There was a time before Facebook when people would send out mass emails to their “friends” with jokes, stories, and political statements. I had my favorites, usually jokes and funny stories. There were those that I didn’t even open before I deleted them. And there were an abundance of those that were somewhere in between. My least favorites were those stories that ended with something like, “and if you really love Jesus you will pass this on to everyone in your address book…” or worse, “you will pass this on, unless you are embarrassed by Jesus, who was not embarrassed to die for you!”
One day back then I received an email from a colleague of mine at another campus. It was a story about an incident that allegedly happened in a philosophy class at USC. Suspicious of the veracity of this story and since he knew that I had been serving as a campus minister at USC for a number of years, my friend wrote to ask if I knew whether or not the story was true. The story was about a philosophy professor that had been at USC for over 30 years and was teaching a class that was mandatory for all students. In this class there were over 300 students. Every year in his class he would claim that there was no God and challenge the Christians in his class to prove otherwise by praying that a piece of chalk (that’s what we used before white boards and PowerPoint) that he would drop would not break as it hit the ground. Normally there would be no one who was brave enough to take the challenge. But one year a lone Christian student was strong enough in his faith to stand up to the professor. After an exchange the student prayed and the professor dropped the chalk. The chalk got caught in the cuff of the professor’s pants and then rolled onto the floor in one piece. Humiliated that he was proven wrong about the existence of God in front of 300 undergraduates, the professor went running out of the room and the student stood in front of the class and shared the gospel.
I told my friend that I was pretty sure that this story was not true, but I would check it out. I knew a few professors in that department. I wrote to the one that I knew best, Dallas Willard. For those who don’t know, Dallas Willard was a very committed follower of Jesus and had written several books on Christian Spirituality. Dallas told me that the story was not true but referred me to the head of the department for the “official” response to the email that was going around. I knew him too. I was serving on the Religious Life Advisory Committee with him. He sent me the response which broke down the story point by point. I won’t do that here, except to share a couple points that I thought were particularly amusing. First, the only professor in the department that had been there for 30 years was Dallas Willard. Additionally, there were no “mandatory” philosophy classes (except for majors, of course) and, in his words, “sadly” there were none with anything close to 300 people.
I am sure that many of the other “inspiring” stories that I received by email of the courage of Christians to stand up to persecution were also apocryphal, but this story made me angry. Indicting the Philosophy Department at USC, a department that had the reputation of being supportive of people of faith, seemed to me, among other things, to be unchristian! It is true that the story didn’t name names and the intention was to inspire people to stand up for their faith – how bad is that? But the department was made up of people and for the sake of a “good story” good Christians were willing to spread a lie about those people.
There are many true stories about people who have courageously stood up for their beliefs and suffered for it—some even died! When Christians spread a story that is implied to be true but isn’t, it is disrespectful to those who truly were courageous, and potentially is counterproductive to the good intentions of those sharing the story. Additionally, this story annoys me because it feeds the notion that is common in certain Christian circles that the intention of most professors at secular colleges and universities is to destroy the faith of good Christian young people. Further, it is a part of a pervading view in such circles that Christians are being persecuted right and left in the western world, as evidenced by someone saying “season’s greetings” or “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” in the mall.
Maybe if we who identify as followers of Jesus would stand up for the kind of people that Jesus stood up for we would begin to find the apocryphal stories, like the one above, to be a bit "ho hum" in the wake of real courage. Now, those would be good stories!