TOP STORY: CONTENT-FREE THEOLOGY: Ordinary guy finds fame, fortune, talking with an easy-going God

c. 1996 Religion News Service MEDFORD, Ore. _ The latest religious book to crack the best-seller list is written by a man who insists Moses got it wrong. The Ten Commandments are the “Ten Commitments.” Good and evil, right and wrong, don’t exist. You can do your own thing because God judges no one. Even […]

c. 1996 Religion News Service

MEDFORD, Ore. _ The latest religious book to crack the best-seller list is written by a man who insists Moses got it wrong. The Ten Commandments are the “Ten Commitments.”

Good and evil, right and wrong, don’t exist. You can do your own thing because God judges no one.

Even Adolf Hitler went to heaven.

How does Neale Donald Walsch know this?

The man formerly known in Medford as local radio talk-show host Bob White says God spoke to him in the middle of the night. Walsch asked questions, then scribbled the answers on a yellow legal pad, eventually turning the dialogue into “Conversations with God” (Putnam).

The $19.95 book recently debuted on The New York Times’ nonfiction best-seller list at No. 14, less than a month after it appeared in major bookstores. It illustrates the surging popularity of religious books, which have seen a national sales increase of 27 percent this year, making religion the single largest segment of adult publishing, exceeding even fiction.

“Conversations with God” tops Publishers Weekly magazines’ current list of best-selling hardcover religion books. Publishers Weekly compares Walsch’s book to “The Celestine Prophecy,” a fictional thriller that asserts, among other things, that humans draw energy from forests.”The Celestine Prophecy”has been on The New York Times’ best-seller list for 143 weeks.

Both books are being devoured by people searching for generic spirituality without the demands of denominational doctrine. Some call the genre”New Age,”but others say it is too nebulous to label.

The fact that Walsch has been married five times, missed child-support payments and had bad credit may be an asset. It shows he is a regular guy searching for the meaning of life, a Putnam editor says.

The message: If Walsch can converse with God, you can, too.

“I think there is an enormous hunger in this country right now for spiritual nourishment,” says Walsch, a college journalism dropout who dabbled in public relations, newspaper editing and stage directing before hitting it big with this book. “We are becoming increasingly focused and interested in what I call the larger aspects of life. Anything that addresses itself to that hunger will be literally gobbled up.”

Sitting on a sofa in the modest ranch home he rents, Walsch wears an untucked purple shirt, charcoal slacks and socks. He has just returned to take a break from a 16-city book tour. His sandals rest on the floor as he nervously kneads one foot. Morning sunlight illuminates his gray beard and shoulder-length hair.

Walsch compares himself to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; to Thomas Jefferson; to the late Roman Catholic Cardinal Joseph Bernardin; to Pablo Picasso; and to Buddha, saying they all received divine inspiration.

Walsch’s trained voice is slow, steady and soothing, except when he rants against the traditional beliefs of Roman Catholics and evangelical Christians. Raised Catholic, he now belongs to the Church of Religious Science, which teaches that the key to receiving joy, peace, love and wealth is expecting these things.

Tears of indignation well in Walsch’s eyes as he discusses the Christian notion of original sin, from which all people need to be redeemed in order to be admitted to heaven.

“I don’t think so!” Walsch shouts, arms suddenly pumping. “In my world, in my universe, that is an insane God.”

Walsch says God first spoke to him in 1992, at a time when he was feeling like a failure personally, professionally and emotionally. In anger, he fired off a letter to the deity, rattling off nagging questions.

Why wasn’t my life working?

What would it take to get it to work?

Why could I not find happiness in relationships?

Was the experience of adequate money going to elude me forever?

As Walsch stared at the paper, the pen began moving on its own, he says.

“Do you really want an answer to all these questions, or are you just venting?”

It was, Walsch says, you-know-who.

The dictation continued, he says, for three years, almost always beginning between 4:15 and 4:30 a.m.

This was a God of no rules, restrictions, taboos or sin, giving Walsch divine license to do whatever he pleased with no guilt or shame.

“There are no `shoulds’ or `shouldn’ts’ in God’s world,” Walsch says God told him. “Do what you want to do.”

Hampton Roads Publishing, a small publishing house based in Charlottesville, Va., printed 5,000 paperback copies of the dialogue and released it to New Age and other small bookstores in May 1995. It sold out in two months.

Another 10,000 were printed. They sold out in three months.

The next printing of 15,000 went in two weeks.

After more than 100,000 sold, solely on word-of-mouth advertising, a New York-based Putnam vice president read the book, immediately recognizing it as a best seller. According to Publishers Weekly, Putnam bought hardcover rights in a seven-figure deal.

Putnam, better known for publishing novelists such as Tom Clancy than religious authors, says the book required little editing.

“God’s grammar was really quite good,” Putnam editor Wendy Carlton said, tongue-in-cheek. “But it was comforting for me to know God wasn’t as great a speller as we might imagine.”

Since it arrived in bookstores Oct. 29, sales have been strong in every region of the country, among almost all age groups.

“People are walking into the bookstore and buying 10 copies,” Carlton said. “They’re telling the clerk, `I read this, and it changed my life. This one is for my husband, this one is for my daughter-in-law, this one is for my parents and this one is for my minister.’ ”

But how does Walsch know the conversation is with God, not his own imagination?

“The thoughts that were coming through me were thoughts I never had,” Walsch said recently on a Canadian television show. “The constructions that were created in that dialogue were not constructions in which my mind had ever engaged. The ideas that came to me were ideas I had never entertained.”

One of the more provocative ideas has God asserting, “I do not love `good’ more than I love `bad.’ Hitler went to heaven. When you understand this, you will understand God.”

The message is strangely similar to an obscure book, written in 1982 in California. It was called “Hitler Went to Heaven.” The author? A Neale Marshall Walsch, who later changed his name to Bob White, then Neale Donald Walsch.

“It is the same idea,” Walsch says. “But I had forgotten all about that book.”

Walsch also would like to forget that he was taken to court in 1989 by the state of Oregon for failing to pay child support. The same thing happened in 1993. He has nine children.

In 1992, Credit Services of Oregon and Southern Oregon Credit Service, both collection agencies, had to go to Jackson County District Court to force Walsch to pay his debts.

He says, “I’ve paid off all the debts I know of” and has caught up on child support.

“I can’t think of a lot of things I’m deeply proud of in my life,” Walsch says, his voice almost a whisper. “So I hope no one tries to hold me up as a spokesman or a model. That would be a grave mistake.”

In Medford, people remember Walsch as Bob White, co-host of”Radioactive Talk.”The show was syndicated on 25 stations. White played the role of the liberal foe of conservative David Masters.

“As I’m reading this book, I’m reminded of every single radio program we did for two years,” Masters said, sitting in the studio he shared with Walsch. “This is what our show was all about. … But `God is a woman’ and `Hitler went to heaven’ didn’t play very well on conservative talk radio.”

Walsch is playing well now. People pay as much as $30 each to hear him speak and $460 to attend retreats like the one he is having just after Christmas in Estes Park, Colo.

Walsch says he gives half his profits to his nonprofit foundation, ReCreation. It has a staff of six and aims to help people spiritually re-create themselves.

God, Walsch says, has told him to write a second book, in which they will discuss psychic energy and sex (God loves both). Book three will cover “the largest truths,” including UFOs and extraterrestrials.

With no theological training, Walsch is emerging as a wealthy spiritual guru, claiming he has a direct line to God.

Masters, his old radio counterpart, holds a dog-eared copy of “Conversations With God,” key paragraphs highlighted with a yellow marker. He says he is considering his own book, “Conversations with Bob,” refuting the “New Age psycho babble” of Bob White.

“On the one hand, I’m happy he’s becoming successful,” Masters says. “On the other hand, I think it’s at the expense of a lot of people who will buy this and think it’s God’s word. Then they’ll come full circle and find out they’re not any happier.

“In fact, they’ll be less happy because they’ll be more self-serving. It’s the antithesis of what Christianity teaches.”


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