him. Maybe the writer got prodigal and prodigy confused, as I did when I was 12 years old.

  • JWB

    Back in the ’80′s I read an article in a Prestigious Law Review by a Famous Law Professor whose epigraph was from Immanuel Kant, specifically: “Politics says, ‘Be ye wise as serpents’; morality adds, as a limiting condition, ‘and guileless as doves.’” I got the strong impression at the time (although I can’t go back and doublecheck the footnotes now w/o JSTOR access) that both the author and his editors were operating under the impression that Kant himself (a preacher’s kid, fwiw) had come up with the striking serpent/dove imagery.

  • sari

    Interesting how times (and education) have changed. The enormous state university I attended allowed any course on the Bible, Hebrew Scripture or New Testament, to fulfill in part either literature or humanities requirements. Humanities and history classes, even the most general survey courses, *always* factored in the role of religion and tied in religious texts. At present, my child’s AP Euro class has been heavy on the religious underpinnings, past and present. Same with AP World and AP Government. She has learned a tremendous amount about the history of Christianity, from its inception to, well, wherever they are right now in class; her sense is that her teachers hold no animosity towards religion in general or Christianity in particular.

    Aren’t there reference books of quotes that people, including journalists, can consult to verify sources?

  • mart

    Hebrews 13:2
    Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unwittingly entertained angels.

    Matthew 7:1
    “Judge not, that you be not judged.

    Matthew 9:37
    Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few.

    Luke 15:13
    New King James Version (NKJV)

    13 And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living.

    Matthew 10:16
    “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.

  • http://nil flossie

    Browsing your web-and thought to say a few words. I really think that during the New Year the whole world should get the Holy Bible and read it -not as a story -but something to read and grasp and eat up on every word that the Lord is sayong to U. U are what U eat. If when u eat the Holy bread and read and do what the word is telling we sure would have a better society and better health and better world and looking back on the past year just think about all the bad things happening to our youth and families. Let’s not this happen this New Year. Speak and act like Jesus. Read the Word and act on it sure u will be a happier person when others meet and greet u during the New year. Gather the youth of our society u do something good for God. Loves Ya! Flossie

  • Karen H

    Thank you. As an English major, I’ve been more than a few times appalled at the biblical illiteracy of the press. I didn’t get my degree in literature, but in expository writing, and I had thought my fellow writers/journalists would have had a similar education as mine, where reading the Bible as literature was strongly encouraged. Apparently their education is lacking.

    My son’s high school English teacher had to propose a special section on Bible as literature because her students–except for the regular church-goers–could not understand the allusions in classical and modern literature. You cannot have a full discussion of literature, or of our culture for that matter, if you haven’t read the Bible.

    Even if I were not a Christian, I’d wish for more Bible-reading simply because our literary culture is so steeped in biblical imagery that to ignore it is to ignore the rich heritage we have in Western literary tradition.

  • Bain Wellington

    A propos the NYT self-justification (passing off the attribution error on to old George) -

    “I may disappear leaving behind me no worldly possessions – just a few old socks and love letters, and my windows overlooking Notre-Dame for all of you to enjoy, and my little rag and bone shop of the heart whose motto is ‘Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise.’ I may disappear leaving no forwarding address, but for all you know I may still be walking among you on my vagabond journey around the world.” ? George Whitman

    Well, there we have it – a transformed Yeats quote (from “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” where the actual phrase is “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart”) buried in a Geo. Whitman quote cheek-by-jowl with the unattributed verse from Heb.

    Nothing here (or on the sign posted in that shop where the motto is prominently on view) suggests Geo. Whitman attributed the Heb. verse to Yeats. What authority has NYT for its claim, I wonder?

  • Mollie


    Thanks for finding that … I seem to recall someone saying that the quote was framed at his shop. Perhaps the key is to find out if it was wrongly attributed there.

  • John M.

    While Carl helpfully points out above, the Bible is better studied for a lifetime rather than read through once, I’d encourage any journalists who haven’t done so to read through it once. If read 15-20 minutes per day, it can be read through in a year without much trouble. And it is a new year. There are a variety of ways to do it that range from simply picking it up and reading approximately 4 chapters per day to higher-tech versions like downloading the YouVersion Bible app for Android or iOS, which has a number of plans to choose from that will ride around in your pocket with you.


  • George Harper

    Mollie, thanks for continuing this discussion. The best/worst/most laughable illustration of the sheer biblical illiteracy of most major contemporary media outlets that I’ve seen was in Time magazine back in the 1980s. Sorry, but I can’t give you even an approximate cover date, and so far my googling hasn’t turned up anything, but my recollection of this is very sharp. One of the magazine’s reporters had been dispatched to that year’s convention of what was then called the Christian Booksellers Association (now just the CBA), and on one of the issue’s opening pages the editor made sport of the religio-commercial kitsch for which the CBA’s conventions were then, and I suppose still are, notorious. In particular, he noted a Monopoly-like board game in which players rolled dice and moved counters around a board, occasionally drawing from a stack of cards offering what Time‘s editor described as “quasi-biblical sayings like ‘if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.’” Henry Luce was no biblical illiterate, and I’m sure that wherever he is, he must have hung his head at this.