Faith, and faith

This is taking time out from my “retrospective” series.

Does anybody else remember the old Science Fiction story about an anti-gravity machine?

The government calls together its top scientists, and shows them a grainy 8mm film, with garbled sound, of an inventor explaining how he has discovered anti-gravity. Sure enough, with his back pack he rises silently and performs aerobatics, until suddenly there is a puff of smoke, and he is seen plunging to his death. The government spokesman says that the backpack was reduced to a mass of fused metal, useless for analysis. But knowing now that anti-gravity is possible, the scientists have been assembled to make it work, money no object.

Sure enough, by the end of the story our heroes have produced such a machine, at this stage the size of a building and capable of rising only an inch, but the principle is proven. Only at that stage does the original inventor walk in fit and well, saying he is an actor and that the whole original film was staged in order to energise the researchers to believe that their task was possible.

Sadly, science does not actually work that way, or cold fusion and the resurrection of the dinosaurs would be realities by now. Many things are not possible, and as often as not the more surprising possibilities come from luck, rather than dogged determination.

In other news it appears that the excesses of hypercharismatic Christianity (current label “New Apostolic Reformation”) are becoming mainstream in Evangelical Christianity, largely due to the slick worship music emanating from franchises like Bethel Redding and, to a less extreme extent, Hillsong. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. I was writing about this succession of fake “revivals” from the late 1980s on – the “Kansas City Prophets” (Kentucky Fried Profits?); the Toronto Bashing, the Pepsi Cola Revival, the Lakeland Revival that collapsed in the sexual scandal of its main “Apostle”, etc. They are always the final end-times revival, but neither revival nor the end ever come.

It’s so interesting how nowadays the only thing that isn’t mainstream, what with Signs and Wonders on one side and Progressive Christianity on the other, is what Jesus proclaimed and which we can study in the Bible. But that too is a case of “plus ça change,” because the ground-state of the gospel is for it to be hated by most of the world – remember that when Jesus required us to “take up our cross,” he can only have meant our appearing (wrongly) to be the worst enemies of respectable society, like the machete-wielder pinned down shot dead on London Bridge.

“Woe to you when all men speak well of you,
for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets.”

One informative figure casting light on this popularisation is Costi Hinn, a nephew and former heir-apparent of the Televangelist Benny Hinn. He was brought up in the inner circle of this movement, and converted (his own word) to biblical Christianity. Interestingly he is more interested in dismantling the theology than in making “kiss and tell” revelations about the jet-set lifestyle and Ponzi-scheme finances of all these enterprises.

Still, in his book he does mention in passing the pre-crusade meetings where it was decided who would be healed this time, and the stuffing of suitcases with cash after ministering to massed crowds in impoverished countries. I was particularly struck, in a video discussion he had, with the story of a woman who spoke to a pastor in another church. She had formerly been the team-member delegated to put the “glory cloud” glitter into the air-conditioning system to demonstrate that God himself was present.

It’s utter blasphemy as well as horrible fraud, of course, but the intriguing thing to me was that Costi Hinn was, he testifies, converted from this religion, not merely from cynical charlatanry. Somehow he had believed not only in the unbiblical prosperity gospel that gave his family a millionaire lifestyle, but in the reality of their calling as new Apostles ministering unprecedented signs and wonders through the Holy Spirit, despite the rampant fraud. How is this possible?

Let’s leave to one side the possibility of demonic delusion – all too plausible if you watch a few videos of these meetings – and consider how belief in the unbelieved squares with their theology. That can be instructive to the rest of us who believe in Jesus – and will maybe give a rare view of real Christianity to those who do not.

At the heart of these movements in their ever-changing terminology of “Latter Rain,” “Manifest Sons, “Joel’s Army,” “Word Faith,” NAR” etc is that God makes everything you want – absolutely everything – possible as along as you have enough faith. It is a theology of power – very relevant in our Woke age, when all relationships are reduced to human power. Jesus raised the dead (in this system) because, as a man believing God, he claimed supernatural power to do it – and so can you, with the same faith. The small matter that Jesus is God, and we are not, needn’t get in the way (kenotic theology is alive and well at Bethel, as well as amongst progressive Evangelicals such as erstwile BioLogos adviser, Peter Enns: only it has been pushed in the direction of the infallibility of us, rather than of the fallibility of Jesus and the Bible).

And so healing powers and prophecies are available to you at the drop of a… well, once you yourself drop on the floor at the touch of a self-styled “Apostle.” In fact, prophecies are true because you speak the events into being (except when, as usual, they’re not fulfilled, in which case they go down the memory-hole in best 1984 fashion). You can, of course, name and claim your new car, private jet and large mansion – if you’re at the top of the pyramid scheme, of course: those at the bottom who do the giving just get accused of insufficient faith.

Now, consider the implications of such a man-centred theology. What will engender the kind of huge faith required to expect such results, in the absence of Jesus himself or any actual teaching in the Bible? The answer, surely, is the woppingest fake miracles you can muster. Angel dust in the air-conditioning? Healthy people leaping out of wheelchairs? Speakers with the power to make each other fall over at a gesture? Mix well, and season with hypnotic songs played repetitively at volume, and computer-managed lighting, and you have all the ingredients to believe anything and (I suppose) generate some real miracles with a bit of luck. Faith is the true mark of holiness, so generating it by fakery is ethically blameless.

It’s like the Sci-Fi story’s faked anti-gravity film: the goal is real even if the means are crooked. But as I said, it doesn’t work in science, and it doesn’t work in true religion either. Because in my Bible, faith is a gift from God, not a meritorious act of man. And what makes it “of greater value than gold” is not how much power or plastic glitter you can generate with it, but that it changes our hearts from those who regard Christ and God’s people as the enemies of society to those who worship him as God and recognise his motley people as brothers and sisters.

This has a few side lessons, very relevant to those who, like me, lead music in churches. One to consideris that those who think that showing videos of mega-events in California or Australia, with hot female singers and musicians playing expensive Gretschs and Gibsons, will tranfigure the worship of the small bunch of poorly-educated bourgeois meeting week by week to glorious light, are dead wrong. Actually it is more likely that the group of old people singing outdated choruses to a broken harmonium – but committed to being obedient to the word of God – have life-changing lessons to teach that modern breed of album-producing “worship leaders.”

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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3 Responses to Faith, and faith

  1. Ben says:

    I don’t remember many things from the hours of sermons I must have sat through in my youth, but I do remember a throwaway comment about Jesus preaching from a boat, when he could walk on water, and how that said something about his attitude to using the spectacular to gain attention.

    I tend to take a back seat in discussions around this topic, because I know that my early church environment AND my temperament bias me strongly against anything showy or with the slightest whiff of emotional manipulation.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Amen, Ben.

      We need to distinguish “emotional manipulation” from “emotion,” but in an age when our emotions are constantly manipulated by advertising, politics, PR and the whole showbiz culture, maybe it’s understandable to err in the other direction.

      It’s the realization of who God *is* that should stir the heart, and that’s what the word of the gospel is about.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Late footnote on kenotic theology, which I mention above in connection with Bill Johnson of Bethel (enabling him to claim equal Holy Spirit abilities to Jesus), and with Theistic Evolution outfit BioLogos, whose original theological honcho was Open Theist and kenoticist Peter Enns (enabling them to claim, circuitously, that God emptied himself of creative power and authority to let nature do creation through evolution).

    It now seems that one of the favourite authors of Chris Llewellyn, singer of the ostensibly more Orthodox Rend Collective, is Peter Enns. It seems Llewellyn has been “deconstructing his faith” over the last ten years, one conclusion being the same kenotic view of Scripture as Enns – it’s a fallible human Word of God. That enables him to affirm progressive views on gender and sexuality, though the article I read didn’t mention if it makes leg-lengthening OK…

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