[NPR, "All Things Considered," October 6, 1997]
I was thumbing through a high-brow magazine the other day and came across an interesting essay on the virtue of Hope. But before I’d finished the first page I caught them in an embarassing blooper. The author stated that hope is ranked alongside faith and love in the 23rd psalm.
In case you didn’t catch the faux pas, run through the 23rd psalm in your mind—you probably memorized it in kindergarten. Yes, "the Lord is my shepherd is there," and the part about the valley of the shadow of death, but there’s no mention of faith, hope, and love. For that, you have to flip to the other end of the Bible, to St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In his famous meditation on love in chapter 13, he writes, "So faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love." —Now, does it ring a bell?
This wouldn’t be a big deal, of course, except when you consider how many people looked over this essay before it was published. Editors, copyeditors, fact-checkers—and nobody said, "Wait a minute, that doesn’t sound right"? A magazine of this calibre would be embarrassed to print an article ascribing "To be or not to be" to Dostoevsky, or "April is the cruelest month" to Chaucer. But when it comes to Bible references, too often the court of final authority is mere fuzzy memory.
This carelessness can lead to even more embarassing blunders. The worst example is the line sung by Willie Nelson in the 80’s hit, "We Are The World." During that group sing-in against hunger, he warbled, "As our God has shown us, by turning stones to bread…"
Well, God didn’t turn stones to bread. In fact, the opposite happened: according to the Gospel, Satan tempted Jesus to turn stones into bread and he refused, saying "Man shall not live by bread alone." (Sound familiar?)
Now, I can imagine that Willie himself might just have a dim memory that there’s something in the Bible about stones and bread. But he’s not the only person who was exposed to this line before showtime. Songwriters, instrumentalists, recording techies, the other glamorous performers—weren’t there at least a couple of people present whose mamas had taken them by the ear long years ago and said, "Young man, young lady, today you are going to march yourself to Sunday School"? No, everyone just looked grooved out as Willie sang something utterly absurd.
People would be embarrassed to misquote other great books so badly, yet there’s an assumption that the Bible is one of those put-away childish things. (That’s also from first Corinthians 13.) The cure for fuzzy memory is refreshed memory; try reading a chapter a night. After all, the Bible’s for grownups too. At least that’s what Winston Churchill said. Or was it Socrates?