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June 1940: Hitler’s armies are poised to destroy the cornered British army, stranded on the beaches at Dunkirk. As the British people anxiously await word of their fate, a three-word message is transmitted from the besieged army: “And if not…

The British public instantly recognizes the message: “It’s a reference to the biblical story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego standing before King Nebuchadnezzer’s fiery furnace. “Our god is able to save us… and if not, we will remain faithful to Him anyway.”

The message galvanized the British people, and thousands crossed the English Channel in small boats to rescue their army.

Fast forward 61 years to Jan. 22, 2001: President George W. Bush delivers his inaugural address. Afterward, Dick Meyer of CBS News confesses, “There were a few phrases in the speech I just didn’t get. One was, ‘When we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass on the other side.'”

I hope there’s not a quiz,” Meyer concluded.

What a difference a generation makes. For centuries, Biblical references were the common coinage of Western speech. As Dunkirk demonstrates, people were so steeped in the Scriptures they immediately recognized a cryptic biblical allusion. But today that memory has been erased.