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On a Wednesday evening, the Rev. James Pigg stands at a podium speaking to the 18 people gathered in the basement of Hallelujah House, the Maryland Heights church he founded 19 years ago. It is another session of the weekly Bible study, and most of the group, ranging in age from 14-60 years, have brought along their big, well-thumbed Good Books. Although Hallelujah House calls itself nondenominational, it is, according to Pigg's daughter, Karen Stewart, ideologically affiliated with the Pentecostal religion. "We simply believe the truths in the Bible," she says, "all the way from Genesis to Revelation."
This night the charismatic pastor, 69, expounds on a variety of topics, including the difference between love and lust: "Most men lust, not love, their wives," Pigg declares. He then makes a confession about a woman in provocative attire whom he saw in Target: "I wouldn't look ... but I did." This Jimmy Carter lust-in-my-heart admission elicits some chortles, for Bible study doesn't have to be so serious, and Pigg, looking like a more rotund Kenny Rogers with his long white mane and trimmed beard, does indeed inject some levity now and again.
Another topic is bad spirits, the ones that worm their way into our souls, causing alcoholism, thievery and worse. These spirits, says the Rev. Pigg, can be "called out" by laymen with the proper mixture of zeal and prayer. One woman raises her hand: "Don't we have to know what that spirit is before we can call it out?"
"No, you don't have to know its name," he assures her, adding that personal demons are as common as dust balls under the bed. And although we may possess these demons and try to exorcise them, we should not think less of ourselves. "You're not a second-class citizen because you've got demons or demons have got you," he says.
These days the pastor himself is bedeviled by a host of little creatures that go by the names of Pikachu, Psyduck, Laa-Laa and Tinky-Winky. The seemingly cute and lovable characters of Pokémon and Teletubbies, allege Pigg and other right-minded individuals, are hell-spawn, sinister agents planted in the fabric of American culture by the Deuce and his minions.
"'Pokémon' means 'pocket monster,' and I believe truly that it is demonic, and I told my people not to buy them or partake of it with their children," notes the pastor. "Anything that just swoops worldwide and becomes a fad overnight, you've got to at least suspect it."
Others sounding the alarm include Regina Ruiz, a talk-show host on WGNU (920 AM), and Stephen Dollins, a traveling lecturer on things satanic and narrator/producer of The Occult in Your Living Room, a video that, as far as the 75-member congregation of Hallelujah House is concerned, offers incontrovertible proof of the inherent evils of such popular kiddie toys as Pokémon trading cards and Teletubbies plush dolls.
When Ruiz went to hear Dollins speak at the airport Howard Johnson's last month, she came away feeling good and vindicated. "God put it in my heart to hear this man," she says, "because I knew in my heart for a long time that Pokémon and Teletubbies were from the devil." She then broadcast these newly affirmed sentiments on her Sunday-afternoon radio show, Talk to Me. Ruiz concluded by saying that if listeners wanted to know more about the diabolical plot to corrupt youth, they could seek out Pastor Pigg at Hallelujah House: He was the local point man on the subject.
The created-for-television Teletubbies have previously come under fire from the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who branded the purple member of the quartet, Tinky-Winky, gay because he carries a purse and wears an antenna on his head that resembles an inverted triangle, a symbol of the gay-pride movement. According to Ruiz -- again, repeating the gist of Dollins' video -- gender ambiguity is the least of their sins: "The Teletubbies are four babies who run around with no authority figure and take their instructions from a horn that comes up out of the ground. God's voice doesn't come from underground, but Satan's does. Then they have a form of sun worship. There's a baby that has his head in a sun frame. If the baby's happy with what they do, the baby giggles, and when they do something the baby doesn't like, then the baby frowns. So they're trying to please the god of the sun."
Ragdoll Productions Ltd., which owns all rights to Teletubbies, has a much different take on these bizarre beings with TV screens built into their tummies. By way of introduction, a small card attached to each doll reads, "Tinky-inky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa and Po are the four technological babies who love each other very much . They live happily together in their world of childhood imagination -- Teletubbyland."
If, in the feverish imagination of the Religious Right, Teletubbies are demonic, Pokémon characters are even more so. After all, there are 151 of them. Joseph Chambers of Paw Creek Ministries has a virtual manifesto on the evils of the game. A recent visit to the church's Web site (www.worthynews.com) revealed 16 pages of vitriol directed against Pokémon characters. "The entire method and purpose of the game is to induce the possession of the player by devils," the site rails. "It is sorcery, clear and simple." Paw Creek Ministries links Pokémon to other occult games such as Magic: The Gathering and the original role-playing fantasy game, Dungeons & Dragons. Although the cute little Pokémon creatures look nothing like the dark, demonic entities of D&D, don't be fooled -- they're just as sinister. Fantasy role-playing, the hook of Pokémon, is dangerous for a child, Paw Creek maintains, because it creates psychological addiction: "The Pokémon mantra, 'gotta catch 'em all,' fuels the craving for more occult cards, games, toys, and comic books. There's no end to the supply, for where the Pokémon world ends there beckons an ever-growing empire of new, more thrilling occult and violent products. Each can transport the child into a fantasy world that eventually seems far more normal and exciting than the real world."
This song-and-dance from fundamentalist Christian groups is a familiar one. In years past, the finger of castigation was pointed at the Procter & Gamble trademark, a man-in-the-moon character registered in 1882. Obviously satanic, cried a gaggle of lathered-up ministers. If you don't remove that odious symbol, we'll boycott your products. P&G never caved in and, no doubt, neither will the licensees of the lucrative Pokémon, no matter how many stiff-collared clerics rant from the pulpit.
Of course, you don't have to operate from a religious standpoint to oppose Pokémon trading cards. Parents may detest this tsunami of a craze, coming out of Japan by way of Nintendo and the Seattle-based Wizards of the Coast, that leaves pocket books empty in its wake. A pack of 11 Pokémon trading cards costs $3.98, for example, whereas a seven-pack of baseball cards is but 99 cents. Among the kiddie set, Cal Ripken Jr. fails to measure up to Drowzee, who can use psychic abilities to make other Pokémon fall asleep during combat. But Pastor Pigg and many others would prefer that children collect traditional baseball cards, memorizing a player's cold, hard stats instead of descriptions of a Pokémon character's make-believe powers.
If exposure to Pokémon is indeed corrupting, do the congregational members of Hallelujah House assemble at the QuikTrips, the 7-Elevens and other places where the cards are sold to voice protest? "Well, no, we haven't gone that far," says Rod Wegermann, another pastor with Hallelujah House. Have they ever looked at Pokémon cards, just to see exactly what is so objectionable? "You don't have to go to a brothel to know it's a bad place," says Wegermann, who then admits: "Well, maybe they're not in the same category."
Even without assemblages of placard-wielding protesters, the anti-Pokémon message is getting out: Pokémon cards are now banned at many schools and daycare centers across the country. The Salvation Army's Latchkey Program, in Maplewood, is one of these. "The children can have them in the building," explains a woman who answers the phone, "but we don't allow any showing them or playing with them. They must stay in the backpacks. There have been a number of incidents involving trading cards. Some of them mean a lot to the child, and we've decided to try to avoid that. Regular baseball cards are OK," she adds, "but we are a spiritual organization, and with Pokémon cards the whole basis of them is spiritual warfare."
Interpretation, interpretation, interpretation. Janese Henry, whose 9-year-old son, Nathaniel, is a Pokémon enthusiast, says she endorses the game. "What I like about it, instead of being something they can collect -- like Beanie Babies, which they just fantasize on -- they actually have to use memory skills and math skills to play the game. I like the idea that there's some strategy in it. There's a lot of spinoffs. For example, some of these cards are first-edition cards -- there's a code at the bottom -- and he goes for the more collectible ones. That, in turn, has charged him on collecting coins and stamps."
The Pokémon phenomenon has actually prompted official position statements from some clerical hierarchies. The Roman Catholic Church is divided on the issue. The bishop of Mexico City denounced Pokémon as perverse. But then the Vatican came out and said the game was "morally innocuous."
Pastor Pigg, however, isn't straddling any fences. He puts Pokémon and Teletubbies into the same demonic bag as Ouija boards, tarot cards and head-bangin' heavy-metal music. "There's a lot of demonic stuff out there," he says, and he'll continue to alert his flock to the real dangers of coming in contact with any of it. The choice couldn't be more dramatic. "There's two kinds of powers in the world: godly and satanic," says Pigg. "If it is not godly, not producing good fruit, it must be satanic. We just take hands off of that. If you play occult games with a message of sorcery, you are having fellowship with devils."