Apologia of Human Nature: Charlatans, Saints, Hoffer, and Burt Likko’s Query
David Limbaugh, lawyer brother of Rush and an author of several books on the Christian faith himself, wrote a tribute that was a pretty typical reaction in the Evangelical Christian world to the news:
Ravi was a unique Christian apologist and evangelist — a giant in his field. No one presented the Gospel more cogently and winsomely than he. Though gone from this Earth, his legacy and his indispensable ministry, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, or RZIM, will continue in the abundantly capable hands of his wife and ministry partner, Margie Zacharias; their three children, Sarah Zacharias Davis, Naomi Zacharias and Nathan Zacharias; and so many other amazing Christian apologists.
I first became aware of Ravi before I was a believer and when I was still struggling with doubts. I watched in awe as he explained during a television interview Christianity’s basic truths in a way I had never heard. He exuded a confident mind tempered by a humble heart. I remember thinking to myself, “Wow, I’d like to see any Christian skeptic listen to this man and dare claim that intellectuals can’t be Christians, or that Christians can’t be intellectual.” He was so obviously a deep thinker and gifted communicator.
The problem was, there was more to Ravi Zacharias than just the official ministry bio. Now, being aware of Zacharias’ status among Christian circles myself for many years, because I is one, I’ll confess I did not know all the details of the controversies surrounding the “greatest apologist of our time” till I came to Ordinary Times and read Steve Baughman’s two pieces on the subject. So I did what I always try to do with new information that challenges my thinking: I looked into it myself. I found Steve’s coverage not only convincing but after my own research, including folks who are well-versed with the circles and people involved, I concluded that the accusations are probably true.
When Zacharias passed away we had an editorial decision to make on how to cover the news of his death and the articles we already have about it in the archive which still draw readers. Trying to balance unflattering information on the recently departed is not a pleasant piece of business, in any circumstance. Just promoting the old stories immediately upon the man’s death seemed inappropriate, so instead I reached out to Steve to see if he wanted to write something new, or recap, his previous work on the subject. That is the piece that ran the following day in Ordinary Times.
Which brings us up to our friend and Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of Ordinary Times Burt Likko’s comment and questions:
Seemingly rare is the nationally- or internationally-popular religious figure, who would be assessed by a non-adherent of that religion as all three of:
a) leading a personal life generally free of sexual and financial shenanigans;
b) has not fabricated academic credentials in some fashion; and
c) preaching behavior that is apparently well-rooted in the writings of their faith’s ancient holy texts.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. I volunteer rather than concede that there are quite a lot of clerics out there in the world who meet all three of these criteria at the same time. Maybe even the overwhelming number. But I notice that those people tend to focus on their local ministries rather than on pursuit of national or international fame. I also notice that they don’t tend to engage in a lot of apologia as a means of outreach to the non-faithful and perhaps attempts to convert them.
Not only fair questions, but questions that have been around as long as there has been religion. For the sake of scope we will confine this to Christianity, though all faiths have their variations on these same themes, it seems. Also, let’s just acknowledge the fact that very bad people of any level can, and do, abuse and use their position. A small church leader is just as able to wreak havoc on victims as the multi-millionaire famous ones.
Burt’s point on the pursuit of fame is a valid one. Without doing a deep dive on the topic let us just proffer in general that a minister with multiple-thousands of congregants, or a massive ministry either domestic or international, is a different animal from the pastor of a small congregation in Pickyourtown, USA. With someone doing an international ministry, it’s even more layers of money, power, and fame involved. The pitch is always pretty much the same: all those resources are needed to reach the world with the message. The spectrum of this runs from the legitimate folks who run a tight ship both ethically and financially, to the Kenneth Copelands and Jim Bakkers of the world.
Thing is, none of that has anything to do with theology. Doesn’t even have much to do with religion. For the most part, it has little — if anything — to do with faith. It has to do with what your priorities are. I’ve studied religion in general and Christian theology in particular for 20 years now, but I don’t need any of that to really work through the issue at hand here.
This is a good place to bring up the Hoffer principle: “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket”. Human nature going from heavenly minded to being up to no earthly good has a progression to it, you see.
Charlatans and grifters in Christianity aren’t new. Heck, Christ hadn’t even gotten on the cross before Judas Iscariot went looking to cash in in the name of. But the higher up the Christian leadership food chain you go, the closer you get to the point Burt is making about those leaders being viewed by a non-adherent as nothing vaguely resembling “holy.”
The non-religious parallel here would be a politician. Local level do-gooder has all the intentions in the world of going full tilt boogie for freedom, justice, and the American way. Then they move up to the next office, which requires them to change just a little bit. Then the next highest, which needs fundraising from X person so they have to keep them happy. Then the next level, where so-and-so needs their help. And so on and so on, each rung up the ladder requiring a little more compromise in the name of getting to a place to do more good for more folks. It’s all justified that way, you see, cause someone has to do it and it might as well be me, they say. A progression to it all.
Ministers that rose high and fell from grace, and who are honest about it, will tell you that is the mindset that traps them. Bigger, more money, more power will let them do all these things for good, and a little compromise for all that extra power is worth the price. Power will not corrupt them absolutely. More like a little at a time. Sometimes in spurts. The truly hard-hearted multiple times.
But for almost all humans, the power and the money will win, because they are human. Even those ostensibly about the work of a higher power.
Is the bi-vocational pastor with the small congregation that lives and dies with every one of his charges life events, shows his faith beyond all reproach, and seeks nothing but the betterment of his congregants’ lives both temporally and spiritually any more holy than the Joel Osteens of the world? I think so. I’d fight you that I know so. It sure looks like it to the outside observers.
Human nature is human nature, regardless of divine ambitions. Very few rise above that nature to be above all reproach, no matter their belief system. It is fair—biblical, even— to inspect the fruit of anyone’s labors in the vineyards of the Lord to see what they are producing.
Burt’s point on focusing on the task at hand, rather than fame, is the key to all this. Whatever cause you have, if your own fame and fortune come before it, your human nature is going to find a way to wreck you on the rocks of life. And you won’t even need a devil for it; you can do it all on your own.
There’s an old proverb we can end this on:
Fame! You’ll be as famous as famous can be,
with the whole wide world watching you win on TV.
Except when they don’t
Because, sometimes they won’t.
I’m afraid that some times
you’ll play lonely games too.
Games you can’t win
’cause you’ll play against you.”
Pretty good theologian, that Dr. Seuss.