‘But if Not’: How Biblical Literacy Jolted Civilian Brits Into Action at Dunkirk

With biblical literacy and loyalty at historically low levels, America finds herself at a dangerous crossroad.

By Peter Hong Published on August 12, 2017

Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk has taken the nation by storm. With good reason. The film tells the remarkable story of common British citizens who evacuated hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers from the clutches of Nazi Germany. Winston Churchill hailed the event as a “miracle of deliverance.”

But the story behind the rescue mission is as amazing as the event itself — and sadly left untold in Nolan’s film.

Three Words

As Hitler’s forces were about to wipe out the Allied troops trapped at Dunkirk, a British naval officer cabled a distress signal back to London. It contained a three-word code, simple, succinct, and urgent: “But if not.”

If you don’t recognize the code, you’re not alone (at least in 21st century America). Thankfully, in 1940, the British people did.

The words come from the story in the third chapter of Daniel. It tells of three Jewish youths who defied the edict of King Nebuchadnezzar to worship a golden idol. For refusing to bow down to false gods, facing the punishment of a fiery furnace. “If this be so,” they cried, “our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king.

“But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” Daniel 3: 16-18, ESV

In just eight characters, the British forces sent up a cryptic flare with two compelling messages. First, we are in immediate peril. And second, even if faced with imminent death, we will not give in.

Biblical Literacy Saving Lives

The message jolted the British citizenry into action. Thousands of ordinary people banded together. Flotillas of private watercraft sprung up and rescued the troops. Because average Brits were biblically literate enough to understand and respond to the message, Hitler’s advances were stalled and history was made.

Chuck Colson recounted this story in 1996. “But can you imagine the response to such a message in 1990s America?” he asked. Twenty years later, that question bears repeating.

According to a 2017 study for the American Bible Study, only 37 percent of Americans surveyed said they read the Bible at least once a week. That’s not much more than the 3 percent who say they never read the Bible.

As in Dunkirk, the difference between life and death can still be spread in three simple words: “He is risen!”

In May, Gallup found that less than one-quarter of Americans (24 percent) believe that the Bible is the actual Word of God. This is the lowest point in 40 years. It also marks the first time those who view the Bible as the literal Word of God have been surpassed by those who call the Bible “a book of fables, legends, history and moral precepts recorded by man.”

With Bible literacy and loyalty at historically low levels, America finds herself at a dangerous crossroad. First, we don’t know our Bibles. We are fast becoming like the Sadducees, who idolized self-sufficiency and denied God’s involvement in everyday life. In Jesus’ words, they knew “neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.” (Mark 12:24)

What We No Longer Know

Second, the decline in Bible literacy means we Americans have much less in common with our fellow countrymen than we used to. This includes a common body of knowledge.

In its 2010 U.S Religious Knowledge Survey, the Pew Research Center found that only 55 percent of Americans surveyed knew that the Golden Rule is not one of the Ten Commandments. Fewer than half could name all four Gospels.

Obviously, Christianity is not a matter of head knowledge or reciting facts and figures at Bible trivia night. Still, these numbers are disconcerting, especially when compared with the 89 percent of people who knew that public school teachers are banned from leading their students in prayer. People may not know Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but they do know you can’t quote John 3:16 in class with your head bowed and an “Amen.”

Christians should know the Word of God and teach others the secret of eternal life. In a world dominated by texts and tweets, we have an advantage: brevity. As in Dunkirk, the difference between life and death can still be spread in three simple words:

“He is risen!”

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