I don’t really name and shame on this blog when I complain about people using stories that aren’t true in their preaching. I didn’t name the two well-known Christian speakers who told a completely untrue story about the violinist Itzhak Perlman. I also didn’t name the guy who told the most middle class story ever about God’s providence that came down to him having a generous godmother.
But I’m changing tack now. I see no reason not to call people on these things. Ultimately if you’re presenting truth then it should be true.
So, here’s a story that I heard last time Tony Campolo was in town. Before I start I need to say two things. Firstly, I quite like Tony Campolo. I’ve never had lunch with him or anything, so I’m basing this on hearing him speak and also a book I had as a teenager that covered some tough questions and that really helped me. I’m not disputing his theology or his relationship with Jesus or anything like that. I have no axe to grind.
The second thing you need to know is that he presented this story as something told to him by a church pastor from a church he was preaching in. I think he said it was in Hawaii, I’m not sure. But it was presented as a true story heard from someone for whom it was a personal experience. (That friend of a friend really should have tipped me off sooner, but anyway...) Here's the story:
This pastor had a kid in his church who lost an arm in an accident or somehow only had one arm. And for some reason the kid decided he wanted to learn a martial art. So he goes to a dojo and is taken on by an old martial arts master who proceeds to teach him one move.
Over and over they repeat the move and then the master says the kid is ready to compete in an upcoming championship. The kid is horrified. He only has the one move. He only has one arm. It’s crazy! But the master insists and they go to the championship.
At the championship the kid uses his one move and wins his first bout. Then, using his one move, he wins his second bout, then the next one, all the way up to the final, where he is facing the defending champion. The bell (or whatever) goes and the final fight is on. The kid uses his one move and bam! Down goes the defending champion. The one-armed kid is the winner.
On the way back home, the kid is talking to the master, saying how he can’t believe he won.
“After all,", he says. "I only had the one move!”
The master smiles and says, “I knew you would win.”
The kid says, “How? How did you know I would win.”
And the master says, “Because that one move you practiced – it has only one defence. Your opponent would have to grab your other arm.”
At which point we all went ‘Ahhh’. Obvious moral, right? The thing we thought was a weakness was actually a strength.
It’s not a bad story. It has a good moral. I don’t object to anyone using it. But the way it was used, it was presented as a true story, not an apocryphal myth. This was supposed to be a kid in the church pastored by a guy that Tony Campolo met while out doing his thang touring the world preaching. It was definitely presented that way, as if Tony had had a one on one conversation with this guy who told him this obviously framed story with a punchline as just a random thing that has happened.
That’s what annoys me. A quick Google proves this never happened. It didn’t happen in Hawaii. It didn’t happen anywhere.
Now maybe I’m doing Tony Campolo a disservice. Maybe he heard someone else tell the story and just sequestered it for himself. I know plenty of preachers who do that. But he could have checked. Or he could have said, ‘I’ve heard this story. I don’t know if it’s true, but...’ instead of telling everyone that he had heard it first-hand from the pastor of the church this kid went to.
Being honest, I don’t like the Chicken Soup for the Soul nonsense stories that preachers chuck into sermons that are obviously rubbish. Well-crafted parables are acceptable. Illustrations drawn from known fiction are fine (I reference Star Wars enough in my talks). But the sentimental stories with a point are a bit saccharine for me and I’m not keen.
But even though I don’t like them, if people want to use them, I don’t really object. My issue is when people present them as real, or having really happened to them. In the case of Tony Campolo, I know people who really rate him as a writer, speaker, teacher. But, because of the way he presented that story, it made me question the other stuff he said. Has he really done these things? Has he really met those people?
And that’s unfortunate, because when people talk about how great he is, I have a niggling little doubt in my mind that says, “Yeah, but he’s also a bit of a bullshitter...” And the only reason I think that is because of what he himself has said.