Suddenly I knew that it was time to see these miracles in person. It was my calling to see Mr. Charlatan himself. And it was free!
I called my friend and fellow Foundation member, Brooks Trubee, to see if he wanted to experience the Holy Spirit with me. He thought it would be fun and readily agreed. We decided that we would have to occasionally play-act to avoid standing out like sore (and hell-bound) thumbs. A year earlier, he and I had been guests on a three-hour Christian radio show and were both well-versed in Christian mythology's mumbo-jumbo. We were confident we would not be discovered.
So on that fateful day in August, we arrived at Seattle's Key Arena 40 minutes before the 7:00 p.m. service was to start. It was already packed, and we had to settle for nose-bleed seats. The choir was practicing, and what a choir it was. I estimated there were about 150 members. Then I noticed a second bunch of them on a higher level, bringing the total up to about 200 or so. They sounded pretty impressive. We also noticed several cameras throughout the arena that would tape the miracles for Hinn's daily TV show on the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN).
Just before the show started, a Hinn lackey came out to get the crowd excited. Then they dimmed the lights and showed a video depicting all the great works Benny does around the world, spreading the Good News. The main message was that it took money to send Benny to all these places and that God looked kindly on financial "partners." The Key Arena is where the Seattle Sonics professional basketball team plays, so I wondered if Benny would be introduced the same way many home teams are introduced: "And now, the defending world evangelical and faith-healing champion, heeeeeere's BEENNNNNNYYYYY!!!!!" But, no, Benny didn't show up until the second or third song. He walked to center stage, in his ivory-colored suit, and silently raised his arms to the heavens. The entire crowd, including actors Barry and Trubee, raised their arms, too.
Personally, I didn't get anything out of doing that. It just made my arms tired.
Benny didn't disappoint us and was worth every cent of our free tickets. He turned out to be quite a master crowd pleaser, alternating between hypnotically melodious whispers and fearful shouts about the dangers of sin and the flames of hell. Between his monologues, the choir, professional singers (some quite good), or even Benny himself (not good) sang upbeat and inspiring songs.
At about 8:15, Benny surprised us by introducing movie star Dyan Cannon, Cary Grant's ex-wife. Sure enough, she got up from the audience and walked onto the stage. I was so shocked to see such a celebrity that I let loose a rather loud "Holy s--t!" I immediately remembered where I was and looked around to see if our cover had been blown. But no one seemed to have heard my blasphemy over the applause. Brooks and I laughed when I remarked that my two-word exclamation coincidentally but accurately summed up the entire evening. Ms. Cannon preached to the audience, telling us how earlier in her life she had everything: money, fame, beauty, a great husband. She had everything except, you guessed it, GOD. So she gave up her sanity and became a nutzo born-again Christian. Can I get an amen!
Either the acoustics, Benny's accent, or a combination thereof often made it difficult for us to understand what he was saying. But that didn't stop Brooks and me from periodically yelling "Hallelujah!" Brooks was slightly more effusive in his play-acting than me, often standing up and yelling, "Praise Jesus!" even when everyone else was sitting. I had to keep from laughing.
I specialized in shaking my head ruefully and sanctimoniously when hearing Benny talk about the fires of hell. I asked Brooks with a straight face, "Why do people choose hell when they can have eternal life? I just don't understand it." At one point, there was a song with the words "I praise thee" repeated as the chorus. I noticed that this rhymed with "I'm crazy," so I stood up and began singing along with everyone else, except using my own version.
At 9:30, Brooks and I began wondering if Benny was ever going to perform any miracles that night. It was at this point that Benny told the crowd how he had been chosen by God to evangelize. He apparently had a vision in his bedroom many years ago. A figure floated in the air and showed Benny millions upon millions of people marching unknowingly towards the flames of hell. The floating guy said, "Preach the gospel!" Benny, being the humble man he is, said, "But why me?" The floater intoned again, "Preach the gospel!" This is how God bestowed on Benny the healing, evangelizing, and marketing skills he has today.
With this final and dramatic touch of fire and brimstone, Benny started the most important part of the evening: the collection. Assigned individuals passed hundreds of envelopes and white buckets across the aisles, taking credit card payments, checks, and cash. The fools filled up the buckets, as Brooks and I looked on with disgust. We estimated a $20 average contribution, so with 15,000 in attendance, Benny pulled in a cool $300,000, conservatively. With new pledges of monthly credit card payments, probably a lot more.
Our disgust deepened when the miracles finally began at 10:15. That's right, people had to contribute before they could get healed. It's that old "sow a seed before you reap your harvest" ploy.
The to-be-healed and those who believed they had already received their miracle earlier in the show were brought up on stage. A Hinn associate with microphone in hand excitedly described each person's condition. Usually it was some problem with walking, a bad back, or whatnot.
Benny would walk over to the person and abruptly place his hand on their shoulder or neck. I guess the old Ernest Angely forehead-slapping is out of vogue nowadays. So "anointed," the individual would then fall to the stage, supposedly in some type of religiously ecstatic state of (un)consciousness. However, I noticed that a few of those on the floor were self-conscious enough to pull their shirts back down over their stomachs. If they were "slain in the spirit" would they really worry about a bare belly?
After they were helped to their feet by attendees, the "healed" would then take a few steps around the stage, showing us how much better they could walk. Since many had allegedly already been healed by Casper the Holy Ghost before their appearance on the stage, it was impossible to compare their post-anointed condition with their previous state. Even so, many of the healed hobbled about the stage so gingerly that they looked as if a massive stroke could fell them at any moment.
After the first two or three anointings, Benny started to get fancy and made people fall down without even touching them. He would then spread his hands apart as if to say, "Look Ma, no hands!" The crowd laughed and applauded at this demonstration of his healing prowess.
It began to get comical because Benny often anointed the same person two, three, sometimes four times in a row. I don't know if this meant the first anointings were ineffective or if the demons were especially strong in those bodies. I felt sorry for these people, especially the elderly ones, because they had to keep pretending to fall down and get back up repeatedly.
Benny also liked to anoint several people at once. At one point, he anointed three believers at once: two men and a young woman. He directed his assistants to pick up the two men and mysteriously yelled, "But don't touch the girl!" Ooooooh. The crowd was spell-bound.
But it got worse. Benny liked to show off the wheelchairs these people used and allegedly would never need again. He asked an assistant to bring a chair onto the stage, but the assistant didn't move fast enough. Benny angrily yelled, "Move!" In some type of divine upbraiding, Benny swooshed his arm around, several feet from the slow helper, and the well-trained man fell dramatically backwards as if shot. The crowd ate it up. Later, the same thing happened, but this time Benny made three of his assistants fall down simultaneously. It was painfully obvious that these men were acting and that this was probably a shtick they performed at all the crusades. But the crowd never blinked.
Brooks and I wondered why Hinn didn't make an amputee's arm grow back right there on stage. Why didn't he make a bald man grow hair? How about removing scars from a burn victim's face? No, we noticed that all of Hinn's healings had the common characteristics of being internal, invisible, and unverifiable.
We finally got fed up with it all when Hinn started anointing whole sections of the arena. "Are you ready, section CC, for an anointing from the Holy Spirit?" A few hundred believers yelled "YES!" He swept his arm around and they all fell backwards on cue.
We had seen enough and could take no more. We had had a few laughs, but we left feeling disturbed and saddened by the colossal gullibility and stupidity of so many thousands of people. Any "healings" that night were temporary and brought on by emotions and wishful thinking. Benny Hinn is not a healer; he is an accomplished and wealthy entertainer who preys on the weaknesses, hopes, and superstitions of thousands of worshippers who all want a quick fix.
Matthew Barry, a longtime Foundation member and activist for state/church separation, lives in Washington.