Here's a new example, which we cite both because the story is so powerful, and therefore tempting, and because its misuse emerges from our own house, to the extent that "Luther" Seminary can be so called.
The seminary operates a website called "Working Preacher," which contains lectionary analysis by a variety of scholars. It is often interesting, and we read it with some pleasure. One of the contributors whose work we enjoy is Frank Crouch, of the Moravian Seminary in Pennsylvania. In his comments on John 13:31-13, this Sunday's Gospel, Crouch uses this story to illustrate the phrase "he loved them to the end":
The Reverend Joachim Alexandropoulos was an Orthodox priest on a Greek isle in World War II, now memorialized at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. The Nazis came one day, demanding that he provide them, the next day, with a list naming every Jew on the island. The next day he handed them a list containing only one name, his own. He loved them to the end, indeed.
Good stuff, huh? So good that we wanted to know what happened next. Was the priest executed, like St. Lawrence when he turned over the "treasures of the Church"? Were the Jews rounded up? What?
We still aren't sure. Here's what we do know, thanks to our friends with the powerful algorithm. Fr. Alexandropulos apparently served St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral, in Washington DC, prior to the war. According to the cathedral's website:
Great. The same story, with a bit more detail. And from a reliable-sounding source, too. We were a little concerned that the action had shifted from an island to the mainland. But still, we were were very happy. Until, courtesy of those same friends and their obsessive need to set information free, and thus destroy copyright protection, by digitizing every book ever published, we came across Mordechai Paldiel's Churches and the Holocaust (Jersey City: Ktav, 2006). Paldiel actually works (or did) for Yad Vashem, as the director of the "Righteous Among the Nations" Project, so he has put some real energy into the identification of Gentiles helping Jews during the Holocaust.
And in his chapter on Greece, around page 315, Paldiel tells the story of Father Alex[andr]opolus. It is an heroic story, still: the guy urged the Jews in his village to evacuate, and provided their rabbi with a letter of introduction to other Orthodox priests, asking for assistance. He saved many lives. But that's it.
However, on page 316, Paldiel tells the story of Metropolitan Demetriou Chrysostomos, on the island of Zakynthos. Or rather the stories, plural, because there are several versions. All involve the metropolitan (and the mayor) saving the island's Jews from the Nazis, but in different ways: a large bribe, an evacuation to the countryside, and -- yes -- a list containing only his own name. (And, apparently, that is the story told on the island today.) Paldiel doesn't choose one story over another, but does note that Zakynthos was "the only Jewish community in Greece where no deportation took place."
Now, we don't think it matters too much, in the long run, which heroic priest saved whom, or how he did it. We're glad that both these guys were on the side of the angels, and grateful for their witness. Their stories are inspiring. And we suppose that a preacher can be forgiven some eagerness to tell the story, and in its most dramatic form, even with a few factual inaccuracies thrown in.
But when does it end? If we don't mind getting the name and place wrong, and don't even mind telling a story of questionable truth, why don't we make up some dialogue, too? Add an SS officer with a cruel glint in his eye, and a saber scar from his university days? Throw in an American archaeologist with a fedora, in Greece looking for religious relics. And maybe a raven-haired beauty with a heaving bosom, because why not?
You see the point. Stories, if they are represented as true, ought to be demonstrably true. If they are not true, they should be identified as fables, legends, parables -- whatever fits. Preachers have a duty to get this right, lest they discredit their greater message. And those whose work is going to appear in print, where it may be borrowed by an even greater number of preachers, have an even greater duty.