Do you know about the popular website snopes.com? The site describes itself as “the internet’s definitive fact-checking resource.” It was founded by David Mikkelson and his wife Barbara in 1994 as a means whereby people can fact check stories and urban legends that seem a little too farfetched to be true. I have visited the site several times over the years in my attempts to verify some of the fantastical stories that permeate Christian sermons, devotional books, and websites. Sadly, I’ve found that many of the best stories, stories that a preacher or a writer could use to really make hay, simply never happened. I recently ran across one such story, called “The Price of a Miracle,” about a little girl who had a sick brother.
As the story goes, an eight-year-old girl (in some versions her name is “Tess”; in others it’s “Sally”) overhears her mother and father talking about her fatally ill little brother (in some versions he’s “Andrew”; in others he’s “Georgi”). The girl hears her father say about the brother, “Only a miracle can save him.” This prompts her to go to her bedroom, count the money in her piggybank, sneak out of the house, and carry her money down to the corner drugstore. (One version of the story goes into great detail about the drugstore being a Rexall’s Drug Store that was located six blocks away and had a big red Indian Chief sign above the door.)
After trying for several minutes to get the pharmacist’s attention, the little girl finally resorts to loudly banging a quarter on the counter. Annoyed, the pharmacist interrupts the conversation he is having with another man (in one version the other man is his brother from Chicago), walks over to the girl, and asks, “What do you want?” The little girl answers, “My brother is sick and is going to die. My daddy says only a miracle can save him. How much does a miracle cost?” With compassion in his voice, the pharmacist replies, “I’m sorry, we don’t sell miracles here.”
It is then that a well-dressed man (one version has him being the pharmacist’s brother from Chicago) who has overheard the conversation stoops down and asks the girl, “What kind of a miracle does your brother need?” “I don’t know,” she says, “I just know he’s really sick, needs a miracle, and my daddy can’t afford to pay for it.” “How much money do you have?” asks the man. “One dollar and eleven cents,” says the little girl, “but I can get more if I have to.” “What a coincidence,” says the man, “one dollar and eleven cents is the exact price for a miracle for little brothers.” The man then accompanies the little girl back to her home to see what kind of miracle the brother needs.
Then comes the grand reveal that the brother has a brain tumor, the man’s name is Dr. Carlton Armstrong, Armstrong is an imminent neurosurgeon, and he cures the boy by performing the operation for free. Later on, once the surgery is over and the brother is back home, the mother says, “That surgery was a real miracle. I wonder how much it would have cost.” The little girl just smiles because she knows exactly how much a miracle costs: one dollar and eleven cents.
If that story doesn’t tug at your heart strings, evidently you need to be restrung. I know that it tugged at mine when I first read it. I have to admit, though, that even as I read it the questions started flying in my mind: “Didn’t those parents have insurance?” “Couldn’t some type of payment plan have been worked out with the hospital?” “What kind of parents in the United States let their boy die for lack of medical treatment?” “What kind of parents let their eight-year-old girl wander through the city streets alone?” “What kind of pharmacist sees an eight-year-old girl in his pharmacy and doesn’t wonder where her parents are?” “Why did the girl assume that pharmacists sold miracles?” “Why did she associate surgery with a drugstore?”
The snopes.com staff point out that they’ve only turned up a couple of notable Carlton Armstrongs. One is a bass player for a group called the Vibe, and the other one was a man who blew up Sterling Hall (a building located on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus) thereby killing a physics researcher and injuring three other people. For the record, the latter didn’t even spell his name “Carlton” but rather “Karleton.” The site also questions why the little girl headed to a pharmacy to buy a miracle rather than head to a church to pray for one. Sarcastically, the site asks, “What denomination were these people, anyway? Pharmaceuticalian?”
Look, if “The Price of a Miracle” story pans out to be a true, I’ll happily recant this post and be the first to sing the praises of Dr. Carlton Armstrong, neurosurgeon. I’m certainly not anti little girl, anti sick brothers, or anti miracles. Furthermore, let me also say that God is plenty big enough to orchestrate events to cause such a story to occur. No one except an atheist would question that.
With these things understood, though, this post is a call for discernment. We Christians have got to start realizing that we make ourselves look foolish and cast doubt upon our Savior when we prove ourselves gullible enough to present syrupy fiction as solid fact. The lost person watches us fall for such drivel and assumes that all that jargon we present about Jesus, the cross, and heaven must be drivel, too.
Even God, in 1 Thessalonians 5:21, commands us to, “Test all things, hold fast what is good” (N.K.J.V.). Unfortunately, most Christians simply don’t want to put in the time and effort to do that testing. It is, after all, a whole lot easier to just read a tear-inducing story on the internet or in a book and run with the story as a tool to manipulate your audience into believing what you want them to believe. Of course, the problem with that is that our Savior actually called Himself, among other things, “the truth” (John 14:6). That being the case, how can we, the people who name His name, lazily traffic in untruths? How can we use made-up stories to convince others to follow Him? Asking the question bluntly, how can we expect lost people to believe what we say about Jesus when they can’t even believe what we say about little girls and doctors named Armstrong?
Thank you for writing this. In the political climate we live in, coupled with the internet, so many works of fiction get passed around as Gospel truth. Some of it is sweet and positive and heartstring-pulling, but a lot of it is negative and anti-something.
In this case (The Price of a Miracle), the story has value. It does not need to be told in the disguise of “truth” since it has a nice message as a blatant work of fiction. I don’t appreciate being deceived – deception is the antithesis of Christian behavior. So, I would encourage people who want to share a sweet story (like the one you are writing about) with dubious origin to not forward the deception when they forward the story. They should clearly state “This is a work of fiction, not a true story as the writer portrays it to be, but it has a nice message worth sharing.”
Thank you so much, Tina.
Snopes is guilty of Ignoratio Elenchi frequently. i.e. Their report that the Obama’s sent their dog alone on Air Force One to their vacation home while the family flew separately.
Snopes claimed FALSE hoping one would not read further. They claimed False because the dog was actually sent on Air Force Two. The point being the dog was sent at taxpayers expense alone by plane to the Obama’s vacation home. Snopes does this many times so cannot be trusted.
Thanks for the information, Annabel. I never meant for the post to be a blanket endorsement of Snopes anyway, but I hadn’t heard that some people don’t trust the site’s accuracy. I do still believe, though, that The Price of a Miracle is fiction rather than fact.
Annabel is correct. Snopes is so biased and often untruthful as to be worthless. I stopped looking at them years ago. In fact, they are so bad, when I see the word “Snopes” I immediately think “phony”.
Thank you for comment, Christine. I didn’t originally reply to Annabel’s comment, but it wasn’t because I disagreed with her assessment. It was obvious that she had studied up on Snopes more than I had. So, I figured that her word of warning could stand alone as sufficient to give the relevant information to anyone reading the post. But now that I’m replying to your comment, I’ve also gone back and replied to the one from her. As I wrote in that reply, I never meant for the post to be about Snopes.com. I always had my doubts about The Price of a Miracle story. That’s why I consulted Snopes about it in the first place. But thanks for the warning about Snopes. I’ll keep it in mind going forward.
Dear Pastor Mckinney–
Thank you for writing this post. I could have written it myself–though not nearly so eloquently. I just received the “miracle” email myself and was in near tears reading it. But like you, I don’t want to pass anything along as “gospel truth” when there is no evidence to suggest it is (or worse, there is evidence it is not).
I did a search on the accuracy of the story and read Snopes response. Though they seemed to not believe in the veracity of the story, they still marked it “undetermined.” With that, I thought I’d see if anyone else could confirm it and that’s how I came across this post.
I do think it’s quite unlikely this story is true–and am a little surprised Snopes wouldn’t label it as false. I think given the email does list the surgeon by name and even the city he’s from, it would be rather easy to determine if it were true.
But again, like you, much as I love sharing stories of faith, hope and miracles (and how wonderful when you check and find a story IS true–and can share it with joy and enthusiasm!), I can’t do so in good conscience just for the sake of giving an emotional “lift” to others based on something untrue.
As for those questioning Snopes (and yes, I understand you were not “endorsing” Snopes as a whole, only citing what they discovered with this particular story), believe me, I have friends that swing far right and far left–and I hear the WORD-FOR-WORD exact same charges against Snopes from my far left friends ANY time Snopes disagrees with their beliefs. Snopes is run by people–imperfect people. But for the most part I think they do a good job, always demonstrating their resources and reasoning for their conclusions, even while recognizing you can’t post anything without ruffling some feathers.
Thanks again for this post. I’ll be checking out your site some more.
The Lord’s blessings, peace and leading be upon you and your ministry.
Thanks, David. Like you, I would be delighted if the story was ever proven to be the truth. Revisiting the whole subject and writing a new post in praise of Dr. Carlton Armstrong would be a pleasure. With that said, I’m still skeptical the story will ever be verified.
The story is based on a true story names were changed do to privacy issues, the surgeon was Dr. Arthur D. Ericsson MD Neurology Houston, TX. The Pharmacist was his sister and it occurred in Tyler Texas in 1995 the surgery was performed at Texas A&M, the little girl according to Arthur went to the RX because her brother needed medicine to cure him and she had two quarters. The miracle is that Arthur was there and was one of a very very few trained Surgeons who could do the surgery. I personally knew Arthur and heard him tell the story to students while he was teaching.
Wow! Really? Well, that certainly puts a whole different spin on things. In light of this revelation, I wish the actual story with the actual names could go viral on the internet. That would clear up a lot of suspicion about it.