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.

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