“So I once knew a guy who…” Preachers who stretch the truth

A famous visiting preacher, the Rev. Johnson, is wrapping up his message on sacrificial love. He concludes with a story:

In the church where I used to be the pastor, there was a boy named Jimmy, 10 years old. He was good-hearted and liked by everyone in the neighborhood. One day Jimmy saw the little girl next door run out into the street after a lost ball, just when a truck came barreling towards her. Jimmy didn’t have to think twice – he dove into the street and pushed the girl out of the way, but not quickly enough so he could escape; the truck knocked Jimmy flat. The driver jumped down and held Jimmy while he was dying. Later, choking back the tears, he told the boy’s parents: “The last thing he said was, ‘Mister, tell my folks it’s okay; I just did what Jesus would have done.’”

The preacher’s voice catches as he tells the story; he concludes his message, and there is not a dry eye in the house.

You are so taken with this story that you try to track down more information. To your disappointment, you find out that the newspaper in that town had never run a story about anyone even resembling “Jimmy.” What’s more, the local police have no record of such an accident. So, you find out, Jimmy never said those words; he never saved that little girl; in fact, Jimmy never existed. It was all made-up; a gripping story, but untrue. [1] (For our purposes, we will use the word “untruth” rather than “lie”, since untruth is a broader category).

Given that the story had its desired effect – people left the building, dedicated to be more loving – was the preacher justified in inventing the story, even giving a name and composing the lad’s final words? Does the end justify the means? I will argue that he does not. Even further, can Rev. Johnson fall back on the defense, “Wellll now, it was just an illustration to make a point!” No! A news reporter would be fired for taking that same liberty.

Whether in sermons, political speeches or motivational talks I have sometimes sensed that a “true story” that “really happened” sounded just a little too perfect. I’ve wondered how come some preachers seem to have experiences that lend themselves neatly to sermon illustrations, while the events of my life don’t come out so tidy. I suspect I might be hearing a fiction or, as Hollywood assures us, a tale “based on a real story”.

To have your book recommended by Oprah’s Book Club is virtually a guarantee that sales will skyrocket. That’s what happened in 2005, when she announced that James Frey’s autobiography, A Million Little Pieces, was a must-read. The publisher advertised it as a “brutally honest” report. Frey wrote how he had been an outlaw, wanted in three states, in prison multiple times, on drugs, in a train accident, that is, he was living proof of what goes wrong when young people go astray. He sold millions of copies; but then much to Oprah’s chagrin, it turned out that the publisher had not properly verified the facts. Many of the key events were simply made-up: his only jail time was a few hours he spent in the local lockup while a friend arranged bail. [2]

As with defenders of fishy sermon illustrations, supporters of Frey have objected that a story doesn’t need to be “accurate” in order to be “true.” Post-modernists might defend the book as “true for him, or on some level” if not for others. Some argued that if A Million Little Pieces keeps just one kid off drugs – or if little Jimmy makes us more loving – well then, isn’t that what really matters? I say no: the truth does matter, and we cannot bend the facts or invent history for a justifiable end. More on this later.

Let’s award the blue ribbon for “Outstanding Phony Christian Life Story” to Mike Warnke. When I was 15 I bought a copy of The Satan Seller (1972). I had already read Bill Sands’ amazing crime-to-success autobiography My Shadow Ran Fast, and so naturally I assumed that Warnke’s story was true in the same way. In fact, didn’t it say right in the front of the book that, “The events are absolutely as described”? Warnke told of his time as a highly-placed Satanic priest and how he was saved out of darkness to follow the light. Finally, here was an exposé of the underground Satanist movement in California and around the world. Christians read the titillating details of his drug use, his live-in sex slaves, the blood sacrifices. They rejoiced to hear that God saved him from darkness.

Well, apparently he was not converted quite far enough: it turns out that most of his story was a fabrication. Other “exaggerations” were the PhD he falsely claimed to have, his supposed heroic deeds in Vietnam and his cover-ups of his multiple marriages and affairs and financial misdeeds. When Warnke claimed to have been palling around with Charles Manson, Manson was already behind bars. [3]

Was Warnke justified in concocting his tale of the Dark Side? Can we rationalize, “If his story helps certain people come to the Lord, then isn’t it worth it?” No, and for several important reasons. First, let’s begin with the simple issue of credibility. When The Satan Seller broke sales records, plenty of neo-pagans and Wiccans stepped forward and declared the story simply did not ring true. Warnke and many Christians responded, “Well of course, that’s exactly what they would say, isn’t it!” Others blamed the anti-Warnke backlash on the “left-wing media”, an excuse that lies ready to hand for too many Christians who do not want to examine facts.

The non-Christians kept insisting, and in the end they were vindicated. Let’s fully appreciate what happened: Satanists and Wiccans (they are different groups entirely) turned out to be in the right; Christians turned out to have been duped. Any further attempt to present Christ to these people is tainted by a man who lusted after money or fame or some special power to win over lost people.

That’s one fatal result, the loss of credibility with people, to whom we are supposedly telling the truth. If they identify this story as a fake, won’t they suspect that Christians in general are gullible? Maybe the resurrection of Jesus is a fish tale as well.

It is no good trying to lift up the broken wings of discredited preachers with, “Well, God is a God of forgiveness, we all make mistakes, let’s just move on.” When false teachers told untruths, Paul exposed their teaching in detail (2 Thess 2:1-2, for example) and even named names (1 Tim 1:20, 2 Tim 1:15). Teachers have a greater responsibility than do rank-and-file Christians to speak rightly (James 3:1-5). Not only is it permitted to expose falsehood, it’s our duty.

But beyond the human level, there is a second, more profound issue: God has forbidden us to “bear false witness” (Exod 20:16). The ninth commandment has to do in the first instance with speaking under oath in judicial proceedings. Then as now, the Israelites had to remember that “they were under oath” when they spoke about what they had seen with their own eyes. One of the things God hates most is “a lying witness who testifies falsely” (Prov 6:19). In God’s kingdom, the truth will out.

Okay, so a preacher does not speak “under oath” when he tells a white lie or an exaggerated or invented story. Nevertheless, we can make a good case that the rule about false testimony applies equally. When a preacher is in the pulpit, he does not put his hand on the Bible and swear to tell the truth, but does that differ much from opening the Bible and claiming to tell God’s truth? I’ve never seen a preacher struck down in mid-sermon, but given the sloppy handling of truth that goes on, that’s probabably due only to divine mercy. The Scripture tells us that “every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment” (Matt 12:36). If that verse applies to everyday conversation, how much more should it apply to those who claim to be truth-tellers on God’s behalf? When we use untruth to support God’s message, we imply that God hasn’t given us enough material, and we have to make up stuff in order to make a compelling story.

Let’s make sure the Bible hasn’t left us with an out. First, Jesus told stories that hadn’t really happened. Once he told his followers about a father with two sons; the younger one cashed in his inheritance and spent it wickedly (Luke 15:11-32). So far as we know, this was not a real-life family that Jesus knew from back in Nazareth. It was fiction; yet he didn’t start off with, “Now, this didn’t really happen, but it’s a good illustration anyway.” Was Jesus telling a “whopper” in order to make a point about forgiveness? Not at all: he taught in a culture where religious teachers commonly invented little fictional stories to make a point. My favorite Jewish parable goes like this:

Some men go out in a small boat. Once they’re out over deep water, one man takes out a drill and starts to make a hole in the floor of the boat. His friends tell him to stop, since they’re starting to sink. He responds, “What does it matter to you? I’m only making a hole in my part of the boat.” They respond, “Because the water will come up and flood the boat for us all.” [4]

The point of the story is, one person’s actions affect the whole nation of Israel. In the same way, Jesus’ audience would “hear” a parable as fiction, with or without a label. When he told about how the Good Samaritan stopped at an inn to leave the wounded man, it’s unlikely that anyone would call out, “Sir, which hotel did he go to? The Marriott?” The audience would have known that it was just a story. You will forgive the parallel: a parable in Jesus’ day would have been as recognizable as a story today that begins, “Okay, so a priest, a minister and a rabbi go into a bar…” No-one thinks to ask, “Oh, which bar?” Likewise, in this blog, I wrote assuming that readers would get that “Rev. Johnson” is not a real person.

I suspect that a preacher with a whopper assumes that his story wouldn’t be so gripping unless it’s labeled “now this really happened.” It’s a doubtful assumption: I will remember the Good Samaritan long after the Little Jimmy story is forgotten.

A second example is the apostle Paul. He made a habit of telling his testimony as part of his gospel presentation. [5] Paul had done some heavy things in his life, but God saved him from them all. Each time, the details of his life story are a little different, though not contradictory. There is no indication that Paul ever “pulled a Warnke,” making his story more lurid in order to show the gospel’s power. We also have a hard time imagining Paul doing as so many preachers do – telling about the hundreds who were healed or saved, always “in the last city we visited.” Nor can I picture him doing what some folks of my acquaintance have done – wrongly claimed to have advanced theological degrees so that as “Doctor” So-and-So they will have more credibility.

It’s a temptation to polish events when the reality doesn’t make a good story, making it zippier for dramatic puposes. One Facebook posting I just ran into involved a “snippy” cashier; the person who posted the blog added “So, I said to her…” and reported how she gave quite the speech of several long and nicely-polished paragraphs. Apparently our friend really put the girl in her place! Or did she? If we interviewed the cashier, would she report, “Sure, I remember that that lady told me something just like that.” Or would she say, “Yeah, she mumbled something, but I’m not sure what.” A lot of our “So I sez to him” stories are really in the category of “I shoulda said – but, well, I didn’t say.” There are plenty of “I really gave him a piece of my mind” accounts in Christian sermons.

I don’t know what measure my fellow-preachers use to decide whether a story, testimony or record of a conversation is True. My own way to apply “don’t bear false witness” is three-fold:

1. If someone who had full knowledge of the details of my story were in the congregation, would I be inhibited from telling it as if it were fact? Then I should be ashamed to tell it, period.

2. If I have to rewrite some experience to make it fit my sermon, then do I really need it in order to prove my point, or am I coveting an illustration so much so that I’m willing to invent one? If it’s the latter, it gets X-ed out.

3. If I, conscious that God hears me and evaluates my words, have the slightest doubt that I’d want to tell this thing in this way in God’s presence, then overboard it goes.

Untruth comes in many flavors. It can be a straight lie; or an exaggeration; or information given without its necessary context; or a statement that the speaker consciously allows the audience to misunderstand.

If some event did not truthfully provide the  anecdote for a sermon, then God did not intend for it to be that rhetorical nugget we all yearn for. Better to chuck a good story than to alienate the God of truth.

The reader might be interested in two other blog I’ve written: click HERE to read about Christian Urban Legends, and HERE to read about Christians and modern myths.


[1] In our days of digital communication, stories circulate overnight and establish themselves as fact. The most popular one as I write is the story of the racist airline passenger (http://www.snopes.com/travel/airline/obnoxious.asp). Supposedly a white woman does not want to sit next to a black man. The flight attendant says the airline does not want anyone to feel uncomfortable, so off she goes to find a better seat, in first class. When the attendant comes back, shockingly, it’s the black man whom she takes forward, leaving the racist fuming. The story is newly circulating, but it has been around at least since 1998, that is, a quarter century ago! It plays better as “this really happened” and on such and such airline (the details change with the telling), and its popularity is due to our desire to see snooty people get their comeuppance. In another incarnation, it is an angry Muslim who gets “left behind” in Coach.

[2] The Smoking Gun” uncovered the falsehoods in an article available here: http://www.thesmokinggun.com/documents/celebrity/million-little-lies In 2006, Oprah blasted Frey and his publisher on her show for lying to millions of fans, although she later apologized for being so harsh.

[3] See Selling Satan: The Evangelical Media and the Mike Warnke Scandal, Mike Hertenstein and Jon Trotthttp://www.amazon.com/Selling-Satan-Evangelical-Warnke-Scandal/dp/0940895072/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1329348004&sr=1-2

[4] “The Parable of the Foolish Shipmate” is found in the midrashic Leviticus Rabbah 4:6, and is attributed to a rabbi of the 2nd century AD. I’ve modernized the language, but the story is as I have cited.

[5] See Acts 22:2-21, Acts 26:4-23, 1 Cor 15:8-10, Gal 1:11-24, Phil 3:4-7, 1 Tim 1:12-16.

“‘So I once knew a guy who…’ Preachers who stretch the truth,” by Gary Shogren, PhD, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San Jose, Costa Rica

10 thoughts on ““So I once knew a guy who…” Preachers who stretch the truth

  1. Funny you should mention Plato. I have been re-reading the Republic, where Plato sets up the conditions for the “noble lie.” One of the conditions is that the audience (the general population) does not know it is a lie, so this is clearly a different case than that of an allegory. Plato himself engages in this kind of deception when he uses Socrates as the mouthpiece for his own ideas. Not every Socratic dialogue qualifies as “imitative” in this way, but Plato scholars agree that some dialogues do. Yet I know of few writers who write as passionately about truth as Plato does.

    I especially appreciate your insight into the possibility of different nuances and connotations for the word “truth” as it has been used within different discursive fields. Because we live in a culture that has been conditioned by at least two-hundred years of scientific discourse with its corresponding privileging of facts and data, we think of truth in those terms: it reflects something objective about the world. I think, from what I can pick up from reading ancient texts, that the prevailing discourse field for the ancients was relational. It is difficult for me, conditioned as I am, to get at what a notion of truth in such a discourse field connotes, but I suspect that it would have to, in some way, reflect the subjective relationship between human beings and the rest of the creation: an “I/Thou” framework rather than the “I/It” framework that we use.

    The Amish have an interesting literary division between fact and fiction. Fiction is something that could not possibly have happened (talking animals) while fact is something that might not have actually happened, but could have (the Jimmy” story).

    I want to be careful that I do not import my particularly modern-western notion of truth into ancient texts and in the process, make the text do work that its author did not intend it to do. This cautious approach allows me to more comfortably accept the idea, present in both the OT and the NT, that God himself, on occasion, uses deception as a means to accomplish his ends while still remaining a God of truth. These two aspects of God’s character are impossible to reconcile within a scientific discursive field, but easier from within a relational discursive field.

    As always, Gary, it is a pleasure to dialogue with you.

    1. Thanks for your reply, which, as usual, gives me plenty to think about. I wondered if I should really be alluding to Plato; what do they say about cross-examination, never ask a question whose answer you’re not sure of?

      I would say, yes, the Bible claims to make objective truth statements about the world, and where it clashes with myth there is sometimes a self-conscious distinguishing of the truth of Moses, the prophets, Jesus and the apostles from the category of myth, as we would define it sociologically. Not that, my myth is better than yours, but that my story transcends myth, in particular, through the incarnation.

      A couple of observations:

      1. Being from Amish country, I could probably track this down, but: I can’t imagine that the two categories of truth you mention exhaust the entire Amish idea of truth. In other words, they might use “fiction” and “fact” as you mention, yet if I lied to one of them, wouldn’t an Amish have a category for it and tell me I’ve broken the 9th Commandment? Therefore, an Amish person would be able to separate a fake Jimmy story from an historical one.

      2. Speaking of the 9th Commandment, in the “pre-Modern” Torah, one is told to testify about what really happened. The Torah especially forbids lying in exchange for a bribe or lying for friends. That is, you don’t need to be a modernist to make the distinction between true and false witness. If truth is more I/Thou, then wouldn’t faithful Israelites be responsible to defend their friends, rather than defend an abstract idea of “it did/didn’t happen” in reality?

      3. Again, the example Paul and Thecla – Tertullian reports that the church rejected that book even without our modernist epistemology, since “it didn’t really happen” even though (Amish, hearken!) they believed the miracles and so forth could have happened; and they disciplined the author despite the usefulness of the book for boosting purity. I think we make way too much a distinction between pre-modern and modern categories of truth.

      4. I really don’t want to unpack the last paragraph – or do you want to provide examples of God’s deception? – but only to say that your distinction betwee I/it and I/Thou doesn’t convince me at all, viz.:

      If I take a fundamentally I/it approach to Christian truth
      and then circumstances indicate that my faith content has let me down,
      then I feel cognitive dissonance, the mental disquiet that comes from contradictory truth claims.

      If I take a fundamentally I/Thou approach to Christian truth, making it subjective,
      and then circumstances indicate that God has let me down,
      then I feel personally rejected, stabbed in the back by a friend.

      How could the second option better prepare me for life in the world?

      As it is, true spirituality involves I/it as well as I/Thou, at least as I see it.

      My starting point is that the Bible creates the category of “lie” – if I follow what you’re saying, haven’t we voided that category of any real meaning, and disregarded the biblical insistence that the category exists and is highly meaningful?

      To go back to my point: seeing that you and I must live in this year, in this culture, is it justifiable to say “I knew a boy named Jimmy”, using the codes our culture supplies to label the story as newspaper-story-verifiable?

      1. As I mentioned, it is difficult for me to get at a notion of truth as relational. I suspect that it likely involves much of what you say. My point in making the comment was to question the appeal to an ancient text to find grounds to justify or to censure modern “truth” behavior. You ask if it is justifiable in the here and now of 21st century western culture for a preacher to tell a “Jimmy story,” because the story is not factual. It’s an ethical question set in either a deontological or consequentialist ethical system. We can answer that it is always wrong to lie (deontological) or that it depends on the outcome (consequentialist). When we appeal, however, to an ancient text such as the NT as grounding for our answer, we are appealing to something set in a virtue-ethics system. If we are going to find our ethics in the NT (and I think, as Christ-followers, we should), we have to be mindful of the ethical system therein. With that in mind, the question you ask changes somewhat: “What kind of person do I want to be? Do I want to be the kind of person who deliberately misleads my congregation as I attempt to help them follow Jesus?” Then the answer, I think, is that I want to be the kind of person that Jesus was. He was a loving kind of person. If I love my congregation, I want to find the best means to help them. If I lie to them (as they understand the notion of “lie”), and they find out, they are not too likely to trust me in the future, which severely curtails any future attempts on my part to help them. I don’t want to be the kind of person who is unable to help those I love if it is in my power to prevent that situation from arising. So, in this particular case, I will not lie to them. I will find other ways to help them follow Jesus, ways that they can accept as moral. Virtue ethics does not eliminate all consequences from a decision, but it regards them in a different manner than a consequentialist ethics system does. The focus in virtue ethics is on the agent rather than on the act.

        We’ll leave point 4 for another conversation.

  2. I might add a a subjective measure:

    If someone tells a story as true,
    and I later find out it was fiction,
    do I feel as if I had “been had”?

    In that case, I think it crosses the line.

  3. So I was going to ask if Rev. Johnson really exists and if he really told the Jimmy story, but I see that Moe beat me to it.

    Into what truth category do parables fit? Are they the ancient Mediterranean counterpart to a Jimmy (or a Rev. Johnson) story?

    One might argue that the Jimmy story is morally appropriate even if it is not factual because it presents moral truth within appropriate moral boundaries. It does not focus anyone’s attention on morally wrong activities in the way that the not-factual stuff in the Warnke book does. The analogy between the Jimmy story and the Warnke book might be considered weak because the two have more dissimilarities than similarities.

    One might argue that it is more ethical to use not-real people for sermon illustrations, unless, of course, the preacher has obtained permission from a real person to be a sermon illustration. By what right does a pastor or preacher name a real person and use that person as sermon fodder?

    One might ask these kinds of questions.

    1. Hi Carrie, I thought I might run across you here, thanks for joining in!

      People who heard parables such as the one about the Parable of the Foolish Shipmate seemed to have known they were fiction. There was an implicit understanding between storyteller and listener. The same applies to Jesus’ parables, many of which are brief and ahistoric: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened” (Matt 13:33). Do I understand Plato rightly? That his hearers would not have thought to ask, “Oh, in which cave did they tie those poor men up?”

      On the other hand, when Paul said “Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea, etc.” (2 Cor 11:24-25), he clearly meant his life story to be taken literally. If he had never been beaten with rods or if the shipwreck was that time his ship bumped the end of the pier while docking, I think his audience would have had the right to boo him from the stage.

      Cultures have “signals” that code whether a story is history, legend, parable, allegory. My point is that, while each culture’s signals are distinct, still, every culture possesses such signals, and it lies with the communicator to label things properly. In the case of “Jimmy” the signals include a time, a specific place, a name; the audience should interpret the preacher as telling a true tale. If he had said, “Let’s suppose” it would have been a different scenario. I don’t know if you are familiar with the Drawbridge Parable (http://mythbuster.hubpages.com/hub/Choices-That-Fathers-Make). I have heard it told as “just a story” (in point of fact, it was first composed as a fictional tale in 1967) and in another place as “this really happened.” I would argue that telling a fable as historical truth is wrong in general, and also invites unbelievers to scoff at our gullibility (as this man does, http://mythbuster.hubpages.com/hub/Choices-That-Fathers-Make).

      That’s why I’m not sure it’s any more justifiable to tell a wholesome story, passing it off as “this really happened”. One good example is the Acts of Paul and Thecla was a 2nd-century (text here: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/actspaul.html). Tertullian comments that presbyter in Asia composed this book of Acts, using “his own materials under Paul’s name, when after conviction he confessed that he had done it from love of Paul, resigned his position [as church elder].” The ancient church may not have had a 21st century understanding of truth, but it could and did discriminate between history and pseudo-history, even when the latter told a good story, promoted wholesome virtue, and was done out of a loving motive.

      As I see it, the apostle is making a claim about truth categories when he says “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Pet 1:16). In Luke’s gospel, he ties the events of Jesus’ life to the context of Tiberius’ reign; that is, he was saying to his readers, “I’m presenting this as history fact. Agree with it or no, but don’t make the mistake of thinking I’m writing legend.”

      With regard to where one gets sermon illustrations: I almost never use real people, not even from “where I used to work,” and never to the embarrassment of family and friends; in part, because it is often unloving, in part because, if I talk about someone from my past, the natural inference that my present audience should take is that they are “fair game” to be talked about in the future. I cringe when I hear people use their kids to prove a point. I do sometimes use people from the news or events from my life that don’t compromise someone’s right to privacy.

      For now, I won’t even get into people who have “visions” of heaven and then write bestsellers.


  4. Gary, I had to chuckle when I read the story you employed to make your point at the beginning of your post. I’ve used a like story to help present the gospel. Thankfully I never communicated it as a fact during the course of a message.

    I believe you are right on the money. Fabrications are lies and when used by a servant of God they are big lies. We do not need to tell tall stories to communicate the Gospel. The Gospels and God’s Word as a whole has enough stories for us to use for a life time of preaching.

    Hope you don’t mind if I use this one over at CMC?

    Much love Gary! Ohhhh… I hope you didn’t get too shaken up by that quake earlier this week.

    1. Hey, Moe! As always, mi blog es su blog! Yes, what are we saying about the sufficiency of the canon if we feel obliged to invent supplemental “truths”?

      The earthquake banged me out of bed just before sunrise, it must have run almost a half minute, but I was walking around, it wasn’t too violent. See you!

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