Todd Bentley: B.C. bad boy stirring up a faith-healing storm

The Vancouver Sun/August 15, 2008

With his full-body Jesus tattoos and facial piercings, Todd Bentley looks more like a bike-gang member or World Wrestling Federation fighter than an evangelical preacher.

But in the past few months, the burly B.C. bad boy has turned into the hottest, most divisive Christian faith healer in North America.

Bentley, 32, who preaches about once being a young criminal in Gibsons and who now bases his ministry in the Bible Belt city of Abbotsford, has drawn roughly 300,000 people since April to his wild revival meetings in southern Florida.

Up to 10,000 people a day have been flocking to a Florida baseball stadium to lose themselves in ecstatic music and appeal to Bentley for divine healing, which the T-shirted, bling-wearing redhead sometimes offers by kneeing the sick in the stomach or kicking them with his biker boots and shouting "Bam!"

Despite drawing tremendous crowds to his mesmerizing, rock-music-filled services, Bentley has sharply polarized North American evangelicals.

A number of rival conservative Christian radio hosts, apocalypticists and charismatics have attacked the Canadian preacher for, among other things, claiming to have gone to heaven and met and talked with angels, Jesus and the apostle Paul.

Those critics have called his ministry "demonic," "occult," "deceitful" and "plain silly."

Bentley's growing legions of defenders, however, say God often uses "flawed people" to perform miracles and heal the sick.

Bentley's controversial revival meetings, which have been running every day in Florida for more than 18 weeks -- replete with people writhing on floors in religious ecstasy -- have also taken a toll on Bentley's family.

His large Abbotsford office, called Fresh Fire Ministries, acknowledged Monday on its website that Bentley and his wife, Shonnah, who have three children, have separated.

His wife and children have returned to Canada.

Bentley also announced he will end his Florida revival, called The Outpouring, on Aug. 23.

The revival has been mostly running in Lakeland, Fla., east of Tampa Bay, both at Ignited Church (where it started) and on the spring training ground of baseball's Detroit Tigers.

Bentley's imminent departure from The Outpouring, so he can instead travel throughout North America and to Britain, has come in the midst of rising media coverage questioning the authenticity of his healings.

London's Express on Sunday started a campaign last month to keep the Canadian revivalist out of Great Britain and, as of this week, Fresh Fire Ministries "postponed" a planned gathering in Birmingham, England.

Bentley was not available for an interview Thursday with The Vancouver Sun. An official at Fresh Fire Ministries, Bruce Merz, avoided answering questions, directing The Sun to the ministry's website for information.

The Fresh Fire website said the intense "worldwide awakening" started by Bentley in Florida has created "pressures and burdens ... which have helped to create an atmosphere of fatigue and stress that has exacerbated existing issues in [the Bentleys'] relationship. We want to affirm that there has been no sexual immorality on the part of either Todd or Shonnah."

How did this once-troubled young man from B.C. become the most dramatic Canadian faith-healer to hit the United States since Ontario's Aimee Semple MacPherson first stormed Los Angeles in the early 20th century with a mixture of Hollywood show biz and Christian revivalism?

Bentley preaches in public about his rough-and-tumble early days, including near-fatal drug overdoses, criminal burglaries and stints in prison.

Bentley has acknowledged in the conservative Christian publication, Charisma, that at age 14 he was arrested for sexually assaulting children in B.C.

In addition, Fresh Fire Ministries' website says: "In his late teens, Todd had a dramatic encounter with the saving and delivering power of God. This experience brought Todd out of a lifestyle of drug and alcohol addiction without cravings or withdrawal symptoms. He was also delivered from a lifestyle involving criminal activity, youth prisons, drugs, sex, satanic music and bondage."

Charisma magazine (which serves so-called charismatic Christians, including those who speak "in tongues" -- indecipherable utterances that are considered God-given) reported in an earlier article that Bentley was making a name for himself as a faith healer in B.C. almost 10 years ago, particularly in Kelowna and Abbotsford.

Internet videos of Bentley's faith healing in Florida reveal the intense emotion and theatricality of his revival meetings. The videos, available online through YouTube and other sources, show Bentley running toward a man with colon cancer and kneeing him in the stomach. The man buckles, wavers, smiles wanly and finally falls on the stage.

Bentley then tells the man, in front of the cheering congregation: "I had to be obedient to the Lord, sir. Why did the preacher just knee you in the gut? I tell you the Lord is working in you. You felt a quivering."

Several videos show people falling on the stage after Bentley heals them in a variety of ways, including by apparently punching one and kicking another.

Another video, which compares Bentley's events to a "rave," shows a thin woman dancing to pounding drum music while in an apparent trance. She repeatedly mimics shooting at the congregation with a gun.

In one of many Bentley books, CDs and DVDs that are available on the Fresh Fire website, the B.C. evangelist amusingly describes meeting the apostle Paul in heaven.

"As unbelievable as it may sound, I actually saw the apostle Paul come walking toward me onto the bridge," Bentley says.

"You might be wondering how I knew immediately that it was Paul. I just perceived it by divine knowledge and revelation. People have asked me what he looked like, and so I will attempt to describe his appearance. He was short, not more than 5'1" or 5'2" (I'm 5'6").... Looking very Jewish with a short, trimmed, white beard, my first thought was of a monk in a monastery! He actually had jolly cheeks and I thought: Paul, you've got a little weight on you! I mean he wasn't fat but he looked a little pudgy!"

Bob Burkinshaw, of Trinity Western University in Langley, an evangelical independent school, says he is aware of people who are "quite excited" about Bentley, who has drawn thousands to his revival meetings at a Pentecostal church in Abbotsford.

"But I suppose I'm one of those who is moderately skeptical. These things are rarely black and white," said Burkinshaw, a specialist in Canadian church history at the private evangelical university.

Evangelical Christians believe God does heal the sick, but "the issue is one of method," Burkinshaw said. "Many say, 'God doesn't do command performances.'"

Bentley's on-the-edge faith-healing appeals to "people on the margins of respectable society," a U.S. subculture Burkinshaw says was drawn to revivalism during much of the early 20th century, before evangelicalism expanded into the middle- and upper-classes.

Rather than thinking of Bentley's followers as gullible, passive sheep, Burkinshaw suggested understanding them as people who come to the events planning to build on the mesmerizing music and passionate preaching so they can "experience God's presence."

Told about Bentley's marriage breakdown and plans to end the four-month long revival in Florida, Burkinshaw said, "I'm sure the demands of that kind of life can be extreme, putting pressures on families."

Bentley's most recent posting on the Fresh Fire website makes it clear that, although his plans are changing, he's nowhere near giving up his mission.

Bentley will be conducting faith healing events in Spokane, Wash., and then Abbotsford on Sept 17. He also expects to lead revivals at dozens of other North American, and possible British, venues in the coming months.

Sounding as enthusiastic as ever, Bentley reassures his followers and asks for their continued support. "Pray for us as we walk the land, carrying the precious ark of His healing presence for His glory into those fields white and ripe for harvest. More details will be forthcoming!"

He signs off his message:


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