“FWD: Don’t Be a Dope”

I believe that few things have drained more credibility from the evangelical community than the willingness of some of us to jump on any bandwagon that comes down the pike, just so long as it hits our e-mail inboxes with “FWD:” in the subject line. While I strongly disagree with the media’s portrayal of all theologically conservative believers as provincial rubes, I must admit that I feel like I’m swimming against a current of Christian fingers that are clicking “send” faster than a deacon dashing for the dessert table at a potluck.

When I was growing up, if you wanted to start an urban legend that duped large numbers of people, you had to do it the old fashioned way — word of mouth. How did a generation of Americans unquestionably accept the notion that mixing Pop Rocks and Pepsi caused a lethal atomic mushroom cloud to burst from the belly of Mikey, the kid from the cereal commercial? Word of mouth. Back in my day, you sassy little jackanapes, we didn’t have Outlook Express! 

How did the news get around that Proctor & Gamble’s “Man in the Moon” symbol was a satanic emblem, personally confirmed by P & G’s CEO himself, when he appeared on the Phil Donahue show to sacrifice a goat and predict the future by gazing into its entrails? We didn’t have your fancy Blackberry textification phone e-mail dealies! We had to do it the old-fashioned way: Word of mouth! We had to concoct a bizarre chain of relationships linking us directly to the source: “My cousin dates a girl whose sister’s roommate was maid of honor at the wedding of the manicurist who does Marlo Thomas’s nails, and Marlo Thomas told her that Phil Donahue himself says Crest is the only toothpaste Beelzebub will use.”

And in my day, how do you suppose we nearly killed the travel industry? Why, it was with dramatic accounts of drugged tourists waking up in ice-filled hotel bathtubs, only to realize that black-market organ brokers had not only harvested their kidneys, but had also racked up over 75 dollars in mini-bar charges! And we didn’t have us any of those new-fangled, dot-com, rumor-mongerin’ Web sites you young punks use! It took years of verbally repeating the same unfounded, ridiculous tall tales, over and over again, with diehard conviction! Word of mouth, I say!

In 1999, I first witnessed how easily and powerfully an e-mail hoax can trigger a torrent of evangelical fury. I was working as the news director of a Christian radio station in Blue Earth, Minn., and my inbox was suddenly filled by dozens of desperate listeners, each begging me to alert church-goers everywhere that the only decent television show since Michael Landon died – “Touched by an Angel” – was about to be cancelled because atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair had filed “Petition 2493” with the FCC, calling for an end to all T.V. shows that mention God. Of course, this was an old urban legend, dating back to the mid-1970’s, so I double-checked with an FCC spokesman and then ran a news story debunking the rumor. One woman called me to say she was going to start a petition anyway, “just to be on the safe side.” (Incidentally, “Touched by an Angel” was, in fact, cancelled in 2003. However, the show wasn’t killed by the legal machinations of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, but rather by the titanic overacting of Della Reese.)

Since then, I’ve seen dozens of celebrity conversion whoppers: “Steve Irwin answered an altar call two weeks before that sting ray killed him. In fact, he was witnessing to the creature when it attacked.”

I’ve seen far too many sentimental charity rip-offs. Most recently, there was Rebeccah Beushausen, whose blog featured tearjerker pictures of “April Rose,” her disabled daughter. Well-meaning Christians started sending money and gifts. Later it was revealed that “April Rose” was actually a lifelike “Reborn Doll” whose only disability was “batteries not included.” 

And of course, there’s the passionate “Onward Christian Soldiers” call-to-arms. I recently received another breathless warning about that old chestnut Petition 2493, this time it had been updated with names like Dr. James Dobson.

I know we need to be salt and light, but may I suggest checking the story out before forwarding it? Try consulting the archives at Snopes.com – that’s a good place to start. Jesus said in Matthew 10:16: “Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”

I’m glad we settled that. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to e-mail my bank account information to the widow of Nigeria’s former treasury secretary so she and I can divide the seven million American dollars her late husband deposited in a Grand Cayman off-shore bank account.

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