The Countdown Begins....

It's March 8, and the countdown has begun. While my webpage has been villified by the managing editor of the China News (a thirtysomething Mr. Anthony Lawrance, a native of South Africa married to a Taiwanese national) as alarmist and extremist to the extreme, I neverthelesss feel we have accomplished our goal, which was to serve as an archival repository of news articles about the Chen Tao cult, from the Chicago Sun Times to the New York Times, beginning at the end of December and following the cult for a good three months up the March 31 "event" in Garland. Of course, there will be no visit from God since there is no God to begin with. And even granting to our agnostic-challenged friends that there is a God, be she Christian or Hebrew or Islamic or Hindu, this X-God certainly is not going to be bothered with showing up for Mr Chen in Garland at 3513 Ridgedale Drive, as the New York Times so laughlingly reported in a March 4 dispatch. Shame on all newspaper reports for even taking Chen's claims seriously and not squashing his religiosity right at the beginning. He just another egomanical false prophet screaming behind a silly theology. But le him shout; it's his right; freedom of religion is important and we support such faith-based idiocy, even as we follow our own agnostic bent._____I believe now that there will be no suicide event on March 31, just a huge media circus in Garland and reported around the world is breathless, surreal dispatches by the media mavens of online and print journalsim, from CNN to the august New York Times (again). No, Chen's followers will not commit suicide because the media coverage has been too great, full of great PR and name recognition. Instead, after March 31, Chen will claim that he misunderstood the G-man's messages and the Big Event won't occur until sometime in the future, say March 31, 1999 or even better, December 31, 1999, to usher in the New Millenium-um-um! Watch this PR maverick go to work: he is slick, he is sly, he is Master Chen! He can use the enormous PR he has achieved for his "cult" to recruit more members, collect more money and plan new adventures. The man aint crazy; he's just looney! There's a difference. In the meantime, all this gives the media a great excuse to indulge in UFO-goofiness and fill up news holes with off-beat stories of UFOs and trips to Mars and white-hatted Asian cultists off on a trip to nowhere. The media will have a field day. Why not? The important thing is that by encouraging the media to write stories about Chen Tao before X-Day on March 31, those of us out in the field have helped prevent a possible tragedy. My website was not and is not pivotal nor even important in the great scheme of things, but we have done our work as we set out to do it, that is to warn the media via email and an online presence that there might be a tragedy in the making in everyone just kept silent. Why the editor of the China News would want to villify my website is beyond me, but maybe it's because he feels guilty because his paper has not run one original word about the cult since December 24!!! Way to go, Anthony; just sit back and count your fat paycheck while Rome burns. You are a very responsible and savvy managing editor, as everyone knows. -- Terry Walker (NOTES & QUOTES, March 8)

NBC-TV News segment broadcast March 4

The media circus continues, to wit: The following are excerpts from a recent NBC-TV news segment about the Chen Tao cult in Garland.____ TOM BROKAW: If some folks in the Dallas suburbs are right, they'll have a visit from God by the end of the month, well, *their* God at least. And if they're right, you'll find Him in your television listings. Here's NBC's Jim Cummins...._____ JIM CUMMINS: This is where they say God will visit by the end of the month, an otherwise ordinary looking neighborhood in Garland, Texas. It is here, that the devoted followers of a Taiwanese religious sect that expect to eventually visit Mars on a flying saucer meet with their leader, a former sociology teacher who calls himself "Master Chen." ... Master Chen predicts that God will arrive here at 3513 Ridgedale Drive on the morning of March 31 and that he will take the human form of Chen himself..._____ And sometime next year Chen and his followers say they will meet their spaceship on the shores of Lake Michigan in Gary, Indiana. They've already been there, they say to cleanse the site._____ There are some concerns about the similarities between Chen's group and Heaven's Gate, the cult that committed mass suicide last March. "They give no indication that they plan any kind of suicide or mass suicide situation," said Lt. Don Miller of the Garland Police force.______ What if God is a no-show on Ridgedale Drive on March 31? The city of Garland plans to assign dozens of extra police, fire and emergency medical units to handle the news media and make sure nobody gets hurt. Jim Cummins, NBC-News, Garland, Texas.______ END OF SEGMENT

Dallas Morning News (March 22)

"Garland sect prepares for God's arrival," went the headline in the March 22 story in the Dallas Morning News, about a week before X-Day sweeps across Texas. The subhead read: "Some scholars say group is within mainstream." Written by report Christine Wicker with assistance from Esther Wu, the Dallas Morning News story, datelined Garland, reads: _____ God will come to Garland on March 31 to begin taking people away in flying saucers, according to a Taiwanese group called God's Salvation Church.____ Sounds crazy to most folks. But in the broad sweep of religious history, it's fairly mainstream stuff, say scholars of religious studies._____ Flying saucers are a new wrinkle but also understandable, according to Prof. Lonnie Kliever, chairman of the religious studies department at Southern Methodist University. "Those spaceships will be the sweet chariots that swing low to carry the faithful home," he said._____ Since the first alleged UFO sighting in 1947, a number of religious groups have seized upon flying saucers as a way to explain how God is going to manage the promised pickup, Kliever said._____ "These groups are filled with quite well-educated people," he said. "These are not people right off skid row or the farm being hooked in. _____. . . I think what's at work here is a hunger to make a faith that sounds quite irrational rational."_____ Are they crazy? Not at all, says Scott Lowe, associate professor and chairman of the philosophy and religion department at the University of North Dakota.______ "There is no correlation between sanity and the ability to believe outrageous theological claims," he said. "I had a next-door neighbor who would tell you in a moment that these people were nuts, and yet he was convinced that the world was coming to an end before the year 2000, and so he didn't have to keep up his house. He was a navigator for the B-1 bomber." The difference between a religious crazy and a visionary is often a matter of how many followers they attract, according to Kliever. "One religion's lunacy is another religion's sanity," he said. "One religion's heresy is another religion's orthodoxy." The Garland group's leader, Hon-Ming Chen, has said God will appear on television Wednesday and then come in person to his front yard March 31. About 150 Taiwanese followers migrated with him last year and have bought about 30 homes in Garland. Although members of God's Salvation Church, also known as Chen Tao ("The True Way"), believe God will look exactly like the bespectacled, gray-haired Mr. Chen, they say it will be easy to distinguish mortal from deity. God will be able to speak any language and walk through walls. He will duplicate himself into enough bodies that everyone will be able to shake his hand and ask questions, Chen said. God wants to rescue people and animals from nuclear wars that will destroy the earth, Chen said. In his back yard is a gazebo that has become a shrine, which combines Buddhist and Christian elements. Nearby, on a concrete patio, is a representation of the flying saucers that God is going to send, said Richard Lui, an interpreter for the leader, who does not speak English. Tires and yard lanterns ring the platform. In the middle is a chair and a barbecue grill, still boxed and bound with metal packing bands. God told members of the church to put the unassembled grill on the platform as a way of reassuring animals that they will no longer be killed and eaten, Mr. Lui said. Mr. Chen and his followers are strict vegetarians. During a recent news conference in in his back yard, Mr. Chen, who was once a social sciences professor, and his interpreter, also a former professor, stood in the cold for hours. They answered questions with such courtesy and good humor that even the reporters and cult watchers seemed disinclined to mock their ideas. No, they will not commit suicide if God doesn't come, Mr. Chen said. Yes, the space ships will take anyone who wants to go. Their destination will be heavenly planets. No, God is not coming to judge humans. He is coming to rescue them. Yes, Mr. Chen's prophecies should be regarded as nonsense if God does not appear on television Wednesday. Yes, Mr. Chen has offered himself to be stoned or crucified if God does not appear. But his followers, who are so nonviolent that they pray before cutting the grass, say they won't take such measures. The group has welcomed Garland police, who came to investigate rumors that they might kill themselves if God does not materialize. They also have been careful to avoid offending their neighbors. Last year, they often rode bicycles in packs of a dozen or more. A van would follow as they pedaled block after block. When neighbors grumbled about the practice, the Taiwanese put notes on doors in the neighborhood explaining that they were trying to build stamina for their upcoming journey with God. Dr. Szu Kuan Lu is a Taiwanese doctor who specializes in treating ear, nose and throat problems. He sold his home in Taiwan and gave up his medical practice because Mr. Chen's combination of Buddhist and Christian theology answered his questions about the meaning of life, he said. "He was the only one who didn't ask for money," Dr. Lu said. "And so I believed him because God doesn't need money." Dr. Lu said his faith was strengthened when his son, who had an intestinal problem doctors could not cure, was healed. "I have seen many signs and miracles," he said, explaining that sometimes 30 or 40 airplanes come over Mr. Chen's back yard, leaving behind contrails in the shape of a cross. "I have seen them," he said, looking into the clear sky. "But for some reason, they never come when the reporters are here. I don't know why God doesn't send them then." Chen-Tao followers' extreme commitment is typical of first-generation religions, said Stuart Wright, a sociology professor at Lamar University in Beaumont. He estimates that 4,000 new religions have arisen in the last 50 years. "In the first generation, they are challenging society, like the Old Testament prophets," he said. "The second generation comes along, and they are not quite as zealous as their parents, and by third generation . . . they're tamed. They're not threatening anymore." A surge in new religious thinking is being spurred by the intermingling of world cultures, by the sense that traditional religions aren't meeting people's needs, and by the millennium, the scholars say. As it was 1,000 years ago, the turn of the century is an especially potent stimulus. Rapid change and industrialization make Taiwan especially ripe for new religions, said Prof. Ling-Chi Wang, head of the Asian-American studies program at the University of California at Berkeley. "There are all kinds of religious sects and cults stemming from both traditional Buddhism and now Christianity," he said. In Garland, considerable hubbub has accompanied the Taiwanese prediction. International media have converged on the neighborhood. A local pawn shop has begun selling "Flying Saucer Rings" to capitalize on rings that the Taiwanese say transmit messages from God. On March 31, a cult deprogrammer named Mary Alice Chrnalogar plans to hold a news conference in a shopping center near the neighborhood. Many sociologists and scholars of religious studies say the idea that people can be brainwashed by groups such as Chen-Tao is nonsense. "These groups have a horrendous failure rate in holding their converts," Kliever said. "People do this awhile, and they'll be doing macrobiotic diets next because they have that kind of personality." The scholars also refuse to call such groups cults. "The word cult is a pejorative term that dehumanizes members of the group," said Catherine Wessinger, associate professor of religious studies at Loyola University in New Orleans. "That's what happened to the Branch Davidians. There was no outcry from the American public over how they were treated because they had been dehumanized." James Walker, president of Watchman Fellowship, a Christian group he describes as countercult, will be in Mr. Chen's front yard to hold him to his prophecy. "If he tries to set a new date, I'm going to remind him that he said they should disregard what he said if God doesn't appear on this date," Walker said. "I think that's the healthiest thing that can happen." Lowe, a scholar of Chinese religions, argues that depriving Chen of a way to back down gracefully could be a bad tactic. "They are really boxed in and set up for total humiliation, and they are from a culture where that really matters," he said. "The best thing would be if they were left totally alone to sort it out by themselves without media attention. But that's not going to happen." Many people have drawn comparisons between Chen-Tao and Heaven's Gate, whose members committed suicide in March 1997 near San Diego to link up with flying saucers. But examples of groups that have prophesied the end of the world and absorbed their failure without violence are far more common, the scholars said. Prophets usually reinterpret the prophecies to explain their failure. Sometimes followers come to believe that their faith wasn't strong enough. In such cases, their belief may even be strengthened, as one well-known example illustrates. "Early Christians were convinced that Jesus was coming in glory in the clouds in their lifetimes . . . and he didn't come, just like every other prediction of the end of the world to this point, and still religions thrive," Lowe said. In the 1800s, a Baptist lay preacher named William Miller persuaded so many thousands to sell their possessions and await the arrival of Jesus that his failure to appear became known as the Great Disappointment. His followers regrouped and became the Seventh-day Adventists and the Jehovah's Witnesses. Chen probably will lose some followers after March 31, said James Richardson, professor of sociology and judicial studies at the University of Nevada. "Many people have what we call the muddle-through response. They say, 'Well, hell, that one didn't happen.' So they look up an old girlfriend or get a job," he said. People believe such prophecies in the first place because an incredibly strong drive fuels religious belief: the desire to defeat death, Kliever said. "Human beings will attempt anything, believe anything, do anything to achieve that goal," he said. -- (C)1998 The Dallas Morning News

Letter to the Editor (China News)

On March 22, I wrote a letter to the editor of the China News in Taiwan that read: "Readers in Taiwan may be interested in knowing that media covereage of the Taiwan flying saucer cult has picked up recently in the United States, with major stories appearing in the New York Times and the Dallas Morning News. While the UFO cult has said it has ruled out suicide, cult observers are nevertheless keeping a close watch on the group in Garland, Texas, especially as X-Day approaches on March 31. This is when God is going to appear in Garland, according to cult leader Hon-Ming Chen, a former sociology professor from this island. Let's all watch and see for ourselves!_____ The Dallas Morning News reported that one of Chen's followers is a Taiwanese ear, nose and throat doctor named Szu Kuan Lu. It is interesting to note that the good doctor, obviously an educated man, gave up his medical practice here and moved to the United States with Chen's group because he feels Chen is the real McCoy. He told the Dallas Morning News last week that Chen's combination of Buddhist and Christian theology answered his questions about the meaning of life, adding: "He was the only one who didn't ask for money. And so I believed him because God doesn't need money."Lu added that his faith was strengthened when his son, who had an intestinal problem doctors could not cure, was healed, noting: "I have seen many signs and miracles." He told the Dallas Morning News that sometimes 30 or 40 airplanes fly over Chen's backyard in Texas, leaving behind contrails in the shape of a cross. "I have seen them," he said, looking into the clear sky, "but for some reason, they never come when the reporters are here. I don't know why God doesn't send them then."_____ I would like to tell Dr. Lu something: The reason the airplanes never come when reporters are present is because he and all the cult members have been brainwashed and are suffering delusions. They will wake up on April 1, and it will not be an April Fool's joke. I hope the media here in Taiwan will also be prepared to cover this upcoming story with a seriousness that is often lacking in coverage of off-the-wall weirdo cults.______Sincerely,Terry Walker --Taipei