Review: Christianity in Crisis, 21st Century

Review: Christianity in Crisis, 21st Century

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By Hank Hanegraaff; Thomas Nelson, Nashville, Tenn., 2009; 426 pp., hardbound, $22.99 retail. It’s a two-year-old volume, yes, but it’s worth an evaluation, especially for those who missed either this edition or the original version that made something of a splash 14 years ago. Hanegraaff’s 1997 work (titled simply Christianity in Crisis) dissected the so-called “Faith Movement,” aka the “Word of Faith Movement.” His revised edition, titled Christianity in Crisis, 21st Century, updates his case against the same individuals, while adding a few names (and their respective controversies) to the mix. Interestingly, a critique of the Faith Movement becomes, almost by default, a critique of televangelism in general. The giants of “Faith Theology” are, by-and-large, the giants of televangelism. Maybe not exclusively so, but largely so, and tellingly so. Hanegraaff says little or nothing about this close correspondence, but it’s worth at least passing notice. Hanegraaff’s targets are such figures as Rod Parsley, Kenneth Copeland, Benny Hinn, John Hagee, T.D. Jakes, Creflo Dollar, and others. It is something of a surprise to see him extend his criticisms to such names as Joyce Meyer or (more surprisingly) Joel Osteen, but Hanegraaff is hardly less critical of them than the others. The author, who has penned a number of books on Christian themes, heads the North Carolina-based Christian Research Institute (CRI) and hosts a daily radio show that airs in the United States and Canada under the name “the Bible Answer Man.” CRI operates the equip.org website and publishes the magazine Christian Research Journal, which also can be found online (http://journal.equip.org). Employing an approach that is at some times adroit and revelatory, at most times workmanlike, and at almost all times denunciatory, he takes apart his subjects one by one. There’s some hyperbole, to be sure. In Hanegraaff’s hands, an extravagant declaration by John Hagee on camera at Trinity Broadcasting Network becomes not just a ridiculous remark but “one of the most horrifying scenes I have ever witnessed.” Benny Hinn’s ill-advised contention that Jesus would have sinned if not for the help of the Holy Spirit becomes, for Hanegraaff, “unnerving.” TBN founder Paul Crouch’s remark that Jesus’ divinity departed Him on the cross and returned to Him in Hell becomes not just an error but “a spiritually horrifying notion.” And while Hanegraaff does not repeat himself—at least not to excess—there is nonetheless a feeling of repetition. It’s not Hanegraaff’s fault. The characters that he dismantles are so alike in their appeals and approaches that each new chapter brings a dose of déjà vu. So much so, in fact, that by the midpoint of the book (around page 200), the idea that there’s another 200 pages of this march still ahead—well, it’s a thought that crosses one’s mind. And then there’s the acronyms. Hanegraaff leans heavily on them as instructive devices, and we are shepherded through chapters covering such breakdowns as F-L-A-W-S (Faith in Faith / Little gods / Atonement Atrocities / Wealth & Want / Sickness & Suffering), F-A-C-T-S (Faith / Adoration / Confession / Thanksgiving / Supplication), the F-A-C-E of Evolution (Fossils / Ape Men / Chance / Empirical Science), and the M-A-P-S of Bible authority (Manuscripts / Archeology / Prophecy / Scriptural Synergy), and more. And yet for all of these idiosyncracies, Christianity in Crisis, 21st Century is a book that needed to be written.

photo of Hank Hanegraaff

Hank Hanegraaff

The author’s analysis of how some of these “scriptorturers” craft their appeals is valuable. Beginning with the goal of instilling “an altered state of consciousness,” and continuing through the tactics of employing peer pressure, raising “enhancement of expectations” and enlisting the “power of suggestion,” prosperity preachers have a methodology they follow, and Hanegraaff charts it for us. Indeed, “health and wealth” promises are the stock in trade of most of Hanegraaff’s targets. And, as he states, “God is demoted to the status of a mere bellhop who blindly responds to the beck and call of formulas uttered by the faithful.” (p. 103) The book is assiduously annotated. And rich in examples, though I found myself wishing the author had cited the opinions of more third-party sources in making his various cases. Still, Hanegraaff is at his best when he stands on his own firsthand research—including especially those times when he attended events staged by the prosperity preachers he covers. He tells of the disheartenment of those who came to events to be healed and went home still afflicted—their faith now as injured as their bodies. He tells of manipulations of crowds. He tells of distortions of scripture to serve this-world desires. He tells how, “when the riches fail to materialize, the exploited often dejectedly leave what they thought was Christianity and seek safe haven in some other venue within the kingdom of the cults.” (p. 200) He tells of Kenneth Hagin once claiming that Jesus appeared to him (Hagin) personally. Hagin described it as a time when he (Hagin) was “in the Spirit” and “enveloped in a white cloud.” It was then that “the Lord Jesus Christ Himself appeared to me.” Jesus “stood within three feet” of Hagin and, after a conversation about various topics, He gave Hagin four rules whereby “anybody, anywhere… will always receive whatever he wants from Me or from God the Father.” (p. 105) Incidentally, it is occasions such as these—descriptions by televangelists of their purported encounters with deity—that are some of the most egregious behaviors Hanegraaff exposes. And yet I cannot help but feel that the author could have availed himself of so much more scripture in refuting these claims. Maybe it is just the Restorationist in me. But I felt there were numerous occasions when Hanegraaff could have cited such scriptural arguments as the doctrine of earthen vessels. It is the scripturally authorized idea that revelation is closed—and that even in post-resurrection times (A.D. 30-A.D. 70, or A.D. 30-A.D.-90, depending on one’s views), Jesus Himself did not impart—does not impart—divine knowledge to anyone but His apostles. And that the gospel is to be transmitted only by earthen vessels, one to another—not by angels to men, nor directly by the Holy Spirit to men, nor by even Jesus Christ to men. [As a further aid to understanding the doctrine of earthen vessels, I have created an article on this site that explains it in all its particulars. You may access that article here.] Had Hanegraaff employed doctrines such as these, I feel he’d have had greater ammunition to refute the too-numerous claims of drop-in visitation by the Father or Son, as asserted by too many health-and-wealth proclaimers. And yet, for all of the discrediting Hanegraaff does of health-and-wealth-doctrine profiteers, the author strikes a beautiful note at the end when he recounts the tale of one of the most famous of all prosperity preachers—the disgraced and imprisoned Jim Bakker. Bakker’s penitent confession at story’s end is a fitting conclusion and a redeeming grace note for such an account as this. “Yes, in the world’s eyes I have lost everything,” Bakker wrote in a letter from prison. “I have lost Heritage U.S.A., the television network, the daily program, my reputation, our family home, our car, our life savings… All is gone, and my wife of 31 years has divorced me, and I am in prison. Some would say to me like Job’s wife, ‘Why don’t you curse God and die?’ But like Job, I cry out, ‘though God slay me, yet will I trust Him.’ I pray my life will be worship to God with all self-pity gone. I have learned that happiness is not in things or circumstances, but in knowing God.” A bit further down, Hanegraaff quotes Bakker yet more from the same letter: “I’m more convinced than ever that what God wants is blind faith—the Job kind of faith, that still stands when material blessings are gone. Even though the Hollywood screen image would somehow make us believe that there are some people who lead a charmed life with no pain or loneliness, that the rest of us face, it is simply not true. No one has their lives in total control and pain free. Everyone you meet is fighting their own battles. We need each other…. Let me leave you with the words of Jesus found in Mark 8: ‘What shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?’ Keep your eyes on the prize—on Heaven, on Christ, on things above, ‘For it has not entered the hearts of men, the things God has prepared for them that love Him.’ The best is yet to come!” It is this lifting of our eyes to eternity that gives us the necessary counterpoint, and the cure, to health-and-wealth proselytizing. It is the emphasis on eternity that cures so many doctrinal dilemmas. We were made for something better than this flawed, unfulfilling, imperfect earthly life. And so I end by suggesting that Hanegraaff has done something that needed doing. Why have there been so few like him—individuals ready to contest televangelism’s opportunists? It might be that not everyone coming to this site agrees with Hanegraaff’s theology, and that not everyone agrees with his confrontiveness. But there are many lost sheep out there who are too ready to follow leaders who have (at best) flawed messages and (at worst) deceptive ways. I found his book to be a useful, clear-eyed, honest refutation of the give-to-get gospel, which is never far away to be found. COPYRIGHT 2011 JESSE MULLINS



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