Virtually anyone linked to God and cyberspace gets the same letter several times a year as it's copied and forwarded, and copied and forwarded, from one e-mail list to another -- World Wide Web without end, amen.
It contains a "true story" about an atheistic philosopher at the University of Southern California, a courageous student, a piece of chalk and a miracle. The letter ends by challenging the reader to pass it on, rather than hitting the delete key. Clearly, readers are supposed to have enough faith to keep this evangelistic chain letter going.
Well, the philosophy faculty at USC doesn't have enough blind faith to let this story keep making the rounds. In a few weeks the department will - after years of calls, letters and email -- add a front-page link to its Internet site offering a pack of proof that the story simply isn't true.
"I don't think the people who keep sending this around mean any harm and I can understand why it appeals so much to some people, especially to some Christians, who often feel like they are treated poorly in academia," said Edwin McCann, director of the school of philosophy. "But if people fall for this story because it bolsters their faith, and pass it on, they're spreading around something that isn't true. Serious believers need to base their belief on truth."
The most popular version of this tale describes an event that happened "a few years ago" in a required class that one professor annually dedicated to his belief that God could not exist. For 20 years, no student had dared to answer when he shouted, at the end of the semester: "If there is anyone here who still believes in Jesus, stand up!"
Then the professor would hold up a piece of chalk and challenge God to keep it from hitting the floor. Every year it shattered into tiny pieces. Finally, a freshman - after months of prayer - dared to make a stand. The professor called him a fool and proceeded to perform his famous chalk test. However, this time the chalk slipped, hit his shirt cuff, rolled down his leg and off his shoe - unbroken.
"The professor's jaw dropped as he stared at the chalk," says the story. "He looked up at the young man and then ran out of the lecture hall. The young man ...proceeded to walk to the front of the room and share his faith in Jesus for the next half an hour. Three hundred students stayed and listened as he told of God's love for them and of his power through Jesus."
The story usually arrives in a letter from someone who received it from a friend who knew someone who heard the story from another friend who knew a student who saw it happen.
Meanwhile, McCann freely testifies that this hasn't happened during his 14 years at USC, or during the 32-year tenure of the noted Christian philosopher Dallas Willard. Plus, there is no required course that fits this description and the only class, in this era, that has had the same professor for 20 years doesn't address the issue of God's existence and so forth and so on.
An epistle McCann will soon post online traces the story to a 1977 book called "70 Years of Miracles." In that account, author Richard Harvey shares an anonymous account of an atheistic scientist who performs a similar classroom test of faith with a glass beaker - in the 1920s.
Also, the San Fernando Valley Folklore Society's massive Internet site dedicated to collecting and dissecting "urban legends" (http://www.snopes.com) notes that a similar story appears in a tract from the anti-Catholic scribe Jack Chick. The current story reached the Internet in 1996 and one reader wrote the site to say it already was circulating in California in 1968.
Actually, the true miracle would be if 300 modern students sat in a classroom for more than 60 seconds when they were not required to do so, noted Barbara Mikkelson, a curator of the urban-legend site.
Chalk this one up as a charming parable, one not grounded in the facts as reported," she said. "It's David and Goliath in a classroom."