When I was in college at a small, conservative Christian school in Arkansas, my friend Johnny convinced me and another guy, who we called “Red,” to see the televangelist Benny Hinn in Memphis. Despite the fact that we weren’t charismatics—quite the opposite, in fact—Johnny said that seeing the Holy Spirit in action was a far better use of our time than seeing Eyes Wide Shut, and he added, half joking, that our university would surely approve. So we climbed into my 1987 Crown Vic and drove east, crossed the Mississippi River, and made our way to our fourth church service of the week.
Before we even got to Mid-South Coliseum, Johnny began to kvetch about how much Greek homework he had to do, and that his “tushy” (his word) was killing him after that long drive, and that maybe we should just go back home. He was sorry he had wasted our time, he said. It was a nasty turn—after all, he was the one who convinced us to drive so far in the first place—I wanted to punch him. Johnny’s attitude didn’t improve as we entered the Coliseum, which it turns out was packed with congregants. It was hard to find a seat. But Red, who was from Memphis, shepherded us to the upper level, where he found us three pretty good seats. Johnny settled down for a time.
I was pensive. I had grown up in church, staring up from the pews as my grandfather preached, but I had never been to a charismatic service. I had been taught that worship was an intellectual exercise and emotion had no place in God’s house. I believed that charismatics were all affectation; their enthusiasm wasn’t to be trusted. If you raised your hands and speak in tongues in church, then you made church disorderly. I had resolved before we left to treat the experience as an anthropologist might: sitting outside the circle, taking notes, observing without participating.
Who I was then is not who I am today. Indeed, I’ve since lost my faith. Still, thinking back on the events of that night, I realize that I lost my objectivity almost the minute I steeled myself to keep it. How much of what transpired next was like a fever dream and how much of it actually happened I couldn’t honestly say. But I’ll tell you and let you judge for yourself.
When the lights went down and the choir went up, the Coliseum exploded. The singing was electric; worshipers were clapping hands, singing, dancing. Before long, Red was dancing something fierce in the aisle, raising his hands to the Lord and shouting at the top of his lungs. Johnny, who was a lot like me, was tapping his foot, too. But it soon became clear to me that he was having trouble focusing. Every so often he would wince and squirm in just the way you squirm to get rid of a wedgie. I was about to ask him what was wrong, but then Benny Hinn came out and everyone’s eyes became glued to the evangelist.
Hinn told us that God wanted us to be happy and that God would return things to us seven-times-sevenfold such that if we gave $100, God would find a way to put $4900 in our pockets. At first blush this seemed far-fetched—I mean, I had never seen anything like it happen before—but Hinn had scripture to support his claims, and my experience of the world was admittedly pretty small, so who was I to judge? Then Hinn put up a slideshow and started talking about people he knew who had become rich thanks to generous donations to God through Hinn’s ministries. He told a story of woman who had given him $1,000, and the next day she won a free trip to Bermuda for her entire family! When they passed the collection bucket, we each contributed everything we had in our pockets. (We were college students, but it amounted to several hundred dollars—Red it turned out was loaded.)
The lights went down again and Hinn began to speak in tongues. He was asking the Holy Spirit to make its presence known, and the feeling of that moment made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I could feel—I could see the Spirit descend on us like a fog. Suddenly, a woman in the crowd near Hinn shouted, and Hinn shouted back. I could feel Johnny squirming in the seat beside me. Red stared, his mouth agape. Satan was among us! They argued back and forth at the top of their lungs in what must’ve been the tongues of angels and demons, but the Spirit won, and Satan left us and the woman in peace (though only temporarily, of course—Satan doesn’t stay away long).
Hinn got down to the business of healing. People lined up at the stage. Hinn brought them up one at a time and talked to them to discover their problems. He prayed, and then he touch them with his healing hands. The healing touch must be a powerful touch: the instant his hands made contact, a supplicant would fall over in ecstasy. (It was good planning on Hinn’s part to have men around who would catch those fortunate fallers!) The only unfortunate part of the healing service was that, by this point, there were so many people murmuring about the extraordinary things they witnessed, the Coliseum echoed so, and the sound system was poor enough that I couldn’t hear what Hinn or the sufferers would say. I could only infer what was happening by what I saw. I leaned over to Johnny to complain, and that’s when I realized Johnny was gone!
I looked around for him, but, reasoning that he had just gone to the bathroom, I settled back to continue watching the Spirit do its business. Ten minutes passed, and still no Johnny. Fifteen minutes—no Johnny. When twenty-five minutes had gone by and he still hadn’t shown, I got up to go looking for him when Red grabbed my arm and pointed down to the stage.
Johnny was next in line at the stage! I couldn’t believe it. He’d been having a good time and all, but he didn’t seem as excited as I was, and he was definitely less enthralled than Red. This was the last thing I expected, but there he was!
Johnny stepped into a cone of light. Hinn approached. They talked. I couldn’t hear a word, but Johnny was very animated, talking with his hands. He pointed at his ass and scrunched his face up in a squint. Hinn nodded then raised his hands and his head to pray. Johnny raised his hands too and as he did so, he bent over. Suddenly, Hinn walked around behind him, knelt, laid his hands on Johnny’s cheeks—and that’s when Johnny fell to the ground, flat on his face—the catchers didn’t have time to grab him. But Johnny didn’t care. He was in ecstasy. rolled over onto his back and, like a cockroach, kicked the air.
Hinn shouted so loud I could finally hear: “PRAISE THE LORD!”
Hinn gave the mic to Johnny, who also shouted “PRAISE THE LORD!”
Suddenly, Johnny jumped up and ran, fast as his feet could carry him, arms waving, lungs extolling God’s glory, from the stage, through the crowd and out the door.
Red and I didn’t see Johnny again until we reached the car. Neither of us knew what to say, for our sake if not for Johnny’s, so we didn’t say anything at all. It was an awkward drive home.
But Johnny? He sat in the passenger seat with an angelic grin. He didn’t squirm once the entire trip back.