Urban Legends: We’ve all heard them . . . and many of us have swallowed the bait.
- Starbucks refuses to give soldiers coffee.
- Children are abducted from Disney or Sam’s Club and their appearance is altered before they even leave the premises.
- Mr. Rogers was a Marine sniper.
- Drugged travellers awake in a tub of ice to find a kidney has been harvested.
Pastor Matt Mitchell did his doctor of ministry thesis at Westminster on gossip. I asked him to interact from a pastoral point of view with some questions about urban legends and why they take on a life of their own.
What is it about urban legends that appeal to people?
That’s a great question, Chris. I’ve often wondered about that myself. I don’t have all of the answers, but I do have a few thoughts:
Our sinful hearts are often attracted to the wrong things, and most urban legends appeal to our baser natures. For example, we like to believe the worst about people instead of the best. There aren’t many urban legends about good people doing virtuous things—that would be boring! We also like to be “in the know,” and urban legends feed our cravings for inside information.
They also feed our fears. It’s thrilling to be scared, especially if the stories that we share are scary for someone else. Most urban legends are cautionary tales but about fantastical things that aren’t likely to happen to me. So, I get the entertainment value of being freaked out, but I don’t really have to worry about the story coming true in my own life.
Yet, I get to pass it on! Because these stories are mostly anonymous or come from a vaguely defined “friend of a friend,” urban legends don’t require us to be especially responsible with the truth. People love to trim the truth; we’ve been doing it from the beginning (Genesis 3). Urban legends give us permission to pass on a story without feeling obligated to check its veracity.
These days, it’s hard to know what is true and what is not. We have been trained by our culture to distrust authorities and to be skeptical of “spin.” So, there is a nagging feeling in today’s climate that rather unlikely conspiracies are actually plausible. Of course, truth can be stranger than fiction. Some things that seem like urban legends do turn out to be true. We must learn to develop discernment.
Would you consider urban legends a kind of gossip?
They are, at least, close cousins. Gossip tends to be about someone that we know and is telling a bad story about them behind their back. Urban legends are mostly about people we don’t know personally. But both are bad stories that are often untrue and snowball beyond their original form.
I think we do receive and pass on both gossip and urban legends for many of the same reasons that I outlined above.
Do you think small-scale urban legends happen within local churches?
Sure. I know of a neighborhood where two twenty-something men moved into a house together.* These men were newcomers, strangers, to this rural community. The word got around that they were homosexuals living in flagrant defiance of the local moral values. Then they showed up at a local church! Boy, was it awkward for them to make friends. Unfortunately, they got the cold shoulder from that church, at first. It turns out that they weren’t homosexuals at all, just long-time friends (and committed Christ-followers) who had decided they could save money, time, and labor by sharing a house for a while.
Now, that church should have been more welcoming any way about it, but if certain tongues hadn’t been wagging in advance, there wouldn’t have been so much trouble.
That’s an extreme case, but churches can get gossipy and lose their saltiness.
How should we respond if we hear an urban legend at church?
Take it with a grain of salt, and be really hesitant to pass it on. The Bible says, “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Corinthians 13:6-7). That doesn’t mean that we should be gullible the other way—putting our fingers in our ears and believing only good things about people. We know that people are sinners and capable of much wickedness. But we should be ready and willing to believe the best about others unless confronted with incontrovertible facts. (And it’s not an incontrovertible fact if it comes in anonymous email starting with the letters “fwd!”)
If you hear a bad story about someone at church, go to them to find out if it’s true. Don’t talk about people; talk to them.
Check your heart. Ask yourself, “Why am I listening to this story?” “Why am I passing it on?” Does this come from a heart-motive that is sinful or from a heart of love? And one of the best ways to know if you’re being loving is to use the Lord Jesus’ Golden Rule of Thumb—if I was the subject of this story, how would I want to be talked about? We all want our own stories to be treated carefully—and that’s no urban legend!
*Details of this story have been changed to protect people involved.