Pulpit glurge and ghost stories

“Glurge” is not unique to church, but churches tend to cultivate their own native varieties of it.

Skimming through Snopes’ Glurge Gallery reacquaints me with several familiar stories that I’ve heard many times over the years in church or at youth group campfires or retreats. Stories of angelic intervention like “26 Guards” weren’t common in our kind of church (that’s more of a Pentecostal thing), but I heard dozens of variations of “The Anguishing Choice” or of “The Drawbridge Keeper.”

Such stories — melodramatic allegories of fathers sacrificing their beloved sons — are harmless when told simply as parables, but these stories are rarely told that way. Like all urban legends, they are embellished and presented as true stories — as accounts of events that actually happened.

Pulpit glurge shares several traits with ghost stories. Ghost stories are not told, usually, with the deliberate attempt to deceive the listener. The goal of the storyteller is a particular kind of emotional response — in the case of ghost stories, the shivery thrill of fear. Achieving that emotional response tends to involve storytelling conventions that require the teller and the listeners to agree to several false assertions. Ghost stories, to be effective, need to be presented as true stories. And it’s usually helpful also to localize them — to adapt them to the details, people and places of the area in which they’re being told.

A good storyteller telling a good ghost story will embellish it with just the right details to give it a sense of vérité and with just enough local particulars to make the tale seem chillingly close-at-hand rather than safely distant. Such embellishment isn’t usually something done wholly consciously by the storyteller. It’s just an organic part of the process that a good storyteller does almost instinctively. The local details and the grainy bits added for the sake of realism just click into place as the story unfolds. The storyteller is inventing falsehoods to spice up the ghost story and representing those inventions as facts, but the storyteller is not lying.

These inventions and embellishments aren’t added to deceive, they are just part of the unspoken bargain agreed to in the telling and hearing of ghost stories. In order to achieve the desired effect of making listeners pleasantly frightened, the storyteller invites them to accept a set of factual assertions that neither the teller nor the listeners really regard as true. The storyteller is not deceiving and the listeners are not deceived — they simply both realize that the emotional impact and enjoyment of a ghost story depends on the suspension of disbelief.

Preface a ghost story with a disclaimer stating that it’s pure fiction and the story won’t work — it won’t produce the desired effect of spine-tingling delight. That’s why when a really good ghost story becomes a bit too frightening, the listener will declare an end to the bargain, asserting that the story is not true and thus breaking its spell.

Pulpit glurge stories, similarly, are told in order to produce a particular emotional effect — in this case uplift or inspiration or gratitude. And as with ghost stories, that effect may be enhanced if the story is embellished with the claim that it is true.

But unlike with ghost stories, both sides may not have agreed to this bargain. Those hearing glurgey tales from the pulpit aren’t just playing along for the sake of the story. They’re not suspending disbelief, they’re believing. Thus with pulpit glurge, unlike with ghost stories, the listeners likely are being deceived.

Restating that in the active voice clarifies what that means: The storyteller is deceiving the listeners. The preacher is deceiving the congregation.

Put so starkly, that statement is bound to encounter objections in defense of those preachers who make a habit of artfully employing pulpit glurge. Sure, these preachers may embellish those stories, inventing and adding new details to create more realism or local flavor, but it would be unfair to characterize that as a deliberate attempt to deceive.

For one thing, it’s not consciously deliberate. It’s just something they do instinctively because they are skilled storytellers and such flourishes enhance the emotional impact of the stories they’re telling. And that emotional impact is their main intention. These preachers didn’t set out to deceive their listeners or to make them believe a fictional story is true — they just want their congregations to feel more deeply. Surely that doesn’t make them the moral equivalent of deliberate liars, even if the details of these stories don’t turn out to be technically true as presented.

So what’s the harm in a little pulpit glurge? The Drawbridge Keeper is a moving little allegory. Is it really so bad to try to make it a little more moving by presenting it as a true story? What’s the harm?

Misrepresenting such stories as true stories can be harmful. First, at the most basic level, it erodes the credibility and the trustworthiness of the preacher.

A preacher’s credibility depends on them not saying things from the pulpit that aren’t true. Obviously, saying something is a true story when it is not, in fact, a true story entails saying something that is not true. So it’s a bad idea.

Secondly, this misrepresentation of glurge stories as true stories cultivates a habit of credulity in the congregation that contributes to a form a biblical illiteracy and makes the members of the church more vulnerable to other, more pernicious, lies.

Part of knowing how to read, and thus part of knowing how to read the Bible, is the ability to recognize when a story is or is not being presented as an account of something that actually happened. Someone who finishes reading Farewell, My Lovely and comes away believing that Chandler was claiming that Phillip Marlowe was a real person has a problem with the discernment that reading comprehension requires. The same is true if someone finishes Luke 15 and comes away believing that it teaches the existence of a “literal,” historic Prodigal Son.

This inability to discern the type of story one is reading is an epidemic problem in our churches, and preachers foisting off pulpit glurge as “true stories” are only making this worse.

Pretending these glurge stories are true also trains the congregation to swallow urban legends, and that makes them more likely to accept as true not just theses mostly harmless glurge stories but also to swallow the toxic nastiness of the many not-so-innocent urban legends that also swirl all around them.

Glurge stories may be saccharine and sentimental, but they’re mostly harmless if not misrepresented as true stories. That distinguishes them from many other, crueler legends and lies.

One way of describing this distinction would be to say that glurge may involve the bearing of false witness, but not usually against anyone. That makes glurge less worrisome than the nastier, more vicious urban legends — like the Procter & Gamble rumor or the related legends and lies told and retold about legal abortion. Those involve the bearing of false witness against the neighbors we’re accusing of being Satanic baby killers, and that “against” makes them a far more serious problem.

That more serious problem is what interests me most about this whole subject. I wanted to take this quick detour into the realm of glurge mainly to establish this distinction for when we return, in future posts, to those more serious urban legends and to the way they involve deliberate deception and the bearing of false witness against our neighbors.

As for glurge, ideally preachers would avoid such saccharine goop altogether. But if they’re drawn to such treacle and pudding, then there’s no good reason to misrepresent such stories as historic accounts of actual events. Stories told to illustrate a point don’t have to be true stories, they just have to be stories that illustrate the point.

Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan effectively and memorably illustrated his point about love for our neighbors. And most preachers regularly refer to illustrations from literature and movies. I heard one sermon that effectively used Frodo’s declaration — “I will take it! I will take the Ring!” — as an illustration. That sermon illustration wouldn’t have been nearly as effective if the preacher had also tried to insist that hobbits are real and that The Lord of the Rings was a true story.

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  • Muslims went from a solar calendar to a lunar one?  I’d never heard of a
    culture doing that — it seems (possibly from my cultural privilege)
    somewhat going backwards — precisely so that events always occur around
    the same time. It would be much easier, for example, to have a harvest festival that occurred during the harvest.

    As I understand it, it’s not precisely certain what the details were, but the pre-Islamic Arabs were using either a lunar calendar or a lunisolar calendar (i.e. one where an extra intercalary month is added at intervals to align with the solar year). Four months of the year were considered “sacred” (no wars allowed); if the calendar was strictly lunar rather than lunisolar, then these four months were being adjusted at intervals.

    What Mohammed did was to forbid whatever the adjustments were that were being made, and thus force a reversion to a strictly lunar calendar with no relation to the solar year (sura 9:36-37).

  • Izzy

    Oh, that’s more of an issue, yeah. If you’ve got mutual friends, I think–barring things like actual bigotry or harassment–both parties should make an effort to remain on good terms. Not necessarily close friends, but people where you can share a table at a wedding and not want to stab yourself with your shrimp fork. It’s better for you; it’s better for the people around you.

    I mean, there are people in my circle of acquaintances that I don’t particularly like; there are a few people who I actually hate. (Most of these, thankfully, are no longer in said circles.) I’ll argue certain issues if they come up, but I’m not going to stage a public scene or refuse to be at least superficially let’s-talk-about-work-and-Buffy friendly, because…well, mutual friends, and pissing them off means pissing off other friends, and I do not need to assassinate that metaphorical Archduke, thanks.

    I’ve never really wanted to talk much to any of my roommates who didn’t already start out as friends, I have to say, and it irked me sometimes that I couldn’t make dinner without getting involved in fifteen minutes of Chatty Cathy: can we not go with the “Good evening?” “Yeah, you?” “Yeah, good,” and move on with our lives? But again, I’ve always at least wanted to be civil.

    @facebook-100001171828568:disqus : Whoa. I’d try it, at least!

  • FangsFirst

    Kind of sucks though, doesn’t it?

    Absolutely. I fear the day that person has to tell their mother and the mother’s devastation devastates said person, who will feel like a disappointment. Already feared it would make her a disappointment to partner’s…oh screw it, I can’t write these pronouns.

    She feared it would be a disappointment to my parents. My mother said she was, if honest, disappointed, but would not hold it against her at all.
    That pissed me off enough–if my parent had expressed disappointment and it were me I would sure as heck be devastated or angered beyond belief. Then again, a lot of my anger over the idea that her mother would be ‘disappointed’ comes from the fact that this was NOT voluntary.

  • LanceThruster

    I’ve summed up Xian redemption mythology as follows…

    “God sent god to die for god so that god could forgive god’s creations according to god’s unbending rules.”

    Too Rube Goldberg for me.

  • muenchner kindl

    There is an additional argument that I think Fred forgot to mention:

    False stories are bad recipes to follow.

    To take a non-religious example:

    The story of the man who planted trees  is very inspiring. It’s been made into a coloured book (sold with seeds to go tree planting) and an animated movie.

    Sadly, the whole story was invented out of whole cloth.

    The story of the woman who planted trees (30 million!) with the Green Belt Movement and received the Alternative Nobel Prize (Right Lifelihood Award) is maybe less well-known.

    But it’s also true.

    Many people reading the first story will feel inspired, because the moral is that one person with small steps can change a lot for the better.

    Unfortunately, because the author was more interested in the feel-good message than in facts and didn’t know anything about real trees, forests and re-planting, anybody who does go out and try to imitate the protagonist will just waste their time and effort.
    Because you can’t simply regrow a forest from a barren plain over which the wind howls and where water is scarce by making holes and dropping seeds. Those seeds won’t grow without enough water, they won’t be able to hold against the wind, they will be eaten by the sheep.

    Anybody who reads the real accounts of Maathai, or who volunteers for a proper reforestation program, can make a difference, too. But by working with knowledge about trees and climate, effort is not wasted with dumb ideas. And resources are pooled by getting 20 volunteers together to plant seedlings from a nursery, chosen for that specific climate and soil, with additional protection like woven mats. And other villagers are chosen to look after the seedlings.

    So an invented tale leaves people frustrated and with effort wasted that could have been better used.

    A real tale leaves people with actual trees and the knowledge why “Meaning well is NOT the same as doing well, because you need to know what you’re doing first”.

  • Panda Rosa

    Dvorak wrote a charming piece of music called the Noon Witch, which describes this quite vividly.