Revelations, Books of Psalms and other scriptures

Last week we noticed some embarrassing corrections related to how newspapers described the Epistle to the Ephesians. In the comments, Godbeat veteran Ann Rodgers wrote:

My paper today carried a Washington Post story about the memorial service for explosion victims in West, Texas, that said President Obama alluded to the “Books of Psalms.”

Could that be true? The Books of Psalms? Is Biblical illiteracy this bad? Literary knowledge at an all time low? Let’s check out the passage:

It was the second time in as many weeks that Obama had to console a grieving community after a tragedy, following a trip to Boston last week. Before he spoke, videorecorded eulogies quoted the tearful grandparents, parents, wives, relatives and friends of the fallen. At Baylor, the wails of crying babies and young children echoed through the Ferrell Center.

“I cannot match the power of the voices you just heard on that video,” Obama said. Alluding to the Books of Psalms, he said: “You have been tested, West. You have been tried. You have gone through fire. But you are and will always be surrounded by the abundance of love.”

Yikes. Or is it that bad? As commenter Brett responded:

Ann — What’s in our Bibles as the Psalms has been considered to be made up of five “books” or sections, each ending with a doxology or a benediction. The sections are Pss. 1-41; Pss. 42-72; Pss. 73-89; Pss. 90-106 and Pss. 107-150. Some Bibles will have headings like “Book 1″ or “Book 4″ to mark the groupings.

That being said, the division is not common knowledge and although it’s possible President Obama meant his construction in that way, I’d imagine it’s just one of those slips of the tongue that happen sometimes.

I didn’t watch President Obama’s comments, but I didn’t take it that it was his reference to the “Books” of Psalms but, rather, the Washington Post‘s. The commenter later noted:

Whoops, just reread Ann’s comment and realized she may have been talking about what the WaPo writer said and not the President. If it was the writer, then I’m agreeing with her that it’s the kind of omission from ignorance that also brings us “the Book of Revelations.”

Nothing makes me want to scream quite like people making the Revelation of St. John into “Revelations.” Anyway, for future reference, here’s the passage from which President Obama was riffing:

Oh, bless our God, you peoples!
And make the voice of His praise to be heard,
Who keeps our soul among the living,
And does not allow our feet to be moved.
For You, O God, have tested us;
You have refined us as silver is refined.
You brought us into the net;
You laid affliction on our backs.
You have caused men to ride over our heads;
We went through fire and through water;
But You brought us out to rich fulfillment.

The more you know, as they say.

Psalms image via Shutterstock.

  • Deann Alford

    Bear in mind that presidents have teams of speechwriters who may well be less churched than he is. While speakers typically read over their speechwriters’ work before delivering the messages, often or usually with the writer present, certainly not foolproof process.

    Mollie, I’m certainly with you on pluralizing Revelation [grate, grate, grate] but equally baffling is how so many Christians, pastors even, routinely lower-case Bible. AP Style seems to offer more reverence for God’s Word than way too many of Christ’s followers. Capitalize when referring to the Scriptures in the Old Testament or the New Testament. And Scripture: The sacred writings of a religious group. Capitalize when referring to writings from the Holy Bible but not otherwise.

  • David F

    I’ve made slips of the tongue hear and there. Given plenty of more substantive matters to be concerned about (the “God Bless” Planned Parenthood for example) I’m inclined give Obama, the speech writer or the journalist a pass on this level of error.

  • chuck

    It is this kind of nit picking that makes people look at religion writers and twiddle their thumbs around their ears.

    • mollie

      And to think I worried this post was too forgiving!

  • Jerry

    The real question to me is what this kind of thing stems from: An honest mis-speaking when someone really knows better. Ignorance that the person corrects. Ignorance but the person really does not care to learn. Or something else.

  • http://saintmarkslutheran.org Mark Brown

    I think it was William Safire who used a Latin phrase Norma Loquendi – the way we speak. Books of the Psalms doesn’t sound like Norma, but Revelations is pure Norma. Unless you are being completely pedantic you can’t avoid adding the “s”. It is just like all the St. X congregations. Yes, it is St. X, but we all say St. X’s. And in the case of Revelation, seeing as it is not one long one but a series of cycles, the “s” actually makes sense. Norma is a smart lady most of the time.

    • sari

      “Revelations is pure Norma”

      Yes. My Christian friends, most very well-versed, refer to it as Revelations. Colloquial usage is just that. Very few people write the way they speak. The Book*s* of Psalms, however…

      I wish the Biblical references (notation?) had been included in the article, Biblical literacy being what it is.

  • northcoast

    Just for confusion, St. X’s is apparently the standard for Episcopal and Anglican churches.

  • helen

    Having discovered that our congregation was variously referred to in its governing documents as “St Paul” and “St Paul’s” a decision was made and we are now St Paul consistently in all references.

    • http://saintmarkslutheran.org Mark Brown

      Yes, so did St. Mark’s somewhere in the mists of time. One more thing for fractious congregations to fight over. But everyone still says St. Mark’s. The spoken language is the determinate on usage eventually. That is just the way we speak, and constantly correcting it, is being a pedantic scold.

  • John M.

    Chuck,

    Nobody would say “whatever” if the points in a baseball game were called “goals” or the same in golf were called “runs”. Seriously, you can buy a Bible for like $7 at any religious bookstore, or download one to your phone for free. These are just unforced errors that make journalists and their editors look stupid. Or like they don’t care. And all this at a time when the news business needs all the eyeballs it can get.

    -John

  • John M.

    Mark,

    Is there any value in having a high register for speech? If not, why do high registers continue to exist in almost all languages?

    -John

  • Jack

    I’m torn here. I feel slightly pedantic when I hammer home to a class that it’s Revelation-singular (only because it’s not my field). Closer to home, I guess I feel the same way when I tell students to treat with suspicion any author who uses the term Buddha without a definite article before it.

    Still, shouldn’t big time journalism propagate not only accurate information but scholarly or literate conventions as well?

    Anyway, what really entered my mind on reading this post was a quotation vaguely remembered by me from Ren & Ref History term paper research years ago, in a book on the rise of the printing press. I’m unable to produce it in full, save for the important bit: “Even a John Stuart Mill did not envisage that when the plowboy had learned to read he was more likely to read the Hearst papers than the Psalms.”


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