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A hot fire can consume most anything

Saturday, March 24, 2001

Spring cleaning is upon the Harvest Assembly of God Church where, outside, the sign says "Jesus Loves U" and, inside, the Rev. George Bender, has added a note of enthusiasm by announcing plans for a book burning.

"It's just something a little different. We're not trying to create a riot or anything," says Bender, a 60-year-old former industrial arts teacher who sent out a press release urging locals to, "Cleanse your house from ungodly items and idols. It's time to deal with ungodly and demonic books, tapes, videos, statues and any other thing that gives demons the opportunity to traffic into your life."

It is hard, after traveling the 30 miles north of Pittsburgh into rural Butler County, to look at George Bender and think ill of him.

Gray haired, ruddy-faced, layered in mismatched plaid shirts, Bender pauses between answers, gropes occasionally for the precise word, and leaves the impression that, after heaving his copy of the Book of Mormon and back issues of Humanist Magazine onto the pyre, he might pull out some weenies and roast them, too. Worshippers at the Sunday night service will be invited to add such Luciferian hardware as Hindu statues, any of the four volumes of the Harry Potter series and -- in the unlikely event any Harvest Assembly members have some -- back issues of Playboy, Penthouse, and such Marilyn Manson albums as might have burrowed their way into their Tennessee Ernie Ford and Jars of Clay collections.

"In a practical way, we're just cleaning things up," Bender says.

Seventy years ago such housekeeping gave book burning a bad name, and it was Bender's rum luck to announce his plans the same day the Taliban finished blowing up thousand-year-old statues of Buddha.

"I knew saying we were going to burn books would be an eye-opener," he says. He explains how he grew up a liberal Presbyterian and, 30 years ago, was born again and poured several hundred dollars worth of whisky down the drain.

Since that time, Bender has completed Bible studies and now runs a thriving and welcoming church on the Allegheny-Butler border. His basement office is tidy and pleasant. The wallpaper border around the ceiling strikes an Old Testament theme with a Star of David, Torah Scroll, prayer shawl, menorah, and a bright blue dreidel.

Why, I ask, did he select this pattern?

"I saw it in another office and I just liked it," he explained. "Christianity has its roots in Judaism."

I point out the dreidel to him and explain the game.

"I wasn't sure what all that stuff was," he says.

He is a tad nervous about the public curiosity over his bonfire plans and more than a little concerned about the practical mechanics of the thing.

"We'll probably start with a wood fire," he says. "Make sure we have something that'll burn, because books don't really burn that good. They don't just burn right up."

I suggest some sort of accelerant. Gasoline, though, is too volatile and kerosene smokes heavily.

"I was thinking of charcoal lighter," he says.

Neither of us knows how the new technology might affect a book burning. "The old records would go right up in smoke," he says. He has no idea whether a CD will burn, melt or, like Shadrach, just stand up in the fire and keep on singing.

Bender takes me to a corner of his office for a peek inside the cardboard box from which he'll pull his burnt offerings.

There is a Jehovah's Witness translation of Scripture which is, in his view, unscriptural. The old Humanist Magazines are there. There's a 1980 copy of a magazine called "The Christian," and I wonder what it's doing there.

"It's totally liberal," he explains.

Nadine Strossen's book "Defending Pornography" will join it in the big burn.

I pick out a videotape. The hand lettering on the label reads, "The Gods Must Be Crazy." I have seen this movie, about an African bushman who finds a Coca-Cola bottle and thinks the gods have dropped it from the sky. He sets out to return it and encounters Western culture which, in his fresh eyes, betrays its silliness and self-absorption. It's different, but hardly the stuff of demons.

"Oh," Bender explains, "I'm not trying to make a statement with that. I was just through with it."

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