Hank Hanegraaff,
Christianity in Crisis: 21st Century
(Thomas Nelson, 2009)

With notes and bibliography, Christianity in Crisis runs 425 pages. Without repetition, it would probably check in at less than 200. Author Hank Hanegraaff takes the same few arguments and beats them to death, going at them like a man trying to destroy a car by whacking it repeatedly with a rubber hammer.

His basic argument goes something like this: a group of ministers called faith preachers or prosperity preachers, whose leaders are televangelists like Benny Hinn, Joel Osteen, Kenneth Hagin, Ken Copeland and Joyce Meyer, have subverted Christian teaching by preaching that God wants you to be prosperous. That assumption, says Hanegraaff, grows out of the fact that these preachers have themselves been taken over by new-age thinking, which Hanegraaff sees as both blasphemous and occult. These people have been incredibly influential, so that even fundamentalist churches have taken to preaching to committing one heresy after another by adopting the faith doctrine.

To get all of my cards on the table, let me be upfront about the fact that I am a member of one of the denominations that Hanegraaff has labeled a cult. Even if I wasn't, though, I would, as I suspect most outside his specific target audience would, have trouble taking this book seriously. For one thing, consider Hanegraaff's definitions of a cult. He begins by quoting Gordon Lewis:

A cult, then, is any religious movement which claims the backing of Christ or the Bible, but distorts the central message of Christianity by 1) as additional revelation, and 2) by displacing a fundamental tenet of the faith with a secondary matter.

Walter J. Martin, who founded the Christian Research Institute, adds that "a cult might also be defined as a group of people gathered about a specific person or person's misinterpretations of the Bible."

Those definitions carry the implication that Christianity is a closed shop where everything has been discovered, since any new revelation would move it into the category of cult, and that, since it follows Jesus, who was frequently critical of Old Testament passages, just might be a cult itself.

Naturally, Hanegraaff doesn't see it that way and would declare statements like those heresies -- one of his favorite pejorative terms. His own candidates for cultdom include the Mormons, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society and all of the New Thought churches, such as Religious Science and Unity. It's worth noting that although he does not go there, the Catholic Church would qualify as a cult under his definition.

Anyway, after discussing cultdom, the author, shocked by their heresies, attacks televangelists. Finding examples of silly things televangelists have said is as easy as popping balloons with a pin and Hanegraaff goes at them with great enthusiasm and repetition, as if it had never occured to anyone that many of their statements are absurd. He makes the same few charges again and again: these people are more interested in raising money than saving people, they are frauds, they make dumb, incorrect statements about Jesus -- he is so incensed by the fact that some of them claim Jesus was rich, wore designer clothes and lived in a big house that he mentions it a dozen times. Consider also that they can't really heal you and that when they claim to report direct conversations with God, those conversations really didn't take place.

He is also incensed that they elevate humankind to a place of importance, claiming outrageously that people have power over their own destinies and that acceptance of God and Jesus can make you stronger. Such a belief, he says, makes humans into little gods and diminishes God. Interestingly enough, when the televangelists qualify these claims -- Joyce Meyer, for example, is careful to point out that when she says God creates people as little gods, she does not mean Gods with an upper case G. He quotes her on that qualifying statement but then forgets she said it, attacking only the words he disagrees with. Incidently, he doesn't like the fact that the faith preachers says that words have power; they claim that if you want to accomplish something, you have to be able to verbalize what you want. Another heresy, according to Hanegraff.

His way out of this heretical quagmire? Go back to basics. Adopt the fundamentals and do not under any circumstances deviate from them. Do not interpret the Bible -- unless you interpret it his way and he gives instructions for proper interpretation.

I hadn't read more than 50 pages of Christianity in Crisis before I felt that to review it would be to attack its wrongheadedness, dogmatic rigidity and utter lack of Christian charity. I prepared counter-arguments and objections, but by the time I got three-quarters of the way through the book, I felt the whole thing was just too sad to attack.

Hanegraaff would never agree that an aura of sadness hangs over the book. In fact, he is going to reject everything I've said because I am, in his view, a self-confessed heretic. The fact is, though, his is a theology of fear and smallness. In his view, humankind is powerless before an omnipotent God who rewards and punishes in a manner that many of us would consider whimsical and illogical. We must continue to be no more than Job, whom Hanegraaff admires inordinately because he accepted everything that God threw at him, even though God was doing it on no more than a whim, or Abraham, who was ready to behead his son simply because God told him to. For us to question God, to inquire into the why of things is outrageous and heretical to Hanegraaff.

I always thought religion was supposed to bring joy to people, to enlighten them and make their lives happier and fuller.

If Hanegraaff is right, then I was wrong.

Call me a heretic, but I'm going to stick with my theology of joy.

review by
Michael Scott Cain

4 July 2009

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