Sick Of Health And Wealth

Christianity in Crisis,by Hank Hanegraaff (Harvest House, 447 pp.; $16.99, hardcover). Reviewed by Bruce Barron, author of The Health and Wealth Gospel (IVP).

The title may seem melodramatic: the charismatic teachers this book scrutinizes have not created a full-blown “crisis” within Christianity. But with Benny Hinn on the bestseller list, Kenneth Hagin occupying whole shelves in Christian bookstores, and Paul Crouch’s Trinity Broadcasting Network beaming the Faith movement’s message across America, this subject is far from insignificant. Christianity in Crisis’s zoom to the top of bestseller lists shows that thousands of North American Christians are concerned about the popularity of this brand of theology.

Hinn, Hagin, and Crouch are among the leading exponents of a distinctive message that piggybacked on the charismatic movement’s rise to respectability. They all emphasize a Christian’s right to be healthy, prosperous, and victorious in this life, and their ministries are punctuated by prophetic messages and bold, sometimes bizarre, miracle claims and theological innovations.

As the Faith movement has grown, so has the collection of evangelical critics who see it as closer to Christian Science or occultism than to Christianity. In their view, Faith teachers have taken heresy to new heights, as in televangelist Kenneth Copeland’s statement that “You don’t have a god in you, you are one” and his claim that even God must submit to certain laws (e.g., God could not have raised Christ from the dead had Satan not acted “illegally” in taking Jesus to hell).

The Christian Research Institute, still the premier evangelical cult-research organization, has devoted increasing attention to the Faith movement over the past decade. In this book, CRI president Hank Hanegraaff declares open war on the movement, calling it “every bit as cultic as … the Mormons” and a serious, subversive threat to orthodox Christianity.

CRI has not always taken such a hard line. During most of the 1980s, it described the Faith movement as “aberrant”—the middle-ground term it used for teachers who affirmed the essential tenets of orthodox Christianity but whose statements sometimes appeared to contradict orthodoxy. But before his death, CRI founder Walter Martin stated that the movement had crossed over into “the kingdom of the cults.” Hanegraaff follows that line, believing that the Faith teachers have committed too many serious errors on essentials of the faith to be treated as anything but heretical.

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Also reviewed in this section: Upon This Rock: The Miracles of a Black Church,by Samuel G. Freedman;Beyond the Impasse? Scripture, Interpretation and Theology in Baptist Life,edited by Robison B. James and David Dockery;Fall from Grace,by Andrew Greeley;Evangelical Protestantism in Ulster Society, 1740–1890,by David Hempton and Myrtle Hill;Dakota: A Spiritual Geography,by Kathleen Norris

Hanegraaff clearly understands what it means to charge a professing Christian with heresy. While he covers the teachings most often associated with the Faith movement—physical healing and financial prosperity—he concentrates primarily on showing that the movement departs irreconcilably from Christianity on such central matters as the nature of God, Christ, and redemption.

While Hanegraaff’s theological analysis largely recapitulates previous critiques of the movement, it supersedes them by its thoroughness. His main new contribution is the overwhelming documentation (particularly with regard to Copeland, Charles Capps, Hinn, and Crouch), assembled from books, tapes, and television programs, which reveals that these teachers engage in consistent heresy, not occasional carelessness.

Although Hanegraaff’s case is not airtight, and although “false teachers … leading their followers out of the true faith” may be too stern an assessment, at least for the Hagin family and Paul (now David) Yonggi Cho, the great majority of the attacks are on target. (The Hagins’ inclusion is perhaps a deserved result of their unwillingness to repudiate the excesses of their disciples.)

While this book is greatly needed as an exhaustive exposure of serious heresy, it does come up short in places. First, Hanegraaff fails to deal with the exegesis of certain passages of Scripture that are foundational to Faith theology. For example, he blasts the Faith movement’s disdain for “if it be thy will” prayers and its claim that God cannot aid us if we lack faith, but he never interprets a series of biblical passages (Mark 6:5–6; John 14:13–14; John 16:23; 1 John 3:22) in the light of which some of the Faith teachings on prayer and faith appear defensible.

Second, while urging that biblical texts must be studied in context, Hanegraaff does not always approach the Faith teachers’ writings with the same care. He quotes particular heretical-sounding passages without discussing neighboring material that may clarify the teacher’s meaning in a more orthodox fashion.

Further, he ignores the many moderating statements that the Faith teachers, and especially the Hagins, have published; his lack of reference to signs of balance or moderation among some Faith teachers causes Hanegraaff to overstate his case and weakens the credibility of the guilty verdict he pronounces against them.

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One would expect those inside the Faith movement—if they even notice—to disregard the book’s warnings, feeling their favorite teachers have been unfairly treated. In that light, CRI’s claim that hundreds of readers have already indicated they left the Faith movement after reading Christianity in Crisis is particularly significant.

Hanegraaff’s hard-hitting work will inoculate the healthy against the Faith movement’s theological problems, but to penetrate where the cure is most needed is much harder. Perhaps the success ot the book will, for the first time, push some of the Faith teachers out of isolation and into accountability to the rest of Christianity—so that they will truly preach Christ crucified and us as his servants, rather than humanity as sovereign and Christ as our mantra.

A Year In The Life Of A Black Church

Upon This Rock: The Miracles of a Black Church, by Samuel G. Freedman (HarperCollins, 373 pp.; $22.50, hardcover). Reviewed by Andres Tapia.

So jaded are we with Hollywood’s and journalism’s unsavory portrayals of Christians that it is stunning when a mainstream New York press releases an uplifting, truthful celebration of a church being a church. The Reverend Johnny Ray Youngblood’s Saint Paul Community Baptist Church in the bowels of inner-city Brooklyn left quite an impression on Samuel Freedman, an investigative reporter formerly with the New York Times.

Four years ago Freedman began a year-long visit with the all-black, five-thousand-member congregation, recording its most intimate moments: a pastor’s struggle with self-doubt about his ministry; a day-long retreat for recovering addicts; a woman who takes in at-risk kids and loves them into college; a high-stakes confrontational campaign against crime and social injustices; the murder of one of the church’s congregants in an altercation over a parking space; the vibrancy of a men’s group committed to strengthening the black male; the challenges of the sole white member in being accepted into the community.

Freedman writes these stories like a novelist, always the perceptive, almost omniscient observer who never gets in the way. From the opening biblical citation, “Upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18), to the final Communion scene with Youngblood telling his choir director, “Mr. Wilson, let’s go down, singing,” Freedman unapologetically celebrates what Saint Paul’s pastor refers to as their “Church Unusual.”

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A particularly exhilarating chapter finds Freedman using an Easter service as his loom to interweave various elements: an exegesis of black styles of preaching, a history of the black church, the transcendental nature of that morning’s foot-stomping worship, Youngblood’s uncertainties about his ministry, and the meaning of that morning’s message, which was a call for African-American men to a radical and manly commitment to follow Christ. Here Freedman’s gifts as a writer and the church’s rich, multifaceted life come together to create a narrative that lifts the reader’s body, mind, and soul.

Upon This Rock is not only about Saint Paul, but about any church that is doing Jesus’ work. At the same time, the book is a window into the soul of a church whose culture is quite different from that of many white churches.

The candor and vulnerability of Saint Paul’s congregants, particularly their pastor, will both jar and inspire readers. When one Sunday Youngblood publicly forgoes the gift offerings designated for his salary so the money can go toward paying off church debts, pocket-books throughout the congregation spring open and money to retire the entire debt is soon raised. When Youngblood finally publicly admits he has wrongly denied that a bastard child is his from a relationship he had before he met his wife and embraces his now teenage son, things break open for various estranged fathers and sons. “I’m just another beggar telling beggars where to find bread,” Youngblood tells his flock. It also helps that he often does it with humor. As he likes to remind his church, “I’m so glad I can joke with y’all. Otherwise I’d be directin’ a mortuary.”

Two disappointments with the book slightly diminish its reading pleasure. For all his gifts, Freedman’s syntax is wrong too many times, and he often overreaches metaphorically. Also, there is little about Youngblood’s marriage, which would have been an interesting area to pursue in light of the way so many gifted pastors lose sight of their spouses.

Readers will find it difficult to ascertain Youngblood’s theology, since Freedman is not interested in questions of orthodoxy. His focus is more generic: What effect does a church have on a community—in this case, a black community. This robust story of church life is moving and refreshing in its portrait of a church partying and weeping with the people it is transforming in the power of Christ.

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A Baptist Peace Plan

Beyond the Impasse? Scripture, Interpretation and Theology in Baptist Life,edited by Robison B. James and David Dockery (Broadman, 319 pp.; $15.95, paper). Reviewed by A. J. Conyers, professor of religion at Charleston Southern University in South Carolina.

After more than a decade of entrenched opposition between Southern Baptists who call themselves “moderates” and those who call themselves ‘conservatives,” one might well doubt whether any accord is possible. Once I naively protested the controversy in my denomination, saying I preferred neither to “howl with the wolves nor bray with the asses.” Now I see how difficult it is for any Southern Baptist to keep from being pulled into the vortex of this most protracted of denominational disputes. Beyond the Impasse? is a balanced assessment of the rift.

The book’s content derives from dialogues among Baptists from across the theological spectrum who have not (by any fair-minded critic) been numbered among either the wolves or the asses. These eight writers met together on at least four occasions and corresponded over a period that spanned the 1991 creation of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the moderates’ quasi-denominational organization, and the most serious step toward a moderate breakaway.

The issues are balanced by strong polemical sorties on both sides. David Dockery (vice president of academic affairs at Southern Baptist Seminary) argues for the necessity of biblical inerrancy; while Robison James searches for a “new land” of biblically informed experience. Walter Harrelson, once dean at Vanderbilt, argues for historical criticism in “passing on the Biblical tradition intact”; while Paige Patterson, president of Southeastern Baptist Seminary, warns of historical criticism’s notorious excesses and its failure to provide an avenue for faith. Albert Mohler, now president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, calls for a recovery of the theological seriousness that was lost in the pursuit of mere growth; while Molly Truman Marshall warns against doctrinal narrowness.

None of these contributors embraces fundamentalism as it has been manifested historically in unthinking literalism or bellicose invective. Also, none of these either rejects the historical-critical method or adopts any of its findings uncritically. In short, none of these writers gives evidence of the kinds of excesses that one could justly say does exist among the leadership of both the Southern Baptist Convention and its moderate offspring.

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Did this dialogue accomplish its purpose? Is there a beyond to the impasse other than two separate denominations drifting in opposite directions, one an embattled reaction to modern culture, the other inviting wholesale accommodation to the Zeitgeist? If there is, this book is an important, though tentative, first step.

Three ingredients would have taken us further down the road. First, someone might have attempted to articulate the sense of theology that seems to unify most of these writers and, indeed, most Southern Baptists. In such a discussion, I think they might discover their common front against a worldview that increasingly denies any truth beyond subjective preferences and the siren calls of materialism, power, and prestige.

Second, when Christians are serious about transcending an intellectual impasse, their discussions will take on something of the temper of confession and repentance. A new level of moral discourse will occur when conservatives repent of their unbiblical attachment to a marketplace mentality and when moderates confess that perhaps their increasing openness to sundry items on the liberal agenda (such as gay and abortion rights) arises from a squeamish reluctance to offend a religiously hostile society.

Third, the argument over interpretation of Scripture is related to the crisis over truth claims in society at large. The parting of ways between moderates who tend toward relativizing the truth claims of Scripture and conservatives who go no further than seeking to defend every last “fact” related in Scripture seems to me a basic concern and should be addressed.

If there is a “beyond” to the Southern Baptist impasse, it will be found in the sort of interpretive depth suggested by this book. Editors Dockery and James have seen a route around the problem in a courageous acknowledgment that Baptists cannot forgo the work of theologians, even in a world that is rapidly losing interest in the business of knowing and telling the truth.

When The Church Sins

Fall from Grace,by Andrew Greeley (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 367 pp.; $22.95, hardcover). Reviewed by Stefan Ulstein, author of Pastors Off the Record (IVP).

Andrew Greeley is the kind of writer much of the Catholic hierarchy would love to see vanish. He is also a sorely needed prophetic voice in a time when the church has waffled on the tragic issue of pedophile priests. Writing in America, the national Catholic weekly, Greeley has criticized the hierarchy for failing to exhibit “an adequate sense of the life-long horror that such assaults produce in their victims.”

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In Fall from Grace, his twenty-sixth novel, Greeley takes on the scandal of pedophile priests, the rumors of satanic ritual abuse of children, and the larger questions of sexual orientation that are being discussed by Christians with more candor and honest searching than ever before. Like any prophet, Greeley sides with the victims rather than the oppressors, even when the oppressors are ordained ministers like himself. But Greeley doesn’t just write for those in the pews. His novels are out there in the mainstream, sometimes reaching best-seller status, shocking, entertaining, and enlightening as they spin tales of sin and redemption.

Fall from Grace is a love story. Kieran and Kathleen knew they were in love in the eighth grade, but through the intrigues of their politically ambitious families, their passion was thwarted before it could be consummated. When they reconnect in midlife, Kathleen is the wife of a drunken Chicago political aspirant, and Kieran is an unmarried psychiatrist who carries a torch for her.

Kathleen’s brother James is an influential priest whose desire for a smoothly running organization overshadows his ability to follow the Holy Spirit’s leading. (He is the kind of guy who would have told Jesus to sit down in the boat.) When a parish family accuses a popular priest of molesting their son, James makes sure the archdiocese’s lawyers and psychiatrists—the best money can buy—come up with the right answers.

Here Greeley’s art imitates life. He draws freely from the shameful history of the Catholic church’s legacy of stonewalling, covering up, and quietly reassigning pedophiles to new parishes where they often molest more kids. But it is not just the Catholic church that engages in protecting the organization while sacrificing the children; it is an all-too-common practice in many Protestant churches. As Kieran tells James, “It is not seemly for the Church to play hardball corporate law against its own people.”

The ensuing battle of wills between James and Kieran is complicated by the fact that, in his own way, James is a good priest who recently brought Kieran back to the faith. Like many pastors, James is torn between being an effective administrator for the organization and being a shepherd of the flock. He defends the church’s use of top-notch lawyers as a necessity against false accusations and damaging public scandal.

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“That’s good law,” Kieran responds, “but lousy gospel.”

Greeley lacks a counterpart among Protestant novelists. In his novels, life is depicted in all its profanity, infidelity, and ugliness—sin doesn’t just go away. Christian people do not always act or talk as they know they should. Yet an overwhelming sense of God’s grace and love for everybody concerned is always present.

Fall from Grace is first-class popular fiction. But it is also a very Christian story that takes the reader through some messy, sinful territory to arrive at what Greeley calls a hopeful, rather than a happy, ending.

The Way Of The Irish Evangelicals

Evangelical Protestantism in Ulster Society, 1740–1890, by David Hempton and Myrtle Hill (Routledge, 272 pp.; $67.50, hardcover). Reviewed by Mark A. Noll, McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College in Illinois.

Evangelicalism in Northern Ireland looks in many ways like evangelicalism in the United States. Both feature an emphasis on the authority of the Bible and the need for a personal relationship with Christ, and both movements have been periodically renewed by unusual periods of revival.

In other ways, however, they are different. After a failed revolution against England in 1798, evangelicals in Northern Ireland repudiated the ideology of republicanism and became intensely loyal to the British throne. Again, after momentary signs of something different toward the end of the eighteenth century, evangelicals in Northern Ireland have consistently defined themselves over against Ireland’s large Catholic population. These differences—along with the contributions of various Protestant bodies to the culture of Northern Ireland—are the subject of this splendid book.

Those who care about the way a religious movement very similar to American evangelicalism has worked itself out in a different social and political setting will find this book a treasure. They will also discover in it some of the deeply ingrained historical reasons for the intractable “troubles” that bedevil Northern Ireland to this day. The authors are associated with the Queen’s University in Belfast where David Hempton is increasingly recognized as one of the most perceptive historians of religion in modern Britain.

Faith For The Prairie

Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, by Kathleen Norris (Ticknor and Fields, 224 pp.; $19.95 hardcover). Reviewed by Ken Steinken, a writer living in Rapid City, South Dakota.

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Poet Kathleen Norris’s grandfathers were ministers and revivalists. Her father was a church choir director. Religion was at the center of her life. But as a young adult, Norris walked away from the church. She explains why in Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. “Like many Americans of my baby boom generation, I had thought that religion was a constraint that I had overcome by dint of reason, learning artistic creativity, sexual liberation. Church was for little kids or grandmas, a small-town phenomenon that one grew out of or left behind.”

When Norris moved from New York City 20 years ago to a town of 1,600 on the border between North and South Dakota to help settle her grandmother’s estate, she found the solitude of the prairie to be fertile soil for poetry and decided to stay.

In the quiet of “America’s outback,” Norris’s poetry flourished. She also rediscovered the faith she was born into—not through the efforts of an evangelist or a church outreach program, but through exploring the place where she lives, the people who live there, the faith of her ancestors, and the influence of Benedictine monks.

Dakota is an unusual collection of creative essays and short reflections on Norris’s past two decades in the largest town in a seven-county area the size of Delaware, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Rhode Island combined. “A person is forced inward by the spareness of what is outward and visible in all this land and sky,” says Norris, “[a place that] does not give an inch to sentiment or romance,” that “demands that you give up any notion of dominance or control. In these places you wait, and the places mold you.”

Lacking the literary community of New York, Norris began spending time with ministers and frequenting monasteries. “There is wariness on both sides,” Norris notes. “Poets and Christians have been at odds with one another, off and on, for two thousand years. There is also trust: we are people who believe in the power of words to effect change in the human heart.”

The scope of the book is broad, and to some, it may even seem odd. Consider several titles: “Can You Tell the Truth in a Small Town?” “Dust,” “Should Farmers Read Plato?” “The Holy Use of Gossip,” and “Monks at Play.” This is not a collection of conventional Christian wisdom but the poetic writings of a skeptic. And though Norris describes herself as one “who often has more doubt than anything resembling faith,” her rich musings about personal faith and life in the church reveal insights that have floated past many in the Christian mainstream.

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Ct Talks Tokathleen Norris

Kathleen Norris has penned four books of poetry since 1971. Dakota: A Spiritual Geography is her first book of prose. She has served as an interim preacher for a rural South Dakota parish and is one of the “freelance” faculty at the Great Plains Institute of Theology (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) in Bismarck, North Dakota. In a conversation with CT, Norris, who describes herself as a Presbyterian Benedictine, spoke about finding her way back to the church.

There was a time not that long ago when you avoided Christianity. What changed?

I think I’m typical of a lot of people in my generation. I simply stopped going to church after high school. I really can’t explain what it was that ten years later drew me back. Ironically, I think it was the Benedictines that kept me at it. I’m married. I’m not a Catholic. But when I started attending their liturgy, they would sing or recite psalms, have a Bible reading, and some prayers four times a day. Being able to say and hear poems out loud was a whole new approach for me, even though it’s about 1,700 years old. It really nourished me and made me a better Presbyterian.

As a Protestant, what have you learned from the close contact you have had with the Catholic tradition?

There is so much in the early Christian tradition, like monasticism, that can nourish Protestants. By being so scrupulous about ignoring the saints, we’ve thrown the baby out with the bath water. Obviously, there were excesses that Reformers like Calvin and Luther were trying to do away with. But the question of do you pray to or through a saint doesn’t interest me. That’s not the point of sainthood. The point is you’ve got models of faith. You can think about their lives and realize that they were ordinary people called to do extraordinary things.

Moving to the solitude of the prairie was important for you to nurture your faith. What can the city and suburban dweller do to draw closer to God?

I don’t want to come off as a city basher. The way the world is, a lot of people have to live in cities. But people who are in a city or suburb can still think like monks and farmers, asking themselves, what are the things that have to be done and how can I make them holy? That’s really what monks are about—taking the daily chores and converting them into prayers. What it really means to be grounded spiritually is when you can do that no matter where you are.

By Ken Steinken.

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