Not all readers agree on Bible and culture

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, October 26, 2005

So, just what does "a living dog is better than a dead lion" mean? Pretty obvious: Life is preferable to death, regardless of one's status. It's a quote from Ecclesiastes 9:4, and apparently it was the most missed question in last week's Bible literacy quiz in this column.

In fact, of all the delightful responses I received, less than a handful of readers reported they had correctly identified all six literary allusions to the Bible.

One of our Cochrane coffee companions went so far as to give the quiz to her theological students. Elaine Phillips wrote:

"I teach English at the [Southern Baptist] seminary up on the hill. My students this year are a diverse group of guys. One or two are new to the biblical culture; others are biblically literate but not as culturally versed.

"Just for fun I administered your quiz first thing last week and the results were interesting: I managed a five, along with a couple of other students. (Most of us missed the proverbial Ecclesiastes reference: 'A living dog is better than a dead lion.' We had no problem with Job.)

"Samuel, from Brazil, did really well. He's a second language student with much to teach the rest of us about literacy in general! Your quiz opened my eyes to the importance of biblical allusions in English literature. I'll set a similar one for my students next semester when I teach Christian Classics. Even for non-seminary students, I believe a knowledge of the Bible (as literature) can only add to their understanding and appreciation of some of the great literary classics."

Both of our sons got in the act on this topic, with a bit of a twist.

From Toronto, son James polled the membership of the Editors' Association of Canada, asking them for examples of quotes people often think are from the Bible, but are actually not. (He gave the example, "Neither a borrower nor a lender be," from Shakespeare's Hamlet.) Here are three of their responses:

"Love the sinner, hate the sin."

"The Lord helps those who help themselves" – not an endorsement for shoplifting.

"Money is the root of all evil" – the actual biblical quote being "The love of money is the root of all evil."

Son Reg, of Calgary, attributes quotes like these to the book of Hezekiah.

"Hezekiah was a king in the Bible, but didn't get his own book," Reg wrote. He pointed out our family tradition of saying such "biblical-sounding" references were really "from the book of Hezekiah" – i.e., they weren't in the Bible at all.

"Cleanliness is next to godliness" is another example of a quote from Hezekiah.

Shakespeare is often the source of many biblical-sounding sayings. Returning to son James' responses from Canadian editors, one wrote: "Almost anything from Shakespeare can be passed off as a biblical quote, and few people will know the difference."

A really appropriate use of a biblical quote appeared in a note from Cochrane artist/writer Lindsie Haxton. Alluding to chapter 13 of St. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, she wrote:

"Knowing the Bible is important. It is the pilgrim's road map and instruction book. That knowledge, however, must be balanced with the practice of love, lest we become a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal."

Which brings me to our final response for this week. Tina Fox, highly-respected elder of the Stoney Nakoda First Nation at Morley, wrote about last week's column:

"That was funny – I mean the answers some of the people gave to biblical questions. Kinda cute, but I don't agree that one is culturally illiterate if one is biblically illiterate. Not all cultures' religion or belief is based on the Bible, but they are just as good."

Tina raises a very important point. True, last week's column was specifically about the Bible's influence on English literature.

But as Tina noted, similar things can be said about other cultures, too. Are we sensitive to the values and worldviews expressed in their oral and written literature, music, dances and paintings?

As Lindsie stressed, love is fundamental.

And fundamental to love is listening– hearing others as we would have them hear us.


© 2005 Warren Harbeck

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