Thursday, July 16, 2009

The faith healer, his disabled wife, and a possible divorce

[Crossposted from The Shotgun, Oct. 18, 2008]

It’s very unusual that someone that I wrote about in my Report magazine days (not once, not twice, but three times) would have since become an international celebrity. This past summer, faith healing Christian evangelist Todd Bentley of Abbotsford B.C. held  a series of “revival” meetings in Lakeland, Florida, broadcast worldwide on satellite, cable TV and the Internet by the British charismatic Christian television network God TV, which made him a “nine-day wonder” in the religious and secular press.

But then, the wheels fell off the wagon. First, an indepth report by the reporters of ABC News’ Nightline news program in July learned that Mr. Bentley—who had claimed not only healings but that 31 resurrections from the dead were connected with his revival in some way—could not provide the name of one person that Nightline could prove had been healed. The day after the story aired, Mr. Bentley decided that he needed an immediate break from conducting the meetings. Then in August, following revelations of some serious moral lapses on Mr. Bentley’s part, he left the revival and temporarily withdrew from public ministry for a time.

I can pass on some news. Ignited Church in Lakeland, the revival’s “host”, which had been keeping the meetings going, quietly held the last special meeting for the revival—the crowds have dwindled since the “star” left—on Sunday October 12. This must be embarrassing to the various charismatics who had predicted that “Lakeland” would begin to be a world-wide revival.

Is Bentley done? Hardly. Plans are already afoot to bring him back to full-time itinerant evangelism as early as late this year.  And Mr. Bentley, who announced on leaving the revival that he has separated from his wife Shonnah, after reports in the press of two “emotional affairs” with other women may be divorced by the time he ministers again.

I can also reveal one of the reasons, virtually kept secret by the evangelist, that may be tempting Mr. Bentley to consider a divorce.

It seems that, contrary to the impression that the faith healing preacher has given for the past ten years that he has been married to Shonnah Bentley, she has been crippled by a lingering disability caused by bone cancer….

Mr. Bentley, as I found to my dismay when writing about him, has a way of wording things when talking about his past and ministry that leads people to believe things that are not strictly true. I found that I could only get him to be entirely truthful in some matters when I knew what the answers to his questions *should* be before I put the questions to him.

It would be naturally embarrassing to a faith healer that his wife has a life-long disability. Alas, Mr. Bentley has artfully avoided an embarrassing series of questions from the press, such as “Has your wife Shonnah had any lasting health problems due to her cancer? She has? Have you tried praying for her? How do you explain that your wife continues to have this health issue when your revival allegedly raises people from the dead…?”

How could reporters seeking honesty and accountability from this minister know that they could ask such questions of Mr. Bentley  when he misleads his readers?  Anyone reading either edition of his autobiography, “Journey Into the Miraculous” would get the idea that his wife is completely healed—suffering from no lasting disabilities as a result of her bout with bone cancer at 16.

Mr. Bentley writes:

“Shonnah had grown up Catholic. She got saved   at 16 when the Lord healed her of cancer and a spot on her lungs. Several Christians, including some ministers, prayed for her over a period of several weeks and God blessed her with a miracle The nurturing of the church impacted her immediate family and they all got saved too….”

However, one would see that something is amiss with this description when seeing video footage of Shonnah Bentley on YouTube. She is the heavyset woman that falls after being prayed for Watch her walking and pay particular attention to her left leg in this video:

The above video may be pulled from YouTube once this blog post is circulated. Fortunately the same footage is also used in a YouTube video here posted by one of Mr. Bentley’s critics

Why Is Shonnah Bentley hobbling? She has no left knee.

Doctors at a Vancouver hospital took out her left knee when she was 16. Now, her left leg is held together by a straight metal rod to just above her ankle.

I do not blame Shonnah Bentley. She seems to be a honest lady.  Whether she has been deliberately kept in the background until recent weeks I cannot say. Yet, have another look at what Mr. Bentley wrote as quoted above and then hear these excerpts from when she spoke at Lakeland’s Ignited Church on June 11, 2008…

[While her evangelist husband was speaking to large crowds at televised services at night, the church had morning services for those who had come to the revival and wanted extra prayer. These morning services were low key and although this particular service was apparently broadcast over Ignited Church’s own video feed, these video services were not saved on their extensive feed page archive. I’ve obtained an audio CD of her remarks, which Ignited Church seems not to sell through their online bookstore.]

The service that morning was an informal interview of Shonnah Bentley conducted by Kira Mitchell, one of Todd Bentley’s “associate ministers”. Ms. Mitchell, in the process of asking Mrs. Bentley questions to coax out her life story, asks about her bout with bone cancer:

[The quotes, as you will see, are verbatim]

Mitchell: “And so, Shonnah went through over a ten hour operation and—do you want to share what they did with your leg?—as you can see Shonnah’s leg is physically unable to bend and maybe you’ve always thought like, ‘Why does she walk so funny across the stage?” or whatever, and so can you explain what they did? 

Shonnah Bentley: “So what they did is during the 10 hour operation they removed my knee completely in the left leg. I have no knee. And what they did is they put a metal rod from the top of my leg to just above my ankle and—just to fuse the whole leg together. So, I will never be able to bend my leg unless God does a creative miracle, but, you know, the doctors [say] I’ll be like this until the day I die kind of thing. They just basically fused everything together and the cancer was in the upper part of my leg so what they did is they removed the bone and they removed the muscle and they put the rod through just to fuse everything together and then I was in the hospital for a month after that recovering.”

Mitchell; “And Shonnah also had to have part of her lung removed as the cancer also spread to her lung and so she had part of that removed.”

It would have been very interesting, given that people were allegedly being spectacularly healed, to see Mr. Bentley bring his wife up for prayer in front of an evening audience. She was there one evening for sure, when several famed charismatic Christian teachers and evangelists came to Lakeland to “commission” Mr. Bentley into ministry. Did they lack faith, or lack consideration of Mrs. Bentley’s needs?

Bringing Mrs. Bentley up on stage would have posed a problem for the evangelist. Praying for a miracle for Shonnah, and not having it happen, would have implied that prayers at the revival were only partly successful. Not the best advertisement when you are trying to attract a crowd, I know, but perhaps more honest.

A spectacular healing of Mrs. Bentley, I note, would have been the “just one” person that the ABC News reporter was asking  Mr. Bentley to provide as evidence that his “healing” revival was truly, well, healing people. How unfortunate that he lacked the courage to try. [I’ll bet that Mr. Bentley steered the ABC crew away from his wife, as I know that their reporter and producer were on the ball and would have asked, “Say, why is your wife hobbling? Don’t you pray for her?”]

You see, Mr. Bentley’s theology has difficulties with people not being miraculously healed. Christians of all stripes can attest to times when prayer to God has helped people to recover from illness and times when it has not. Certainly, given the loving and merciful nature of God as reflected in Christian theology, and the several Biblical references to prayer for the sick, it can be an expression of kindness and mercy by the Christian to either  pray for the sick or offer them medical care or comfort.

Mr. Bentley, however, has moved from a balanced and mature approach to the subject to one that, while boosting Mr. Bentley’s alleged expertise in these matters, implies to the sick and needy that there is something wrong with you or your faith if you are not healed. 

In 2004 he issued a self-published book, Christ’s Healing Touch, Volume 1-- which I suspect will be reworked a little and published with a new title, Kingdom Rising, by Destiny Image in the U.S. later this month. In this 2004 book, Mr. Bentley relates several stories of alleged “creative miracles”—instances where something brand new and whole such as a new eye was created from nothing—and then adds:

“I believe God wants to raise our faith to the level where creative miracles like these are normal events in our lives and ministries. He wants us to have a revelation of God as Creator so we can have faith to believe for, and to bring about, creative miracles…we will realize how easy creative miracles are…I believe a time is coming when our thinking will be so transformed that when someone says ‘I was in a meeting last night and people’s blind eyes were being opened’, we won’t be very surprised.”

“I have definitely grown in levels on healing in my ministry,”’ he adds (and remember that this was written four years ago). “I remember when [healing] a headache or back pain was intimidating. Today, we see people coming out of wheelchairs or being healed of incurable diseases. I am growing in my spirit to a kingdom place of authority in the area of creative miracles.”

Imagine the pressure this sort of mindset places on those wanting to be healed.

You may remember that Mr. Bentley stated flatly in his autobiography that “God” healed his wife. The whole truth, as his wife related in her remarks at Ignited Church, is that doctors may have had a great deal to do with it.

She relates that several pastors prayed for her to recover from her bone cancer. The added emphasis is mine:

Shonnah Bentley “….My grandmother called me up and said ‘Why don’t you come over to my house?’ This was before I had the surgery…She says ‘Why don’t you come to the house and I’ll get a couple of my pastors to pray?’ And so my family said ‘Okay’ because we were desperate, we wanted, we were willing to do anything…So, basically we went and my grandmother had these two pastors pray and I remember when we had the pastors pray that we went there and—and remember that we were still from a Catholic background—[that] they were praying in tongues so we were like ‘What the heck is going on? What are these people doing?’ We didn’t understand, but at the time we weren’t concerned about that. I believe that was the first time we really felt God’s presence.”

This is sometimes how Christians see prayer at work. In Mrs. Bentley’s account, prayer here, practically, is at least a comfort—if not more—to help the sick person. Yet, doctors are seen as working in partnership with whatever God may be doing behind the scenes. It’s not “either or” But “both and”. Balanced and wise.

Mr. Bentley’s own approach, however, has evolved over the years. In 2001 he told me, for a Report magazine story, that he never told people that they were healed and advised them to work with their doctors. Even a cursory glance at what was happening in Lakeland this summer, however, showed Bentley impulsively implying that people were “healed” again and again.

Todd Bentley’s wife Shonnah’s lasting disability is an opportunity for Mr. Bentley to learn and mature in his faith, one that he would throw away by divorcing her. There are many people who would like to be healed by God, but whom are not. Many Christian theologians and ministers have explored the issue of how God can and does work in and through a sick person’s life and witness even if they are not instantly healed at a revival crusade. As someone who likes to specialize in this particular form of faith healing   evangelism, Mr. Bentley really owes it to the rest of his audience to flesh out his theology.

If we presume that God would want to show compassion to everyone in Bentley’s audience, he needs to think of people like the man featured in the ABC News Nightline feature on him. The man, with a gravely ill son, had brought his son to Lakeland to be healed.  Due to the size of the crowd, it would admittedly have been unrealistic to expect Todd Bentley to pray for his son, or declare from the pulpit that God had “healed” someone with the exact description of his son’s illness. But, the man and his son left the revival meeting with no one having prayed for them at all.

When criticized, Mr. Bentley often cites the alleged woes of his pre-Christian past as a reason for people to sympathize with him. Ironically, his wife’s disability offers him a valid reason to get sympathy, as people would realize that God does not have to heal someone to do good things through them. (The audiences that Shonnah Bentley has begun to speak to as part of Fresh Fire’s work may attest to that.)  Mr. Bentley’s actions this summer show that he is “only human” in a bad way.  It would be much better for Mr. Bentley to be humble, acknowledge his wife’s disability, and thereby show his humanity in a good way.

Mr. Bentley must realize that if, he divorces his current wife in favor of a trophy wife, there will be speculation in the minds of some of his Internet and Christian media critics that one of the reasons that he is getting rid of Shonnah is because her disability embarrasses him—and moreover, that his  theology does not work with a wife hobbling along at his side. 

One hopes that he will do the right thing and stay with his wife. One can pray that he will--and that everyone disappointed by Mr. Bentley’s flawed revival will be ministered to…some day…