Tom Sawyer, bristling with the largest collection of yellow, red, and blue tickets for the successful recitation of Scripture memorization (tickets he has just got at the schoolhouse door in exchange for bits of lickrish, a fishhook, and other treasures amassed during a certain whitewashing episode) is now called to the podium at the head of the class, which this moment has become the epicenter of the universe, time itself being transfixed and every breath bated and every eye on the improbable scholar and on the Superintendent in his annual descent from on high to bestow the prize: a handsome new Bible.
The question is put to Master Tom by his august benefactor: "Now, no doubt you know the names of all the 12 disciples. Won't you tell us the names of the first two that were appointed?"
And here Mark Twain, out of decency toward his own creations, tastefully draws the chapter to a close as Tom, unable to slip this caper for all he's worth, for all his blushing and tugging at a button, blurts out: "David and Goliath."
It's supposed to be a funny scene, and someday they will tell you as much in a gloss in the margin, when the last man on earth dies who gets the joke.
We are fast approaching-let us say the handwriting is on the wall-the end of the age of biblical literacy, and the genesis of an age where every biblical allusion will have to be explained-lest ye cast pearls to swine.
I got wind of this in a number of ways, one being WORLD's editorial decision, announced about a year ago, to jettison such Christian jargon as "tentmaker" in favor of casting a wider cultural net. And I believe that was right.
An editorial Marvin Olasky had penned about a year earlier (April 17, 1999) quoted a 1913 New York Times article waxing poetic about a new income tax that it compared to a "rock of credit from which abundant streams of revenue will flow whenever Congress chooses to smite it.... We may be sure that it will be smitten hard and always harder." I'll bet the man on the street 88 years ago saw Moses in that metaphor, but I wouldn't count on it today.
As the incredibly shrinking cultural Bible repertoire becomes mirrored in the press, contemporary purloined illusions are wont to be more truncated. Some recent citings I have come across include a Newsweek essay on the dark side of celebrity titled "Reaping the Whirlwind"(Ah, but does the author really know Hosea?), a Toyota ad with the parsimonious text "Born Again," and again from Newsweek a commentary on Hillary Clinton's taste in furniture: "Get thee behind me, Danish modern!"
To be sure, you will still find vestigial language here and there: talk of stumbling blocks, good Samaritans, judging not, walking on water, parting the waters, turning swords into ploughshares, going the extra mile, things not written in stone, Solomonic wisdom, being your brother's keeper, being all things to all men, plagues of locusts, Armageddon, not serving two masters, turning the other cheek, the first being last, the meek inheriting the earth, the patience of Job, houses divided that cannot stand-and other such "shibboleths" in the mouths of people who don't know that "shibboleth" comes from a story in the book of Judges.
And once you've caught on to the fact that our secular pundits bandy about these expressions without a clue as to their origins, you are never quite so intimidated again by Erudition; it's clear that the emperor has no clothes (a saying not from the Bible, by the way).
It just so happens-no lie- that as I was musing on these things, a college friend of my daughter, art major at the University of the Arts here in Philadelphia, called me with an SOS: "Where in the Bible is there something about a flight into Egypt, y'know, as in Giotto's painting by the same name? Gotta know by Monday." We started with a quick briefing on the general division into two "testaments," and never flew much higher than the nitty-gritty of how to write a citation: "Put 'Matthew' and then the number 2, for the chapter, then a colon and 13 dash 18, for verses."
Funny you called when you did, I told Kim. I was just thinking about all the language we're losing these days. Soon we'll be communicating in TV slogans, I guess. But that's not the main thing, Kim. That baby Jesus, the one who fled to Egypt, that's the main thing, that's the part I want you to know. "OK, Mrs. Seu," she said, and thanked me for the help. And I thought I heard an echo of Tom Sawyer.