The Wall Street Journal issued a rather embarrassing correction the other day.
In an article about how casino magnate Sheldon Adelson arranged meetings between Israeli companies and U.S. leaders, the reporter quoted Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bragging about one of the companies that “produces drinkable water out of vapors in the air.”
It “improves on Moses,” Mr. Netanyahu said in video posted by the company. “He brought water from a rock. They bring water from thin air.”
That’s fine. It references the Bible story in the Book of Numbers in which Moses quenches the thirst of people by striking a rock with his staff until water pours out.
The problem is that the original version of the article didn’t say “a rock.” It said “Iraq.” (You can see how that could happen just by transcribing a video.) People on Twitter had a field day with it.
Of course, Iraq didn’t exist in Moses’ time… and that’s not the sort of mistake you would make if you were familiar with that story.
To quote The Wrap,
The article, bylined by Timothy Puko, also took contributions from WSJ writers Julie Bykowicz and Louise Radnofsky and must also have passed some unnamed editor suggesting that at least four people looked at the piece without noticing the mistake.
Is it a huge deal? Not really. I would argue this story isn’t necessarily on the short-list of the most important Bible tales everyone needs to know.
But Christine Emba of the Washington Post sees this as a sign that we need more biblical literacy in society. It’s important to know what the Bible says, even if you don’t believe in it.
In a broader sense, having widely understood cultural references and conversational touchstones can be deeply important when it comes to building a sense of community. In a nation with a comparatively short history and extremely diverse population, they provide shared context for discussion and a common language of expression — even if one might disagree on their meaning.
At the moment, Americans seem to have few truly shared texts, and their number seems to shrink daily…
She’s not wrong about the importance of having shared cultural references. We could argue over whether the Bible needs to be that common text — Emba seems to think it should be — but I’m more disturbed over the article’s headline (which she may or may not have written): “Even atheists should read the Bible.”
Atheists aren’t even mentioned in the piece. It’s just a cheap shot against us for clicks. If we were included in the article, though, then maybe her readers would know two things:
1) Atheists have read the Bible. That’s why many of us are atheists.
2) When it comes to understanding what’s in the Bible and other religious texts, atheists know more than everybody else. The Pew Research Center conducted a “U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey” in 2010 and found that atheists and agnostics scored higher than every faith group when it came to “questions about the core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions.”
The problem isn’t that atheists aren’t familiar with the stories in the Bible. The problem is that a lot of people are just plain ignorant about faith, and that includes Christians about their own religion.
We don’t know what religious beliefs those Wall Street Journal reporters hold. We don’t know that they’re atheists — and the article never says they are. For all we know, they’re Christians. They just missed a religious reference they weren’t familiar with. (They won’t make that mistake again, I’m sure.)
It’s foolish to argue, based on this, that atheists need to be more familiar with Christian mythology. We know more than enough.
I look forward to the correction in her article.
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