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Biblical literacy

Just the other day I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts A Way with Words. Its main subject is the English language and the quirkiness that is unique to the Heinze-57 language we speak. Peppered throughout the episode was the overwhelming influence of biblical phrases that have taken a prominent place in our lexicon. In fact, one could argue that next to Shakespeare, there hasn’t been a greater influence on the English language greater than the bible. Many of the phrases we all know and use on a daily basis come from the bible, even if we don’t know it. For example, it never ceases to amaze me how many people think the phrase, “A house divided against itself cannot stand” is unique to Abraham Lincoln and his assessment of the Civil War. In fact, the phrase was first uttered by Jesus in Matthew’s gospel in response to the criticism leveled at him by the religious authorities of his time. 

Phrases like: “Bottomless pit”; “brother’s keeper”; “cast the first stone”; “root of all evil” to name just a few, come to the English language from the early translations of the Bible into English. As I listened to the podcast it dawned on me that in addition to being a cornerstone of our faith, perhaps another really good reason to make Bible study a part of our daily routine is to educate ourselves in the language we all share. Throwing out a phrase like, “cast the first stone” and knowing the context in which Jesus says it carries a completely different meaning than if one was completely unaware of the context. “Walking by faith and not by sight” along with “fighting the good fight” conjures up Saint Paul’s words to his church in Corinth and his protégé Timothy and the struggles that both they and he faced. 

In today’s technologically rich life we have the words of scripture at our fingertips more conveniently than ever. On my tablet, I can carry with me a library that would have made any academic of the 19th century green with envy. Not only can I have the bible on my tablet, I can have multiple translations of it as well. Additionally, if I happen not to have my tablet with me, I can download an app on my phone that has my preferred version of the bible all at the touch of the screen. 

Devoting concerted time to reading the Bible not only helps deepen our faith and understanding of God, but it may also better equip us to participate more fully in the English language. Who knows, the next time you hear the phrase “sign of the times” you’ll know that it is more than just a chronological indicator and you just might be a little better prepared for the final trumpet and Judgment Day.

REV. SCOTT BAKER is the rector at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Franklin. Contact him at 757-562-4542.