FIRST-PERSON: Faith & healing -- Where's the evidence?
On July 3, my wife, three children and I attended Bentley's "impartation service" in Denton, Texas, north of Dallas. Why? We have twin 7-year-old boys, one of whom is autistic (largely nonverbal, still not fully toilet trained, serious developmental delays). Friends urged that we attend the meeting for his miraculous healing.
Call us stubborn, but my wife and I are unimpressed with doctors who see our son's condition as hopeless. We believe that God still heals and that His means of healing include conventional medicine, alternative medicine, prayer, fasting, love and, yes, miracles. In any case, we haven't given up on our son's recovery (we still remember the day when he was developmentally on track). So if God wanted to use Todd Bentley, we were open to it.
As faith healers go, Bentley is unconventional. Exhibiting black shirt, baggy jeans, tattoos and piercings, he prefers grunge to Gucci. But his appearance wasn't a problem for my wife or me. God in the Bible used many unconventional people. The problem for us was the manipulation, hype and agenda that seemed to pervade the meeting.
It was a 130-mile drive for my family to get to the meeting. When we called the organizers, they urged us to get there by 3 p.m. even though the meeting didn't start till 7 p.m. The venue (a basketball arena) seated 8,500 people, yet the organizers told us to expect 14,000 people to show up. So the only way to be sure of getting a seat was to get there early.
We therefore piled the kids into the minivan early afternoon, arriving around 4:30. At 6:30, after sitting for two hours, the arena was about three-quarters full. One of the organizers then announced that traffic was backed up for miles around Denton and that several thousand were trying to get into the meeting, most of whom would have to be turned away. This was sheer hype. A significant block of seats (at least 20 percent) were cordoned off and never used throughout the whole night. We could have arrived anytime and still gotten seats.
At 7, Keith Miller (the chief organizer, www.sfwm.org) started things off. After prompting the audience to perform ritualistic acts of worship (stand up, raise your hands, say after me ...), he passed the baton to a young woman singer and her backup band. The sound system was terrible -- sounds were loud and distorted. The music was repetitive in the extreme. In almost two hours of this "music ministry," only a handful of songs were sung, and many of them seemed to consist of only one or two phrases.
Finally, around 9 p.m. Bentley began to speak. He devoted much of his message to the visions he has received and the miracles he claims have happened in his ministry. Then, almost as an afterthought, he spent a few minutes preaching from the Bible (John 5). In fact, he admitted that he was having us open the Bible simply so that it couldn't be said that he didn't preach from the Bible. So much for reverencing the Scriptures.
Nowhere in Bentley's message did I see an emphasis on the love and compassion of God -- that healing is an expression of God's goodness and care for humanity. Rather, the emphasis throughout was on power -- the power to heal and be healed.
Bentley told stories of remarkable healings. In fact, he claims that in his ministry 30 people have now been raised from the dead. Are these stories credible? A common pattern in his accounts of healing was an absence of specificity. Bentley claims that one man, unembalmed, had been dead for 48 hours and was in a coffin. When the family gathered around at a funeral home, the man knocked from inside the coffin to be let out.
But what are the specifics? Who was this man? What's his name? Where's the death certificate? And why not parade the man at Bentley's meetings? If I am ever raised from the dead through anyone's ministry, you can be sure I'll put in a guest appearance. Bentley claims that he is having a team investigate healings performed under his ministry and will soon go public with the evidence. I look forward to seeing it.
After preaching, Bentley took the offering. During the offering he asked "How much anointing do you want to receive?" Thus he linked the blessing we should receive with the amount of money we gave.
After the offering, Bentley said a general prayer for mass healing. People who thought they were healed then came forward. But I saw no obvious or dramatic evidence of healing. After the general prayer for mass healing, Bentley indicated that he would pray for the severest cases.
At this point, a friend who was with us urged that she and my wife take our son with autism down for prayer (I stayed with our other son and daughter). Over an hour later my son with autism was still not able to get to the main floor for prayer. Ushers twice prevented that from happening. They noted that he was not in a wheelchair. Wheelchair cases clearly had priority -- presumably they provided better opportunities for the cameras, which filmed everything. They also invoked the fire marshals, who, they claimed, prohibited too many people on the floor of the arena. But earlier in the service, during the worship time, they had packed the floor with people singing and whooping it up.
After midnight we were told that it would be an hour and a half before our son could get prayer. At that point, we got up and left. Yet the story doesn't end there. When we got to the minivan, our other son remembered that he had left his Bible in the arena. When my wife went back to retrieve it, everybody, including Bentley, had suddenly cleared out. Staying an hour and a half would not have mattered.
Our son was refused prayer twice because he didn't look the part, and he was told to wait still longer for a prayer that would never have been offered. And even those who looked the part seemed to look no better after Bentley's prayer -- the exodus from the arena of people bound in wheelchairs was poignant.
My son's situation was not unique -- a man with bone cancer and his wife traveled a long distance, were likewise refused prayer, and left in tears. People with needs were shortchanged. It seemed that power, prestige and money (in that order) were dominating motives behind the meeting. Minimal time was given to healing, though plenty was devoted to assaulting our senses with blaring insipid music and even to Bentley promoting and selling his own products (books and CDs).
Neither my wife nor I regret going. It was an education. Our kids are resilient. But the ride home raised a question. We found ourselves avoiding talking about the event until the children fell asleep. Then, as they drifted off in the early morning, we talked in hushed tones about how easily religion can be abused, in this case to exploit our family. What do we tell our children? I'm still working on that one.
William A. Dembski is research professor of philosophy at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.