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Stories about Christian leaders that never happened

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This essay describes CULs that we have uncovered from Internet mailing lists, Emails from conservative Christians, Urban Legend web sites, etc:

bullet The crucified Santa Claus: In 1993, a rumor began to circulate that a Japanese department store in Tokyo or Kyoto had on display a smiling  Santa Claus being crucified on a cross. The display was alleged to have been shown just after World War II, or in the '50s, '60s, or just recently. In 1995, A Motorola executive was quoted in the Washington Post as attributing the statue to a shopkeeper's knowledge that "...there was this guy in a  white beard and a red suit, and they knew there was a [Christian] religious angle...The result was little Santa Clauses on crucifixes." Various descriptions had Santa appearing in miniature or life-sized. Christianity Today in 1996 described an "enormous effigy." None of this actually happened. 
bullet Encounter between Dr. Paul Tillich and a preacher: The legend involves an annual observance at the University of Chicago: Baptist Day. A famous theologian is invited each year to speak on religion. One year, Dr. Paul Tillich delivered a speech in which he concluded that the physical resurrection of Jesus was not an actual event. During question period, a dark-skinned preacher in the audience asked a surprising question: was the apple that he was munching on was bitter or sweet. Dr. Tillich responded: "I cannot possibly answer that question, for I haven't tasted your apple." The preacher responded calmly: "Neither have you tasted my Jesus." The audience exploded with applause and cheers. This makes for an interesting story. Dr. Tillich did teach at the University from 1962 until his death in 1965. But a spokesperson at the university's Divinity School has stated that there is no evidence that the exchange took place. The school never has celebrated "Baptist Day." 1
bullet George W. Bush evangelizing young man: This legend started during Bush's campaign for the presidency in the year 2000. It alleges that George Bush interrupted his activity at a political rally to discuss salvation with a teenager. This resulted in Bush leading the young man in the sinner's prayer. Bill Koenig of Koenig's International News was one of the information services that distributed the hoax. After publishing the story, Koenig did some digging and found out that the story was fictional. In his 2001-JAN-15 commentary, he issued an apology and retraction. He said in part: "Without doubt, the excitement of this story, whether it be a 'hoax' or whether it actually has some basis in fact, has happened for a reason. We do know that God is in charge, and we pray for His will to be done."
bullet Jesus porno film: This legend appears to have started with a 1977 news item in Modern People, a weekly magazine. It reported that some Europeans were planning to produce a porn film about Jesus. A later announcement in the magazine said that the film project had been terminated. In 1980 a legend spread across the U.S. that Modern People News was producing a film about the sex life of Jesus. The part of Mary Magdalene was going to be played by a famous prostitute from France. Jesus was going to be shown as either a bisexual or homosexual. No such film was ever produced.
bullet Emotional support by Jesus: This story apparently originated among Mormons in the American West, and was very popular in the late 1980's and early 1990's. An abusive father -- different versions described him as alcoholic, a drug abuser, mentally ill, or just plain violent -- killed his wife in the presence of their small child. The daughter was so traumatized that she could not speak. She was placed in a foster family, who later took her to church and enrolled her in a Sunday School. During the lesson, the teacher showed a large picture of Jesus to the children and asked them if anyone knew who it was. The child raised her hand and spoke her first words since the incident: "That was the man who held me in his arms the night my Daddy killed my Mommy." There are quite a few variations on the story; some have the child looked after by Roman Catholic foster parents. The event was said to have happened in many places: rural UT; Mesa, AZ; Oklahoma City, OK; Southern California, even Mexico City.
bullet The Vanishing hitchhiker: This story has been circulating since the 1800s and thus has many variations. One of the most recent appearances allegedly happened in Austin TX. A motorist picked up a hitchhiker on a country road. The hitchhiker says "The Lord is coming back soon" and then disappears. The motorist reports the event to the police, who tell him that he was the fifth person that day to report the same experience. This is probably the most widespread and long-lasting Christian urban legends. There is no truth to the story. 
bullet Mother Teresa's divine light: A BBC (British Broadcasting Corp.) made-for-television documentary movie "Something Beautiful for God" first brought Mother Teresa to public attention. During the filming of the movie, the film crew attempted to photograph the inside of the Home for the Dying in Calcutta, India. The task looked hopeless, because the movie crew only had one small light at their disposal to supplement the very dim by natural light. But the photographers tried anyway. When they developed the film, they were amazed to find that the movie showed the interior to be bathed in a beautiful soft light. Every detail was clear. This was attributed to a miracle of "kindly light" or "divine light" much like the luminous halos that artists have drawn around the heads of saints. The rumor has been spreading ever since that a miracle happened in Calcutta.

In reality, the camera crew realized that photography inside the darkened room was quite impossible, using regular film. Fortunately, they had brought a new type of high sensitivity Kodak film. They did not have time to test it before they went on location, but they decided to try it anyway. The film was a miracle; but it was a "miracle" engineered by Kodak research and development. 3

bullet Cannibals eat missionary and family: This story won the 1999 Darwin Award for one of the finest urban legends of the year. Rev. Newton Day of the Blessed children Church was a missionary in New Guinea. He attempted to convert the Tuoari tribe to Christianity. The tribe's current religion is described as "Satanic," which simply means, in this context, "Aboriginal" or "Non-Christian." Local inhabitants "tried to tell him that Tuoaris don't want missionaries. They are perfectly happy worshiping the devil and eating any juicy white man who comes along." Detective Ike C. Doka reported that: "Neighboring tribes say that the preacher and his family were in the stewpot before he ever got his Bible out of his duffel bag. The Tuoaris ate like kings and danced all night long." A scary story. However, with the possible exception of ritual eating of enemies after battles, cannibalism does not currently exist in New Guinea. There is strong evidence that some cannibalism was practiced among the Fore tribe and others in the New Guinea highlands early in the 20th century in response to a famine. However, people were not murdered in order to provide food for the tribe; only people who died of natural causes were eaten. 6,7
bullet Luther and the 95 theses: It is a very widely held belief that Martin Luther, one of the leaders of the Reformation, had 95 theses printed up and that he subsequently nailed them to the cathedral door in Wittenberg, Germany on 1517-OCT-31. (Halloween). This triggered the Protestant Reformation and the eventual division of a more-or-less unified western Christianity into thousands of individual faith groups. It is now celebrated by many Protestant churches as Reformation Sunday. Some have suggested that the nailing of the theses apparently never happened. The first account of the event did not appear until after Luther's death. Luther himself never mentioned it. Luther is known to have written a letter to his superiors on that day. In it, he denounced the sale of indulgences, asked that the believers receive their money back. He attached to the letter 95 theses which he suggested as the basis for a discussion of the proposal. 4 One person who has thoroughly investigated the nailing suggested that it did happen; but "What he never did but everyone attributes was him saying in court, 'Here I stand and can do no other'."
bullet Luther throwing the inkwell at Satan: Luther, like most of his religious contemporaries and like many conservative Christians today, lived in an environment in which Satan was seen as a very important living entity with supernatural powers. He was visualized as a raging lion, roaming the world looking for people to devour. A legend grew up that Satan had woken up Luther in the middle of the night, and that Luther had thrown an inkwell at him, in self defense. A stain on the wall of his room, visible up to the 19th century, was associated with this event. His actual statement was that he had "driven the devil away with ink." This is generally attributed to his efforts at translating the Bible. Apparently the stain was painted on the wall after Luther's death. 5
bullet Pope Leo X (1513-1521): Some believe that he considered Jesus to be a mere legend.
bullet Barbara Walker in her Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, Page 471, quotes him as as having said "What profit has not that fable of Christ brought us!"
bullet Rev. Taylor, in The Diegesis, Page 35, has a slightly different quote "It was well known how profitable this fable of Christ has been to us."
bullet The Catholic Encyclopedia refers to a widely circulated remark: "How much we and our family have profited by the legend of Christ, is sufficiently evident to all ages."

These quotes appear fraudulent, and unrelated to any actual statement by Pope Leo X. They have the flavor of folktales. One evidence of this is than they have appeared in so many different versions with slightly altered wordings. Their origin appears to have been in a fictional work by John Bale. The Catholic Encyclopedia refers to him as an: "...apostate English Carmelite, the first to give currency to these words in the time of Queen Elizabeth" (1533 - 1603). 8 Even if Leo X said something like one of these "quotes" the meaning is not clear. He may have been referring to legends, myths, and fables about the life of Jesus which accumulated after his death.

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Additional religious urban folktales can be found at:

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  1. "Theologian Paul Tillich upstaged by a simple preacher," at:
  2. Bill Koenig, "Retraction and apologies," at: 
  3. Michele Tepper, "Mother Teresa's 'Miracle' Debunked," at:
  4. "Legends about Luther: Nailing the 95 theses to the door of the castle church," at:
  5. "Legends about Luther: Throwing the inkwell," at:
  6. Gregory Miller & Jim Watson, "Missionary Miscalculation," (1999) at:
  7. Richard Rhodes, "Deadly Feasts: Tracking The Secrets Of A Terrifying New Plague," Simon & Schuster, (1998). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  8. "Pope Leo X," Catholic Encyclopedia, at:

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Copyright 1999 to 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Creation date: 1999-APR-5
Last update: 2006-APR-29
Author: B.A. Robinson

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