Stalking the vanishing hitchhiker and other Christian fictions.

“Have you heard about the scientists in Siberia who accidentally drilled a hole so deeply into the earth that they found hell?”

This question came from a caller on my daily talk-radio program.

“They’ve documented it and everything. There’s a big article about it in a scientific journal from Finland. The scientists were trying to drill nine miles into the Earth but broke through the Earth’s crust into a place that was 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. They lowered microphones into the hole and heard human voices, tormented people in hell. It so unnerved everybody that they packed up and went home.”

The story was being circulated by a Texas evangelist and a national Christian television network. No one had bothered to ask why the scientists had stuck microphones down the hole or what kind of microphone they used that could withstand 2,000 degrees. But after I started receiving other calls about it from different parts of the country, I decided to check it out.

Rumor Hall Of Fame

The hell-in-Siberia story is the latest in a string of memorable stories that have made the rounds of the Christian community over the last several years. They are what Prof. Jan Harold Brunvand of the University of Utah calls “urban legends”—fables and myths that get passed along as true stories.

Brunvand’s best-selling book, The Vanishing Hitchhiker, is titled from an urban legend that has been passed around the Christian community for decades. Versions of the story vary but usually include a man who is driving along a lonely highway and picks up a hitchhiker. After a period of time the hitchhiker issues a warning that “Jesus is coming soon” and mysteriously disappears from the moving car. In some variations of the story the hitchhiker is described as an angel or a ghost or a person who, it is later discovered, died a few hours earlier in an auto accident.

I first heard the story as a Boy Scout when our scoutmaster included it with other spooky stories he told around the campfire. I have heard it at least twice in sermons and recently saw it retold on the front page of a tabloid newspaper. I once had an argument with an emotional caller to my program who swore that the experience had actually happened to her grandfather, but he had died and we couldn’t ask him about it.

Nobody knows how many half-true or completely false stories have been passed from person to person in recent years, but some rumors have grown large enough and have had such staying power to include them in the “Christian Rumor Hall of Fame.”

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The Jesus porn film is a good example. About ten years ago a small magazine in Chicago called World News printed an article stating that a motion-picture producer in Europe was working on a porno film about Jesus Christ, featuring Jesus’ sex life. The World News article was authentic, and there really were plans to do the film, but the funds never came together and the project was abandoned.

Somehow, however, a letter-writing campaign protesting the film got started and the target was the attorney general of Illinois! Petitions were circulated urging him to halt the film (although they never specified how he was to stop a European-produced film). The last time I checked with the Illinois State attorney general’s office, they were still receiving petitions and letters, which, over the years, have numbered in the hundreds of thousands.

Another persistent rumor concerns senior citizens who received unusual social-security checks. In order to cash the check, the holder had to have an identification number “on the right hand” and “on the forehead.” The last-days significance is obvious. According to the story, the Social Security Administration apologized for the mistake, saying that the checks were meant for some future use and had accidentally been distributed early.

When this rumor first came up, I received scores of calls and letters from listeners who said they had heard the story and that it was true. My staff followed every lead, however, and never found anyone who had actually seen the checks or claimed to have received one. We did end up with a collection of clippings from Christian newspapers, newsletters, and church bulletins across the country promoting the rumor, many of which cross-quoted one another. The Social Security Administration, of course, said the whole thing was a fantasy.

The Fcc And The Man In The Moon

One of the most repeated rumors of the last several years has been the Procter & Gamble (P&G) legend. The most popular version involves an alleged appearance on a nationwide television show by a P&G executive during which he discussed satanism and the fact that profits from P&G were being given to a satanic church. As proof, the story goes, the P&G trademark has a wizard on it and looks somewhat astrological. Printed versions of the rumor encourage people to boycott P&G products, especially the ones with the “wizard” on them, and to write the company in protest.

The fact is that there is no corporate link between satanism and the company or its executives, and, in fact, no individual owns enough P&G stock to be able to influence significantly where the profits go. I have copies of letters from the producers of several national television programs, including “Donahue” and “Merv Griffin” (the shows most often mentioned in the rumors), saying that no such interview took place.

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According to P&G, their trademark originated more than 100 years ago for P&G’s “Star Brand” candles and was designed to show a “man-in-the-moon” looking over a field of 13 stars commemorating the original American colonies. At the time, the man-in-the-moon was a popular cartoon, much like the “happy face” of today.

The granddaddy rumor of them all involves noted atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair. It started more than 15 years ago, is just as alive today as it ever was, and has produced more mail to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) than any issue in its history.

The story has been almost exclusively spread through photocopies that are passed out after church or among friends stating that the famous atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair has asked the FCC to ban religious programming or religious music on radio and television. Concerned Christians are given a “petition number” (RM-2493) and are urged to write to the FCC protesting the action.

The truth is that Madalyn Murray O’Hair has made no such request of the FCC and, despite her atheistic activism, probably never would. Even she understands the First Amendment implications of trying to ban religion from broadcasting. The origin of the rumor goes back to 1974. Two men, named Jeremy Lansman and Lorenzo Milam, objected to educational frequencies being granted to religious organizations. They asked the FCC to review that policy and also requested a freeze on granting any new noncommercial educational stations. In the end, the FCC ruled in favor of the religious organizations and the decision was applauded by Christian leaders.

Playing Detective

Leaders need to get into the habit of checking things out before they pass them along. It has astonished me and my staff to see how many people consider a story “documented” as long as it appeared in print or was broadcast on the air.

A good example is the story of the Siberian drilling operation. When I asked the Texas evangelist’s office what documentation they had, I was faxed two pieces of material. One was a copy of a Finnish article. The other was a letter from a man in Norway, which had been sent to the television network.

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First, the article. It was not from a “respected Finnish scientific journal,” as had been alleged. It was from a newsletter published by a group of Finnish missionaries. We contacted the missionary group in Finland to ask where they got the story. A staff member said she had read it in a newspaper and passed it along word-of-mouth to their editor. We found the newspaper, and an editor there told us that the Siberian drilling story was not a news article but had been in a letter from a reader. We tracked down the reader, who told us he remembered seeing the story in a Christian magazine published in Helsinki. The editor of that magazine said he got the story from an elderly man who translated it from English and thought he got it from a Christian newsletter from California. So far, that’s where the trail ends.

The letter to the Christian television network from the man in Norway said that he had seen the Siberian drilling story “all over the papers” in Denmark and included a clipping along with what he said was a translation. We followed up on the letter and contacted its author, Age Rendelin, a school teacher outside Oslo. I asked him if he had any way of knowing whether any of it is true.

“Yes, I do,” Rendelin answered. “None of it is true. I fabricated the letter, and the translation is fiction, too. The article I sent is a feature about a Norwegian building inspector.” Rendelin explained that he had been visiting California and had seen the coverage of the Siberian drilling story by the evangelist and TV network. It was obvious to him that neither had worked very hard to substantiate the story. He thought that if he sent them a fictitious letter they would use it, and he was right.

So, if anyone comes up to you at church and says, “Here’s a petition to keep Procter & Gamble from using Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s social-security check for financing a porno flick about a drilling expedition to hell,” you can say, “Riiiiiight.”

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