I can remember my first brush with an “urban legend”. In the early 1970s, I was in a group for Christian boys, and we got a monthly magazine, similar to “Boys’ Life”. One article passed along the following story, saying it was solid fact:
In a southern state, two men were traveling along a rural road. They saw a hitchhiker and decided to give him a lift. He sat in the back and chatted with them. Then out of the blue, the hitchhiker made the statement: “Jesus is coming back, you know, and very soon.” When they turned around to ask him what he meant by that, they saw that…the stranger had disappeared! They immediately braked, thinking he might have fallen out and gotten killed. They drove back and forth and couldn’t find him, so they pulled over at the next town to alert the sheriff. When they told him their story, the sheriff said, “Normally this would constitute an emergency; nevertheless, you’re about the tenth person this week to tell me they’ve had this same experience!”
Maybe you’ve heard the same story and are certain that it happened to a friend of a friend. Well, I too was a believer and repeated it as true. It didn’t strike me as odd that the details were a little vague: Now, where exactly did this happen? When? What was the sheriff’s name? In what newspaper was this reported? and so on. It was years later than I learned that I’d been pulled in by an “urban legend” – a story that is repeated again and again over many years. In fact, Jan Harold Brunvand, the authority on urban legends, titled one of his collections The Vanishing Hitchhiker. The whole phenomenon fascinated me enough that I got in touch with Dr. Brunvand and we exchanged several stories. In 2009 “the vanishing hitchhiker” started turning up again, with the new twist that now he says, “Gabriel is putting the trumpet to his lips; the Lord is coming back” (click HERE). People on this blog who affirm that the story is true report the experience happened to the aunt of a friend of my husband; my son’s friend’s mother; the friend of a friend of a co-worker. See the pattern?
Pushups to Pay for Donuts to Illustrate Christ’s Death. A new one for me is the story of “Steve is made to do over 300 pushups to illustrate Christ’s death and to win donuts for his fellow students.” There are several versions; one starts off: “There was a certain Professor of Religion named Dr. Christensen, a studious man who taught at a small college in the Western United States. Dr. Christensen taught the required survey course in Christianity at this particular institution. Every student was required to take this course his/her freshman year, regardless of his or her major.” This story was circulating in 2021, and one version I found from 2002 implied that it had been circulating for some time: among evangelicals to be sure, but apparently it is a Mormon favorite as well! Notice once again the clues: a certain university, a certain professor named Christensen, the (very long) story concludes with all the students being floored by the gospel. Its university setting reminded me of The Unbelieving Professor, see below.
The line between “myth” and “urban legend” is fluid. Let us say that, a myth is something like the story that there is a massive computer in Europe, called the Beast, which keeps tracks on all the details of every person on earth (see my article on Christian Myths HERE). Urban legends are stories that conceivably could have happened at some time, but are now characterized by rootlessness (it happened in Ohio; it happened in California; it happened in the 1980s; it happened last year) and vagueness regarding to details, which change as the story moves from person to person. If you have ever heard the story of the woman who tried to dry off her poodle in the microwave; or the one about the kid who bought a Porsche for $50 from a wife who was seeking revenge on her cheating husband (I read that one in Ann Landers years ago); or the story of the “kidney heist” where a man flirts with a woman in a bar, who then drugs him and harvests his kidney while he sleeps – well then, you’ve heard an urban legend. The perennial favorite is the one about poison or razor blades in trick-or-treat candy – despite all the rumors there is not one case of this ever having taken place in the US. There is even a Hollywood thriller called “Urban Legend” (1999), in which someone murders college students in imitation of certain legends.
Urban legends are easily identified as stories said to have “really happened” to a “friend of a friend” (a FOAF) – almost always, someone who cannot be tracked down. Still, people will swear that the story is true, since they heard it from someone reliable. In Christian circles, we might appeal to the “famous preacher” as the source; after all, why would a man of God tell the story if it weren’t absolutely true? I can guarantee you, that if you were to track down “the aunt of a friend of your husband”, aunty would tell you, “Well, no, it didn’t happen to me personally, but to a friend of the brother of my college roommate.” Or the news says that “local parents are concerned because…” And so on. But no-one claims, “I was there and saw it myself, and here are the details.” [A later example – Claude Ignerski (“Christ will return in September 2015!”) quoted in his book that he had a letter from a man who said that in 2012 some friends of friends in France and Switzerland had picked up that same hitchhiker!]
There are all sorts of urban legends; let’s think of some more that are popular with Christians:
The Unbelieving Professor (click HERE; this supposedly happened in the last few decades, although the story has been circulating at least since the 1920s). A certain philosophy professor at a big university was a rabid atheist. For years he ridiculed the faith of those who believed in God, and always summarized his talk by saying, “If God existed, he could stop this piece of chalk from hitting the ground and breaking. Such a simple task to prove he is God, and yet he can’t do it.” And every year he would drop the chalk onto the tile floor of the classroom and it would shatter into a hundred pieces. A Christian freshman had to take the course. The story goes: Finally, the day came. The professor said, “If there is anyone here who still believes in God, stand up!” The professor, and the class of 300 people looked at him, shocked, as he stood up at the back of the room. The professor shouted, “YOU FOOL! If nothing I have said all semester has convinced you that God doesn’t exist, then you are a fool! If God existed, he could keep this piece of chalk from breaking when it hit the ground!” He proceeded to drop the chalk, but as he did it slipped out of his fingers, off his shirt cuff, onto the pleats of his pants, down his leg, and off his shoe. And as it hit the ground it simply rolled away, unbroken. The professor’s jaw dropped as he stared at the chalk. He looked up at the young man and then ran out of the lecture hall. (Chick Publications has this story in one of its comics; they are in fact known for their general willingness to publish legends, myths and hearsay, especially about the King James Version and the “Alberto” story). There is a new version that involves an atheist professor who challenges God to knock him off the podium, and a Navy SEAL who punches him; see HERE.
Urban legends are as popular as they are, because they “prove” something we believe or suspect to be true. In the case of the heisted kidney, the lesson is clear: “Men, don’t flirt with strange women!” In the tale of the microwaved poodle, which story began life in the 1970s, when home microwaves were an innovation, the lesson is that new technology can be dangerous, and also, well, that women and technology are an especially bad mix. There are many legends that involve a couple being attacked while they’re at Lover’s Lane – the underlying lesson is, “Be careful, young girls, sex is dangerous!”
Angel bodyguards: (click HERE): On a college campus, there had been an alarming number of muggings and rape. One girl fell asleep in the library; when she woke up, she was afraid to walk to her dorm. She prayed, “O Lord, place your angels around me!” and walked safely to her front door. Just then there was a terrible scream and she heard another female student being murdered, right where she had walked seconds before. It turns out the thief had been hiding and decided to attack the next woman who passed by. When he was asked why he didn’t attack the first student he replied, “Why would I rob someone who had two giant men on either side of her?”
I’ve heard this legend told in another version:
Angel bodyguards on the mission field: There are missionaries in Africa. They had heard that some warriors were going to murder them, so they gathered in their hut and prayed for the Lord’s protection. The attack never came. Later, one of the tribesmen came to Christ, and was asked why he hadn’t carried out his plan. “I would have,” he said, “but when we approached your hut we saw that it was surrounded by a group of powerful men in shining white robes!”
Now – I am sure that some reader is saying, “But wait, I know that’s true, it happened to a missionary who spoke to our church!” But if you were to track the missionary down, you would undoubtedly hear that it hadn’t happened to him, but that he had heard it from someone else, probably from another missionary; but most certainly you will hear that “it really happened!” The same happens with wartime stories of angelic apparitions, such as the Angels of Mons during WWI: the story originally ran that ghostly English soldiers from the past staved off a German attack and saved many lives; later it became angels. However, there are no eyewitness testimonies, and again, it was a “friend of a friend” or “my grandfather’s friend’s lieutenant.”
Tongues in Africa. Here’s one for our Pentecostal friends. Many of us have heard or passed along the story of the missionary who is captured by African tribesmen. He is taken to the chief, and knowing his end was near, he kneels and begins praying in tongues. The natives fall strangely silent; they confer, and they let him go. Later on the missionary is told that he had miraculously prayed in the native language, frightening them into halting their plans.
Yet who among us can produce the confirmed testimony of the tribesman or the missionary, or report the details of how it happened? Such stories are extremely difficult to trace to their original source, let alone to prove. Missionaries carry the story from conference to conference, spreading it near and far, until it becomes gospel truth.
Again with tongues, the following has all the marks of an urban legend, but is passed around as fact, even by an internationally famous preacher:
Faked Tongues. In order to discredit them, a seminary student goes to a local meeting of Pentecostals. He stands and recites Psalm 23 in Hebrew. Someone gets up and “interprets” it as a divine message for some woman in the group. The student then reveals the subterfuge, and confusion breaks out.
As in many urban legend, the story ends with a shock.
Who knows, maybe some student actually did this at some time, but the fact that for 40 years I have heard this repeated as “news” makes me doubt it.
Here’s another missionary tale:
Rock Music and the Missionary Kid. A family is working in Africa (in urban legends, the missionary is usually in Africa). The teenaged son has some recorded rock music, which he plays within the hearing of the “natives”. Upon hearing it, the locals take the father to one side to tell him, “Why, this is the exact same music that we use to conjure up demons! Why is your son listening to it, if you claim to be against the devil?” I’ve heard another version, where the natives say that the rock beat is associated with homosexual activities – I guess for some of us, it’s scarier to be thought gay than thought to be demonized. In some versions of the story, the music is Christian rock: again, the lesson is clear – just because it’s “Christian” doesn’t mean it’s not of the devil. The story, which I guess might have happened to someone, somewhere, seems to have been circulating since Elvis recorded “Hound Dog”.
I heard the following story from dozens of sources. During the Cold War it always took place in the Soviet Union; now it supposedly takes place in China or a Muslim nation:
The persecuted church. In Russia, a church was gathered in an illegal meeting. Out of nowhere, two soldiers burst in, their automatic rifles pointed at the crowd. “We’re here to kill all the Christians!” they bellowed. “Anyone who isn’t ready to die for Christ, get out right now!” Some people flee. At that point, the soldiers slammed the doors shut and threw down their guns. “We are Christians too, brothers! But we had to make sure there weren’t informants or spies here.”
How to spot an urban legend: if it happened to a “friend of a friend” (FOAF), which friend can never seem to be positively identified. If the details seem fluid as to when, where and how it happened. And if the story’s ending is ironic, proving a point just a little too neatly. If many people tell the same story with different details, it’s an urban legend. It doesn’t matter if you heard it from a pastor or a missionary – they too pass along stories without checking them.
Urban legends are tracked by people with an interest in modern lore; www.snopes.com is my website of choice; they also post warnings about computer viruses and spams; they likewise give the straight word on these Facebook posts, about how if you click this you’ll help a baby who needs a transplant, or you will win a free iPad. Whenever I hear a story that seems a little too “tidy”, to Snopes I go.
We Christians have to have a high regard toward the truth, pledging to ourselves that we won’t passively or actively pass along shady “real stories” we’ve heard. This is why I’m disappointed to see how the “Unbelieving Professor” story is handled on this website (click HERE): “This story is most likely an urban legend, but it is still encouraging.” Well, I’m sorry, if this story is false, then it is not encouraging, it is disappointing to see Christians with a low respect for truth. In fact, many of the popular Christian urban legends can be found on atheistic websites: unbelievers quote them in order to prove how gullible we Christians are (for example, click HERE). Is it worth discrediting the gospel for the sake of a snappy story?
Let us strive to live by the highest possible standard of truth and accuracy, so that even our detractors must admit, “Say what you will about Christians, they’re not easily hoodwinked.”
For other information, see http://www.christianstories.com/urban-legends/
“Christian urban legends,” by Gary Shogren, PhD in New Testament, Professor of Seminaro ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica