A dying Viet Cong soldier unloads his pistol directly into the small of the back of the US soldier turned popular fundamentalist preacher and he walks on unscathed. A Baptist missionary raises a person from the dead. One walks on burning coals and feels no pain, marveling the natives. And on it goes.
When I was in Bible College a missionary was featured on a regular basis who told fantastic stories of walking on coals and other power encounters that thrilled the naive audiences that make up most of fundamentalism. Perhaps there is no congregation in the world more susceptible to spectacular story-telling than young, inexperienced, uncritical, enthusiastic Bible college students who sincerely long to see their God vindicated in the world. And my college was no different than many others in providing for the gullible a hero with plenty of difficult-to-impossible-to-substantiate stories of the miraculous power of God through him.
My problem was that I had an unfortunate personality tick that made me doubt. Perhaps it was because I was a missionary kid in a third world country and had seen how easily explainable natural things were attributed to the supernatural and how effortlessly some missionaries could transform the natives’ gullible and ignorant interpretation of something as supernatural into something actually supernatural in the story they told among the supporting churches. I simply did not believe the hero missionary or the veteran soldier or for that matter the countless stories I heard from the pulpit. I was becoming anti-Christian because I was constantly rejecting things that were utterly unrelated to Christianity. And — I learned later — were unnecessary.
Due to the nature of my personality I was unable to keep my doubts discreetly and I was soon labeled as an iconoclastic cynic that was too proud to show respect to the man of God. The only problem with the whole charge was that I actually liked the missionary and believed that God was indeed using him even though I felt inclined to think that I was not under any obligation to swallow his fantastical stories hook, line, and sinker. I also loved God despite the fact I was increasingly disillusioned with the entertaining pulpiteers and the gullible throngs of Jesus’ disciples. However, as it is with most evangelicals, to reserve belief in a man’s unprovable stories is regarded as disrespect and defamation and I was too young and inexperienced then to give an answer for my doubt, but now I think that doubt is a sacred responsibility.
When watching a play or a movie or a magician we often, for the sake of entertainment, tacitly agree to suspend disbelief. I know that meatballs really don’t rain down from the skies, but for the sake of some laughs and a relaxing hour of recreation with my children I suspend disbelief. However, when listening to a teacher or preacher of the Word of God we have a duty to suspend belief until there is sufficient evidence. And a teacher or leader of God’s people is wise if he or she does not use spectacular stories that literally require their audiences to unthinkingly suspend disbelief if they are to be able to continue to appreciate the message. In other words, if the man says he walked on coals thirty years ago the very least he can do is take of his shoes and let me see the soles of his feet. But even that wouldn’t be adequate proof and therefore since there is no way he can demonstrably prove such a miracle to the crowd he does all of us a disservice when he requires us to believe the story purely on the basis of his word and his word alone.
I started to realize that many fundamentalists are closet-charismatics in the worst sense of the word. Despite what their doctrinal statements say, they really do believe that the credibility of the speaker is enhanced by a miraculous sign. This is essentially a charismatic conviction. Charismatics have an unshakeable conviction that God must vindicate and prove his servants to be who they say they are with miraculous signs. Apparently, many fundamental Baptists quietly concur.
Allow me to restate this charge with two related observations here:
1. When you tell a miracle story in which you are the center in order to reinforce your credibility you are essentially no different than the Charismatic who believes in the necessity of sign gifts.
Granted, most of these flamboyant story-tellers will say that the reason for which they are telling these stories is to give glory to God. To which I ask, “Then, why not read the Bible to them?” Their miracle story is useless if there is no way for the listening congregation to immediately substantiate it. The Bible is true. Glorify God with stories from Hebrew history.
Should we grant that power encounters are a means of “non-discursive” revelation that God may use from time to time, especially in primitive cultures who live daily in the conscious experience of demons and evil spirits, we still have no authority or reason to try to milk more out of that encounter than what was specifically intended for its specific audience. I do, in fact, believe that there are occasions where God may choose to show that his missionary is His emissary by giving him the power to, for example, walk on hot coals without feeling pain. I can accept the possibility of that happening. But that miracle is only valuable to the people who felt the coals themselves and knew them to be very hot, saw him take off his shoes, and witnessed it firsthand. But even then the variables that could invalidate such an event as an actual miracle are too numerous to discuss here. My point is that there is hardly anything but gratuitous self-aggrandizing that comes from telling stories of miracles when no one can possibly substantiate it immediately. Put simply: the preacher who tells these stories knows that he is benefitting from such a tale more than God is and he has duped himself into thinking that getting the fawning admiration of weak-minded people is a way to give God glory.
2. Secondly, when a man’s miracle stories give him increased credibilty and respect in your mind as a listener you are no different than a Charismatic. As listeners we should not allow ourselves to be moved by stories without critical thinking. I think that when you listen to the man tell his story again, you must suspend belief. To hold off on believing his story does not make you a rebellious cynic; it makes you a thoughtful Christian who really believes that truth matters and that God has wonderfully provided a way for us to believe all that is necessary without having to place our confidence in one man’s personal testimony. Vern Poythress is right:
Situations like these are not so difficult as we might suppose. Many times it does not much matter what we believe. We are free to remain in doubt. And we are well advised to remain in doubt, by virtue of the fallibility of all modern nondiscursive processes. (Modern Spiritual Gifts as Analogous to Apostolic Gifts: Affirming Extraordinary Word of the Spirit within Cessationist Theology, JETS, Volume 39, No. 1, p. 87)
This, of course, is not a fundamentalist problem. It’s not even an evangelical problem. It’s a human problem. But it is especially egregious when fantastic story-tellers are so readily believed by Christians. It’s horrific when people who claim to be champions of the fundamentals lean heavily on fabrications. Sometimes those fabrications are the product of poor memory, the sincere gullibility of the story-teller himself, the subtle transformation of enhancements over time, or a man’s sheer stupidity. Other times the fabrications are deliberate and on purpose. I cannot figure out where Liberty’s former president fits into all this, but I am one person who shrugged off his stories, not having the time to invest belief in them. Belief requires some thought. On the other hand, when I was a kid I was enamored by Crying Wind’s story.
Phil Johnson has an excellent article about Crying Wind. I read the woman’s story when it was popular and at the time was amazed by it. I was a child then, and children like stories. When I found out later that she was a fraud I was just beginning my pilgrimage out of the land of gullibility and into the vast and unchartered badlands of cynicism. The more stories a guy told the more I distrusted him. I thought everyone was a liar. I still am fighting against cynicism, but I think more people should fight against uncritical credulity.
As I began to grow in my understanding of the Word of God and the Doctrines of Grace I began to say with tongue in cheek, “There are only two kinds of people that say that everybody is a liar: cynics and Calvinists.” Now, lest all my non-Calvinists friends get all in a huff, let me hasten to say that I think we could make the same tongue in cheek argument that it is only cynics and biblicists that think everybody is a liar. Of course, this is clearly hyperbole. But the point is that a realistic understanding of the nature of man, the fallibility of men, the human limitations of men, and the dangerous ego-centrism of every single soul should make us recognize the sacred duty of doubt when Brother So-in-So begins to regale us with larger-than-life experiences, subtly making the plain-jane preacher of God’s Word who has nothing but Bible stories seem second-rate in the tickled ears of his listenership.
Cynics immediately castigate the man as a liar and a fraud and, as cynics are inclined to do, over-reach by then stereotyping every preacher who tells a story as equal to the worst of his kind. Christian thinkers, however, realize that because of the fallenness of man that in every man, even the “man of God,” there is a potential for sin and a potential for stupidity and so they suspend belief of that particular illustration or story. They also do their best to suspend judgment on the character of the man who has told the story. But when they are repeatedly forced to either suspend disbelief and heroize the missionary with his fabulous stories or, as a thoughtful person, suspend belief of his numerous stories for lack of evidence, he eventually will choose a more humble style of preaching and teaching in which God’s plain and everyday servant simply does his best to explain what is written in the black and white before their eyes.
He will thank God that he doesn’t have to believe everything. They way he listens reveals a profound conviction: “Let God be true and every man a liar” (Romans 3:4).