Dozens of urban legends with religious themes circulate on the Internet. Snopes.com, the self-styled “urban legends reference pages,” lists 49 religion tales.
O’Hair died more than a decade ago, but the rumor about her FCC petition lives on. The commission has received millions of inquiries about it, many the result of church-sponsored letter-writing campaigns.
It’s gotten so bad that the FCC’s official Web site has a page debunking the rumor. (The page notes that in 1974, two other people petitioned the FCC to look into the practices of stations licensed to religious groups. But O’Hair, the famous atheist, had nothing to do with that petition, and it didn’t seek a ban on religious programming.)
“It’s the mother of all urban legends,” said Rich Buhler, founder of TruthOrFiction.com, a site that exposes false “e-rumors.” The story resurfaces from time to time; one recent version blamed the supposed O’Hair petition for forcing “Touched by an Angel” off the air.
The FCC story is one of dozens of urban legends with religious themes circulating on the Internet. Snopes.com, the self-styled “urban legends reference pages,” lists 49 religion tales.
Most are pure hokum (Scientists drilling in Siberia punch through to hell). Some have a partial basis in fact (Seventh-graders in California are subjected to an intense three-week course in Islam and forced to pray to Allah). Some are comical (St. Chad is the patron saint of disputed elections). And a few are true (Gov. George W. Bush signed a proclamation declaring June 10, 2000, to be Jesus Day in Texas).
Many of the legends seem to appeal to conservative and evangelical Christians, and are widely circulated by e-mail and on blogs they read.
But some within the evangelical community have taken on myth-busting as a ministry. Web sites such as TruthMiners.com and Answers.org expose hoaxes and urge Christians not to pass on unsubstantiated rumors.
Christian radio personalities, including Pat Dobson, have pointedly debunked popular e-rumors. They see discussion of urban legends as a tool for teaching about truth, falsehood and Christian integrity.
Writing about the Madalyn O’Hair rumor, for example, the author of one entry on a Christian site said: “Christian credibility has suffered a major blow on this one, folks. May we wise up for His Name’s sake!”
And someone on Answers.org wrote, “As Christians we are commanded … to be people of truth. When we pass on an accusation … that is false, we are, whether we know it or not, lying. We are setting a false witness about Christianity that Christians are bigots who don’t care about the truth.”
Buhler, an ordained Foursquare Gospel minister, likens urban legends to apocryphal stories of healings and miracles that circulate in his Pentecostal church.
He became interested in urban legends by way of the e-rumor about scientists drilling deep into the earth and encountering human screams and high temperatures.
The rumor started when a national Christian talk show host read a letter from a man in Norway describing the “discovery” of hell. Buhler called the Norwegian, who immediately admitted that his letter was a hoax. The man added that Buhler was the first who had bothered to check.
“So many stories turned out not to be credible,” Buhler said, yet believers passed them on anyway, thinking it might boost others’ faith.
“But God doesn’t need any help being real,” he said. “If you do hold out for what’s true and has integrity say, somebody’s life really turned around through faith in Christ you’ll find it, because it’s real.”
Kevin Lewis, an assistant professor of theology and law at Biola University, a Christian school near Los Angeles, uses urban legends as fodder in classes on legal evidence, apologetics and epistemology. He reminds students that if Christians are to “witness” to others, they must be credible witnesses.
“Urban legends offer a great lesson on why people accept things that don’t have any factual basis,” he said. “And, unfortunately, there are a lot of reasons why Christians believe baloney.”
Modern churches aren’t catechizing believers as thoroughly as in the past, he says, leaving many Christians with a superficial understanding of church history and theology. And many tend to accept beliefs from an authority, such as a pastor, without understanding the basis of those beliefs.
Urban legends, Lewis said, can serve as object lessons for discussion of questions like, “How do you know anything is true?” and, “Why should I believe Billy Graham rather than Jim Jones?”
And those questions have serious implications.
“You’re cult bait if you don’t use your mind,” he said.
Web sites like Snopes.com and TruthOrFiction.com typically debunk myths by providing links to credible sources, such as articles in major newspapers. These sources don’t offer absolute proof, Lewis said, but they are more trustworthy than, say, an e-mail circulating on the Internet that originated with who-knows-whom.
“This is a good conversation for faith communities to have,” said John Llewelyn, an associate professor of communications at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.
“It’s serious business about how we operate within society as we try to figure out what’s true.”
Llewelyn was enlisted by Procter & Gamble as an expert witness in a lawsuit relating to the urban legend about Satanists running the company (false, by the way).
Research indicated that the rumor was deeply rooted in conservative Christian circles, particularly among those “with a very clear conception of the nature of evil,” Llewelyn said.
He added that he was not surprised that certain religious groups embraced certain rumors.
“Our loyalties are rooted in the stories we accept automatically and the stories we find implausible,” he said. Urban legends typically “address perennial questions and perennial hot topics.”
Buhler said most urban legends are “wow” stories provocative tales that seem to offer insider knowledge not available from the mainstream media.
The war in Iraq is front-page news everywhere. But a story about a Quranic verse predicting the “wrath of the Eagle cleansing the lands of Allah” gives readers a feeling of being in the know. (Never mind that the Quran contains no such verse.)
While it’s tempting to just forward an e-mail that has the ring of truth to it, Lewis said, there is a religious duty not to do so particularly since the same Internet that makes it easy to spread rumors makes it easy to check their veracity.
“As Christians, we’re exhorted to speak the truth in love,” he said, “not follow a path of hearsay and things that might be true.”
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