|Home Page Commentary 30 Mar 1999|
For several years I have been a great fan of Bernie Ward's "God Talk" on KGO radio in San Francisco. From 6 a.m. until 9 a.m. on Sunday mornings, Bernie hosts a talk show where he discusses moral and religious issues with his callers. Although he's Catholic, he doesn't push Catholicism; instead, he prompts callers to examine issues in the context of their beliefs.
On Friday, I saw an advertisement from the Jubilee Christian Center in San Jose. Their pastor, Rev. Richard Bernal, was going to be on a local FM station, KYLD, doing a one-hour talk show called "God in the House" on Sunday mornings from 8 a.m. until 9 a.m. Pastor Bernal is an evangelical Christian, and Bernie Ward has often spoken in unflattering terms about Bernal's theology.
Let me be clear before I begin: Most of my encounters with evangelical Christians have been overwhelmingly negative. I have, for over thirty years, been told by evangelicals that my deeply held beliefs are incorrect, and that I must abandon them and convert to Christianity. Needless to say, this has given me a fairly dim view of the evangelical movement, which I also tend to associate with extreme inflexibility and a literal, word-for-word reading of the Bible.
I am aware, however, that Christianity comes in a lot of different denominations, so I decided to give Pastor Bernal's show a listen. Any of the quotes that you see here are as best as I could type them, and any misquotes are not intentional.
I must say I was impressed by the rapport between Pastor Bernal and the other hosts, J.V. and Big Joe. The conversation among them flowed very well, and it was clear that Christianity is something that has worked for them and made their lives better. I was also pleasantly surprised to hear one of the hosts say, "No one's saying you have to go to church. We're not forcing it on you."
I was disappointed, when, at the top of the show, they said they'd be answering calls from the previous week. Listeners were invited to call in with questions -- which would be written down and answered next week. So much for the possibility of an open, free-wheeling discussion of ideas with callers.
In coming of Christ, will He grant everyone forgiveness of all their sins? If not, which sins are unforgivable in His eyes?
The answer to the first question was no; you had to ask for forgiveness; it would not simply be granted. Pastor Bernal then continued with a discussion of what sin was. Along with the "big sins," such as adultery and murder, are things such as gossiping, lying, and accusing someone of something they didn't do. Pastor Bernal then said that fear is sin, because to be in fear means you don't trust God.
In the process of answering the question, I was again pleasantly surprised to hear Pastor Bernal say that if you approach someone and begin to talk about Jesus, and that person says, "I don't want to hear about it," you should stop talking, because the other person wasn't the one who asked for the information.
The only unforgivable sin, according to the pastor, was blaspheming the Holy Spirit; telling the Holy Spirit that you don't want it in your life. That's not, he pointed out, the same as questioning your faith. My impression of evangelical Christianity is that questioning is simply not allowed, so when Pastor Bernal said that, when reading the Bible, "I still question some things," you could have knocked me over with a feather. My surprise vanished, however, as Pastor Bernal continued, "It's not that I doubt it, I just don't have understanding."
A family member committed suicide two weeks ago; this person was never into the Bible or church. Is he in heaven?
Again, a pleasantly surprising answer: "I don't believe suicide automatically sends you to hell. God is extremely merciful to the meek, the lowly, even the simple. Children go directly to heaven; they don't have knowledge of sin; they have to grow into that." Many evangelicals have spoken to me of moral absolutes, and the evils of moral relativism, yet this statement seemed to be far from an absolute.
When we pray to God, he has a lot of names; what's the proper name to call Him? Father, Jesus Christ, Jehovah, or what?
I liked this answer also: that God has all sorts of names that describe him. Pastor Bernal said, "To my wife I'm 'honey'; to my kids I'm 'father', to my sister I'm 'brother.' I'm still the same person," he said, but different people have different names for him. Jehovah is the most common name, the pastor continued, and names like "Jehovah rofeh [healer]" and "Jehovah shalom [peace]" are mostly for study purposes. The Pastor says he calls God "father", ("aba" in Greek) because "Calling someone dad comes through a relationship. It's like a kid who really loves his dad and wants to spend time with his dad." This, by the way, is somewhat in consonance with what Bernie Ward often says -- that you have a relationship with God, and that you talk with Him as you would with a friend; in both good and bad times.
How on target is Revelations and how does it relate to present day? When God spares His people and gives those remaining on earth a second chance, what happens to them? Is there hell on earth or a whole new earth?
Pastor Bernal, speaking of himself, the two hosts, and the person in the studio who was videotaping the show, said, "These eight eyes are going to see the coming of the Lord. Every prophecy has been fulfilled that has needed to be fulfilled."
The pastor went on to relate the transition from gold to paper money to checks to credit cards to a cashless society to the Antichrist. The mark of the Beast would be the implantation in your forehead of a microchip to be used for economic transactions. "This has been prophesied; we can't change it. We won't have to deal with it -- the righteous will be taken out of the world. If you take the mark, you're damned." If you choose to die rather than take the mark of the beast, however, you go to heaven. Pastor Bernal embellished these comments with description of the suffering of those who would remain on earth and go to hell.
I had always wondered why evangelical Christianity was so short on its descriptions of heaven and so long on its description of hell. The most you ever hear about heaven works out to, "in heaven, everything's all right." On the other hand, preachers can rhapsodize for hours about the torments of the netherworld.
While listening to "The God House," I suddenly understood what was going on. That particular brand of Christianity works on FUD. FUD stands for Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. It's a marketing technique that you use when your product isn't necessarily better than the competition's. Rather than extol your product's virtues, you raise FUD in your prospect's mind with statements like this:
Will company X be around in another 5 years?
How can you be sure that company Y's hardware will be compatible with ours?
Joe Schmegeggie over at company Z bought the competitor's product, and he got fired when it didn't live up to their expectations.
Evangelical Christianity seems to stand out in marked contrast to other religions in this respect. Judaism (at least the conservative and reform branches) are only minimally concerned with the afterlife; it's much more important that you work to make life here on earth as close to a Godly heaven as possible. From the little contact I have had with the tenets of Buddhism, that religion, as I understand it, emphasizes the wonderfulness of enlightenment; being unenlightened is its own punishment.
I haven't studied enough about Hinduism to know what its major thrust is, but I do know what Pastor Bernal thinks about the concept of reincarnation: "Weak, weak. Really weak. If I were Satan, how could I keep mankind away from the truth? Every man...is going to worship something. It's in man to worship. I have to keep people away from Jesus and the truth, so I'll come up with all sorts of quasi-religions, pagan religions. The Bible says you get one chance on planet earth. What a great false religion - man gets lots of chances. Think how weak that is. If I was the devil, it's the first thing I'd have come up with."
And this, folks, is an attitude which I find totally dishonorable. [Note: The previous sentence has been updated since the original posting.] Pastor Bernal, how dare you? All religion is a matter of faith -- unprovable faith. In the absence of proof, your religion is true for you only because you believe it. Reincarnation is false -- for you -- because you don't believe it. But to call it false without any qualification is arrogant beyond belief. To call it a product of evil is doing an immense disservice to its followers, for whom it is their reason to lead a good and honest life. Is your Christianity so weak that you can bring people to it only through use of FUD? Do you have to promote Christianity through attacks on the integrity of other religions? Pastor Bernal, I want no part of such a religion.
When did Noah come along? How did he get the animals? Did he have interrelations with his own family?
I thought I was beyond surprise at this point, but the answer to this question left me slack-jawed in astonishment. First, Pastor Bernal said, Noah did come before Jesus. God led the animals to the ark; Noah didn't have to go out after them. Apparently, the human race was repopulated by Noah's offspring, Ham, Shem, and Japheth. "Ham" means "burnt face"; he went to Africa. From Shem we get the Semites, the Jews and Arabs; as well as the Orientals. Japheth went to Europe, and from him come the Caucasians. Pastor Bernal continued with statements such as:
As to the question of inter-family relations, according to the Pastor, "from the time of Adam until Noah, people lived a long time because they didn't have the nature of sin. Doctors can't figure out why we age. The Bible says we age because we sin. In the days of Adam you could marry your sister and not have a 'Deliverance' kid because people were so pure."
The most charitable thing I can say about these statements is that they are scientifically illiterate.
Lest you think that this is turning into a 100% hit piece, I will say that I did find some points of agreement in Pastor Bernal's closing sermon. His subject was faith, which, he quoted the Bible, comes by hearing the word of God preached and read. The main upshot of the sermon was that you have to speak your faith in order to have what you say. If nothing but negative words come out of your mouth, you create a negative word for yourself. Rather than agreeing with a problem, you should instead say your desire.
The sermon was followed by a closing prayer which was so generic and formulaic that, quite honestly, I cannot remember a single word of it.
In summary: the show is well produced, and the hosts are people who truly believe what they're saying. There's no open dialogue, and that is truly unfortunate. As far as I'm concerned, Pastor Bernal crossed the line when he attacked another religion. That's an approach that is not going to win me as a convert, and will probably lose a fair number of listeners as well. I suggest you listen to both God Talk and The God House, and make your own evaluations. As always, I welcome your comments.
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