I received a couple of emails about Mars coming amazingly close to earth on August 27. Maybe you got the same email, which begins this way: “The Red Planet is about to be spectacular! This month and next, Earth is catching up with Mars in an encounter that will culminate in the closest approach between the two planets in recorded history. The next time Mars may come this close is in 2287. Due to the way Jupiter’s gravity tugs on Mars and perturbs its orbit, astronomers can only be certain that Mars has not come this close to Earth in the last 5,000 years, but it may be as long as 60,000 years before it happens again.” (http://www.snopes.com/science/mars.asp)
It would have been even better news if it had been true. This one fell into the category now known as “urban legends” – interesting stories, often distributed via the Internet, which just happen to be false. The Mars story actually was true when it was first circulated – in 2003. Well, mostly true – Mars actually gets this close about every 15 to 17 years, not every 60,000 years. Close but no cigar.
This urban legend thing has become a major news source for lots of folks (including many who have me on their email list). In recent months I’ve gotten emails letting me know that “Cell phone users must register their numbers with the national ‘Do Not Call’ directory to prevent their cell phone numbers from being released to telemarketers” (false), and that Bill Gates/Microsoft will pay you forwarding an email to them as part of a national test (unfortunately, also false). Some of these are classics that show up year after year, often with slight changes to make them seem more plausible.
One would like to think that Christian believers would be as wise as foxes and wouldn’t fall for such foolishness, but original sin affects us all, as does original gullibility. While religion-oriented urban legends used to take years to make the rounds via church bulletins, now they can circle the globe in minutes via email. Some favorites: “NASA scientists discovered a “missing” day in time that corresponds to Biblical accounts of the sun’s standing still in the sky” (http://www.snopes.com/religion/lostday.htm); “Scientists drilling in Siberia went too far and ended up punching a hole through to Hell, where the screams of the damned drifted up to them” (http://www.snopes.com/religion/wellhell.htm); or “Forbidden by the city’s Muslims to celebrate Christmas in Meulaboh, Christians instead gathered on a high hill nearby and so were spared from the tsunami that wiped out the city” (http://www.snopes.com/religion/tsunami.asp). That last one was so good I almost published it in PreachingNow, until I did a little research and found it couldn’t be verified.
It seems to me that since people are determined to circulate such urban legends, we might as well create a few that will do some good. Feel free to pass these along to some of those folks in your church who spend their days forwarding email stories to thousands of others; it’ll take no time to get these stories into the right hands. How about these:
- An Arkansas church decides to double its pastor’s salary, and the next week receives an unsolicited gift of $3 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
- A Minnesota congregation asks its pastor to start preaching longer sermons. Three weeks later, oil is discovered under the church parking lot, and now the members are enjoying regular mission trips to Hawaii.
- A California pastor sends in his money for a three-year subscription to Preaching magazine, and the next day is contacted by a pastor search committee from a well-known megachurch, asking him to come be their new senior pastor!
Hey, that last one just might be true! Better email it around to a few thousand pastors just in case.
Michael Duduit is Editor of Preaching magazine. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit his website at www.michaelduduit.com.