CLEVELAND — Woe is me: If you want to be all things to all people, remember that many are called, but few are chosen.
If those phrases have a familiar ring, they should: They come from the Bible and have entered the secular lexicon. The left-right culture wars in Western society have heightened such use of biblical phrases as rivals try to invoke a heavenly punch.
For one, President Barack Obama has said that opponents of his health-care proposals are “bearing false witness” against his ideas, recalling the commandment against lying — without directly accusing critics of being liars.
That gave Obama’s rhetoric a dose of divine imperative, according to Timothy Beal, a college religion professor who has written a book connecting popular references to biblical stories. Biblical Literacy: The Essential Bible Stories Everyone Needs to Know was published in October.
“I think you can’t be culturally literate without being biblically literate,” Beal said in an interview in his snug, book-lined office at Case Western Reserve University.
“These biblical stories and even images are pervasive in our language, they are all over our culture, from high culture to low culture, from Michelangelo to the Simpsons.”
Beal believes people who are unfamiliar with these or other biblical references that constantly pop up in everyday life are missing a lot.
“When we don’t know these stories, when we don’t hear these resonances, and we’re not familiar, we’re really missing half the conversation,” said Beal, who has written 10 books and teaches Bible literature and the method and theory of the study of religion.
In the big health-care debate in Washington, Beal has watched both sides invoke “the least of these,” from the story in Matthew’s Gospel, in which Jesus says anyone who helps those in need is helping the Lord.
The message: Those who back health-care proposals helping “the least of these” are following the Gospel directive.
“The debate is over who are ’the least of these?’ Is it the elderly? Is it children? Is it the uninsured children? The uninsured? The immigrants?” Beal asked.
Beal, a Presbyterian married to a Presbyterian minister, has detected a shift in biblical invocations since Obama succeeded George W. Bush.
“Generally the shift is from a more apocalyptic, good-versus-evil, cosmic-war kind of language that Bush tended to use to a more moral-obligation, moral-imperative, ‘I am my brother’s keeper,’ ‘Take care of the least of these,’ kind of language,” he said.
In the economic meltdown, Beal has seen a prophetic biblical tone invoking Amos, Isaiah and Micah in condemning predatory lenders who might take advantage of the vulnerable.
He cites a project named for the prophet Nehemiah aimed at helping people avoid predatory loans.
His compilation of stories likely familiar to many exposed to the Bible include the Tower of Babel, the Great Flood, the Ten Commandments, the Golden Calf, Jonah, Jesus turning water into wine, doubting Thomas and Paul’s road to Damascus.
There are also familiar phrases like “Woe is me” (Job), “All things to all people (1 Corinthians) and “Many are called, but few are chosen“ (Matthew’s Gospel).
But the Bible-challenged may be less familiar with stories about Moses’ shining face (Exodus), Jephthah’s daughter (Judges), Daniel’s fiery furnace (Daniel), and Jesus feeling the power go out of him when a sick woman touches his hem seeking a cure (Mark).
The hem-touching story inspired gospel-and-soul singer Sam Cooke’s song Touch the Hem of His Garment, retold from the woman’s perspective, according to Beal. It was typical of Cooke’s soulful love songs and shows why Bible literacy makes a difference for believers and non-believers, Beal said.
Given the Bible’s position in the wider culture, “An atheist would just as much need to know these stories as a believer and a church-goer,” Beal said.
Even regular Bible readers benefit from a deeper understanding because popular references to Bible stories may give them added insight to the Bible message, Beal said.
For instance, the injunction in Matthew where Jesus challenges people to clothe the naked doesn’t really talk about clothes; it’s about restoring personal dignity to people that society has devalued.
Joseph Kelly, a religious studies professor at John Carroll University, called Beal’s work scholarly and reliable.
“A lot of people worry that we’re sort of losing touch with the roots of the culture because people don’t read the Bible,” Kelly said.
David Aune (pronounced awn), associate professor and chair of the religion department at Ohio’s Ashland University, graded the nation’s overall biblical literacy as low and feels Bible reading has declined over the past decade.
“There’s hardly a place in western civilization where the Bible’s influence is not felt, whether it’s art, literature, politics, global conflicts, the Middle East today,” Aune said.
“So, my sense is that unless people have some basic understanding of the biblical story and a lot of the references in it, they are going to miss quite a bit of what’s going on in the world today.”