I am old enough to have seen the urban legend evolve from stories whispered by my teenage babysitters late at night to full blown electronic internet sensations. The stories haven't changed all that much, but where they were once transmitted at the speed of mouth-to-ear, they are now blasted out to millions at the pace of the electron.
I have always been initially skeptical of such stories, a fact I owe in part to time spent as carny when I was a boy (a story I will have to find an excuse for sharing sometime); but whatever the reason, I was somewhat dismayed to discover after becoming a Christian that many in the church can be extremely susceptible to believing urban legends. This is evidenced in part by the fact that the overwhelming amount of garbage that comes into my e-mail box is from trusted fellow believers.
In fact, many of the faith-building stories I heard as a young Christian are, after all, urban legends. I heard them from young believers, mature believers, and even from the occasional pastor. I remember hearing some twenty years ago about the NASA scientist who verified Joshua's missing day, The atheist professor who challenged the student's faith by dropping a glass vial. The whaler who survived eighteen hours in the belly of a whale, not unlike Jonah himself.
All wonderful faith-inspiring stories, and all, apparently, completely made-up.
The reason why Christians seem so willing to hear and pass on such stories is, I think, in part attributable to a wrong view of faith itself; we tend to see it as something there makes us feel good, whether it can be proven or not, and thus it has value to our lives, so we need not question it further.
This, however, isn't faith as Scripture describes it. The 'assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.' as faith is described in Hebrews, was never a kindly story passed on by others. It was instead a belief grounded in history; a history of God intervening in men's lives and cultures, invading them, altering them, saving them, and sometimes even destroying those who would stand against His commands. And believers were always commanded to remember those events in history as history in their Passover celebrations, sacrifices, and later communions and worship times.
Many might wonder what the big deal is; what's wrong with nice stories that encourage us and make us feel better about what we believe? To that I can only say that if we are not a people that highly value truth, then we really have very little to offer others. Paul said, "I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God, for salvation, to everyone who believes". Who are we to supplement the power of God's truth with just-so stories and half-truths? If anything, we cause others to doubt us when we do share with them real, life-changing truth.
Here are a few ways to avoid getting caught in the urban legend trap:
1. Be critical of stories for which no reliable source is known.
2. Take the time to verify the details of something before passing it on; if you can't, then delete it from your e-mail box.
3. Resist the urge to repeat something because it makes for a good story. In fact, stories which sound like stories; that is, they have a nice plot with a convenient ending, probably are made up.
4. Know that electronic media is often among the most unreliable of sources; don't pass on e-mails or websites unless you are confident of who produced them, and that the information was transmitted accurately.
5. Realize that the source of encouragement in our faith is not simple stories that verify our cherished beliefs, but an active experience with a living God.
Oh, and while you are at it, beware of the atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair; amazingly, she continues to try to ban religious television programming, some ten years after her death; be sure to tell all your friends.