So says Seinfeld’s George Costanza. But whether or not he really believed that is hard to say.
It’s often hard to say whether or not the speaker really believes what they’re saying when they’re saying something that isn’t true. Yesterday we discussed a currently circulating political falsehood, trying to discern whether it was repeated as an outright lie or just an irresponsible rumor.
The realm of untrue statements is large and incredibly diverse. It includes honest mistakes, honest misstatements and misinformation that may be shared innocently or spread intentionally in service of some larger purpose, commendable or contemptible. It includes sarcastic and ironic statements, exaggerations and understatements, jokes, ghost stories, tall tales and urban legends. It includes propaganda, gossip, rumor, spin, marketing and salesmanship. It includes white lies, euphemisms and the little lies and obfuscations told to protect the vulnerable or to preserve the innocence of children.
And, of course, it includes all manner of deliberate and venomous lies — slurs, slanders, libels, scams, cons, hoodwinkery, bamboozlement and every form of bearing false witness against a neighbor.
Some of those sub-categories overlap and interbreed, creating strange hybrid forms of untrue statements that seem simultaneously innocent and malicious. Some involve self-deception as much as, or even more than, the deception of others.
The more these distinct forms of untrue statements overlap and intermix, the more interesting I find them to be. The classic snake-oil salesman, for example, isn’t terribly interesting. He lies about his useless product in an effort to deceive others into giving him their money. But what of the snake-oil salesman who began as a customer and who believes — or partly believes, or needs to believe — that the homeopathic tincture of snake-oil he’s peddling is or at least might be effective? That’s a more intriguing case, more deserving of the attention of a playwright or a psychologist or a theologian.
I want to turn next to a particular sub-species of untrue statement that interests me because it’s one of those murky areas where deception and self-deception seem inextricably woven together. It’s the sort of falsehood that others may identify as a form of lying before the liar herself even realizes that this is what she’s doing. And it’s a form of falsehood that’s of particular interest to me as a Christian because it is frequently heard from pulpits on Sunday mornings.
I’m referring to the gooiest, most syrupy and sentimental form of lying there is — to what the folks at Snopes.com categorize as “glurge.” Snopes defines glurge — a semi-onomatopoeic term coined by Patricia Chapin on the site’s message boards — as:
… the body of inspirational tales which conceal much darker meanings than the uplifting moral lessons they purport to offer, and which undermine their messages by fabricating and distorting historical fact in the guise of offering ‘true stories.’
For examples, see Snopes’ “Glurge Gallery.” Or just check your email in-box for the latest 10th-generation forwarded spam from your great aunt. Or attend church regularly where, sooner or later, you’re bound to encounter a glurge-y sermon illustration that comes from, or at least belongs in, that Snopes gallery.
Before we dive into the topic of glurge in more detail, let’s first cleanse the palate with a taste of something a bit sharper. Lark News offers a fine send-up of the pulpit-glurge sub-sub-species of missionary stories:
CHARLESTON, W. Va. — John Lemier, missionary to the Congo, was given 20 minutes to share about God’s work and ask for financial support at Grace in the Valley church on Sunday. But somehow, witnesses say, he got off track …
He insisted that just before he came to the U.S., a Congolese child was swallowed by a boa constrictor, which then fell 20 stories off a cliff. The child, he said, came back to life after two mysterious strangers, both 9 feet tall and wearing shiny white clothes and large swords, led villagers on a 12-day trek to the foot of the cliff. Villagers revived the dead girl with a prayer Lemier had taught them, and when word spread throughout the jungle, 587,000 people were saved in a single meeting led by Lemier. …