Saturday, April 12, 2014

Keeping It Real


Christians love a good story.
The typical sermon centers on a few specific verses, but reading those few verses would take all of four minutes. If the pastor or speaker adds a few personal thoughts on those verses, or gives some additional information about the history and culture of the time period, or whips out a word or two in Greek or Hebrew – maybe twenty minutes. What seems to flesh out a sermon (and more importantly grab the attention of the congregation), however, is the extra-biblical story, and I’ve never heard a sermon that didn’t include at least one or two.
These stories might be telling of a personal experience growing up, or of a news story from a couple of years ago, or even a humorous anecdote. There is certainly nothing wrong with telling stories, as even untrue stories can illustrate things that are true. In V for Vendetta (2005), Evey Hammond tells the masked vigilante known as “V” a bit about her parents:
“My father was a writer. You would’ve liked him. He used to say that artists use lies to tell the truth, while politicians use them to cover the truth up.”

Even Jesus, who describes himself in part as “the truth” in John 14:6, told many stories that not even the strictest Biblical literalists believe were actually true in themselves: stories about a man buying a field for hidden treasure, or a persistent widow pleading for justice, or a roadside mugging and a kind Samaritan. His audience (typically the disciples) understood the concept of a story intended to teach a principle rather than to relay factual events. The idea was that the listener was supposed to figure out the meaning behind the story rather than to defend the authenticity of the details within; fact checkers were not necessary because no one was claiming that the story was true or condemning skeptics who remained unconvinced that the events relayed literally happened.
Today’s stories are quite different. Even as a relative introvert, rarely does a week go by that I am not told some untrue story by a Christian friend or acquaintance. I have no problem with untrue stories in themselves – I personally have told an untrue story many times about a piece of string that walks into a bar – but the ones I hear or read on Facebook are almost always presented as factual, often leading off with “this is a true story” (causing the sender to literally bear false witness). While there is some overlap in a few cases, I've noticed that these widely-circulated tales fall into one of four categories.
Overstated Anecdote
Actual Homeless Guy - Not A Pastor
In my opinion, this is the most innocent of the falsehoods. It's really just a modern parable meant to point out some truth, and would be a great story if it wasn't so bent on being portrayed as real. A recent example would be the story of pastor Jeremiah Steepek, who allegedly disguises himself as a homeless man on the day he is to be introduced to his new megachurch congregation. It's a great story with a nice message, but portrayed as factual, it is easily discredited. Obviously, a megachurch would have an online presence by which the pastor could at least be verified as a real person. Additionally, the photo attached (reportedly of Steepek) had already been published and the man identified as an actual homeless man. Apparently after writing a nice little story, it was just too much work for the author to take a photo himself, rather than just typing "homeless guy" into the Flickr search. These stories simply aim for the "warm fuzzy" and are practically engineered to go viral in Christian circles, the equivalent of cute kitten pictures among pet lovers.
Proof of God (or the End of Days)
Yes, all state-college professors are angry atheists...
Such stories are basically the overstated anecdote on steroids, often based on urban legends. They are more aggressive, usually leaning on a stereotype (such as the angry intellectual atheist, or the violent Muslim) and yet maintaining the claim of being a true story.  The picture of actor Kevin Sorbo here is from the recent film God Is Not Dead, which does not claim to be non-fiction, but it also has striking similarities to the "true story of something that happened a few years ago at USC" involving dropped chalk as a proof of the existence of God. Not surprisingly, Snopes reached out to USC and was informed that nothing of the sort has ever happened there. Having attended a (secular) state college myself, I also find the idea of 300 students staying in their seats to hear one other student share his faith to be quite preposterous.
As a believer, these sorts of claims are very disturbing. For one thing, especially in the age of Google, these are easily discredited. But where finding out that Pastor Steepek may be fictional is of little consequence, these claims put the veracity of Christianity itself on the line. For example, if you claim that Noah's Ark has been located in Turkey and it is found to be completely false, does this not throw the entire biblical narrative of the flood into question?
Additionally, I wonder about the faith of those that rely on such legends and falsehoods. Not only are they spreading misinformation to others in direct opposition to one of the ten commandments, but they appear to need such stories as a type of evidence to support their faith, as if someone can't believe in a Christian eschatology without believing an urban legend about a red heifer or believe in even a literal interpretation of Joshua 10 without buying a story that NASA discovered evidence of a missing day. For my part, my religious beliefs do not hinge on tales of modern "proofs".
Political Nonsense
Yep...this was in Indiana.
To be very frank, these are perhaps the most pathetic falsehoods, and certainly among the most frequently shared. They are simply political attack ads, sometimes granted a sense of legitimacy by "Christian" organizations. The timing is always interesting, as some furor about an incumbent (most often President Barack Obama) always seems to be gaining momentum before a primary or national vote. For the record, Obama did not change the Oval Office to "look Muslim", he did not cancel the National Day of Prayer, and he was not born in Kenya. He did not make free speech a felony. I could go on and on, but there would be no point...All lies and jests, still a man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest.
To be fair, political falsehoods are not new, nor are they limited to just Democrats or Republicans. But regardless of political leanings, anyone of integrity (Christian or not) should refrain from spreading misinformation whether or not they agree with a person, or who they hope wins an election. Putting politics over ethics is certain to destroy one's credibility. Again, in the age of information, just about anyone can check your facts instantaneously - don't be a Liar for Jesus.
Playing the Victim 
Or maybe it was building code violations and fraud.
These are also quite frequent in the Facebook feed, often visible to me due to a "like" granted to a post by Focus on the Family, the American Center for Law and Justice, or other religious-political hybrid organization (that post often includes a request for donations to help the fight against an imaginary or overstated injustice).  Once recent outrage was over the arrest of Michael Salman, characterized by some religious groups as persecution by the state of Arizona against a Christian doing nothing more than holding a bible study in his home. The story was so misconstrued that the city of Phoenix had to defend itself with an official "fact sheet" detailing the city's actual complaints.
Many of these sorts of posts invoke the ACLU Boogeyman, like the claim that they are trying to remove crosses from cemeteries or to stop prayer within the United States Marine Corps. Others focus on (and some even authored by) Christian "celebrities" who claim they are being targeted: "liberals and atheists" are targeting Duck Dynasty, Facebook is trying to censor Kirk Cameron promoting his new film, and country stations are refusing to play a song by Diamond Rio entitled In God We Still Trust. Oddly enough, it has been my own personal experience that the people most hostile toward my beliefs are not governmental authorities, but Christians themselves.
Follow the Money
As a churchgoing teen in the late 1980s, I would often hear (and honestly enjoy) the routines of "Christian comedian" Mike Warnke. I couldn't have cared less about his many claims from some past life (which eventually were all exposed as complete fabrications); I just liked listening to this goofy guy with clean but genuinely funny jokes, many with religious overtones. It wasn't until he was off the radar that I learned that he rode to fame based on lies. Like several televangelists of the time, his gig was up once his lies were exposed; before that time, he was held up as a sort of living proof of the power of God to transform a life. His story was custom-made for the exact hopes and longings of a select group.

Yes, but is "Heaven is for Real" for real?
In just a few days, TriStar Pictures will release a movie version of the incredibly popular book Heaven is For Real, a story custom-made for the exact hopes and longings of a select group. There is no indication that this book/movie is a fraud, but I must confess that I would personally be more persuaded that the story was factual if the Burpo family had not profited financially (and greatly) from the book. I would caution those who strongly defend the tale as true, however, to acknowledge that just as there is no evidence that the book is a fraud, there is also no evidence that the story is true, no matter how much one would like it to be. Not only do the details of NDEs (near death experiences) vary, but I was once (no, twice) the parent of a four year old. Maybe a child wished to entertain or impress his father, or maybe the four-year-old never said anything he was reported to have said. Maybe the tales are completely true. The only thing that is certain is that it makes for a good milkshake - and Christians will drink it up.

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