Psalm 23 And All That

[Christianity Today, February 7, 2000]

How much do you remember of your third-grade reader? Could you take a test today on the stories in it? Could you quote it authoritatively? Could you use the stories’ moral lessons to guide your life?

I can’t even remember the title of my third-grade reader, much less the storylines. I could only hazard a guess that the stories were about boys and girls having fun, a step up from previous years’ “Alice and Jerry” books. But I wouldn’t dare to quote it or make assertions about what it said.

We are surrounded by people who have had about that much exposure to the Bible. They were read Bible stories as very young children, perhaps had a picture Bible when just a little older, and can dimly recall declaiming the Second Shepherd’s lines in the Christmas play. As they got older they found Sunday School boring and, by high school graduation if not before, had stopped attending church. Their theological and Biblical education ground to a halt when they lost interest, about age eight or ten.

But that has no effect on their confidence. In an essay in a glossy highbrow magazine, the author asserted that the Bible ranks hope along with faith and love (good so far) in the 23rd

Psalm (uh-oh). It’s a dumb mistake, but it wasn’t hers alone; editors, proof-readers, even fact-checkers comb every word in a magazine of this stature. But everyone no doubt had a dim memory of something like this being in the bible, and so it was rubber-stamped into print.

This kind of mistake is not rare. My clipping file includes an urging from the Washington Post to make Christmas special by “reading Mark or Luke’s narrative at home.” (Those who search Mark for a birth narrative will look a long time.) Newsweek describes Jesse Jackson holding hands with the Clintons and reciting, “the 51st Psalm, David’s prayer for mercy after he had been seduced by Bathsheba.” Oh, so *that’s* how it happened!

My favorite is the line in the 80’s anthem, “We Are The World,” “As our God has shown us, by turning stones to bread.” Did the writer just make a fuzzy association that, hey, we’re singing to raise money for hunger relief, and there’s something in the Bible about bread and stones—Cool! Of course the bible describes Jesus tempted, but *refusing*, to turn stones to bread. Again, the writer wasn’t alone in his mistake. The melody’s composers, the instrumentalists, other singers, recording technicians, and everyone invested in this major event must each have read over these lyrics at least once. Nobody caught this? Nobody said, “Hmm, is that right? I’d better check a Bible.”

A wit might well develop a humor bestseller: a version of the Bible including only the parts the average unchurched person remembers, in just the bent way he remembers them (“I’m sure of it! In my Wee Tots Bible, there was even a picture of Jesus turning the stones into bread!”). A charming classic based on a similar idea was published in England in 1930: “1066 And All That.” Authors Walter Carruthers Sellar and Robert Julian Yeatman aimed to write a history of England limited to what the average person could recollect. It is subtitled, “A Memorable History of England comprising all the parts you can remember.” It is a very short book.

“Histories have previously been written with the object of exalting the reader. The object of this History is to console the reader,” Sellar and Yeatman begin. The book contains only two dates. “[T]wo out of the four Dates originally included were eliminated at the last moment, a research done at the Eton and Harrow match having revealed that they are *not memorable*.” Sellar and Yeatman conclude the preface with a salute to their countrymen, “whose historical intuitions and opinions this work enshrines.”

“1066 And All That” was enjoyed by English, and even American, readers because they could laugh at themselves; they knew their memory of long-ago history classes was faulty. This is less likely to be true among the unchurched people we deal with every day, with whom we might want to share faith or discuss contemporary moral issues. Often we are blocked by the other’s determined misunderstanding of what the Bible says or Christian faith teaches. (For example, secular America is nearly unanimous in agreeing that what Christians worry about most are sexual sins, because the only way to get to heaven is by doing good deeds.) In no other field of study would people lean so much on understanding they hadn’t updated since early childhood, but here unwarranted confidence abounds.

Further, there’s little interest in getting an update. Once-churched non-believers often have no curiosity about the faith they have mostly forgotten, because the impressions formed in childhood are of something overly simple and bland. It doesn’t occur to them that when they were children they were indeed taught the things a child could understand — the oatmeal version. The true depth of faith is likely to be something they’ve never encountered. When these people, as adults, encounter the great world religions, they perceive depth and complexity, and treat them with respect. Christianity gets no such breaks, because they habitually think it childish. That’s because they haven’t had a fresh thought about it since childhood.

Many otherwise mature people reject Christianity for silly reasons, because of conclusions reached in childhood — for example that God couldn’t possibly hear everyone’s prayers at the same time, or he can’t be all-powerful because he didn’t make Fluffy get better when she was hit by a car. These unexamined conclusions act as an inoculation against further thought. Truly educated people would be embarrassed to misquote Shakespeare or Proust as they do the bible, or to misunderstand Marxism as they do Christian faith. Perhaps when they were children they put away childish things. Now that they’re grownups, they should consult the adult version.

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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