by Brett Buckner
Special to the Star
02.27.10 - 03:00 am
It was a moment that made pop culture history,
though few watching likely realized the song was
evoking a narrative rooted in the Bible.
When Justin Timberlake and guitarist Matt Morris
took the stage Jan. 22 for MTV's Hope for Haiti Now
telethon, the duo performed singer/ songwriter
Leonard Cohen's haunting ballad "Hallelujah."
A few weeks later, K. D. Lang performed the same
song during the Olympics opening ceremonies.
Written in 1984, the mournful love song weaves
together allusions to Samson and Delilah, King David
The opening stanza -- "Now I've heard there was a
secret chord/That David played, and it pleased the
Lord" -- refers to the future King David's harp
playing, which soothed King Saul's rage.
Then it flows to the story of David and Bathsheba:
"Your faith was strong but you needed proof/You saw
her bathing on the roof/Her beauty and the moonlight
overthrew you" -- before switching to Samson and
Delilah: "She broke your throne, and she cut your
hair/And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah."
All told, the song details a collection of broken
relationships, and "a broken cry to God borne from
them," said Timothy Beal, author of Biblical
Literacy: The Essential Bible Stories Everyone Needs
to Know. But it can also mean much more -- provided
you know the biblical subtext.
"This is a fabulous, fabulous example," said Beal,
who is also professor of religion at Case Western
Reserve University in Cleveland. "Justin Timberlake
is definitely not someone that most Christians would
view as a Bible believer, but he's up there, using
this biblical language and imagery, allowing it to
find its way into our culture in a way that
motivates people to act compassionately."
Many who watched the performance or helped
"Hallelujah" reach No. 2 on the iTunes singles chart
may have missed the song's deeper meaning, because
many Americans are biblically illiterate. Though
familiar with names like Moses, Noah and Methuselah,
many Americans base their knowledge on a sort of
cultural osmosis rather than tracing these
characters back to the Bible.
"You can't be culturally literate in our society
without also being biblically literate," Beal said.
"Being biblically literate is valuable because it's
inspiring literature, not only in a narrow religious
way, but also because it provokes us to explore
faith and life from a different perspective."
Not even churchgoers know the
The Bible continues to live up to its status as the
greatest-selling book of all time. A 2002 Gallup
Poll found that about 93 percent of Americans own at
least one Bible, with the average household having
But those numbers don't translate into Bible
literacy, just Bible possession. The Bible is the
most owned and least read book ever published, Beal
"We live in a consumer society, so if we want to
identify with something, we buy it to tell people
who we are," he said. "The same goes for faith. To
show others we believe in God, we buy Bibles …
though rarely reading them."
Clair McKinney understands all too well. "I know I
don't read my Bible like I should, and there's a lot
of shame that comes with that," said McKinney, 47,
of Wellborn. "I carry it with me to church every
Sunday and then put it right back on the shelf in my
office or, what's even worse, will leave it in the
back seat of my car all week."
There is good reason why more people don't read the
Bible for themselves, Beal said. "On the one hand,
it feels very familiar. It's hard to listen to a pop
song or watch a television show or political debate
without picking up some allusion to or a phrase from
the Bible. But on the other hand, if we sit down and
actually try to read the Bible, we'll find it to be
very strange. It comes from far, far away and long,
long ago and is translated from a language that's as
foreign to most of us as Sanskrit."
According to Gallup, only half of the adults
interviewed could name any of the four Gospels of
the New Testament; just 37 percent could name all
four. Only 42 percent were able to name as many as
five of the Ten Commandments. And while 70 percent
were able to name the town where Jesus was born,
just 42 percent could identify him as the person who
delivered the Sermon on the Mount.
Evangelicals didn't fare much better, nor did young
people who were raised in regular church-going
families -- a fact that doesn't surprise C.O.
Grinstead, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in
Grinstead knows that many Christians, even those in
his congregation, open their Bibles only when
sitting in their pews during Sunday services or
during a crisis -- and that's not good enough.
"The South used to be known as the Bible Belt, but I
don't think that's true anymore," he said. "I feel
it's more like the Church Belt. We talk about our
feelings … our feelings don't matter. What matters
is what God says. And that's what we need to get
back to – the word of God."
Founded in 2001, The Bible Literacy Project is
combating biblical illiteracy by encouraging the
academic study of the Bible in public schools. In
2005, the project published The Bible and Its
Influence, a textbook for use in public high
In 2007, Alabama became the first state to approve
the book. Today, six percent of Alabama public
schools are using the course.
From Lost to The Simpsons
"I Corinthians 15:55" is among the last songs Johnny
Cash ever wrote. Included on the new album American
VI: Ain't No Grave, which was released Tuesday, the
song opens with the Bible verse from which it takes
its name "Where, O death, is your victory?/Where, O
death, is your sting?" It is a song written by a man
whose personal demons were as legendary as the
Christian faith that eventually vanquished them, a
man who is finally at peace with death.
It's not just pop music that's filled with biblical
allusions; it's TV and movies and literature, too.
On the cult TV show Lost,the island, where the
survivors of the crash of Oceanic Flight 815 have
been stranded for six seasons, serves as a sort of
"biblical wilderness, where people discover
themselves and their true calling," making reluctant
hero Jack Shephard the Moses figure, according to
On The Simpsons,creator Matt Groening has often
satirized the Bible and religion. "It's meant to
make people think about their own faith and how
sometime religion can get in the way of common
sense," said Steven Salzburg, 18, of Jacksonville.
"The Bible is a huge influence on the town, the
characters and the show. It's used in a really smart
but sarcastic way."
But this mingling of pop culture and scripture makes
Grinstead uneasy. "If I've got a pail of crystal
clean water and I put in a tablespoon of toilet
water, do I still want to drink it?" he asked.
"Sure, it looks the same, but I know it's polluted.
That's how far our society has come. True biblical
literacy is what allows Christians to stay pure and
clean and not be polluted by what culture tells us
But discovering the Bible in popular culture can
create "new horizons of meaning," Beal said.
Shakespeare often evoked the Bible. In Henry V, when
King Henry threatens Harfleur, he says, "Your naked
infants spitted upon pikes, whiles the mad mothers
with their howls confused do break the clouds, as
did the wives of Jewry at Herod's bloody-hunting
From Beowulf to Chaucer, William Blake to Charlotte
Bronte, Toni Morrison to Flannery O'Connor --
authors have drawn inspiration from passages,
characters, language and stories within the Bible.
But to fully appreciate the references, readers must
first appreciate the source.
"The Bible deepens our experience of culture and
community, everyday relationships and creative
works," Beal said. "It resonates throughout our
society and our daily lives. It enriches our lives,
not only spiritually, but culturally as well."
That's in the Bible?
Timothy Beal's book ITALBiblical Literacy: The
Essential Bible Stories Everyone Needs to KnowUNITAL
includes these common phrases that you may or may
not know come from the Bible:
-- "Apple of my eye" – Deuteronomy 32:10
-- "At wits' end" – Psalm 107:27
-- "Blind leading the blind" – Matthew 15:14
-- "Can a leopard change its spots?" – Jeremiah
-- "Drop in a bucket" – Isaiah 40:15
-- "Eat and drink for tomorrow we die" – Isaiah
-- "Fat of the land" – Genesis 45:18
-- "Fight the good fight" – 1 Timothy 6:12
-- "Fly in the ointment" – Ecclesiastes 10:1
-- "Give up the ghost" – Acts 12:23
-- "How the mighty have fallen" – 2 Samuel 1:19
-- "Many are called but few are chosen" – Matthew
-- "No rest for the wicked" – Isaiah 57:20
-- "Physician, heal thyself" – Luke 4:23
-- "Rise and shine" – Isaiah 60:1
-- "Skin of my teeth" – Job 19:20
-- "Sour grapes" – Ezekiel 18:2
-- "Woe is me" – Job 10:15
-- "Writing on the wall" – Daniel 5:4-6
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