A few years ago I was at a church watching their Christmas pageant when the narrator shared with the audience the uplifting origins of the candy cane. According to the narrator, back in the 19th century a candy maker in Indiana, desiring to share his faith in Christ, developed a special new candy to share the gospel at Christmas. He began with a hard stick colored white to represent the solid rock of Christ and his sinless nature. Red was then added to symbolize the color of his blood, shed for us on the cross. Finally the familiar cane shape was derived from the crook of the shepherd and the letter "J" for Jesus. (Yes children, turn your candy canes upside down and they make a "J"!) Sadly, over time the original meaning was lost, leaving the candy cane alongside mistletoe and Christmas stockings as but one more vacuous symbol of holiday cheer representing the ceaseless secularization of once Christian society. With that, the narrator challenged us to recall in this precious symbol that Christmas truly is about Jesus Christ.An inspiring and poignant story. The only problem is that it isn't true. On the contrary, it is an urban legend. And not just any urban legend. This one is about as stale as Grandma's millennium edition fruitcake. The problem was, would anybody at church care?
The term "urban legend" is defined by the Random House Unabridged Dictionary as "a modern story of obscure origin and with little or no supporting evidence that spreads spontaneously in varying forms and often has elements of humor, moralizing, or horror." It is this element of moralization that makes urban legends particularly effective as religious illustrations, e.g. as a lesson about the "true" meaning of Christmas. What makes them disturbing is that in contrast to, say, Jesus' words on the prodigal son or Good Samaritan, urban legends are shared not merely as stories to illustrate a true point, but rather as stories which are themselves true. Like a horror film that promises to be "based on true events", the power in an urban legend is found in its alleged rooting in reality. This is evident in the fact that urban legends often include incidental details as a means to grant them an air of credibility. (Hence, the candy maker was supposedly from Indiana.)
When it comes to gauging our attitude toward the truth, urban legends are like a canary in the coal mine. If we find that our belief communities are susceptible to them, that is a sign that those belief communities are not sufficiently sober in their pursuit of the truth. Indeed, I would suggest that the more quickly an urban legend can spread within a given population, the less serious that community is about truth.
Keeping that in mind, it should disturb us to observe that urban legends have long thrived among evangelicals. Did you hear the one about the Soviets who were digging a well hole in Siberia and inadvertently punched through to hell? Or what about the fact that Colgate-Palmolive or Johnson and Johnson or [insert your target corporation] is run by Satanists? And what about that Hollywood film being made which depicts Jesus as a homosexual? Or that computer in Belgium nicknamed the Beast that has information on everybody? The list goes on and on: Countless such stories have flourished in the fertile soil of evangelical credulity.
Now back to the pew. As I sat in church that day I concluded that I couldn't let this go without comment. The truth is just too important. And so I emailed the pastoral staff to let them know that the candy cane story wasn't true. Sadly (but perhaps predictably) I never did receive a response. I suspect that it was inevitable. Yawn, another email from the seminary professor Grinch. Perhaps one of the staff even attempted an impromptu Boris Karloff impersonation:
"They're telling urban legends!" he snarled with a sneer.
"And in a Christmas program? But the truth must be clear!"
Then he growled with his grinch fingers nervously drumming,
"I must email the pastor to keep Christmas from coming!"
Then the whole office errupted in laughter at the mirthful impersonation. And the pastor, suitably amused, grabbed a cup of coffee and got back to preparing next week's sermon on how Jesus is the truth.
For more on evangelicals and truth see my book You're Not as Crazy as I Think: Dialogue in a World of Loud Voices and Hardened Opinions (Biblica, 2011)