We live in an era of sensational hyperbole. In newspapers, correspondence, television, and even friendly conversation, the smallest tale only needs hours or days to become the best and most widely shared “fact” anyone has heard in months. Sometimes, these stories are fun and harmless. Other times, they can cause great damage.
The Bible warns against the wasteful use of mind and tongue in 2 Timothy 2. We should “rightly (divide) the word of truth (and) shun profane and idle babblings, for they will increase to more ungodliness.” In other words, propagating rumors and gossip should be avoided wherever possible.
Nevertheless, ours is also an era of skepticism. Some information outlets have the power to exaggerate and command the attention of millions. Alternatively, people can manipulate these same outlets to undermine or ignore stories that they wish to keep secret, even if – or sometimes because – the stories are true. This may include discrediting or not reporting supernatural events.
This, too, contradicts the Bible, which clearly portrays God as a worker of many miracles. In John 9, Jesus healed a man who had been born blind. When the man told the religious leaders that Jesus had to be from God because of His compassionate power, they angrily sent him away. They saw the miracle, but refused to accept it. In today’s post-modern culture, we should guard against this hyper-suspicion.
When God does miracles, He should not be denied the glory for them that is rightfully His. The key is deciphering what are real miracles, and then determining how to announce them. How do the miracles, true or not, affect our faith? Do we trust in the actual miracles, or in the Doer of the miracles? If it is the former, then both real and false miracles may be abused for human gain. If it is the latter, then people will rely more upon the God of the universe, and He will be glorified.
To further examine all this, we will scrutinize a supernatural story that originated in Egypt a few years ago. Many similar stories have circulated across Egypt, and indeed the world. Some of them contain more truth than this one; others are less valid. But we must be careful with all of them – neither blindly sharing or exaggerating them, nor subversively condemning or hiding them.
In May 2004, Hussein Mu’awad wrote a story in the Egyptian newspaper Sawt al-Umma about two girls, an infant and an eight-year-old. Their uncle reportedly buried them alive after their parents died in a car accident. After 28 days, they were allegedly recovered from the sand – alive! In an interview on national television, the elder girl said that Jesus Christ brought her food, and resurrected their mother to breast-feed her baby sister! News of this story quickly spread.
Frankly, Jesus could have performed this amazing feat without losing any of His untenable stores of power and grace. The legend could be entirely believable and true – if that was all of it. The Sawt al-Umma article continues, “The rumor does not mention where the story took place or the names of its heroes.” More importantly, no witnesses were ever located. While these details are not essential, it seems that someone would have claimed to know something about it.
The article goes on, “It was said that the story was presented in the TV program ‘Behind the Bars.'” Furthermore, the presenter of the program ‘Behind the Bars’ was astonished by entire account. “In fact,” she told Hussein, “[In] the last six months, we have not presented any episode that involves children.” I myself asked many Egyptian Christians about it; several knew about the program, but none of them actually saw it.
Hussein concluded by quoting Bishop Musa: “I am urging all Christians in Egypt to stop repeating such rumors. They should not believe any miracle or any apparition of a saint until its authenticity is proved. Regarding the very recent rumor, there is no evidence of its authenticity [yet].” Naturally, the Church could not totally deny the event, since miracles are a central aspect of Christian history. Yet the Church was not broadcasting the report either.
With all due respect to the bishop, his demand that all miracles be “proved” is too strong. God often does things beyond our clear or immediate explanation. Still, He usually leaves some evidence or witnesses. If just one person attested to talking with the girls, seeing the TV episode about them, or even claimed to be one of them – then the story might be credible. Even Scripture records Jesus’ miracles in particular places with specific people around to testify to them. Not so for the story of the two buried children.
Nevertheless, the saga was not over. In October 2005, a Western missionary e-mailed the story to her supporters. Her information was not only not helpful, but it was also vague and even contradicted the original story!
One glaring difference in the e-mail was that the girls were buried not for 28 days, but for only 15 days. The e-mail continues, “A Muslim man in Egypt killed his wife and then buried her with their infant baby and 8-year-old daughter . . . [He] reported to the police that an uncle killed the kids. The man will be executed.” This varies greatly from the article in Sawt al-Umma, which says both parents died in a car accident. Where is the archive on the father killing his wife? Also, if the father “reported to the police” about the uncle, and if the uncle was sentenced, these would be matters of public record. Yet no documents relating to these events have been found – nor, for that matter, has the father!
The e-mail further describes an interview “on Egyptian national TV, by a veiled Muslim woman news anchor.” This begs numerous questions, which I asked a number of Egyptians who believed the story. Who saw this interview? When was it? What program aired it? Many heard of the interview, but no one saw it or knew anything about it. A side note, female Egyptian news anchors do not wear hijabs – which I knew from watching Egyptian media myself.
The final paragraph of this controversial e-mail states that a “child could not make up a story like this.” I beg to differ, since the imagination of a child is generally much more powerful and profitable than that of most adults. An extravaganza on faith is entirely within the realm of a child’s imagination.
To summarize, we have a story with few facts and no official confirmation. No one claims to know the characters, who have not been discovered anyway. Yet many Egyptians believed this story as it flared across the country. Then, a Western missionary spread a subsidiary, sketchy tale that contrasted much with the original. She seemed to do no more investigation into what really happened than the Egyptians. The story was still being re-posted online as recently as May 2009.
The problem at hand is a lack of critical thinking. Rumors can pop up anywhere, but they must be probed and researched. They do not have to be disclaimed if they are not proven, but we should be careful with them. We should not automatically accept and promote them without any analysis. After all, God gifted our minds to us not only to enjoy stories, but also to evaluate them.
Some rumors are no big deal. Egypt, though, is a religiously divided nation with emotions often running high. Conflict may arise if one group feels pressured by another group. Accounts of any spiritual incident can rupture the fragile unity which the land seeks to maintain. This story focused on a possible miracle by Jesus – revered by both Christians and Muslims – and therefore has been minimally harmful. Other reports, like those involving inter-religious disputes, frequently spread through Egypt and beyond as fast as this one did. So while accurate – or at least tenable – news ought to be reported, we should seriously review careless tales in or from places like Egypt.
From Creation until the year of our Lord 2009 – and beyond – ours is a God of miracles! We should never fear them, but rather look for them! Simultaneously, let us always be mindful of our words. As the Preacher says in Proverbs 15, “The tongue of the wise uses knowledge rightly, but the mouth of fools pours forth foolishness.”