About three weeks ago, I was mailed a glossy over-photoshopped mailer inviting me to “Incredible Prophecies: Finding Security in Uncertain Times.” The brochure, which I have scanned below, touted “Special Multimedia Presentations,” and apparently, several angry semi-mythical creatures. Well, how could I say no to that? The only question was, which presentation should I see? With so many good choices, I decided to go for “Incredible Prophecies About the Time of the End” because, if Condoleezza Rice has taught me anything, there is nothing more inviting than a mushroom cloud.
This presentation was held at the Bellingham Seventh-day Adventist Church and soon enough, nice men were flagging me into a parking space. I worried for a moment, as I left my bumper-sticker ridden car, whether I should fear for its safety, considering it has such gems as, “I’m Pagan and I Vote” and “I Do Support Marriage Equality,” but I simply left it in the hands of God and went inside.
Once inside, a very nice woman at a desk had me list my address, phone number, name, and email. In return I received a little keychain barcode. “Mark of the Beast?” I mused; she looked at me with a very alarmed expression as I assured her that, yes, I was joking and I understood the keychain was just for the prize giveaway for repeat attendees.
I have to admit it was a pretty impressive stage, well-lit with two giant screens (pictured above.) The presentor’s wife, Gloria Bentzinger, softly played the electric keyboard while people sat down. Before long the pews were about half-full, a total of around eighty people, and the presentation began. First the local clergy, Pastor Branden Porter, hopped up on stage, thanked everyone for coming and mentioned that he was “so thrilled that Incredible Prophecies is here tonight!” He plugged the speaker’s CDs and DVDs which were on sale in the lobby of the church, and then handed it over to Gloria, who sang one of the songs off of her new gospel album, “Embrace the Cross,” (also for sale in the lobby, reminded Pastor Porter.)
After that, Dan Bentzinger took the stage. He, like most traveling preachers, had a commanding presence, a nicely pressed suit, and a southern drawl. After a quick warm-up prayer, he launched right into his speech, complete with that “multimedia presentation,” or as I would describe it . . . a handful of snazzy PowerPoint slides. OoooOOoo embedded video!
Right off the bat we were treated to a dizzying array of visuals. Hurricanes, starving African children, planes smashing into the World Trade Center in slow motion, all overlaid with clipped visuals from news reports (complete with CBS logo) announcing numbers of dead. “How do you know we are near the second coming of Jesus?” Bentzinger bellowed, and with that, he began the sermon.
His premise was relatively straight-forward. He drew on Matthew 24:8 where Jesus spoke about the End Times, and said that “All these things are the beginning of sorrows,” which could also be translated as “beginning of birthing pains.” He then made the case that because these cataclysmic events are coming closer and closer together, in stronger and stronger intensities, that it is the birthing pains of the End Times. Okay, simple enough premise, how are you going to back it up? Oh yes, the Anti-Christ.
Bentzinger pointed out the proliferation of people claiming to be Jesus. His logic was a little shaky here because he highlighted several people who just claimed to be messengers from God (like Sun Myung Moon,) rather than Jesus proper, but okay, I saw where he was going with this. Then he started preaching against Christians who, well, aren’t Christian enough. He pulled up a list of eight qualities he believed were essential to a “Biblical World View.” Some of them were pretty innocuous: belief in Satan, belief that God exists and is loving, and that Christians have a moral responsibility to share the Bible. Nothing too controversial there. But then he ran aground into a serious theological debate: the belief that salvation is a gift, not earned. That’s a pretty hefty discussion within the Christian community. Or that Christ lived a sinless life? That also has been contested and thoroughly discussed. How about the belief in the reliability and absolute authority of the Scripture. Which scripture? So when Bentzinger trots out that “Only 5% of Christians believe in a Biblical World View” and everyone in the church gasped, I was already a little skeptical of his definition of “Biblical World View.”
Having made the point that most Christians are falling down on the job, he then introduced the next danger. “Chrislam.” Yup. While he talked about this subject, the scary image of the “COEXIST” bumper sticker floating menacingly on the screen. Chrislam is, apparently, the biggest threat to Christianity since they encountered hungry lions. It is the melding of Christianity and Islam that convinces its adherents to deny that Jesus is the Son of God. It is an attempt to create a “one world religion” which will be a sign of the end times because it will be a “melding of the two largest faiths into religion, overseen by the UN.” Now, we are talking! Just when I got myself geared up for some real conspiracy work, Bentzinger moved on. I checked Wikipedia later that night, and apparently that melding of religions isn’t going so well, considering that Chrislam only sports a whopping 1,500 adherents. See, when I pick a boogey-man, I want them to have some staying power, like Rupurt Murdoch.
After that, Bentzinger walked through probably the worst abuse of statistics I have seen since Paul Ryan’s convention speech. Basically, he was making the case that there are more famines, plagues, deaths and natural disasters now than ever before. Frankly, it looked to me like a REALLY convincing case for global warming. Yes, more wildfires, floods, hurricanes and tornados. That sounds like climate change to me! He showed massive death totals from these disasters and talked about how the death tolls are so much higher than during the Middle Ages . . . without noting that we didn’t really track those sorts of things back then and there are way more people on earth now. But all that aside, it wasn’t terribly controversial. Just a walk-through of how these things are “the labor pains of Jesus returning to this earth.”
Most of these factoids were accompanied by short video clips of perhaps the whitest Jesus I have seen outside a Mel Gibson production. Seriously, check out the picture above. That actor is one bottle of bleach blonde away from hitting the surf in sunny SoCal.
Before long, the sermon wrapped up, Bentzinger having made his case that the time of the end was nearly at hand. He noted that 98% of the world is now covered with “the Gospel” – which I assume means that the Mariana Trench is controlled entirely by heathens. He assured us there were “Islamic chiefs, ‘sheiks’ is what they call themselves, that have assured me that they are secretly Christian because an angel came down from heaven and taught their family.”
At the closing, he asked everyone to bow their heads and raise their hands if they were willing to be true to Christ, to hold a Biblical world view, and prepare for the End Times. Sneaking a peak, I could see he was getting about 65% of the vote in the room. Often not a great response rate, but it was late and maybe a few people had nodded off with the whole eyes-closed bit.
With that, and a shameless plug for the next night’s sermon, “Christ is under attack, especially in America!” he concluded his speech with several reminders that there are DVDs of his sermons for sale in the lobby, as well as his wife’s music CDs and that everyone should get some. “They make great gifts!”
As everyone milled out to their cars, I saw that my own heathen-mobile was unharmed and I mentally chided myself for being so paranoid. While the presentation definitely had some theatrical flair, it certainly wasn’t as colorful as I expected. Based on the crazy visuals in the mailer, I expected a more “Left Behind” series. What I got was more Dateline: here’s how crappy everything else in the world is right now. There was no reference to some of the more popular End Time theories: the whore of Babylon, the Anti-Christ coming from the world of politics, the mark of the beast, or The Rapture itself. Instead, aside from the weird Chrislam diversion, it was a pretty standard evangelical sermon.
Well, an evangelical sermon with a pretty snazzy PowerPoint.