Checkmate! (an update, no correction)

800px CheckmateThe iconoclastic chess genius Bobby Fischer – one of the most unique public figures of the Cold War era — lived a bizarre life that blended astonishing victories with mysterious choices that, to others, looked like intentional failures or lapses of judgment or something. You can read all about that in the New York Times obituary for Fischer, simply by clicking here.

I mean, try this passage on for size:

In 1999, in a series of telephone interviews he gave to a radio station in the Philippines, he rambled angrily and profanely about an international Jewish conspiracy, which he said was bent on destroying him personally and the world generally.

On Sept. 11, 2001, he told a radio talk-show host in Baguio, the Philippines, that the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were “wonderful news,” adding he was wishing for a scenario “where the country will be taken over by the military, they’ll close down all the synagogues, arrest all the Jews and secure hundreds of thousands of Jewish ringleaders.”

See what I mean? Now, you might, after reading that, want to ask a question that sounds something like this: “OK, where in heckfire did that guy go to church?”

As it turns out, the obituary by reporter Bruce Weber provides an answer and here it is:

… (Fischer) tithed the Worldwide Church of God, a fringe church he had become involved with beginning in the early 1960′s. The church, now defunct, followed Hebrew dietary laws and Sabbath proscriptions and believed in the imminent return of Jesus Christ. For a time, Mr. Fischer lived in Pasadena, Calif., the church’s home base, or nearby Los Angeles, where he was said to spend his time replaying chess games and reading Nazi literature. There were reports that he was destitute, though the state of Mr. Fischer’s finances was never very clear.

First of all, I think there is a missing word, or even a phrase, in that reference to tithing. Shouldn’t that be that he “tithed to the Worldwide Church of God”? Also, I wonder if the Times should not have said something like, “he tithed one tenth of his income” to, etc. I grew up Southern Baptist and, thus, am very familiar with the concept of tithing and lots of other people know all about that term, as well. But is it the kind of term that a reporter can use with no explanation at all, in a mainstream publication? Just asking.

But there is a more glaring problem in this passage.

The problem is that the Worldwide Church of God still exists — click here.

Now it is certainly true that this unique flock — which critics called a “cult,” not a “fringe church” — has changed a great deal since its infamous days under the leadership of radio preacher Herbert W. Armstrong. It’s pretty easy to find out what happened, with the church evolving closer and closer to the evangelical Protestant mainstream. Google works.

But it’s one thing to say that a church has changed. It is something else to say that it is defunct, especially when it isn’t.

Correction, please. (Tip of the hat to reader Mark A. Kellner

UPDATE: Well, the Times didn’t do a correction, but there has been a quiet edit in the online version. Click here to see that it looks like this now:

At the same time, he tithed to the Worldwide Church of God, a fringe church he had become involved with beginning in the early 1960s. The church followed Hebrew dietary laws and Sabbath proscriptions and believed in the imminent return of Jesus Christ.

And in the latest version of the paragraph, the word “to” has appeared after the word “tithed.” Hurrah. But, hey, what about the status of the church today? Does that matter?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Dale

    Not only does the Worldwide Church of God still exist, it’s a member of the National Association of Evangelicals, which puts it in the evangelical mainstream. One of the original doctrines of the church, now explicitly rejected, was that Anglo-Saxons were the ten lost tribes of Israel, a belief that may have fed Bobby Fischer’s anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

    The church’s website contains this statement about racial prejudice:

    How does the Worldwide Church of God view racial prejudice and discrimination?

    Racial prejudice and discrimination are unchristian. Jesus Christ taught that one of the great commandments is to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. When asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus answered with a parable illustrating that we are to be neighbors to all, without discrimination (Luke 10:29-37).

    The apostle Peter said, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts those from every nation who fear him and do what is right” (Acts 10:34-35). There is no racial prejudice with God. Paul said, “There is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Colossians 3:11). God does not look at the outward appearance; he looks on the heart.

    Christians must reject racism — indeed, they must reject all forms of bigotry, prejudice and hatred. Christians welcome the opportunity to live in harmony with all races. “If anyone says, `I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 4:20-21).

    So 1) Worldwide Church of God exists, and 2) it explicitly rejects racist ideologies.

  • Stephen A.

    The WWCOG back in the OLD days may very well have harbored some racist tendencies, or at least the kernal of an idea that was latched onto by unsavory characters. After all, the concept of British Israelism (that the Anglo-Saxons were the REAL Jews) was embraced by neo-nazi groups, militias and other racialists in the 1990s and earlier.

    Terry is right in questioning the phrase “fringe” at this point, after major revisions to the theology of the church – which cost it probably 90% of its membership. However, “beginning in the 1960s” (the phrase in the article) it certainly WAS a “fringe church.” So perhaps it was accurate – technically – and to go into detail in an obit about a religion’s evolution would have been a tangent.

    Still, it could have used a minor clarification (splicing “before the church went mainstream in the 1990s” after that 1960s reference, for example) if for any other reason than to not slander the current-day church with an undeserved label.

    What complicates things is that splinter groups certainly exist that still carry on Armstong’s teachings. Was he a member of one of those?

  • Stephen A.

    More about his religion from the Independent (UK):

    Fischer then went into hiding, apart from one impulsive television appearance and the occasional game. He had already renounced his Jewish heritage by joining a sect called the Worldwide Church of God, based in Pasadena, to which he donated a large chunk of his winnings. In 1978, he sued a magazine that had criticised the church, but then accused the church of reneging on a promise to finance the lawsuit. …

    In 1992 he emerged from retirement to play a rematch with Spassky in Serbia. He won by 10 games to five, with 15 draws, but the game put him in conflict with the US government for defying its sanctions against Serbia. That, and his anti-Semitic tirades, provoked the Worldwide Church of God into publicly disowning him.”

    Also, a detailed blog posting I found talking about Fischer’s falling out with the WCOG:

    (My last comment went into moderation because, I think, I mentioned the religion of Moses and the political party of Herr Schicklgruber in the same post! I hope someone attends to it and approve it.)

  • Jon Swerens

    I’m wondering if Fischer was still in the WCG in the 1990s through its walk toward orthodoxy, and if he stayed with it or joined one of the many Armstrongism splinter groups.

    In any case, the NYT would have served its readers well by at least mentioning the changes in the WCG during the 1990s, so as not to unfairly slur the current beliefs of the WCG.

  • http://N/A Ron Schmidt

    You must have read the dictionary or belonged to a mainstream church to think that tithing is only 10% of your income. Herbert W. Armstrong would have been happy to explain that a tithe is actually 30% of “your increase” (entire family’s gross income). I’m not sure whether this included your first, second, and third-born.

    It worked something like this. It was divided into three 10% buckets. The first 10% went straight to the church. The church member held onto the second 10%, to be spent on the family’s observance of the annual holy days. The third 10% was remitted to the church on the third and sixth years of a 7-year cycle for the support of “the indigent, widows, and orphans”. (I think Herbet W. — and Garner Ted and Stanley Rader — were probably indigent rather than being widows or orphans.)

    Now that I’m through with my snide remarks, it should be noted that when Tkach Sr. and Jr. took over the WCG, they repaid Herbert W. by dismantling his carefully crafted religion (including his marvelous money machine) and declaring him a heretic. The congregation, who knew the Plain Truth when they read it, repaid the Tkaches by leaving the WCG in droves (some published accounts go as high as 90%, which is probably too high). I’m sure that these people knew that they weren’t members of some fringe cult. Many of them joined the Living Church of God, run by Roderick Meredith, who had been an envangelist for Herbert W. Supposedly, near his own death, Herbert W. rejected having Meredith succeed him in the WCG, which is why he appointed Joseph Tkach Sr. to follow in his footsteps.

    One final footnote: When Bobby Fisher became interested in the WCG, it may still have been the Radio Church of God, which didn’t change its name until 1968.