A Chaplain's Diagnosis of The Corruption Within Much Modern American Evangelicalism

(A Review of Hospital For Sinners by Tom Wright; published by Publish America, Baltimore, USA. 2007. Paperback, 216 pages. ISBN: 1-4241-6616-0).

If you have long wanted to know the truth about the wealth of the evangelistically-based business empires of the politico-evangelistic super businessmen of modern American life, this book will furnish you with much information. Here you will learn of their failures as well as successes and, in many cases, how those failures cost sincere people real money. You will also be amazed at how certain of these men and women have apparently never even been held accountable.

Author Tom Wright, the U.S. prison chaplain who has provided a most fascinating volume detailing the corruption within much modern American big business evangelism.

Let me start out by saying that this book should be widely read. In fact, I am going to wholeheartedly recommend it. There is much information and many facts and figures here which reveal how modern-day American tele-evangelism is a most unpleasant cancer; moreover, it is a cancer which is causing thousands to reject the Gospel of Jesus Christ, since the self-serving vanity of many of these high-profile men and women is usually all too apparent. I now know several people who will immediately reject any evangelism or even evangelistic writing coming from an American source because they feel that the U.S. link makes it at least suspect if not definitely tainted by these people: this was not the case even ten years ago. Of course, many countercult writers such as myself have been warning about these prosperity teachers and big business "evangelistic" ministries for several years - nothing new in that, of itself, but - at least over here in the UK - the true facts and financial data have not always been close to hand. Mr Wright's book assists us greatly here. It is now plain for all to see that several big-name prosperity gospel teachers and right-wing politico-evangelists are either dollar millionaires, or are very close to it. Despite this, a few such wealthy and influential individuals still claim to head "non profit making" ministries, even though it is obviously not too difficult to discover that - in actual fact - they enjoy huge incomes, yes, the sort of incomes which were always judged to be unseemly, if not quite shameful, for soldiers of Christ. Such hypocrisy and such double standards just make one gasp with amazement.

The writer, Tom Wright, who was commissioned as a U.S. prison chaplain in 1998, has come up with a book which contains many interesting facts even though the book, truthfully, has a rather loose style. My first impression was of a somewhat haphazard book in which topics which seem to be satisfactorily dealt with and 'put to bed' are suddenly raised again later in the book with more information being added, this tendency making one wonder why particular topics and personalities were not thoroughly dealt with before moving on. Yet, in fact, Wright might be showing great skill in this apparent disorganisation by recognising the short attention span of many modern readers. There is no question that much modern journalism uses this approach, frustrating at times though it can be to us older readers. People today certainly seem to prefer the approach in which writers and commentators only remain on one topic for a short spell before moving on to something else, then later returning to earlier topics to 'flesh things out' a little more.

The 'religious right' is pretty contemptible according to Wright, and he offers some fairly stunning examples of misdeeds which one cannot excuse, but what about the 'religious left'?

As always, when I go through a book by a writer I have had no previous knowledge of, I seek to know where the writer is coming from and what his own 'theological take' might be. Though the sub-title of this book is, 'Are religious leaders tending the flock or are they fleecing the sheep?' and it is facts, figures and information in that area which I really wanted this book for, there are times, actually too many times, when Mr Wright seems to get a little carried away with attacking politically-conservative evangelistic Christian leaders (that is, simply because they are that: politically-conservative evangelistic Christian leaders), rather than simply making his points in order to furnish the reader with compelling evidence of duplicity. Nevertheless, Mr Wright generally makes his points well, in a style which I would call 'succinctly vitriolic,' for there is no pulling of punches or giving the benefit of the doubt here, this writer hits very hard.

As I started reading, my initial impression was that the writer is a liberal Christian, but later on, sufficient comments come up to show the writer's deep respect for the Word of God and my secondary impression (as I was reading around page 100), was that I was reading the words of a 'moderate evangelical' (fully commited to the veracity of Holy Scripture, yet quick to reject the more loony interpreters/expositors). Unfortunately, however, by the end of chapter ten, I again came to see the writer as a theological liberal. Yet I feel that this book would have been so much more compelling if the criticisms contained therein had come from a conservative, rather than from a writer who appears to be a liberal (although admittedly a liberal with more respect for the Bible than many of them).

For me, the book started to 'take off' from around page 95. At that point, the writer appears to be in his element, regularly hitting literary 'sweet spots' time and again with beautifully descriptive comments such as,

'Many of our churches, America's heritage, have left her first love and begun to walk down that lasting Roman Road of destruction. Her clergy have been caught up in these inflationary times and as a result concocted various gimmicks and numerous gadgets to keep the machine works mobile. The church has been turned into an idol called "materialism" and bathed herself in an orgy of "secular humanism." What will the end result be?' (page 99).

This is good stuff which finds Wright at his very best and it was here that I decided that he must be an evangelical. I see echoes here of C.S. Lewis, Ravi Zacharias and maybe even a touch of Francis Schaeffer too. I would have liked much more of this approach but, in the oft-changing pattern of the book, that style does not last. By chapter ten, which focuses on a Christian's social responsibilities, Wright's liberalism becomes obvious; it's not that anything which he says is wrong, but it is what he decides to leave out which I find quite telling; he rightly expresses concerns about society's injustices, but where, for instance, is the concern about rampant abortion? Where is the concern about the breakdown of the family and consequent widespread immorality? Even as early as page 26, he quotes Amnesty International approvingly, yet many Christians would see that organisation as not exactly unbiased, probably anti-British and anti-American, certainly unchristian and steeped in liberal values (which is not to entirely reject all of their work). Arch liberal Harry Emerson Fosdick (who did not accept the evangelical 'high view' of Scripture), is also quoted with approval on page 173. This, in my opinion, is regrettable because many conservatives who might have been gradually being won over by Wright's flame-throwing in the direction of the right wing politico-evangelistic super-businessmen, will probably not read beyond that point - Yes, this really is how poorly (and mostly with very good reason), Fosdick is viewed in Bible-believing circles.

Ironically, in strongly opposing an active Christian involvement in politics, and making his points reasonably well, Wright's own very hostile tone against right-wing fundamentalist Christians can certainly be construed as something of a 'Christian involvement in politics' in its own right. The 'religious right' is pretty contemptible according to Wright, and he offers some fairly stunning examples of misdeeds which one cannot excuse, but what about the 'religious left'? I really wanted to find some examples of even-handedness here but did not find any. Is corruption inherently more evil when coming from the right wing? Why? On what basis? What about the wreckers of the left? What about Sharpton? I certainly agree with Tom Wright about the hypocrisy and plain duplicity of the wealthy politico-evangelistic super-businessmen to say nothing of the ill-gotten wealth of the 'health and prosperity' evangelists, a substantial part of it accumulated from sincere but naive people on low income, but indications of an even-handed attack against exploiters of the poor and naive on the left as well as the right would have been most welcome.

I think that Mr Wright's return to attack Jerry Falwell and Liberty University in chapter 11 is probably a mistake. There seems no reason why the points which he makes could not have been covered in earlier references to the Falwell empire, and this appears to be a third strike at him; but now the succinct nature of his earlier attacks ends, for here is quite a sustained broadside. Here one finds signs of a possibly more personal animosity, yet this always weakens arguments rather than strengthening them. Four bulleted points against Liberty University on page 189, for instance, include,

'Liberty University and Thomas Road Baptist Church are growing in numbers, but are spiritually stagnant.'

That point may very well be correct, but is that not a matter of personal opinion alone? Perhaps where one strains to find new lines of attack, it is time for the attack to conclude. But, overall, Wright puts a strong case together against the Falwell empire, like a good courtroom prosecutor, yet then makes comments which will tend to lose him support from many who will be reading his words, for Mr Wright appears to show support for a Gay Rights group which wanted to demonstrate at Liberty University. At the time, Falwell said,

"Liberty has an obligation to these parents not to expose their children to a 'media circus' that might present immorality in a positive light."

I think that most reading these words (including myself), will feel that Jerry Falwell was absolutely correct in this particular case to do everything in his power to keep these morally insulting individuals away from these young people.

Finally, even some great books contain chapters which should have suffered an editor's rejection and that happens here with the final chapter, which is chapter twelve, and which is called 'Last Days.' I found it strange that after Mr Wright had spent most of his book chewing over fundamentalists he here apparently decides to join their general theological approach! True, he had not earlier critiqued their theology but their bringing of a financially-motivated high profit approach into the Christian life, yet this last chapter is still quite a surprise for me for he here throws his support behind an apocalyptic approach which would actually please Jehovah's Witnesses! The problem, it seems to me, is that Tom Wright here suddenly gives complete support to quite a narrow theological approach (Dispensational/Adventist), and he could well alienate certain readers who had been sympathetic up to that point, whose approach is just not dispensationalist. Surely it is far better to keep the theology biblical but broad and to keep all ones readers 'on board' ? I think this chapter is a mistake but I do not wish to apply a closer critique to it here since it is but a tiny part of a generally very absorbing book.

To Sum Up This Book:

It may be true that this book would have amounted to a more devastating critique if it had come from a clearly evangelistic/right wing source, it may be that Mr Wright sometimes seems unsure whether it is right wing politico-evangelistic super businessmen he should be attacking (Falwell, Robertson etc), or wealthy 'health and prosperity' teachers pure and simple (Hinn, Crouch etc), it may be that the book does show a variable theological approach (sometimes liberal, sometimes apparently conservative evangelical and in the final chapter, positively hard-line fundamentalist!), it may be that Mr Wright possibly overdoes the vitriolic invective against Mr Falwell and Liberty University in chapter eleven (even though he himself appears to hold two separate academic awards from Liberty), and it may also be that this book is lacking a final proof reading/editing (brief comments about Northern Ireland offered on page 125 are not only inaccurate, but well out of date by 2007), but overall this remains a book we would recommend to be read. In fact, it is certainly highly 'readable' and a very difficult book to put down once it is started.

So, if you have long wanted to know the truth about the wealth of the evangelistically-based business empires of the politico-evangelistic super businessmen of modern American life, this book will furnish you with much information. Here you will learn of their failures as well as successes and, in many cases, how those failures cost sincere people real money. You will also be amazed at how certain of these men and women have apparently never even been held accountable.

This book will surely be a success and that success will undoubtedly lead to a second edition. If so, Mr Wright should take that opportunity to 'tighten up' this book and cut out its 'flab' and unneccesary sections. If this is done, a good book which is not without weaknesses can be turned into a truly outstanding book.

Robin A. Brace, 2007.

Mr Wright's book can be obtained at:


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