You know when mainstream media get interested in the Scriptures? When they have a chance to use a phrase like "biblical flood" over and over -- as several did in coverage of the disastrous flooding in South Carolina.
But that doesn't mean they’ll acknowledge where they got the phrase, or fill in any background. The shock value is more important than the power source of the words and concepts that provide the shock.
So we get USA Today with this mostly leaden lede:
The biblical flooding in South Carolina is at least the sixth so-called 1-in-1,000 year rain event in the U.S. since 2010, a trend that may be linked to factors ranging from the natural, such as a strong El Niño, to the man-made, namely climate change.
The Minneapolis Tribune piggybacks off USA Today with its own catchword headline, " 'Sept-ober' Weather Bliss Lingers -- Biblical Floods in South Carolina -- 6 Separate 1-in-1,000 Year Rains, Nationwide, Since 2010.' "
And another headline in a website called Celebcafe offers "a few unreal photos of South Carolina's biblical floods," even though the word "biblical" doesn't appear in the article itself.
But by now, reporters or editors are just tossing in "biblical" enroute to what word play and imagery really interests them. Mashable mentions "biblical rains and historic flooding in South Carolina this week," although the story is mainly about floating rafts of fire ants.
The American Press of Lake Charles, La., worked the term today into a sports story, about plans for an LSU-South Carolina game.
"[T]hey’re going to have themselves a game, come hell or more high water," writer Scooter Hobbs snickers. "The South Carolina capital is suffering through Biblical flooding at the moment, but never mind. A conference game is going to get played."
By the way, the Associate Press Stylebook says that the first letter in "biblical" is lower case. Just saying.
Slate does some lengthy reporting, but largely for the sermonette headline: "How Many 'Biblical' Floods Will It Take For the World to Address Climate Change?"
Even the venerable Smithsonian got into the act, with an article that reads like a 700-word ad about a new kind of concrete that drains faster than most. Yet it still opens with: "As Hurricane Joaquin and several other weather systems pounded the Eastern Seaboard, coastal communities have been faced with Biblical levels of rain."
Have you noticed something odd about these reports? They're all from media outside South Carolina, and they don’t quote any actual people using the word "biblical." Only a very few reports have.
I found a very early exception -- Thursday, Oct. 1 -- in The Herald in Rock Hill, S.C.: "Flood watch issued for Rock Hill area, storm prep begins before possible ‘biblical’ hit from Hurricane Joaquin." Then the lede says:
Emergency personnel are preparing for what one official said could be a “biblical” rainfall of up to 8 inches in York, Chester and Lancaster counties from late Friday through the weekend as Hurricane Joaquin barrels up the East Coast.
Later, the story quotes Ed Darby, an emergency planner -- “We can handle 3 inches, but 8 inches is biblical" -- proving that the newspaper didn’t just make it up.
Few other mainstream media followed suit, as we've seen. One is The Huffington Post, which quotes a blog item by Frank Knapp Jr., head of the state's Small Business Chamber of Commerce. In the item, he quotes Gov. Nikki Haley warning that "many people will believe that this was simply a freak, almost Biblical act of nature that we will probably never see again. This is simply not the case and we do a disservice to the public by giving them false hope."
The New York Times, too, gets the word in a quote while telling a gripping story about efforts of the Charleston County Volunteer Rescue Squad. Here's Brian Hinton, the deputy chief of the squad: “I’ll put it this way: For us, this is a biblical event. This is a historical-type deal.”
The Times also tells of a biblical self-sacrifice of the rescuers, although it's not identified as such: "The rescuers had been called out to help people who found themselves stranded through no fault of their own, as well as others who had put themselves at risk."
But all of the above stories lack one ingredient: background on the idea of a "biblical" flood.
Nothing on the deluge story in Genesis.
No mention of Noah or the Ark.
Nothing on the many flood legends worldwide, some of them predating the Bible itself.
Is that kind of factual information too trivial to add? Does everyone already know this stuff? I would say no -- not when story after story, year after year, has documented the ignorance of many Americans about the Bible. Not when Southern Baptist scholar Al Mohler complained about it a decade ago, and when George Barna reports that "In just two years, the percentage of Americans who qualify as 'post-Christian' rose by 7 percentage points, from 37% in 2013 to 44% in 2015."
Yes, it's Old School journalism to spice up a story with cultural, literary or biblical references. But when many don’t read the book, it's foolish to think everyone gets it. And when many in the Old School are being laid off -- including religion writers, as my colleague Julia Duin recently reported -- it looks hollow to feign interest in a specialty that many editors clearly don’t care about.