The following phenomenon has been reported as scientific discovery. But though I was born at night, it wasn’t last night, so I’m demoting this meme to “legend has it.”
Legend has it that Japanese scientists were studying the macaque monkey in some obscure Pacific Island. Picture the Dharma Initiative while hiding from the Others. They noticed that a young, probably OCD macaque began to scrub the dirt off his sweet potatoes before scoffing them down. Soon the other youngsters pulled a monkey-see-monkey-do act, literally.
The new fad took a while to catch on, but soon all the youthful primates were hooked on clean veggies. Even some of the old guard ventured to try this new-fangled trend. Eventually the whole troop had taken to washing their food. It would only be a matter of time before the other families on the island heard about the Joneses antics and the fashion would spread.
But then something happened which was far more remarkable than could be predicted by Japanese science, or even scripted on LOST.
When a critical number of monkeys acquired the new skill, the so-called 100th Monkey, the trend spontaneously, inexplicably, and downright freakishly, went viral and hopped to the other islands.
All the macaques on all the neighboring islands began to wash their food. Now, to be clear, none of these monkeys had internet or cellphones, no one was posting a “How To” infographic in the local Primate Times. There was no visual contact whatsoever. This event was an almost paranormal, instinctual version of a wiki website.
Or so the story goes.
Malcome Gladwell is the guy we owe credit to for re-popularizing the concept behind the monkey vignette most recently. The claim Gladwell makes in his pop-economics book, The Tipping Point, is that information these days requires a certain level of credibility for it to be scooped up by the hoi poloi. “Ideas and messages…spread like viruses do.”
I submit that the same can be said for the urban-legend type exegetical fallacies found in many pulpits. Biblical studies has its own menacing threat of exporting fallacious fun facts from island to island.
I’m pretty sure you’ve heard the popular explanation of Matt 19:24 “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”
Legend has it that since the Needle Gate into Jerusalem was so narrow, if someone wanted to enter through that gate with their camel, the enormous hydrated beast would need to get down on its knees and crawl through the gate. Thus Jesus’ lesson becomes: it’s a tough nut to crack, this getting into the kingdom with your corpulent bank balance, but it is possible with some determination and a submissive dromedary.
In reality, the lesson was that getting into heaven is impossible. You know, like getting a beast of burden through a 4mm hole. And yes, I know their needles had pretty big eyes, but still.
Relying on your financial self-sufficiency or any other measure of success is totally inadequate to contribute to your salvation. Impossible. As in, not doable. As in, it takes a miracle to make it happen. But here’s some good news– our God just happens to be pretty good at the impossible.
That’s the lesson. How do I know for sure?
1) Camel drivers aren’t obtuse. If the Needle Gate even existed (just because the 100th pastor said it doesn’t make it true), it should be noted that there were several ginormous gates into Jerusalem, located a few hundred yards away from each other. No camel driver would ever choose wrestling his vehicle through a junior petite gate, when there was an XXL gate in spitting distance.
2) Jesus supplies the interpretation of his word picture for us: vs. 26 But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
3) Camels don’t scootch. No camel can crawl on its knees. When an Egyptian guide explained that to me with a condescending eye-roll, I wondered aloud if some greenbacks would encourage him to at least try. Suddenly he loved the idea. Calling his buddies to watch, and prepping the photographer, it became clear a tourist this silly was rare even at the Pyramids.
I can now say from experience that camels don’t scootch on their knees. And trying to make one do your bidding takes a special kind of folly.
An excellent resource that lists and explains other instances of the 100th Monkey Effect in pulpits, is Exegetical Fallacies by D. A. Carson. My personal theory of why pastors are so prone to contributing to these memes is because they blog so much. Agree or disagree with me at Why So Many Pastors Blog.
So, be grateful for pastors who spend more time researching from solid sources than they do plundering Wikipedia.
In your experience, what are some other urban legends that find their way into the pulpit?