THESE PEOPLE LIVE AMONGST YOU
These people live amongst you: the Air Force pilots and accountants and musicians and housewives and students and artists and jes' plain ol' folk who stood outside Ocean Hills Community Church in San Juan Capistrano last Friday evening, waiting for the End Times. Each had paid $59 to attend "Steeling the Mind," a two-day conference that annually brings together speakers who address Christendom's most pressing subjects: UFOs. March 20. Book plugs. Humanism. Israel. Evolution.
"This is my first time here. How about you?" one Bob asks another Bob as they enter Ocean Hills' sanctuary. Each Bob wears a leather jacket to guard against the February chill.
"Third time," Bob tells Bob. "I always come out so energized." Bob goes on to explain to Bob how the last conference taught him Israel is the key for the Second Coming of Jesus.
"You know, there was about 6 million Jews that died in the Holocaust," Bob tells Bob. "Right now, the population of Israel is about 5.2 million." Bob pauses. "You just have to wonder. God is so exact in his numbers. I wonder if He's just waiting his time before he allows the fulfillment of the gentiles."
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THE GREAT DECEIVER
The Ocean Hills sanctuary is sparsely decorated. A piano, drum kit, keyboard, podium and fake palms stand on the stage. Two big screens hang above; they flank a massive red-white-and-blue "Steeling the Mind Bible Conference" banner. An American flag sits on the floor to the right of the stage; to the left is the Christian flag: white field, blue canton and red cross. Two pillars near the stage's stairs feature Scripture: Revelations 4:11 ("You are worthy to receive glory, honor and power") and Psalms 95:6 ("Come let us worship Him and bow down").
Ocean Hill's seating capacity is 1,120, but demand for the "Steeling the Mind" conference is so great that people stand toward the back. Almost everyone carries note pads and materials handed out by ushers. A pamphlet lists the weekend's speakers. Inside is an order form—anyone who orders one of the weekend's lectures on tape, CD or DVD gets a free poster of the Empty Tomb, the tomb from which Christ rose on the third day. Another flier advertises a pendant etched with the Empty Tomb ("Anyone can wear a cross . . . but only a Believer will wear the resurrection!") and Ahava, an Israeli hand cream. "This stuff is awesome!" the flier boasts. "Just about everything in Israel flows to the Dead Sea . . . Everything from Jerusalem, everything from Galilee, all the sacrificial blood, everything. Now thousands of years later, they're making hand cream out of the minerals from the Dead Sea. And it's making people smile BIG TIME."
Ahava usually sells for $23 a tube; "Steeling the Mind" attendees can get it for $10.
The conference begins. Andy Day, a Christian pastor from Idaho, walks onto the stage with a guitar. He asks everyone to stand and sing "Come, Now Is the Time to Worship":
"One day every tongue will confess you are God.
One day every knee will bow.
Still, the greatest treasure remains ?for those
Who gladly choose you now."
Bill Perkins thanks Day. He's the president of Idaho-based Compass Ministries, which runs the "Steeling the Mind" franchise. For the past decade, Compass Ministries has specialized in offering seminars for premillennial dispensationalists (also known as Christian Zionists), a unique subgenre in the fractured world of Christianity. Believers think not only that the End Times are imminent, but that Israel as a nation must exist in order for the Second Coming to happen. Believers have the ear of the Bush White House.
"Steeling the Mind" has visited Orange County every year since 2002, but 2006 is the first time a local church has sponsored it. Perkins, who looks like a slightly chubbier Bill Gates and talks in the same slow manner, thanks Ocean Hills for hosting them and repeats the weekend's speakers. When he utters some of the names—Chuck Missler, Dave Reagan, Kent Holvind—the audience murmurs in excitement. "With Missler, you have to hold on to dear life—really brilliant," a middle-aged woman whispers to another middle-aged woman. "You can count on Chuck to scare your socks off. I'm telling my kids to be ready for the End because of him."
Three speakers tonight; tomorrow brings five. First is Mike Riddle, a former Marine Corps captain who now writes for the Kentucky-based Answers in Genesis. Its website declares the ministry's "desire[s] to train others to develop a biblical worldview, and seek to expose the bankruptcy of evolutionary ideas, and its bedfellow, a 'millions of years old' earth (and even older universe)."
"No apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the Scriptural record," adds the Answers in Genesis mission statement.
Riddle's topic is "UFOs and the Bible." "This very real and present phenomenon IS in the Bible—past, present and future! Great graphics!" Compass' website advertised in the days before the event. But the plug proves misleading.
Riddle begins by citing Colossians 2:8: "Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ."
"Our first [belief] should not be what the technical scientists say," Riddle tells the audience. "It should be the Bible." Colossians 2:8, he states, "is a very clear warning that we should check everything first against the word of God."
Riddle rips into the people and organizations that claim UFOs exist or work to prove their existence. Hollywood. Colleges like the University of Washington and the University of Colorado that offer advanced degrees in astrobiology. NASA. Former President Jimmy Carter, who says he once saw a flying saucer ("And you elected him," Riddle scolds the audience, which laughs in derisive agreement).
The UFO conspiracy, Riddle argues in a stern, drill-sergeant delivery, is meant to scare society. "But the scariest [thing] of all—banned by courts, schools and politicians—is the Bible . . . Evolution is the foundation for this whole train of thinking.
"The more we learn about science, the more we point to a greater God," Riddle adds. "Every experiment is a poison to life."
More debunking. His PowerPoint presentation (every speaker will have his own PowerPoint presentation this weekend) flashes pictures of Roswell, flying saucers, aliens playing basketball and soccer, an artist's rendition of the psychedelic passage that opens the Book of Ezekiel, where the prophet described seeing "wheels" manned by "four living creatures" with "the likeness of a man."
UFOs don't exist, Riddle concludes. Besides, "Why do they always have a New Age message, much like evolution?" And even if aliens did exist, "they're under the Curse."
So what causes the popularity of UFO sightings? Evolution.
"That is a fact," he spits out. "That is an absolute truth. For we have a great Deceiver amongst us," so deceitful that 10,000 pastors recently lent their name to a letter saying evolution and faith can co-exist.
Riddle finishes with a book plug.
* * *
Larry Vardiman follows Riddle.He's with the San Diego-area Institute for Creation Research, which argues the Earth is thousands—not billions—of years old. A billion-year Earth "is the basis for evolution," the portly Vardiman mumbles. "It degrades the reliability of Scripture . . . it does violence to the word of God." But those are the only highlights of Vardiman's lecture, who bores everyone into sleep with talk of carbon dating and "accelerated decay." He urges listeners to buy his 800-page book, "if you really want to get into it."
The first evening concludes with Chuck Missler, a former Bible teacher at Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa who now runs a publishing house and ministry in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Missler made headlines last fall when he told a group of North Idaho College students, "They say Islam is a religion of peace. That's nonsense. Islam, the Koran is a warrior's code for world conquest, from cover to cover. Check it out. Read it yourself."
Missler has previously said in cassette lectures that Auschwitz and Dachau were "just a prelude" to the Tribulation. Missler also believes in aliens. "Are these 'aliens' so prolific that they constitute a political constituency?" Missler wrote in a 1997 newsletter. "Will there be UFO incidents as part of a carefully orchestrated program to lead us toward a political agenda? Or has it started already? Are the UFOs, and the increasingly widespread abductions, part of the preparations for this scenario?"
But Missler wouldn't talk about UFOs or the Holocaust tonight. His focus was biotechnology.
Missler begins with a chart showing that physicians caused 9,000 times more accidental deaths than gun owners. Missler isn't clear what the charts have to do with biotechnology, but the audience nevertheless laughs and applauds. He moves quickly on to the subject of DNA replication.
"It's just a matter of time before the clone people come," the folksy Missler says. "Will the Antichrist be a clone? Will they be able to be saved? These are big issues."
From clones, Missler segues into nanotechnology. He warns against its abuse by tyrants. "What if it was available to Joseph Stalin?" Missler wonders. "Adolf Hitler?" Hitler's picture flashes. Beat. "Hillary Clinton?"
The audience laughs and applauds.
Missler wraps up his sermon with a book plug. Then he becomes serious. "If I didn't tell you about something, I would do you a disservice," Missler says. On March 20, he warns, Iran will begin trading its oil futures in euros, not dollars.
"Something's coming down the pike," Missler says. Iran was testing electronic bombs over the Caspian Sea that would destroy the East Coast. The End Times are near. "Al Qaeda has nukes planted in the U.S., according to my intelligence sources.
"God just might reward us with a revival," he concludes. "But I fear that the judgment of God is upon us. It's our fault."
NO NAMBY-PAMBY SAVIOR
Between the lectures of Vardiman and Missler, Perkins screens a commercial for a fall "Steeling the Mind" conference in the Holy Land. Participants in the Biblelands Cruise 2006 will visit a cave on the island of Patmos where John allegedly wrote the Book of Revelations, Jerusalem, the Jordanian city of Petra ("which could play a role in future Bible prophecies," the commercial narrator chirps) and "the breathtaking view of the Valley of Armageddon."
Conspiracy, warfare and doom govern the dispensationalist world-view, and previous seminars in the "Steeling the Mind" series featured such topics as "The Coming One-World Religion," "Hell's Best-Kept Secret" (delivered by former television idol Kirk Cameron), "Pyramid, Planets and the Bible," and a seminar on Lake Forest pastor Rick Warren titled "The Devil-Driven Church."
The topics are gentler this time around, but the fatalism remains. "Time is getting short, and behold He will come!" Andy Day yells to start Day 2. He launches into "Days of Elijah":
"And though these are days of great trial,
Of famine and darkness and sword,
Still, we are the voice in the desert crying
'Prepare ye the way of the Lord!'"
Day ends with a plug for his CD.
An even larger crowd comes today. People share notes. They carry new material—lectures, books and DVDs of last night's speakers.
First today is Texas pastor Mike Gendron.
"Good morning, saints, cleansed by the blood of our glorious savior!" Gendron shouts. "How many of you know we're involved in spiritual warfare? What a privilege it is to be called saints!"
Gendron's topic is "Satan's Big Six" attacks against Christians. "We know there is a battle between God's troops and Satan's," he says. God's side: the saints, the faithful, the Christians who believe. Satan's troops: evolutionists, humanists, Catholics, Darwinians, sodomites who are "redefining the God-ordained marriage," psychology, science, philosophy and televangelist Benny Hinn.
"If we're going to stand firm, we need to know [the devil's] past schemes," Gendron says. "He wages war against the saints." Gendron urges everyone to wear "a full armor of God": loins girded with truth, a breastplate of righteousness, a shield of faith and a helmet of salvation.
"Anything that does not conform with Scripture must be purged away," he thunders.
Gendron, a former Catholic, then addresses his former faith.
"Maybe the most fatal lie of the devil is that you can get to heaven through good works," he snickers. "Every religion follows Satan's plans—good works."
The audience laughs.
Gendron rails against Satan's "legions of liars," the "demonic infiltrators." But he isn't talking about Catholicism—he now directs his attacks toward Hinn.
Hinn, a broadcaster with the Costa Mesa-based Trinity Broadcasting Network, is controversial amongst Christians for his belief in faith healing and the prosperity gospel, which asks believers to contribute money in the hope God will one day return it 10-fold. But Gendron doesn't mention any specific problems with Hinn; all he says is, "If we were living in the Old Testament, he wouldn't have his head anymore."
Gendron ends with a DVD plug.
Gary Frazier follows. He runs Discovery Ministries, which organizes evangelical trips to Israel.
"We are the generation that will see the second coming of Jesus Christ," he begins. "How many of you believe Jesus is coming soon?"
"Amen!" the audience shouts.
Frazier plans to examine the Book of Daniel. But he begins with an anecdote—seems he was driving the other day and saw a bumper sticker that read, "Visualize World Peace." Knowing snickers echo across the audience.
"The truth is, we're never going to have world peace," Frazier says to the nods of the audience. "The truth is, God will bring war and desolation until the End."
Frazier spends the next 45 minutes describing equation after equation he says proves biblical prophecy—April 16, A.D. 32, for instance, was the day Christ was laid on the cross. If you add it with Israel's "sin debt" and go forward on the Gregorian calendar, you end up with May 1948, the month Israel came into creation.
"The truth is that the nation of Israel is the key," Frazier says. "The truth is Jesus is coming again soon. While we don't know the day and the hour, what we do know is that it'll be soon and He'll be right on time."
Perkins alleviates fears for anyone interested in visiting Israel with Frazier. "It's just like Los Angeles, with people shooting each other." Laughs.
After another clunker of a speaker and a brief lunch break, the day's two main speakers arrive. First is Dave Reagan, a Dick Cheney look-alike who will join Frazier in the 2006 Biblelands cruise. After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Reagan reprimanded evangelicals who blamed the city's sinful ways for incurring God's wrath. "I do not believe the storm was meant primarily as a judgment upon the city of New Orleans," he wrote. "Rather, I see it as a judgment on our entire nation for our mistreatment of Israel."
"There is going to be an entire generation that will not die," Reagan shouts to the audience. "This is enough for anyone to shout 'Hallelujah!'"
"Hallelujah!" responds the audience.
Reagan begins describing the End, when Jesus will "pour his wrath on pipsqueaks like Castro and Qadhafi, who strut around like bantam roosters." Reagan talks so fast that people scribble notes like doctors. But the same words pop up during his speech. Blood. Red. Triumph. Blood of the enemies of God. General.
"This is no namby-pamby Savior," Reagan proclaims of Jesus. This would be the man who would lead the saints to victory. "You and I are going to be there!
"How God loves the Jewish people," Reagan suddenly marvels. "They are his chosen people. Satan hates the Jews with a passion. Satan hates the Bible. Satan hates the Messiah. Satan hates the chosen people. That was the purpose of the Holocaust—so God could not fulfill his promise to the Jews.
"There is something for us too," Reagan promises his listeners if they support Israel. "We are going to reign with Him over all the nations of the world . . . It will be a theocracy with the absolute reign of Christ—with a rod of iron."
Anyone who deviates from the Bible "will be tried immediately. No appeal. No need for appeal. There will be immediate punishment. Humanism is the religion and philosophy of the devil. God will use the millennial reign to prove that."
Reagan plugs no book when he finishes, satisfied with his closing graphic: a picture of a rabbi blowing the shofar near the Wailing Wall that looms over our heads.
Between sets, previous speakers manned booths outside the sanctuary, hawking various books and DVDs or mingling with the crowds. But no one received attention like Kent Hovind. Hovind poses for shots, signs autographs or simply shakes hands as he approaches the Ocean Hills stage.
Hovind is a media darling: a well-spoken, boyish-looking creationist who calls himself Dr. Dino and runs a Florida amusement park that shows dinosaurs walking the earth alongside humans. But he's controversial even amongst creationists. In 2002, Hovind and Answers in Genesis attacked each other through their websites about each group's methodologies (Hovind, for instance, believes a Japanese scientist once found the fresh carcass of a dinosaur, while Answers in Genesis said such a claim is "self-refuting").
Hovind begins his "Steeling the Mind" lecture with his stock introduction: evolution is the "dumbest, most dangerous religion in the history of humanity."
"It is fun to make fun of evolution," Holvind says, grinning. And that's why he has a standing $250,000 offer for any scientist to trump him in an evolution-versus-creationism debate. "Bring 'em on," he says. "They're a lot smarter than me, but I slaughter them because I'm right and they're wrong."
He shows charts showing the increase in school shootings, teenage pregnancies, drug abuse and abortions over the past four decades. He mentions the Columbine killings: how Eric Harris wore a shirt that proclaimed "Natural Selection" as he gunned down his classmates.
"What is going on? I believe evolution is a primary reason," Hovind says matter-of-factly. "Since the inclusion of evolution in textbooks, there has been a moral collapse in our country. It's not the way it used to be . . . We are in the center of the battlefield in the greatest war in history." The only advantage the saints have, according to Hovind, was their "infallible book. I already read the book—we win."
Images flash on the screen. Slaves. The Cambodian killing fields. The Trail of Tears. Nazi concentration camps. The gulags. Eugenics. Chairman Mao. Abused aborigines. The Rwanda genocide. Pearl Harbor. "90 percent of Hitler's S.S. were homosexuals." All evolution's fault.
"A straight line runs from Darwin to the extermination camps," Hovind says. "I don't think you understand what happened to the Jews until you understand evolution."
Hovind doesn't reach his final point—that evolution was part of "Satan's coming New World Order"—but he doesn't need to. The people who live amongst you were ready to spread the Gospel. He wraps up with II Chronicles 7:14, which reads, "If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land."
But Hovind repeats it differently: "If my people, which are called by my name, shall vote Republican and join the militia . . . That's not what it says? What Bible are you reading?
"Folks, if America needs to be saved, it's now," he finishes. "There are troubling times coming."
The auditorium erupts in cheers shortly after.
The conference is over. The saints swarm the Dr. Dino table and weigh down their arms with literature. Many visit the stage, where a 500-year-old Torah is on display.
"I learned so much—it's amazing what these men know!" a tattooed thirtysomething tells me. "During lunch I was standing in the middle of Taco Bell, and I realized I was standing amongst a bunch of imbeciles."
"Are you going to Israel this year?" I ask.
"Of course," he replies, smiling. "Fourth time. You need to go where the action's going to be."
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