Light a candle for Y2K

Researchers who study America's "civil religion" usually end up studying sound bites by pious politicians, the on-camera prayers of victorious athletes and other displays of lowest-common-denominator faith.

Now, the American Banking Association has added a strange text to the public canon, circulating a Y2K sermon that it hopes will calm nerves in pulpits and pews.

"We want to go into the new millennium with hope, eagerness and faith in this new century of promise," says the speech, which was prepared by the association's public relations staff. "We don't want to be crouched in our basements with candles, matches and guns. There are, after all, two ways to cross the Red Sea. With Moses, who with God's help, led the children of Israel into a bright, hopeful future. Or with Pharaoh, who, in trying to preserve the old, hurled his chariots, his officers and his army into the sea."

The five-page text was posted in a members-only Internet site, with the suggestion that bankers give it to their local clergy. The goal was to create a "template" offering words and images preachers can use to address the computer bug that will crash programs that register only the last two digits of a year, meaning that 2000 could be interpreted as 1900.

"No one ever expected people to take this into the pulpit," said George Cleland, a spokesman for the bankers association. "We simply wanted to advance public discussions of this issue and we think it's important for the church to take part."

The main theme is that prophets of doom who say the computer glitch will crash power, water, financial and communications systems are updated versions of listeners who panicked during the 1938 "War of the Worlds" radio drama about invading Martians. Bleak millennial scenarios have been especially popular among Internet-savvy religious conservatives.

"What's so ironic is that, while it's the right wing that tends to be worried about Y2K, the whole style of this sermon seems to be aimed at the left," said Quentin J. Schultze of Calvin College, author of "Internet for Christians."

The text includes several references to God, but uses only one biblical metaphor and never mentions Jesus. Above all, said Schultze, the sermon embraces the "great defining myth" of American culture, which is that progress is inevitable because technology always makes life better. The bottom line: Trust in God, but have faith that the computer wizards who run things can take care of business.

"If you wanted to talk to the people who are buried in their evangelical bunkers, then this is not the sermon that's going to do it," said Schultze. "This thing reads like something a government official would send out to clergy who work for a state church."

According to "Thinking about Y2K: Moses, Orson Welles and Bill Gates," the millennial bug will cause some hassles, but nothing worse than a bad storm. Nevertheless, the sermon ends with a sobering litany - a catch-all legal disclaimer - that will raise questions for Y2K optimists.

"So in preparing for Jan. 1, 2000, do what you can. Trust God. Trust those you love. Be informed. And take a few practical steps. Save copies of your financial records. Keep a few days' worth of cash on you. Have a little extra food and water around the house if that makes you feel better. Keep an adequate supply of medicines and over-the-counter drugs on hand. If it's a prescription medicine that you're required to take, put aside enough for a few weeks. Make sure there are fresh batteries in your flashlights. Keep some candles on hand. If you have a fireplace, put some dry wood aside."

Say what? Round up a few weeks worth of extra drugs?

"No one really knows what Y2K will bring. There are just too many variables. I think it's going to be more than a bump in the road, but less than a protracted crisis," said philosopher Douglas Groothuis of Denver Seminary, author of "The Soul in Cyberspace."

"But this business-sponsored sermon seems so double-minded. It says to trust God, but above all trust your bank. It says the electrical companies are going to be fine, but get some extra candles. Which is it?"