“But if not …” and lost Biblical literacy

If only we could revive the practice among lay people of praying the daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer!

I can’t say enough praiseworthy about John Covert’s website that provides us with all the Collects, Psalms, Readings and Canticles of the day.  Not only that,  if you want to join in saying the prayers, at the website there’s a call in number so you can participate via phone at 8:35 AM ET and 4:45 PM ET.   John sent me a call in number for Ottawa so there are no long distance charges and he has numbers for other cities that he would be happy to provide to anyone who is interested.

Edith Humphrey, a New Testament scholar and friend who teaches at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, is a former Anglican who eventually left with her husband Chris to become Orthodox.  I got to know her and her husband when they lived in Ottawa, and still remember a talk she gave at the Anglican Essentials Conference here in Ottawa when Anglicans troubled by a push for “same-sex blessings” met to discuss what was next.

She has a story in one of her books  (I just tried to find it and because I do not have a librarian, when I need it I can’t!) that illustrates the huge contrast between the Biblical literacy of ordinary people in England during the Second World War and today.

She wrote of how the British Expeditionary Force became stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk. The commander sent a three word telegram to home office that was immediately understood.  “But if not.”

Okay, stop for a moment.  If you got a telegram with those three words would you have a clue what was meant?

Interestingly, however, when the contents of this telegram was made known to the British people, they knew immediately what it meant too.

They knew it referred to Daniel 3:18

Here is the verse in context from the King James Version:

16Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, answered and said to the king, O Nebuchadnezzar, we are not careful to answer thee in this matter. 17If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. 18But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.

Ordinary people launched every boat or craft capable of crossing the English Channel to rescue the stranded British soldiers.

That story to me shows the power of lay people praying the daily offices and becoming steeped in Scripture through daily exposure.

Dr. John Patrick, president of Augustine College that offers a one year program in the foundations of western civilization, has often spoken of the Biblical literacy of farmers in the 19th Century, men who had only an 8th grade education but they knew Scripture and because of that attained greater literacy than the people of today.  He has a Bible metaphor test up on his website. See if you know all of these.  I confess, I did not.

Our Ordinariate Parish has a close association with Augustine College.  Our pastor Fr. Doug Hayman is chaplain and teaches the Scripture course. One of our parishioners is their webmaster.  He and several of our young people are alumni of Augustine College.

3 thoughts on ““But if not …” and lost Biblical literacy

  1. Did the telegram read “But it not” as you have quoted, or “But if not.” as in the passage from Daniel? If the former the British people must have been astute in more ways than Biblically.


  2. You’re a better man than I am, G.D., or in this case D.G. I would have been tempted to make the correction and suppress the comment.


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