Be a shrewd judge

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The other day a family member sent me an electronic mail message about Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Rogers -- those two deceased and legendary TV performers whose work appealed to children. This message was a "forward," which is Internet parlance for sending a message you received on to others. The person in question in my family liked the forward and sent it on without regard for its accuracy.

The e-mail claimed that both Captain Kangaroo (Bob Keeshan) and Mr. (Fred) Rogers -- despite their public personas -- had been men of valor on the World War II battlefield and winners of numerous combat awards. I was suspicious of this and did some checking on my own. Yes, Keeshan was in the Marine Corps but never saw combat. Fred Rogers was never in the military. There is a lot of junk flying around on the Internet, and we ought to be wise in assessing everything that comes our way in the guise of truth.

Jesus warned his disciples before sending them out to be his representatives that they should be "as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves." (Matthew 10:16) As reticent as I am to add to the Master's words, I'm wondering if he might add this caution to his 21st-century followers: Be careful about the things you read and the things you hear.

Some things seem to ring true. Newsweek recently quoted an economist from Notre Dame who claims that Americans are more overtly religious when the economy is bad. "When the business cycle goes up, religious attendance goes down, and vice versa."

That's an easy sound bite and tempting to repeat to others. But hold on, now. When a bold claim is presented to you, keep reading.

A political scientist from Harvard, an authority on so-called civil religion, has a contrary view: "Prolonged unemployment does not inspire people to go to church. On the contrary, it keeps them away."

Centuries ago, before Google searches and the encyclopedias of yesteryear, people usually had to rely on their own wits to discern truth from falsehood. Like us, they didn't always succeed.

During the Elizabethan period (late 16th century), the concept of the "chain of being" became widely circulated and accepted. What the "chain" claimed was that God had ordered creation in a certain vertical arrangement that was immutable and permanent.

Here's the idea in a nutshell: The English monarch (Queen Elizabeth I) was just below the angels in this up-and-down hierarchy, followed by nobles and churchmen. Underneath them in the chain were gentlemen and finally commoners. All women were inferior to men in the chain unless you happened to be the monarch, in which case gender was irrelevant.

Everyone had his or her place and accepting your place in God's order was your key to rewards in heaven. The chain of being was masterful manipulation that kept the elites in control. It allowed injustice to persist without protest. It is, we know now, total hogwash.

As Jesus instructed so long ago, it is important to be shrewd.

Don't just pass on everything you read and hear. Weigh it. If it doesn't sound right to you, check it out before sending out a "forward."

Be a dove, be the living embodiment of the universal symbol of peace, by all means. But when necessary, don't forget the Master's good word about snakes.

It might save you from being duped one day.

Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married with two daughters, he is of Scots and Swedish descent, loves movies and is a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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