Friday, October 20, 2017

Too Hot to Handle: Witchcraft Using Christian Language

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Christianity Today has an interesting piece on Benny Hinn’s nephew Costi, who no longer preaches the prosperity gospel like the rest of his family.

Tom: Costi’s description of the financial benefits of preaching the gospel and performing “healings” is a bit jarring, especially for those who’ve grown up in the family of a full-time Bible teacher. I don’t recall the 10,000 square foot mansions, the Benzes, the exotic vacations or the summer homes.

What do you think, IC? Was my dad doing something wrong?

Earthly Possessions, Happiness and Perfect Health

Immanuel Can: Pretty clearly, according to the prosperity gospel. If God doesn’t “bless” you with earthly possessions, happiness and perfect health, it’s really your fault, you see. You must have sinned. Or lacked faith. Or not had the “second blessing” (tongues). Or not given generously of your funds.

Tom: That’s a bit of a downer, but I’ll try to get over it.

Well, there are a few things I like about Costi Hinn’s testimony of discovery about what the Bible really teaches, not least the bit about his wife and how the whole family tried — and failed — to make her speak in tongues.

IC: Yes. I like how he looked at what scripture actually said, and when he saw that it did not match what he was being told, he knew he had to pick a side. And to his credit, he picked the right one. I like that too.

Out of the Feedback Loop

Tom: Ah, that’s what I wanted to talk about a bit. I notice what made him reexamine the scriptures for himself was getting married to a woman who was not part of his regular feedback loop. I think we’ve both experienced church situations where everybody around you reinforces the status quo to the point that you feel like you’re in an echo chamber.

Two things are required to break you out of that: (1) exposure to a different interpretation; and (2) a person holding that interpretation that you care enough about to really examine their argument rather than riding roughshod over them or just dismissing them. In this case, Costi had a new wife he loved, and so he looked at the verse she presented with enough openness for the Spirit of God to convict him his own interpretation was wrong.

IC: Good point. Different things can, perhaps, provoke the right attitude on our part, but you’ve got to take the right attitude somehow …

Questioning the Default Settings

So what is that attitude?

Tom: Humble. Teachable. Willing to question one’s default settings. That feedback loop I talked about earlier is deadly. We’re seeing it today for most ideological positions, left or right. Regardless of your upbringing, there are a certain number of approved sources you are allowed to reference, and when you step outside that set of appropriate options, you’re in trouble. You’re no longer an acceptable option.

Here the writer is basically in a cult, and he was born into it. It’s not something he stumbled into from neutral territory, but something he imbibed from birth. That’s what makes it all the more amazing to me that somehow the Lord got him out of it.

IC: Well, that’s the thing — usually, Christian people don’t think of something even nominally “Christian” as being capable of being a “cult”. They may be comfortable saying it’s misguided, ill-informed, theologically-wonky, or even totally wrong-headed; but to call it a “cult” is a bridge too far for most. But in this case …

Tom: Uh, yeah, it’s a cult. Read the article. He lived it. It’s a cult.

Confronting the Word

I particularly like the part where he was forced to confront the healing at Bethesda, and the penny really dropped for him:
“This left three treasured beliefs in tatters. Isn’t it always God’s will to heal? No, Jesus only healed one man out of a multitude. Doesn’t God only heal people if they have enough faith? No, this crippled man didn’t even know who Jesus was (let alone have faith in him). Doesn’t healing require an anointed healer, special music, and an offering collection? No, Jesus healed instantly with a mere command. I wept bitterly over my participation in greedy ministry manipulation and my life of false teaching and beliefs, and I thanked God for his mercy and grace through Jesus Christ. My eyes were completely opened.”
That’s some powerful stuff.

IC: Very powerful. And in this connection, I often think that the people who believe in the so-called “prosperity gospel” have surely never read the book of Job. There you see a righteous man who suffers terrible earthly circumstances, and is nevertheless a true friend of God and an example of faith. These cultists have too small a Bible.

Unresolved Questions

Tom: Well, I think the downsizing is a very deliberate thing. He describes having questions as a kid when the family was being investigated by Dateline NBC or The Fifth Estate and resolving them by telling himself they were being persecuted like Jesus and Paul. Or asking his father if they could go and heal a friend with cancer and being told they should just pray at home. There was a fair bit of reality-warping and scripture-distorting that went along with being a Hinn. When we find ourselves having to completely ignore significant themes or books of the Bible, it’s an indication that our theology is badly bent in some way or other. Alarm bells should be going off.

IC: Yes, I think so. But I think there’s an inducement for people to keep believing Hinn’s type of message — about how faith can be ‘used’ to get prosperity, and so on — since we have a natural tendency as humans to want to bring circumstances within our control. If there’s a set method for manipulating God to give us what we want, then we have the means to control him. Hinn teaches that if we do the right set of things — having faith, claiming promises, giving money, and so forth — then God is obligated to give us good outcomes.

Making the Supernatural Obedient

It’s not actually Christian. Really, it’s a form of witchcraft using Christian language. You can tell, because Hinn’s whole focus is not at all how to conform the human will to God’s will, but rather how to find the right formula to make the supernatural obedient to our will.

Tom: When you speak of trying to manipulate God as witchcraft, it might explain why fake healing — sorry, I mean faith healing — is regularly associated with the prosperity gospel. It pushes the same buttons.

IC: Yes. It’s really expressive of a whole attitude to life. I remember reading a newspaper article about a big conference — allegedly on the subject of “Christian” business practices — that one of these prosperity gospel organizations held near where I was living. They interviewed one person who said, “This conference was great; it really showed me how to use God in my business.”

Tom: Agh!

IC: That’s it. They’re all about using God in their business. That’s quite different from a desire to be used by God in his business. And while they insist that the power must come from the supernatural, the agenda is not. That agenda is very clearly their own.

So I sincerely doubt whatever “power” they have, if any, has anything at all to do with the Lord. Because surrendering the agenda is something that, as I read scripture, he simply does not do.

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