Controversial televangelist and faith healer Benny Hinn came to Texas in 1999, abandoning his congregation in Florida to build a World Health Center in Irving. But Hinn - whose lifestyle more closely resembles Michael Jackson's than Jerry Falwell's - recently got word from on high to delay his plans for the theme park/New Age miracle spa. Thank God. If you drive west from the city, through the neo-modern lunarscape of Las Colinas, past the airport on our denuded prairie, into the warren of faceless office buildings that make up cosmopolitan Grapevine, you'll never find Benny Hinn.
He wants it that way. The nerve center of his worldwide organization is tucked away in a group of cheap, white, nondescript buildings that look like the kind of domiciles favored by mafia fronts on the wharves of New Jersey. Inside, several dozen employees process an estimated $100 million per year in donations from people who believe in Hinn as a sort of Elmer Gantry for the 21st century. (Obviously they didn't read the novel.)
Now go the other way, into the cul-de-sacs and barrios of deep East Dallas. On a dead-end street next to a nursing home, in an expansive two-story house that doesn't look like a mafia front, even though it was once owned by the Dallas mob, the Trinity Foundation works 24/7 trying to find out just how much money passes through Grapevine, where it comes from, and where it goes. Members of the Christian watchdog organization do so by running undercover operations, infiltrations, spying, surveillance, the cultivation of ties to disgruntled ex-employees, and even going through Benny Hinn's garbage in an effort to, well, to make him prove he's not a fraud.
"All we want is for Benny Hinn to make good on promises he made to me in 1993," says Ole Anthony, president of the Trinity Foundation. "He promised he would stop airing fake healings, that he would medically verify all healings, that he would wait six months after the healing before putting it on TV, to make sure it was authentic. He said he would do all these things, and he's done none of them. It would also be nice if he would submit himself to a real theologian for examination. Some of his teachings are off the scale, even bordering on necromancy."
It's weird. It was weird when he announced he was moving here in 1999, pretty much abandoning his church congregation in Florida. It was weirder still when he announced that God had ordered him to build a $30 million World Healing Center in Irving, making it sound like a combination theme park and New Age miracle spa. The way he laid it out, it would be a sort of shrine to famous faith healers of the past, complete with "stereophonic statue gardens," as well as a Holy Ghost Mayo Clinic for the halt, the lame, and the afflicted. One envisioned wheelchair-bound hordes being lifted off jumbo jets at DFW Airport and convoying their way over to Las Colinas, like pilgrims pouring into a Disney World version of Lourdes. Isn't this the kind of thing that belongs in Tulsa?
Fortunately, God changed His mind last summer and told Hinn not to build the healing center after all, even though he had spent two years collecting donations for it. (God was apparently vague about what Hinn should do with the money. The county tax assessor was less vague, telling Hinn it was unlikely that his tax exemption would survive theme-park ownership.) Hinn said it was just a timing matter. God wants the healing center, but he doesn't want it right now. (Because the only other building the Almighty is known to have ordered is the Temple at Jerusalem, maybe He's just unimpressed with Irving.) Hinn finally said he would keep his headquarters in Dallas because the central location saves him money.
"Good," Anthony says. "It will save us money, too."
If anything, the move to Texas looks like an attempt to spread his operations over as many geographical jurisdictions as possible. For example, Hinn's TV show, This Is Your Day!, originates in studios in Orange County, California, and airs in 192 countries, making it one of the most widely disseminated programs in the world. Hinn is so ubiquitous on religious TV, in fact, that you would assume by this point - 30 years into his preaching ministry - that he would have become a household name, like Billy Graham, counseling the president and appearing on The Today Show in times of national crisis. But Hinn has done the opposite.
Aside from his twice-monthly appearances at his own choreographed "crusades," held in the largest sports arenas on the planet, Hinn is a virtual recluse, surrounded by armies of bodyguards, ensconced in an $8 million oceanfront hacienda in southern California, traveling by private jet for "snorkeling vacations" in the Cayman Islands, staying in $3,000 presidential suites, and claiming a level of financial secrecy and paranoid internal security that's more often associated with drug dealers than men of the cloth. By surrounding himself with yes-men and stage-managing every detail of his public image - even to the point of stiff-arming the occasional paparazzo who tries to photograph him - he has more in common with Michael Jackson than Jerry Falwell. He may, in fact, be the first Christian rock star. The analogy is not Paul McCartney, though. Hinn's career is more like Cher's. He makes it up as he goes along, re-inventing himself whenever necessary.
Hinn has no church. He belongs to no denomination. He's not even affiliated with any particular religion, although his buzz words indicate he tends to dwell on the freaky fringe of Pentecostalism. As recently as three centuries ago, he probably would have been burned as a heretic. To give you some idea of his doctrinal strangeness, he once preached that the Trinity is actually nine persons because each member of the Trinity - Father, Son, Holy Spirit - is also a Trinity. He also says that God and the Holy Spirit have real bodies with eyes, hands, mouth, etc. Various theologians have trashed Hinn, of course, for preaching "new revelations" directly from God that turn out to be, when examined, variations of thousand-year-old heresies. He thinks of himself as a prophet (even when his prophecies don't come true) and, in one burst of grandeur, "a new messiah walking on the earth." He believes that the Biblical Adam flew into outer space; that when God parted the Red Sea he made it into a wall of ice; that God talks to him more frequently than he talked to, say, Moses; that a man has risen from the dead in his presence; that a man turned into a snake before his eyes; that angels come to his bedroom and talk to him; and that the only reason we're not all in perfect health, living forever, is that there are demons in the world, attacking us. He's expressed opinions normally heard only on schizophrenia wards, and he's done it in front of millions of people - and still they come. They come in such numbers that thousands have to be turned away, and even the ones turned away gladly give him their money.
It happened at the age of 11, when Jesus first appeared to either him or his mother while he was living in Jaffa, Israel. Or maybe it happened at 18, when he had a conversion experience at a high school in Toronto. That's when Benny Hinn says he was "anointed." Or maybe it was shortly after that, when he took a bus trip to Pittsburgh to see the faith healer Kathryn Kuhlman. It's difficult to say exactly when it happened, or what form it took, because Hinn parcels out little bits and pieces of his background as it suits him, then embellishes the stories so that isolating any one event in his life is like puzzling through a 30-year-old KGB file.
What we do know - because he returns to it time and again - is that a transforming moment in his life occurred when, as a teenager, he was assigned to take care of a crippled arthritic woman on a pilgrimage to see one of Kuhlman's healing services, and he saw the woman apparently lose all pain in her legs and "untwist," as he put it. Depending on how cynical you are, he had either found his holy calling or discovered one of the oldest American carnie games. Ever since then, he's been praised as a true miracle worker - Oral Roberts himself is his biggest fan - and also debunked by various investigative reporters around the world, including 60 Minutes Australia, which concluded, "Benny Hinn is a fake. A dangerous fake. What he does is prey on the sick, the desperate, and the gullible." (Dallas' Trinity Foundation does most of the legwork for all the various networks and newspapers that have investigated Hinn. Of the Australian report, Ole Anthony says, "Apparently in Australia you can just go ahead and say the truth out loud.")
Hinn is a peculiar sort, even by the standards of the ongoing circus called American televangelism. If you look at the superstars of the past 20 years - Bakker, Swaggart, Tilton - they're all of a type: WASPy extroverts with good looks in a sort of dime store gigolo way. (Even Jim Bakker had that lost-puppy look that's so attractive to lonely widows, and older women living alone are the number one demographic group when it comes to sending money to television ministries.) Hinn, on the other hand, is short, slight, Semitic, round-faced, and often sports a haircut that looks like a scoop of Rocky Road ice cream that's been knocked off the top of the cone. He reminds you of a discount Persian rug merchant, not a spiritual leader. He's a Palestinian with a Greek father and Armenian Turk mother, raised in a Catholic school along with eight brothers and sisters who were stuffed into a tiny two-bedroom apartment in the Tel Aviv suburb of Jaffa. In Hinn's books he claims that his father was the mayor of Jaffa. As it turns out, Jaffa had no mayor after the year 1948, four years before Hinn was born. Like many factoids in the Hinn legend, this one seems to be a fib.
Toufik Benedictus Hinn, known to his family as "Tutu," didn't much like living in Israel with an Arabic first name, so early in life he became "Benny." He was not particularly noted by his classmates at College de Frere elementary school in Jaffa or, after the family emigrated when Benny was 14, at Georges Vanier Secondary School in Toronto. In his sermons and books, Hinn has portrayed his childhood as that of a social outcast, handicapped by a severe stutter, who was nonetheless a stellar student. But when G. Richard Fisher and M. Kurt Goedelman, two journalists who write for Christian publications, looked into Hinn's youth, they found that both claims were untrue: nobody remembered Hinn's stutter, and he had dropped out of high school after the 11th grade. White lies, by themselves, don't really mean that much, but they indicate how twisted Hinn's mythmaking can be. He invents things that reflect badly on him just as easily as he invents things that reflect well on him. Psychologically, he can't stand the unadorned truth.
Occasionally, though, the enhancements expand from the realm of the white lie into the land of the whopper. For example, Hinn claims to have preached at an all-girls Catholic school in Jerusalem in 1976 and "every single girl in that school got saved, including all the nuns." Since there's only one Catholic girls school in Jerusalem, Schmidt's Girls College, it was a fairly easy matter to question all the nuns who were there in 1976, as well as Father Dusind, who has overseen all religious instruction since 1955. The result? "This is nonsense, real nonsense," Dusind told Fisher and Goedelman. "It never happened and could not happen because a Charismatic healer or Protestant preacher would never ever be let in to talk to the girls."
Or how about the time Hinn went into a Catholic hospital in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, and healed everyone there? The way Hinn tells it, he, three other Pentecostal preachers, and seven Catholic priests held a service together in the hospital chapel, where everyone went to work with "anointing bottles," and patients were healed instantly. They were then asked to lay hands on all the patients in the hospital's rooms, so Hinn and his "Miracle Invasion" team went down the hall healing people, knocking them down with God's power, until "the hospital looked like it had been hit by an earthquake."
The reality - easily confirmed by speaking to officials at Sault Ste. Marie General Hospital and the Gray Sisters of the Immaculate Conception who work there - is that no patients were released the day Hinn held a small service in the chapel and that, furthermore, "Mr. Hinn's claims are outlandish and unwarranted."
Okay, so what? Benny Hinn isn't the first flamboyant, white-suited evangelist to play fast and loose with "miracles," and he won't be the last. What makes Hinn different is that, after moving to Orlando in 1979 and founding the Orlando Christian Center in 1983, he became the most famous - and perhaps richest - evangelist in the world. When he preaches in the Philippines or Africa, for example, it's not uncommon to have 500,000 people at the service. And they all come for the same reason: supernatural events, miracles, ecstatic emotional experiences. He refined his technique in the '80s at the Orlando church, which was the scene of loud, frenzied, charismatic services almost from the moment he opened his doors. Hinn would frequently speak in tongues - something he no longer does now that his services are televised - and issue wild prophecies and reveal divine messages given only to him, as he essentially incorporated into his own services all the techniques he learned from watching Kathryn Kuhlman. Soon the Orlando church became a mecca for the suffering, and by the time Hinn started doing organized crusades in the late '80s, he was poised to fill the void left by the spectacular crashes of the Bakkers, Swaggarts, and Tiltons.
In many ways, Hinn is a throwback to the tent revival meetings of the 19th century. Short on scripture, long on enthusiasm, these were originally ways to carry the gospel to backwoods people who weren't served by churches, and the tradition was to collect a little money for the minister's traveling expenses at the end of the service. As time went on, the tent revival fell prey to shysters and carnie men, who discovered they could make a sizeable haul by stoking the emotions of the illiterate and making them feel like they were in the presence of miraculous events. It was a short jump from there to Aimee Semple Macpherson, the now discredited healer of the 1920s who, oddly enough, Hinn reveres as one of his spiritual predecessors. Macpherson was the first to take the tent revival nationwide.
This is not to say that everyone who held a healing service was a fraud - but the ones who made an entire career of it tended to be. There even developed a body of sleight-of-hand that survived well into the '90s, notably practiced by Dallas' own W.V. Grant, who can make a leg look like it has grown longer or shorter simply by manipulating the shoe with a deft magician's move. The healing service, almost from the beginning, was a strange mixture of showmanship, fervent worship, and magic.
Hinn's services, for example, follow a strict pattern that's calculated for maximum emotional impact and, not so coincidentally, maximum offering collection. From the time the crowd enters the arena, they're massaged with mood lighting, repetitive music, responsive chanting, group gestures, group singing, various forms of choral and instrumental entertainment, all leading up to the moment Hinn makes his entrance. The song sung for the entrance is "How Great Thou Art," making convenient use of an ambiguous personal pronoun.
"There's power here, people!" Hinn will typically say. "Lift your hands and receive it."
All dutifully lift their hands.
"You will be healed tonight!"
They sob and shout hallelujah.
"All things are possible to him that believeth!"
Hinn repeats this same sentence three times, getting a bigger emotional reaction each time he says it.
Chant, song, gesture, salute - all the classic techniques used to submerge the individual into a group. It works for dictators, and it works for Hinn. But now that he's joined them together in hope, he adds a dose of fear.
He speaks of huge disasters coming to the world. He tells them of the strange times we live in, a sinful world that will be cleansed by fire and earthquake. And there's only one slim hope to escape: "Only those who have been giving to God's work will be spared."
As a violin plays, money is collected in big white plastic buckets. And as the ushers do their work, Hinn's voice turns soothing. "Nothing will touch you. No one will touch your children. Nothing will touch your home."
Although he never says, "Donate money or you'll die," he comes close. There is a constant theme in his preaching of the connection between "giving" and "healing," making a "faith vow" and "having your needs met." He comes within a hairsbreadth of saying, "If you give me money, you will be healed." And the collection always occurs between his promise of healing and the actual healing session - the same way street performers save their biggest trick until after the hat has been passed.
Along about 10 p.m., when all the checks and dead presidents have been collected, Hinn announces that God is speaking to him. Sometimes he sees angels in the room. Sometimes he sees ugly demon monsters that are fleeing from the building. ("You ugly spirit of sickness, go out of this place! Let God's people go!") Sometimes he just feels the presence of spirits or angels. Once he saw the whole arena bathed in golden dust. And then, as though his body has been taken over by a force he can't control, he starts running around knocking people over. Sometimes he knocks them over with his coat, sometimes by blowing on them, sometimes by pushing their forehead with his hand - but when he touches them, they fall over. As he does this, he calls out the healings - a brain tumor, a cancer, a crippled left leg - as though he's watching something occurring that the rest of us can't see. And then, one by one, various people are brought onto the stage, and an announcer describes their affliction so that Hinn can lay hands on them and pronounce the disease vanquished. On an average night he'll heal about 80 people, in addition to the ones he shouts out in a sort of "wherever you are, you're healed" way.
No wonder Hinn needs bodyguards. Very few, if any, of these people are actually healed. And when they die, or their disease becomes worse, their relatives tend to become angry. For the past 10 years, this has been demonstrated over and over again by various investigative reports conducted with the resources of the Trinity Foundation, beginning with an Inside Edition show in 1993 hosted by Bill O'Reilly and reported by Steve Wilson.
Just a few examples:
He healed a case of brain cancer on stage, even though Inside Edition followed up with tests that showed the tumor was still present.
The "cure" of a deaf woman turned out to be a woman who, according to her doctor, was not deaf in the first place.
A Houston woman who thought she was cured of lung cancer ("It will never come back!" Hinn told her) rejected her doctors' advice and care - and died two months later.
Heavyweight boxer Evander Holyfield, banned from boxing because of a heart condition, went to a Benny Hinn crusade in Philadelphia, had Hinn lay hands on him, and gave Hinn a check for $265,000 after he was told he was healed. In fact, he passed his next examination by the boxing commission, but later his doctors said he never had a heart condition in the first place. He had been misdiagnosed.
Hinn claims that a man in Ghana was raised from the dead on the platform. "We have it on video!" he says, although he's never produced the video.
In two cases, journalists have tried to verify all the healings at a particular crusade. For an HBO documentary called A Question of Miracles, researchers attended a Portland, Oregon, crusade at which 76 miracles were claimed. Even though Hinn had agreed to provide medical verification of each one, he stonewalled requests for the data, then eventually responded 13 weeks later - with only five names. HBO followed up the five cases and determined that a woman "cured" of lung cancer had died nine months later, an old woman's broken vertebra wasn't healed after all, a man with a logging injury deteriorated as he refused medication and a needed operation, a woman claiming to be healed of deafness had never been deaf (according to her husband), and a woman complaining of "breathlessness" had stopped going to the doctor on instructions of her mother.
Just last December, NBC's Dateline tried to duplicate the HBO study. At a crusade in Las Vegas, they counted 56 miracles. Of those, Hinn eventually provided data "proving" five of them. Four of those people refused to share their medical records with NBC. The remaining one, a woman supposedly cured of Lou Gehrig's Disease, had been misdiagnosed, according to her doctor.
There have been so many documentaries and investigations on Hinn - almost all of them orchestrated by Trinity Foundation - that they even have a common structure:
Here's what Hinn looks like in action.
Here's what he claims to do.
Here's what his critics say.
Is he a fraud or is he a healer?
Let's find out.
Not much healing going on.
Okay, here's what Hinn says in his defense.
And one thing Hinn says in his defense - when confronted with evidence that someone claimed to be healed and then died - is that, "The reason people lose their healing is because they begin questioning if God really did it." If you're not healed - or, worse yet, if your sick child is not healed - it's your fault for not having enough faith. It's at this point that Hinn's ministry almost passes over into the realm of primitive magic - i.e., if you want it bad enough, and you say the right things and feel the right things, it will come true.
As it turns out, though, the media investigations are the best thing that ever happened to Hinn. They made him more famous, and more recognizable, than religious TV ever could have. And because most of his audience is made up of the truly desperate - the chronically sick, the dying, people living with pain - Benny Hinn became one more "treatment" for them to take a shot at.
When the first investigation broke, in March 1993, Hinn must have thought his empire was about to fall apart. There was a nasty shoving incident at the Philadelphia airport with Steve Wilson of Inside Edition, followed by a damage-control campaign in which Hinn went on many radio and TV shows and met privately with several of his critics to admit that he'd made mistakes and vow that he would never again air "miracles" on TV unless they had been medically verified. "God has taken me by the neck," he said to his congregation. "I think I'm gonna stop preaching healing and start preaching Jesus." At the request of Inside Edition, Ole Anthony traveled to Orlando to meet with Hinn. At the only face-to-face meeting the two men have had, Hinn said he was reformed and that he intended to start medically verifying all miracles and holding them back from television for six months, so that they could be proven authentic. He even said at one point that worldly wealth was sinful - something you'll rarely hear fall out of the mouth of a TV evangelist.
If you study this particular year in his life, 1993, he's remarkably consistent in his statements, very self-aware of exactly what errors he's made, very humble, very apologetic, very interested in getting "back to the gospel." He even says at one point that he'll stop doing healing services entirely. And most everyone believed him, including Inside Edition, in a follow-up report, and including Anthony. "I was disappointed," Anthony says today, "that a year later he was back to his old tricks."
By 1994, it was as though the soul searching of the previous year had never existed. He geared up to be bigger than ever. He added crusades, he became more flamboyant, more theatrical, and the procession of "miracles" flitting across the TV screen every day continued unabated.
Apparently what he'd discovered is that scandal was good for business. Or at least this particular type of scandal was good for business. Bakker and Swaggart - he must have thought of them at some point - had been brought down by sex, which is difficult for the Christian world to forgive. Greed, on the other hand, can be overcome. Tilton had been brought down by money issues, but after a few years of lying low, he was back in action. This was a whole new type of media attention. The reporters simply said, "Is he a healer, or is he a fake?" And because it was presented as an open-ended question, the crowds got even larger.
Ten years later, Hinn has become something of a media master. Whenever he's investigated now, he simply admits his "mistakes." He's especially fond of going on The Larry King Show at any time of crisis. He's also refined his view of what he does. He doesn't heal anyone, he always reminds the interviewer. He just creates an atmosphere so that God can heal people. By the time people get to the stage, they've already been healed by God, he says. If the healing turns out to be bogus, then the person was self-deluded. Besides, hope is a great thing.
He also says he has a doctor backstage now to counsel the miracle cases and encourage them to continue with their medication until the healing has been verified. This seems to satisfy the media, even though it amounts to an admission of his own inability to know whether someone is healed.
The image he presents to the faithful is the opposite, of course. To them he's a man possessed of special wisdom. He sees things no one else can see. He has conversations with Jesus that no one else has had. He witnesses the presence of God when no one else would be aware of it. And he constantly says his teaching is "new." ("You didn't come here to hear the same preaching you've been hearing for 50 years, did you?") Of course, to orthodox Christians, this alone makes him heretical. Far from being "new," they would say, the gospel has not changed for 2,000 years.
But there's an even darker side to Hinn and his organization. In 1998, two members of his inner circle died of heroin overdoses. In 1999, after one of his many vows of reform, he fired several board members and hired an ex-cop named Mario C. Licciardello to do an internal investigation of his ministry. Licciardello was the brother of Carman, who is sort of the Engelbert Humperdinck of Christian singers, so many think Hinn considered him "safe." But Licciardello did such a good job - taking hundreds of depositions and getting to the bottom of the heroin use - that Hinn then sued him. While Licciardello was still his head of security, the ministry filed a lawsuit demanding that all his files be turned over and sealed, because their public release could result in the end of the ministry. Licciardello was a police investigator with 25 years of experience, and he felt like his whole career was being smeared, so he fought back with his own lawyers. His counsel continually tried to take Hinn's deposition, but Hinn fought him at every step. The judge, however, ruled against him and said that, if Hinn intended to enjoin Licciardello, he would have to make himself available for questioning.
On the very day that Hinn was supposed to give his deposition in the case, Licciardello had a heart attack and died. The Hinn organization made an out-of-court settlement with Licciardello's widow, which included sealing the court papers.
Hinn runs the largest evangelistic organization in the world that is not a member of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. That means his finances are private, his salary is secret, and his income is anybody's guess. Royalties from his books alone are estimated at $500,000 per year, but he essentially has carte blanche to take anything out of the till he wants. "He lives the lifestyle of a billionaire," says Ole Anthony, "all on the backs of false promises and selling false hope."
As Hinn put it himself, in a moment of rare revelatory candor, "I don't need gold in heaven, I gotta have it now."
During 1993, his one year of "reform," he talked about being stung by being portrayed as a millionaire and how he wanted to be "more Christ-like." His solution: "The Lord said sell the Benz and the watch."
He got rid of his Rolex and his Mercedes. Notice he didn't give them away. He sold them - and then replaced the Mercedes with a $65,000 BMW. This is what God told him to do. Just as God told him more recently that now is not the right time for the World Healing Center in Irving. And who better to know what God wants, because Hinn, after all, is only the third person in the history of the universe to have actually seen God and lived to tell about it.
John Bloom's latest book, Profoundly Disturbing: Shocking Movies That Changed History by Joe Bob Briggs, is in stores now.