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How I Missed Hale-Bopp

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A Guest Post by Ian

I recently discovered a podcast called Here Be Monsters. I was trying to find a funny story I had heard a couple of years ago on public radio. The story involved someone dressing up as a Sasquatch and a dog called Motley Crüe Jon Bon Jovi. It’s an entertaining story that you can find here.

I really enjoyed re-hearing the story and thought there might be some other stories I’d enjoy, so I started listening to random episodes. I enjoyed some, while others didn’t really catch my interest. But the presentations were excellent and I loved the audio quality. The sounds are very crisp and the music is relaxing.

Fast forward a couple of weeks, and I’m listening to an episode about Marshall Applewhite and the Heaven’s Gate cult.

In the story, they talk about the Hale-Bopp comet. For those who don’t remember, or who weren’t born then, Hale-Bopp was a new comet that was bright enough to be seen with the naked eye, and it was visible for 18 months. This was during 1996-1997. The Heaven’s Gate cult thought a spacecraft was following the comet and most of them committed suicide, thinking that was the way to leave their bodies behind and join the spacecraft.

Eighteen months is a long time to be able to see a comet, but I never saw it, because I didn’t know about it. The only time it came into my small world view was when the members of Heaven’s Gate committed suicide. You see, at that time, my family didn’t have a TV, get the newspaper or listen to the news on the radio. The only time I heard news was when something big happened. Usually, the pastor would mention something he heard about on the news, or another member of the congregation, who had a TV, would say something, and then it was always filtered through the lens of Calvinistic philosophy. The big news stories were always talked about with the smug assurance that God had ordained everything that happens and that sinners were always getting their just rewards. I look back and find that disgusting. There was no compassion and no understanding, just black and white judgment. Heaven’s Gate was mentioned because they were “lunatics” who were preordained to this fate and further proof that we were the only ones with the true gospel. What I have come to realize over the years is that I missed out on so much news, which becomes information, from my mid-teens through my mid-30’s. Admittedly, a lot of the news was bad, but it was news. All of it was information that I could have learned from. I might have made better choices in my life, if I had more knowledge of the world around me. I watch Netflix documentaries now, and I can’t believe all that passed me by. Granted, I have lived my whole life in Alaska, so many national news stories didn’t always make big headlines here, but the stories were there. I just had no clue. Sometimes, when I discover a missed story, I feel like an explorer finding a new ocean or mountain. I’ll be amazed that this huge thing was here, and I just now found it.

And, the little bit of news I did follow was always looked at through a very critical lens. All news had to fit into my church’s narrow view of the world. Waco, Ruby Ridge, Elian Gonzalez, these were huge things talked about in my church, but the focus was always on the wrong thing. We feared the government because we thought they were going to put us all into concentration camps due to our beliefs. Maybe too many of us had watched the A Thief in the Night series, because we were all describing the kinds of scenarios shown in the films. The bigger picture was that ego and bad decisions ruled the day in these tragedies. The government didn’t care what we believed; the church I attended then still exists, although it has moved locations and is much smaller. In the early and mid-90’s though, we were sure Janet Reno had her personal eye on each of us.

By downplaying the news and filtering what we did know, the church was able to keep us uneducated. If I’m uneducated, how can I know to question anything? I felt stupid, because I would get to work, and people would be talking about things that I had no clue about. (For the younger generation, the Internet was in its infancy in this time. I couldn’t just Google it.) And, by constantly bashing the government and “taking a stand,” how many churches brought unnecessary federal, state, and local attention to themselves? If you complain the government hates you long enough, you’ll become a self-fulfilling prophecy. So many IFB/Calvinistic/Southern Baptist-type churches get by right now by just being quiet. The federal government knows they don’t follow all the rules, they know tax evasion is going on, they know church board members use offerings as their own personal incomes, etc. The government just doesn’t care. It has too many other things to worry about, until they become something to worry about. Meanwhile, church members are being fed the story the pastor wants them to hear and never question anything.

Because of the church, I had warped views of events that happened, and it has taken years of looking into things for myself to figure out what the real tragedy in the stories was. Because of the church, I missed an 18-month chance to see a historic comet. a comet that will be forever linked, in my mind, to tragedy and not to how cool it would have been to see with my naked eye. Because I missed so much, I made sure I talked about current events with my kids, even when I was still a believer. I don’t want them to turn 40 and find out about a major event that they missed while watching Netflix.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar

    Ian, thanks for sharing. Yes, fundamentalist separatist groups thrive and survive on isolating their members from crucial information that conflicts with the group’s dogma. It’s maddening for those of us who grew up in all that when we discover what we were deprived of knowing…..

  2. Avatar

    Too bad you missed seeing that. I remember standing out in the cold and just staring in awe at the sky. My kids thought I was crazy because they weren’t yet old enough to appreciate this opportunity.

  3. Avatar
    Barbara L. Jackson

    Yes, getting to see a comet is getting to see something that was probably not from our solar system.
    Fundamental separatist groups let children miss out on many things in life that are interesting like science.
    Within the last few weeks I watched a NOVA television program on the neutrino. I had known it existed when
    I took basic physics classes but I did not know in 3 “flavors” I also learned it has a very small mass.
    My husband says this is not fun for most people but it is for me. Let people be themselves.

  4. Avatar
    Karuna Gal

    Heaven’s Gate is a New Age/sci-fi variation of old-time Christian Millennialism. The Heaven’s Gate founders believed that they were the two witnesses described in the Book of Revelation, for instance. Waiting for Jesus or waiting for the spaceship trailing Comet Hale-Bopp to come and take you to heaven – what’s the difference? Who is piloting that spaceship? Captain Jesus, of course! Same delusion, just in modern dress.

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