Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Keep Urban Legends Out of Church

This is aimed at Latter-Day Saints, but elements of it apply universally.

Last Sunday at church one of the speakers read verbatim from the pulpit excerpts from a faith promoting story that he had pulled off the Internet about the service of the 1457th Engineering Battalion in Iraq. Some web sites (I will not provide links to them) and emails entitle it Our Modern Day Stripling Warriors. Immediately after the speaker started reading it I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach rather than the spiritual lift that was intended. Let me explain.

A basic trait of human nature is to latch onto information that validates our way of thinking while minimizing or ignoring information that might detract from it. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Our views are often hard earned through years of testing information and piecing things together. Of course we give less credence to information that is similar to stuff we have already discarded through this process. But a problem arises when we accept information, either bolstering or refuting our views, without demanding veracity.

Some Mormons are very accepting of stories that support their faith regardless of whether the stories are true. Others are far too ready to believe anything that might cause them to question their faith. While these tendencies are not limited to Mormons, my comments are. In his book Following Christ, BYU professor Stephen E. Robinson says that for some people the spiritual worth of a tale is not whether it is true but whether it sends shivers up the spine. He calls these folks the Goose Pimple Gang. The Lord has a different standard.

Jesus said that he was the embodiment of truth (John 14:6). Jacob in the Book of Mormon said, “the Spirit speaketh truth and lieth not” (Jacob 4:13). In contrast, the devil is “the father of lies” (2 Nephi 2:18). There are hundreds of scriptures similar to these. The point is that if we assay to worship God we should love truth and hate falsehood regardless of the source of either.

Moroni tells us that “by the power of the Holy Ghost [we] may know the truth of all things” (Moroni 10:5). We can expect the Holy Ghost to witness of truth, but we cannot expect the Spirit to confirm stories that fall short of being true. I have to believe that representing a faulty story as true simply because it bolsters one’s faith is offensive to God. I believe that he wants to build faith in him, but he wants to do it through truthfulness.

When Jesus was on the earth he gave many parables and allegories to illustrate eternal truths. It was clear that these stories were merely devices. He did not represent them as factual events. Many remember the disgrace of Paul H. Dunn, a former LDS general authority, when parts of the stories he regularly represented as real events were exposed as being embellished or fabricated. Using an allegorical device to make a point is very different than passing off something as true simply because it causes a thrill inside.

A group of LDS people runs a website called SHIELDS (Scholarly & Historical Information Exchange for Latter-Day Saints). They have a page dedicated to debunking Mormon myths, folklore and urban legends. SHIELDS has done just that with the stripling warrior story mentioned earlier (see here). Not only do they post the entire original story, but they post several sources that refute or correct parts of that story.

BYU actually teaches classes on Mormon folklore and urban legends. They have a listing (here) of all of the stories in their database. Of course, Mormons aren’t the only ones to pass around urban legends. An extensive listing and set of links dedicated to debunking urban legends and myths is available at snopes.com. You might be surprised at what you find there that you always thought was factual.

Those that are called to teach or speak in LDS church settings have a responsibility to ensure that they are teaching and speaking truth. They need to rise to a higher standard than the Goose Pimple Gang. They need to have more than simply good intentions. They need to show their love of God (and accordingly their love of truth) by verifying the information they relate.

One of the ways to do this is by using sources that have a track record of accuracy and avoiding sources that have a track record of inaccuracies, like an email telling about something that happened to somebody in somebody else’s sister-in-law’s second cousin’s friend's ward. The truth might seem mundane compared to some of the urban legends available, but at least you can know that it pleases God.

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