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The Satanic Prophecies

[whitespace] Pastor Jason Garcia
George Sakkestad

Touched by an Angel: At Pastor Jason Garcia's Christian Life Center, member Craig Rogers rejects the New Age in favor of the Holy Ghost.

What happens when the Age of Aquarius meets Jesus Christ Superstar?

By Mary Spicuzza

FOR SEEKERS ON THE edge of the new millennium, perusing the aisles of a New Age bookstore is the spiritual equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet. Amid the mingling scents of Nag Champa and myrrh, with the recorded sounds of dolphin songs and Gregorian chants filling the air, stands a collection of books on astrology, Eastern religions, Western esotericism, Sufism, Tarot, Wicca and just about every other alternative religion known. An Eye of Horus looks out over Native American dream catchers and pastel Zen alarm clocks. Shirley MacLaine smiles from her numerous book covers, as if trying to catch the eye and knowing countenance of a nearby miniature Buddha. On a magazine stand piled with periodicals promoting the New Age, a sketch of a wonderchild wearing a yin-yang and cross floats joyously on the August 1998 Utne Reader cover, hovering behind the question, "In a mix-and-match world, why not create your own religion?"

For Pastor Jason Garcia and the congregation of Santa Cruz's Christian Life Center, the answer is simple. Dabbling in the New Age movement will lead even the most well-intentioned seekers straight down the road to eternal damnation. The church's summer sermon series, "New Age or Old Lie," aims to prove that in the battle between good and evil, there's nothing new--except perhaps the weapons.

True Believers

THE ORGAN BELTS OUT hymnal favorites as followers filter into the Christian Life Center's spacious yet simple church. Some exchange hugs as others sway to the music--a head-count in the hubbub is nearly impossible. Few in the near-100-person congregation appear as stern and tightly wound as conservative Evangelical Christians are so often portrayed. Nor are they all stiff suits from the old boys' club. The congregation is primarily white, but Latino, black and Asian American members are also represented. Many are under 40, over half are women, and most look just happy to be there. Buoyantly happy.

After the opening hymn, Pastor Jason bounds to the podium. A short, roundish fellow in a maroon pullover and brown slacks, it's easier to imagine him on Sesame Street than as a close-minded hatemonger--the popular image of fundamentalists conveyed by the secular left.

After cheerful greetings Garcia announces that because of the topic of its summer series, the church has received threatening phone calls and a visit from a threesome of Wiccan women trying to pray for him with charms and amulets. Garcia insists he doesn't give in to that kind of pressure, and promises to continue with the series aimed at "holding the New Age movement up to the light of Christianity." Over echoing applause he promises to confront paganism and discourage both seekers and the saved from getting wrapped up in it.

The series aims to develop a Christian response to New Age practices. In an age when people worship in such different ways, it's difficult to imagine a unified Christian response to anything, but Pastor Garcia is not discouraged. Since the first week in June he has led Mission Street's Christian Life Center through a Bible-centered tour of nirvana, reincarnation, channeling, crystals, supernatural phenomena and the influence of New Age on children's entertainment. The topic is broad but the pastor's conclusion is simple--the horned demon lurks behind it all.

Garcia asks if everyone has received their Bible study notes before delving into his presentation, titled "Channeling: Plugging into a Higher Power or Demon Possession?" Everyone waves their worksheets in the air as Pastor Garcia, using an overhead screen, displays the definition of channeling: "Another term for spirit possession. It occurs when humans willingly give their minds and bodies to spirit beings that enter and control them." Garcia goes on to discuss decades of New Age icons--from 19th-century New Age forefather Benjamin Creme and H.B. Blavatsky to celebrities Linda Evans and Sharon Gless.

Pastor Garcia then presents the biblical response, calling it "spirit possession," "demonic activity" and "a fulfillment of prophecy." It's a "false presentation of truth" and therefore forbidden, something that will look good for a while until you get swept up in it. In a nutshell, "It's coming from the pit of hell." Trying to find a god or goddess within, says Garcia, is the equivalent of worshipping false gods, while using crystals is putting your faith in material things instead of the Creator.

During his sermon on channeling Garcia reads from Leviticus 20:27, speaking clearly and pausing for emphasis: "A man or a woman who is a medium or spiritist among you must be put to death. You are to stone them; their blood will be on their own heads."

"In Santa Cruz, we wouldn't have enough stones," Garcia adds as the audience chuckles. "And we wouldn't do that."

Pastor Garcia derives much of his religious convictions from the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal Evangelical Christian ministry founded in 1914. Pentecostals use revivalist methods to teach the inerrancy of the Bible, the existence of one true God, the deity of Jesus and water baptism as the key to salvation. They stress that at Armageddon there will be a "resurrection of both the saved and the lost, the one to everlasting life and the other to everlasting damnation." The General Council of the Assemblies of God believes that the Bible is the only inspired, infallible and authoritative Word of God.

In 1972 Assemblies of God Executive Presbytery took an official position that the "spread of oriental religions and the occult has brought with it an increase in demon possession." Four years later its position on Transcendental Meditation declared that "TM encourages a passive state of mind which could open the door to demonic activity."

Pastor Jason Garcia and Richard Martinez For God's Sake: Pastor Jason Garcia wades into an ocean-sized baptismal font with 10-year-old Richard Martinez.


New Age Rage

TALK OF STONINGS and demon possession aside, it's no wonder evangelical Christians in Santa Cruz feel under siege, or at least outnumbered. Since the Christian Life Center began in 1926 and moved to its new West Side Mission Street location in 1956, it has seen its share of changes. For a conservative Christian at one of the oldest Protestant churches in town, the early years of UCSC must have felt like being trapped in the Broadway musical Hair.

Garcia sees the New Age influence everywhere, from corporate lingo and the medical system to health food and Disney films, with Santa Cruz as its Mecca and his church the first line of defense.

"You've heard its ideas, you've listened to its music, you may have even participated in its therapy or practiced its ritual," Garcia warns. "Most of the time without realizing it's New Age."

He describes it as "refried Hinduism packaged for Americans ... a collective of numerous metaphysical and neo-pagan belief systems."

Such a definition, UCSC professor of religious history Marilyn Westercamp warns, probably more reflects the need of conservative Christians for an enemy than the reality of New Age beliefs.

Among other spiritual leaders and religious scholars, no one knows exactly how to define the broad New Age umbrella.

In an interview with Mother Jones in December 1997, world-renowned religious scholar Huston Smith describes New Age as "the cafeteria approach to spirituality." He compliments its enthusiasm, yet cautions against this pick-and-choose browsing of centuries-old traditions, saying it can lead to "private escapism." While Mother Teresa built hospices in India, New Age-smitten entrepreneurs were busy investing in lush meditation retreat centers for bored Orange County yuppies.

Sharon Delgado, pastor of First United Methodist Church of Santa Cruz, explains that the New Age is fluid, therefore difficult to define because it constantly shifts to include many different beliefs. "It's a catch-all phrase to get at a variety of different traditions bumping up against each other, especially in Santa Cruz," she says.

However loose its definition and potential for self- indulgence, there is undeniable interest in the New Age movement. George Barna, author of The Index of Leading Spiritual Indicators, claims that roughly 20 percent of American adults are New Agers. He doesn't specify what the term means, or if some people practicing non-Western religions tossed under the New Age umbrella are practicing their native religion, but one can presume the category includes everything from sweat lodges to yoga to the Psychic Friends Network.

The latest Encyclopedia of American Religions lists more than 2,100 religious groups, a figure that has more than doubled since the dawn of the age of astrology. And over 34 percent of Americans think you can be a good Christian or Jew and believe in New Age teachings.

Many "New Agers" would argue the term itself is an over-generalization used by fundamentalists to marginalize New Age practices. But Unitarian Universalist Minister Jeremy Taylor explains that the term refers to a celestial phenomenon that describes the precession of the equinoxes. The sun has risen against the constellation of Pisces for centuries, but near the millennium will soon rise in the constellation of Aquarius, summoning in a "new age."

Taylor has taught for over 28 years at progressive Star King Seminary in Berkeley, and recently finished his third book on dreamwork, The Living Labyrinth. In it he describes the New Age as post-modernism, centered around "a reassessment of previously conceived assumptions." Taylor attributes its popularity to those who question scientific or technological progress, which he concedes have failed to answer many fundamental questions of the universe.

Post-modern seekers look to the past, often to Eastern or indigenous traditions--or romanticized western perceptions of them--for answers. Take Native American Shamanism, mix in a dollop of Confucius, garnish with a side of tarot cards and throw in healthy doses of yoga--served up by a psychic counselor--and you have standard fare for seekers to take along on the path to enlightenment. For devotees, New Age teachings are a sign of global healing, where the devil is consigned to the dustbin of history and spiritual progress toward a time of global unity, peace and harmony is being made.

Big Bad Behemoth

GARCIA BELIEVES that as the New Age craze grows from fad to institution, he needs to test this powerful movement, which has taken over "with little resistance." He describes the New Age as a "multibillion-dollar industry selling everything from crystals to rice cakes," whose literature is growing in popularity so fast "it is only outpaced by the sale of pornographic materials"--overlooking, apparently, that the No. 1 bestseller world-wide remains the Bible.

The idea of Armageddon--the ultimate struggle between good and evil--is older than Shirley MacLaine--as old, perhaps, as religion itself.

References to a false prophet, often called the Antichrist, can be found in the Old Testament Book of Daniel, and some trace it beyond Judaism to Iranian and Babylonian myths. According to Bernard McGinn, author of Antichrist: Two Thousand Years of the Human Fascination with Evil, the Antichrist is the "false messiah, the pseudo-Christ, the great deceiver and the arch-hypocrite." Like the New Age, the Antichrist is a wolf in sheep's clothing.

Others say the Antichrist makes a guest appearance in the Book of Revelation. As the second beast born of Satan, Behemoth works great signs and deceives those on earth so as to seduce them away from the Lord.

The New Age movement leads Lucifer's demonic attack on America in the eyes of folks at Christian Life Center. But the Antichrist label has been slapped on past figures ranging from Peter the Great to Martin Luther, from the Pope to Nero. In the early 19th century the accusation was so popular that a Catholic council ordered leaders of the faith to stop calling dissenters antichrists--as there can be many little antichrists leading up to the big one. In this century Gorbachev and the UN have been suspected as tools of Satan's ultimate global conspiracy by some fundamentalists.

The Assembly of God's belief in the inerrancy of the Bible has roots in a long tradition of Western religious thought. Among religious scholars this is known as dispensational premillennialism--in everyday speak, the belief that the Bible can be used as a blueprint for the future of earth. The theory, a favorite topic of British expatriate John Nelson Darby in 19th-century America and spread by 20th-century preachers like Dwight Moody, divides history into seven dispensations, all leading to a rapture of true believers and the imminent return of the Lord.

Dispensationalists believe the day of salvation is preceded by the inevitable decline of civilization, as many are seduced to the dark side. Hence everyone, religious or not, faces Judgment Day and its eternal consequences.

Contemporary beliefs about the impending last days stretch way beyond the Christian Life Center. Hal Lindsey's 1970 apocalyptic bestseller Late Great Planet Earth reportedly sold over 18 million copies. UCSC anthropology professor Susan Harding estimates dispensationalism enjoys some 10 million to 15 million believers, with thousands more sharing elements of its teachings.

The End Is Nigh

PASTOR GARCIA LEAVES NO doubt that he considers New Age beliefs tools of the devil and harbingers of the last days. But no one in his congregation runs around in black yelling "Doom Cometh" or even "Repent Sinners." On an average morning of worship the church is filled with many young families in their pretty Sunday best.

As a visitor at Christian Life Center, I was greeted with open arms and often inquisitive smiles. "So, is this your first time at the center?" I was asked, or "Are you a student at Bethany [Bible College]?" Each friendly face approached eagerly, even if some of the kindness presumably came from concern for my lost soul.

Despite the warmth of Pastor Garcia and the congregation on hazy summer mornings in Santa Cruz, the subject matter is downright gruesome.

During a lecture on crystal power--"a satanic affinity"--Garcia concludes that "no one who believes in Christ should have anything to do with [New Age] whatsoever." He quotes a passage from Isaiah that refers to the idol-worshipping women of Zion: "Therefore the Lord will snatch away their finery: the bangles and headbands and crescent necklaces...the perfume bottles and charms, the signet rings and nose rings." Garcia has an amazing ability to quote scriptural passages that evoke downtown Santa Cruz.

His conclusion: stay away from it all. Pastor Garcia explains that just as true followers do not distinguish between soft- and hard-core pornography, one shouldn't risk eternal consequences by picking and choosing New Age activities.

On each Sunday's bulletin Christian Life Center describes itself as a "Christ-Centered family church whose purpose is to present Biblical truth in a contemporary and uncompromising manner." But in all its 2,000 years Christianity has never been monolithic, and practicing Christians, including pastors and religious leaders, testify that Garcia's position is not that of all, or even a majority of, Christians.

United Methodist pastor Delgado says she incorporates yoga into her spiritual pursuits. She explains that she is not a Hindu, and though she explored Eastern religions before "God found" her, she insists that her meditation is now "Christ-centered." Delgado softly adds that she hates to categorize or lump different religious practices together, especially in the New Age, where there is such a diverse blend of old traditions and new beliefs.

"It is important to use common sense, critical thinking and insight, whether it's the New Age or anything else," says Delgado.

Pastor Doty of First Presbyterian Church doesn't find New Age practices useful on a personal basis, and concedes some of it can appear to be a "hodgepodge"--not to mention downright silly. At the same time, Doty doesn't attribute channeling or Jungian therapy to demonic forces. "There's a certain part of conservative Christianity that needs an enemy," he says. "It's an identification process that goes on."

Fear No Evil

MANY GROUPS RELY on a shared enemy to form their identity, including those--such as atheists, agnostics and some New Age believers themselves--who denounce Christianity as a tool of global oppression.

Garcia says his only enemy is the devil, and insists Christian Life Center's teachings are an act of love.

"I don't want to come off in an arrogant way. I have a lot of friends who are non-believers," he confesses to the congregation. "Our goal is not to be pejorative or argumentative. It's not to put anyone down at all, or to lord over anybody."

With that, Garcia enters into a lecture on reincarnation. He traces it back to the serpent who tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden, with its promise that immortality can be achieved without "God, the Father."

He breaks from reading scripture to ask, "Are you sure you're going to get another chance? Are you willing to bet your eternity on that?"

Some might see him as blinded by fear. Others raise eyebrows at an attempt at dialogue that begins with, "I'm right and you're lost so let's sit down and talk about how you can be saved."

Yet in a later lecture on the demonization of children's comic books, during which he discusses the saturation of American culture with violent images, many of the most devout atheists would have bobbed their heads in agreement.

All this leaves many folks of different faiths wondering how an effective dialogue about truth, good and evil, and right and wrong can take place between competing belief systems.

For Sharon Delgado it means interfaith forums. Pastor Doty says that different groups should come together around commonality. Jeremy Taylor believes people need to delve into their subconscious to explore the shades of gray in each life. Even Pastor Garcia, whose beliefs do not admit the possibility of alternatives, allows that we may all have to "agree to disagree agreeably." Nevertheless, he prays for his difficult and challenging series, adding confidently, "I pray that the truth will prevail."

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From the July 23-29, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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