Urban legends: and, can we please stop preaching them?

I’ve just been listening to an MP3 of a sermon (I won’t tell you who by!) from an evangelical church which used, by way of illustration, the story about Arthur Conan Doyle sending a letter to certain famous people saying “All is discovered: Flee now!”. Of course, they all fled. Great illustration of the universal guilt of humanity (Romans 3:10 etc.) … only, it’s not true.

This particular example isn’t so bad, because the power of the illustration does not come from its truth or not, but because it makes the point that everyone has things in their life which they would be ashamed of if made public, underscoring that we are all sinners, no matter how respectable we try to appear. But even so, I don’t think it is appropriate for Christians to repeat these kinds of urban legends as if they are factual – and if they do use them, to make it explicit that they are legends and not fact.

Other common urban legends I’ve heard from various pulpits include:

  • Charles Darwin recanted on his deathbed.
  • NASA scientists discovered a “missing day in time” caused by the events recorded in Joshua 10.
  • Spurgeon poured a pitcher of water over someone who claimed to be sinless to see their reaction (this one might actually be true… sounds like the kind of thing he would do)

Why shouldn’t preachers use urban legends and myths?

  • Because it makes it easier for non-Christians to charge Christians with deceit, or with not caring about the truth, so long as a story fits their cause. And if Christians are willing to repeat an urban legend they heard without checking up on the veracity of it, why should we not then assume the worst about their repetition of the gospel?
  • Because repeating a false story from the pulpit keeps the story in circulation, because more people hear about it, and they hear it from someone who they (should) consider reasonably authoritative.
  • Because a good sermon should derive its authority from the Word of God, and any other story can only ever be illustrative anyway – so if a particular urban legend is integral to the point the preacher wants to make, the point is probably not worth making in the first place.
  • Because it is very, very easy for people to check out the truth or falsity of urban legends – and undermines the truth of the rest of what the preacher has said when someone finds out that the illustration was not true.
  • Because truth matters, and what we say matters. James had a lot to say about the power of what we say; Jesus once said that human beings would one day be called to account for every careless word they have spoken (Mt. 12:36). God does not lie – and neither should his ministers.

Given the ease of checking urban legends out on the internet, and of recognising the “urban legend” genre by its literary form (cues such as vague references, having heard it before in a slightly different setting, being a little too pat to be true etc.) I don’t think Christian preachers have any excuse for using them. At the very least they should come with a huge health warning: “This story is apocryphal/probably isn’t true, but illustrates the point I’m making…”

What do you think? Are there circumstances where it is OK to use urban legends or stories we suspect to be apocryphal in preaching? Have you heard any others used recently?

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5 Responses to “Urban legends: and, can we please stop preaching them?”

  1. Phil Jackson Says:

    I’ve never heard that attributed to Conan Doyle, but often used claiming Mark Twain as its author, perhaps I listen too much to sermons from across the atlantic. I would issue a similar appeal to curb the use of spurious and polemic statistics in sermons.

  2. Larry Says:

    Spurgeon poured milk over someone is the story I heard…

  3. agyapw Says:

    Yeah, the number of different permutations of people and substances involved in a lot of these doesn’t really do much for their believability…

  4. Mike O'Connell Says:

    These kinds of anecdotes used in sermons constitute a small percentage of the reason why I could never be low-church. I think you’re first point in bold is very important, and is one well made by philosophy of religion.

    • agyapw Says:

      Thanks, Mike – it is important that the church retain its integrity by having high standards of truthfulness, especially from the pulpit. It’s often a very damaging experience for Christians to discover something (even small things) they were told by a Church leader is not true.
      I wouldn’t say it was only the low church that was guilty of this though!

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