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FIRST-PERSON: Touched by an urban legend

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (BP)–Did you know NASA scientists proved that God really made the sun stand still just like it says in the Book of Joshua?

Have you responded to the urgent prayer appeal from Mrs. Fatima Abass Yakubu Idris, the wealthy Nigerian widow cancer victim who wants to donate $7.2 million to your church?

Did you hear about the upcoming movie in which Jesus and his disciples are gay?

Surely you’ve seen this e-mail bulletin: “CBS will be forced to discontinue ‘Touched by an Angel’ for using the word God in every program.” Now, the disciples of atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair have “been granted a federal hearing on the same subject by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in Washington D.C. Their petition, Number 2493, would ultimately pave the way to stop the reading of the gospel of our Lord and Savior, on the airwaves of America.”

It’s hard to believe that after 30 years and 30 million letters to the FCC, this false report continues to haunt pulpits, pews and the Internet.

Believe it. The O’Hair, FCC and “Touched by an Angel” e-mail is back in the top 10 at the San Fernando Valley Folklore Society’s sprawling “urban legends” site (www.snopes.com). And with the Angels era ending at CBS, Cathy Holden is bracing herself for more right-wing e-mail blaming the show’s demise on a vast left-wing conspiracy.

This will all end up in a revised entry at www.TruthMiners.com, her website that strives to convince other conservative Christians that passing along half-truths, scams and urban legends is not a doctrinally sound thing to do. Her niche-audience page includes 100 of the most common e-mails and links to larger secular research sites.

“This story will not die. I mean, ‘Touched by an Angel’ has been on for nine years,” she said. “Anybody who reads a newspaper knows that everybody who’s involved says it’s time to end the show. But people who send these e-mails don’t read newspapers. Then they get an e-mail about that atheist O’Hair lady and they say, ‘That’s it!’

“You just want to tell them, ‘Get over it. Go on with your life.'”

Holden became fascinated with urban legends when she helped a Baptist church outside Orlando start its website. The minute she signed on, the junk e-mails rolled in, including a new incarnation of the O’Hair report. It took five minutes online to dig up the truth.

The church lady who forwarded the rumor said she did it for fun. What’s the harm?

“I said, ‘Wait just a minute. I just told you this is a lie and you don’t care?’ … Ever since, I’ve been trying to get people to realize that a lie is a lie. This is not harmless. People get hurt. Christians have to believe truth matters,” Holden said.

The O’Hair story originally was read in pulpits, shared at prayer meetings and printed on church mimeograph machines. Now people simply click “forward” and their e-mail goes global.

Most of these messages take two forms — outrage and inspiration. A major theme is that mainstream media hide the truth, Holden said.

“There’s that vast conspiracy out there … and it’s keeping us from hearing all of the really bad stuff that our enemies are doing. The media also keep us from hearing any inspiring stories about good things that are happening. All that gets covered up, too. So we have to pass on these stories by e-mail in order to beat the conspiracy. You see?”

So untraceable stories spread about President Bush leaving a reception line to evangelize a teenager, a pastor’s wife preaching to passengers on the doomed Alaskan Airlines Flight 261 and a little girl’s testimony converting actor John Wayne. The list goes on and on.

“The bigger the story the more we like it,” Holden said. “We can be really syrupy, sappy people and we tend to fall for things that grab our heartstrings. It’s all about our feelings. … My ultimate hope is that if we can get people to care about what is going on in their Internet lives, then this new concern about truth may actually spread into other parts of their lives at home and at work and at church. Wouldn’t that be interesting?”
Terry Mattingly teaches at Palm Beach Atlantic University and is senior fellow for journalism at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities. He writes this weekly column for the Scripps Howard News Service. Used by permission.

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  • Terry Mattingly