Perhaps part of my skepticism about belief stems from my fascination with urban legends. I find the human need to believe that which will confirm our perspective on the world to speak volumes. We all do it – no one is immune. If you follow urban legends, even with just the occasional visit to www.snopes.com, you’re well aware that people believe things that simply aren’t true.
Mormons are no different. We swap stories meant to remind us of the divinity of Mormonism, of our status as a “peculiar” people, of our special favor with God, and of God’s personal involvement with each and every one of us. Some of our urban legends appear to be homegrown. Many, however, are adapted from wider Christian legends and made to fit the Mormon perspective. For example, take the story about sister missionaries saved from rapist/murderers because the would-be killer was scared by the “three big Indian guys” standing behind them. This story made several rounds outside the Church before hitting the Mormon circuit, featuring a good Christian girl instead of sister missionaries and angels instead of the Three Nephites. The creepy story about no missionaries showing up for a zone conference in the World Trade Center on 9/11 (because why hold a conference in a chapel when you can rent space in an expensive office building) was borrowed from an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory insisting no Jews were in the World Trade Center.
Other Mormon urban legends abound: The little girl who, after she survives an accident that kills her parents, recognizes Jesus in a painting as the man that helped her following the accident. A maintenance worker sees a light on in the temple late at night, makes some phone calls, and learns (sometimes from the Prophet himself) that Christ is home (the temple being the House of the Lord and all). Two missionaries are rejected by a town, and when they dust their feet off as they leave the town is soon destroyed by a natural disaster.
Here’s my question: is it that big of a leap from someone who believes that a little girl recognized Jesus in a picture as the man who rescued her, to someone who believes in the miracle of the seagulls? Today, urban legends can usually be debunked (though a story’s status as urban legend doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t true) by any number of methods. But the more time we place between us and an event, the more room for leeway. Despite some historical dilemmas surrounding the traditional seagull story, it’s easy to say that “we just don’t know” or “well, a handful of journal entries doesn’t prove anything.”
Is there a difference between today’s urban legends and historical stories we point to as evidence of the divinity of our faith? (The primary difference might obviously be that urban legends involve “a friend of a friend” and usually anonymous participants. The story of Brigham Young’s transfiguration doesn’t involve a “friend of a friend.”) We seem to tell these stories for the same reason: to strengthen belief. Put another way, does our need to believe blind us to the possibility that what we’re hearing might not be true? I’m not necessarily talking about the ultimate truth of Mormonism, but the stories we tell to convince ourselves of that truth. And when we say “I have faith that Church history stories are real,” is it any different than saying, “I have faith that a janitor got the Prophet on the phone at 2:00 AM to find out that Christ was in the temple?”