How Legends Develop in Our Own Time

How Legends Develop in Our Own Time July 10, 2018

Health foods were popular in the Victorian period—foods such as Kellogg’s corn flakes, Grape-Nuts cereal, and graham crackers all came from food fads of this time—but the most interesting story might be that of Horace Fletcher, “The Great Masticator.” He advocated a low-protein diet, said that more efficient digestion could halve the amount of food a person needed, and claimed that capacity for work would increase and need for sleep decrease with his methods.

Chewing was the key. He famously warned, “Nature will castigate those who don’t masticate” and advised, “Chew all solid food until it is liquid and practically swallows itself.” Success could be measured when bowel movements (“digestive ash,” as he called it) were negligible and had “no more odor than a hot biscuit.”

At age 54, he easily performed the exercises given to the Yale varsity crew though he “had for several months past taken practically no exercise other than that involved in daily walks about town.” At 58, he beat Yale athletes on tests of strength and endurance. He said that “perfect alimentary education” would deliver to society “no slums, no degeneracy, no criminals, no policemen, [and] no criminal courts.”

Should we all become Fletcherites?

Some of these are just handwaving promises (calories halved or no criminals, for example). But some are tests with places, dates, and quotes from named professors, such as the claims of physical strength and endurance. What do we make of this?

I’m skeptical. Maybe Fletcher embellished his claims. Maybe other authors reporting on the benefits of Fletcherism were caught up in the excitement and passed on stories without fact checking. Fletcherism might have been popular, but we must distinguish popularity from the truth of health claims (astrology is popular, but that doesn’t mean that the planets influence our lives).

The biggest issue is that we’ve had a century of scientific progress since Fletcher, and no science predicts that his simple regime could deliver what he claimed. Society today gives plenty of encouragement for new eating regimes, valid or bogus, and yet nothing has come of Fletcher’s philosophy.

Fletcherism vs. Christianity

This is an over-the-top story about a guy a century ago that we can see through, but we’re to believe the far more fantastic Jesus story?

For starters, Fletcher makes bold claims, but they’re all natural claims. They can be tested. By contrast, the Jesus story is nothing without its supernatural parts. The “like what?” test applies here. You say Jesus is supernatural? Like what? There is no accepted precedent for the remarkable supernatural claims made about Jesus.

We have originals of Fletcher’s story, written in our own language and coming from our own Western culture. There are no copyist errors and no puzzling idioms to decipher. Contrast that with the difficulty of reading the Bible. Native speakers from millennia past didn’t provide us with Ancient Greek-English or Ancient Hebrew-English dictionaries, so modern scholars must create their own imperfect ones. Not all words are easy to interpret. For example, the Hebrew reem was a puzzle, as in this sentence: “Rescue me from the mouth of the lions; save me from the horns of the reem.” It’s now translated as “wild ox,” but the King James Version translated it nine times as “unicorn.” Scholarly theological papers are written analyzing single Bible verses or phrases.

Fletcher’s story can be explained by some combination of wishful thinking, error, deliberate lie, and legendary growth. Why wouldn’t that very unsurprising explanation apply to the gospel story as well? We don’t have the originals of the New Testament books, and an average of 200 years separates the individual chapters of Matthew from the originals, to take one example (more on this time gap here).

I’ve made a similar comparison between the claims of Mormonism and Christianity (guess which one wins), and I argue that the Jesus story is a legend here.

The Argument from History

A popular Christian argument from history goes like this: you say the historical record for Jesus is poor? We show the gospel story is true in the same way that you show that the story of Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar is true, through the historical record. You want to discard the gospel story? Then be consistent and discard the story of every great figure in ancient history.

In the first place, the evidence for Alexander and Julius Caesar is far better than that for Jesus (more here and here). And second, historians scrub out supernatural claims for historical accounts. Remove the supernatural from the stories of Alexander and Caesar (yes, there was plenty), and you have the accounts of those great men from history. But remove the supernatural from the Jesus story, and you’re left with nothing—just an ordinary, uninteresting man.

Let’s zoom out from this critique of Jesus vs. Alexander to bring in a more contemporary giant of history, Horace Fletcher. Point by point, the Fletcher story beats the Jesus story on its own criteria—shorter cultural gap, shorter period of oral history, more reliable copies, and so on. Until Christian apologists embrace the great truths of The Great Masticator, I will conclude that they are applying their standards inconsistently.

More modern legends

Let me pile on with more modern legends. With each one, ask yourself: if this can happen today, with our modern understanding of science, geography, anthropology, and what’s plausible, how reliable a foundation can Christianity have been built on?

  • According to a story begun in the early 1980s, astronaut Neil Armstrong heard the Muslim call to prayer on the moon and converted to Islam. Who would give such a ridiculous story credence? Enough people, apparently, that it was worth Armstrong denying the story in 2005.
  • Did you hear the one about how Pope Francis would sneak out of the Vatican disguised as a priest and minister to the homeless? This was popular early in his papacy, but it is false. How can a false story about the whereabouts of one of the world’s most famous people get going? And if that’s possible, what might you expect 2000 years ago after forty years of oral history in a prescientific melting pot of different religious beliefs?
  • Atheist Hector Avalos, in a 2004 debate with William Lane Craig, said that as a Pentecostal preacher, he had people raised from the dead in his own church.
  • The story of John Frum and cargo cults is a fascinating modern example of legend developing among pre-scientific people.
  • Is Barak Obama a Muslim? A 2015 CNN poll showed that 29 percent of Americans think so (and more than half of Republicans, depending on the poll).
  • How many people thought that Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11? It took more than two years for the fraction of Americans who thought that he was behind it to drop below fifty percent (source).
  • The Gilligan’s Island sitcom began airing on television in 1964, and the U.S. Coast Guard received telegrams urging them to rescue the stranded people. (And this was a show with a laugh track.)
  • Did you know that North Korea’s “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il was the world’s best golfer, despite only playing the game once? He shot eleven holes in one in a single 18-round game. He was also a fashion trendsetter, he had a supernatural birth, and he didn’t poop.
  • Remember the violence in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina? The Associated Press reported, “Storm victims were raped and beaten, fights and fires broke out, corpses lay out in the open, and rescue helicopters and law enforcement officers were shot at as flooded-out New Orleans descended into anarchy today” (“today” being September 1, 2005). The reports were wildly exaggerated. There was looting, though most of it seemed to have been people looking for food and water. There were hundreds of dead, but these were caused by the hurricane, not from violence. There were several shooting deaths, but these were from police.
  • You can’t buy an electric fan in South Korea with a simple on/off switch. They all come with timers. This is because of the widespread fear of “fan death,” the idea that being in a closed room with a fan running is potentially deadly.
  • The idea that blood types determine personality had been popular in Japan, and the idea that children born in the year of the dragon are more successful is popular in China. Science supports neither idea.

Christian apologists might demand, “How could the story about Jesus get traction if it weren’t true??” But this is similar to, “How could the modern legend about <pick your favorite> get traction if it weren’t true?” The same answer would be reasonable for both.

God is a comedian
playing to an audience too afraid to laugh.
— Voltaire

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