Over the course of the last couple of weeks, I have had a meeting and some phone conversations with Hank Hanegraaff. I want to take some space here to disclose these events and the conversations that took place. For the record, California law prohibits me from recording conversations with others without their knowledge and consent. Consequently, I can only offer here my own account of the events and statements that were made. After each encounter, I wrote down what occurred during the conversation and reviewed the notes I took during the conversations when that was possible.
For those who may be new to the ongoing fracas cataloged here, you will find below what I have written so far and some other helpful links.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Church
Friday, October 6th
I am not a very “spiritual” person. I am not a very holy person. I sin like everyone else. I am no better. I have done my fair share of stupid stuff in my life that I would take back in a New York minute if I could. I don’t worry much about what God is doing in my life or anyone else’s. I just try to use the brain God gave me and do what I can not to screw up worse. This is not false humility. I just know my own limits and weaknesses. I should. They have done a sufficient number of commercials.
I don’t see Jesus in tortillas. I am not one to tell you that the “Lord told me to tell you X” or anything of the like. I am very skeptical of just about everything and if not skeptical, rather indifferent. In my life there have up to this point been what I think qualify as two religious experiences or rather supernatural experiences. One experience, I simply never discuss. With anyone. Ever. It simply defies naturalistic explanation. And that is all I have to say about that. The second was a set of repeated events that were so improbable that I can’t help but seeing God’s hand in them. (Regular readers of EP know I do not talk this way often, if at all.) It seems that God judged it fit to provide me with a third. And it all started on the Friday night designated above.
This particular Friday night a local apologetic discussion group I am longtime member of meets at the home of a friend. I am giving a presentation critiquing the Christology of William Lane Craig. I present maybe twice a year or so, so it is just my turn at bat. I’ve been coming to this group off and on since I was about 14. It has been running since about 1980.
One of the founding members, someone as close to me as my own family, comes up to me and hands me a gift. I say that it is not my birthday or anything, so what is with the wrapped gift? He has a strange quirky smile on his face, so I know this is going to hurt. But I have no choice. I have to open it.
I unwrap the gift, and it is a cassette tape set of Hank Hanegraaff’s trying to critique evolution from 1998. He laughs. I laugh…in pain, but laugh nonetheless. Someone gave it to him and he never bothered with it. It turns out it was sitting in his garage and he cleaned out his garage and thought he would pass it on to me as a gag gift. I am touched.
This is how you know God has a sense of humor. Little did I know how funny this would turn out to be that Friday night. God, I admit it. You got me. I am still laughing.
Saturday, October 7th
I do my usual obligatory chores on Saturday along with a few other things. Later that evening my wife returns home from vespers with our children. She comes inside and gives me that look. You know that look. The one with the wide eyes that yell, “I have something to tell you but I can’t because the kids are right here!” She tells me she has something to tell me. And I am freaking out on the inside because I am thinking, “Crap, something happened to the car or her parents or someone we know or….”
So we get some privacy, at least as much as one can get from inquisitive children. She tells me “Hank Hanegraaff is going to be at church tomorrow.” And of course, I said the most profound thing that I could. “What?!” It turns out that a number of little birds carried this message to my wife and others in the parish. Honestly, I had no idea this would happen. So over the course of the next few hours I confer with some clergy that I am very close to and ask for their advice, how things might go, what to watch for, etc. I also talk to a few former CRI employees that I know who knew Hank fairly well. I go to bed and sleep. Scotch helps.
Sunday, October 8th
One of the things I learned the previous evening was that Hank asked to speak at the parish. His inquiry was rejected, from what I understand, on the basis that he lacked episcopal permission to do so. After all, he is in the Greek Archdiocese, and this parish is in the Antiochian Archdiocese. You can’t just run around parishes speaking without permission. We’re not like evangelicals, you know. I had nothing to do with the declining his offer to speak. This decision was made prior to my knowledge, input or influence much higher up the food chain apparently. It was already a done deal before I found out the previous evening. On top of this, I have done everything I could to keep this mess out of my parish.
It is for the best that Hank did not speak at my parish. If he had, I can guarantee you that during the Q&A session, it would have been a complete scorched earth. I simply would have pushed the big red button, pulled a Samson, etc. It is one thing to have to deal with this while he is fleecing the Church at a distance, but not in my own parish. Nope. Not going to happen. I would have had nothing to lose. I would have nuked it.
So we get to church, a few minutes early, as is our general custom. It seems Hank hasn’t arrived yet. I seat my kids. I tag a few prominent men in the parish that I know. They have been in the church for a long time. Some have sat on parish council. One even worked with Walter Martin. (The weirdness multiplies.) I let them know, as far as time permits, what is happening and that I am going to need witnesses. They agree.
So Hank enters the church and I go sit with my family. He’s sitting on the left side of the church and I on the right about fifteen feet apart. (I am not going to read anything into that.) At this point I am determined not to have a scene in church during the liturgy. I saw Hank at Gretchen Passantino’s funeral. He didn’t recognize me then. I doubt he will now. Its been over 20 years since I worked at CRI and I was about 20 then.
Everything proceeds normally. And I am sitting there, standing there, sitting there and trying not to laugh because it is just so uncanny.
So the Liturgy ends. Announcements occur. And surely I think the priest will announce that Hank is visiting. After all, he is sitting there with Charles Ajalat after all. I will just have to take it. But nada. No announcement of Hank. I am flabbergasted. From what I understand, the priest just plum forgot.
I figure Hank will just go to the parish hall and have a de facto speaking session where he can rap with his admirers. But nope. Hank and Charles Ajalat decide to leave. I don’t know why but it isn’t difficult to figure out. So they begin to leave proceeding out to the parking lot. At this point I tag my posse of witnesses and tell them this is happening now.
So Hank is ahead of us in the parking lot. Few if any people are around. Most people are in the parish hall so this is good. It isn’t my intention to make a scene at church. He runs into someone else who talks to him so he stops. This gives us time to catch up.
So I walk up to him. I calmly tell him who I am and that I used to work for CRI many years ago. I say that we have a number of problems from our past that remain unresolved and that need to be dealt with. And these problems involve many former employees as well as the Martin Family. To that end, I want to open a dialog to see if we can reach some kind of reconciliation.
I don’t know if he didn’t quite hear me, but it was pretty obvious that he did not understand what I said or who I was. He begins to tell me about a document on the CRI webpage responding to these kinds of criticisms and that I should go read it. He thinks it is by Stephen Ross. And I am thinking “You’re seriously referring me to your website?” I reply that I am familiar with the document. I am one of the persons in it as a witness against him. I tell him that I knew Stephen Ross when I worked there and he was in the shipping department and I really don’t care what Stephen Ross has to say. I don’t need Stephen or anyone else to tell me what my eyeballs did.
At this point it dawns on him that I am not some guy who has read stuff on the internet and I am in fact a former employee. I tell him that we need to work resolve these issues for all concerned, which is why these witnesses are present following Matthew 18. I write down my phone number and give it to him. I say that I am not looking for his personal information, but I expect to hear from him relatively soon so we can resolve these longstanding issues. He agrees to call.
He then asks if this is my parish and I say that it is. One of the witnesses remarks that they saw Hank at Gretchen Passantino’s funeral a few years back and I remark that I was also there but Hank didn’t recognize me. I knew both Bob and Gretchen over many years. After I give him my phone number we part. I proceed into the church and inform my priest with one of the witnesses what had transpired.
Tuesday, October 10th
I really hadn’t expected Hank to call. Over nearly thirty years, Hank has never responded to any former employee or critic to my knowledge. I was simply focused on doing what I was supposed to do and then just going with whatever was thrown my way. I figured I’d give him a reasonable amount of time to respond, about two weeks. I’d put everything on hold in terms of speaking publicly until I knew one way or another. I figured that was the fair thing to do and a show of good faith.
That morning though Hank called me. On the one hand it is to his credit that he did so. On the other hand it could have been simply because Charles Ajalat was standing right there when I confronted him. It is difficult to know. The call went to voicemail since I was taking my kids to school that morning. I called him back a few hours later but all I got was voicemail and so I left a message. Over the next day we played telephone tag. I called him Wednesday morning, October 11th and we connected.
We made plans to talk later in the afternoon, around 1:30 pm. At about 1:30 pm Hank gave me a call. He has me on speaker phone so I have no idea who else was in on the conversation. We chit chat for a moment. He expresses that he was surprised to meet me on Sunday. It wasn’t what he expected. I am thinking, uh yeah, that’s for sure. I say that I didn’t plan on him coming to my parish either.
At this point I just jump into the conversation. I note that because there are so many people involved over such a long period of time, the only way to resolve these longstanding issues is by a representative meeting. So to that end, we were offering to fly out at our own expense to Charlotte for a few days to work out an agreement for reconciliation. Hank asks me who is “we?” I tell him that we means me, Jill Martin Rische, and Craig Hawkins (Yeah, that Craig Hawkins.) At Craig’s name he expresses some astonishment saying “Oh, wow!” (Let the reader understand.) This is because Jill Martin Rische represents the interests of the overwhelming majority of the Martin Family (all save one) and Craig Hawkins because he was Martin’s right hand man and the heir apparent. He was one of the first employees that Hank forced out. And I am there, simply because I am the Hobbit carrying the Ring for a long time. Besides, I’m Orthodox.
At this point Hank starts talking about how he doesn’t pay attention to all the things that go on outside the ministry. He just focuses on the ministry. And he just wanted to “get to know you as a person.” The curious thing is that the night before, I had spoken to a former employee who had worked there longer than me and seems to know Hank fairly well. This person warned me that Hank would frame everything in personal terms. “Hank is going to try to be your friend.” And true to form, this is what Hank did.
Honestly, I wasn’t rude but I wasn’t going to have any of this kind of apparent manipulation. We aren’t pals. If we were to ever become friends, that happens after reconciliation and not before. Besides, the only relevant thing on the table is whether he agrees to meet or not. If not, nothing else matters.
He remarks that he had heard that I became Orthodox about a year ago, which is quite ambiguous. It wasn’t clear to me whether he thought I was some recent convert or not. (I’m not.) I find it doubtful that he heard this about me as he didn’t even recognize me at my parish even after I told him my name and who I was. I suspect this information was relayed to him via rumor by Stephen Ross or someone else. In any case, I remark that I am not the only former employee that has converted. There are others. He asks me who they are and I reply that that isn’t important. He asks “Why can’t you tell me?” And I reply that it is not that I can’t tell him, but that I am choosing not to because that is not something he needs to know.
What is important, I say, is whether he agrees to meet with us. We can work out the exact logistics later. I note that this is the biblical and Orthodox way to resolve such issues. And he isn’t in an Evangelical framework any longer, but an Orthodox one. So I propose to give him a couple of days to think it over. He can call us back on Friday to let us know one way or another. If he agrees, we can move forward. If he declines, we can move forward.
At this point, there is a long pause. I suspect he has me on mute and it talking to someone else in the room, but I have no way of knowing. I figure that if the conversation continues we will just get into an argument. What is important is whether we agree to meet or not. Nothing is going to get solved with this complicated mess over the phone. So I tell him that he should just give us a call in two days and that I am going now. He seems to come back on the line, seemingly startled and says “Oh, uh, ok, goodbye.”
Consider This a Sign
Thursday, October 19th
It has been over a week since I heard anything from Hank. He should have responded one way or another by the previous Friday. But unfortunately, true to form, Hank never responds. So, since I have his phone number, I give him a ring. This time, Hank is not the nice Hank you hear on the radio or see on Facebook Live, with the beaming smile. He’s more cranky Hanky. It is pretty clear he isn’t happy with me. I figure its simply because I refuse to be emotionally manipulated. If I can’t be used, the only thing to do is to shun me.
I say I am calling to confirm that he is declining to meet with us since I haven’t heard back from him. He responds rather forcefully that he isn’t interested in meeting with us. He was interested, he says, in talking to me. But he isn’t interested in dealing with people involved in “slander.” And now that he finds out, he says, that I am involved in “slander” he isn’t interested in talking to me anymore.
I remind Hank that for my remarks to constitute slander, they would have to be false and I would need to know that they were false or have sufficient reason for believing so at the time I made them. But of course, neither of those two things are true. So even if he disagrees with me, that doesn’t constitute slander.
I say I am just trying to be clear that he is declining to meet. He affirms this. I then say then that what happens next is something he bears the responsibility for since we have made a good faith effort to resolve these issues. He responds sarcastically with “Great. Wonderful.” And then goodbye.
I had to call to confirm that he was declining. If I hadn’t and then moved forward, he could claim he was going to but didn’t get the chance for whatever reason. So I needed a clear answer one way or another.
Now prior to this point, many other people over almost thirty years have executed Matthew 18 with Hank. On top of this, we have gone to his local clergy. They indicated to us in writing that they were aware of these problems with Hank almost two years prior to his chrismation, but apparently they chose to do nothing about them. I tried to resolve these issues privately before going public with his local clergy but they refused. Apparently it is too much to ask of Hank that he make a break with his past and make a clean start in the church by meeting and apologizing for past wrongs. So again, this is not the first time Matthew 18 has been executed with Hank, but it may be his last. And that is the sad part, the very sad part. He has a real chance to change his fate. But Hank is fairly clearly obstinate and unwilling to repent, apologize and reconcile. I suppose that is the defining characteristic of the personality of cult of Hankadoxy-never having to repent and apologize, because well, you’re just too rich and famous to do so.
In this way, Hank is the anti-Bible Answer man, since he clearly rejects what the Bible says to do in such circumstances. His chosen excuse that I and others have allegedly slandered him is really paper thin and he has to know it. If he has a charge against us, how does the Bible, not to mention the wider Orthodox tradition, teach is the way to handle such situations? Well, this pushes us back to Matthew 18 again. If he has a charge against us, then meeting is the biblical way forward. It is perfectly possible over the years with all the fur flying we may have gotten some things wrong. Nobody is perfect. And we are open to talking about such matters. But the way to handle it falls under Matthew 18. So Hank has no biblical excuse not to meet, apologize and work things out. He is simply impenitent. He’s had a clear chance, but now he’s blown it.
From the time I knew he was going to be received a month prior to his chrismation and afterwards, I was honestly agnostic about the genuineness of his conversion. After all, people can change, turn over a new leaf, and throw away the past. It happens. That is a big part of the Gospel. So I was disposed to give Hank the benefit of the doubt. After all, I certainly don’t have a spiritual microscope. But I have a much harder time taking his conversion seriously and I think other Orthodox should too. After all just think of what would you make of someone who refuses to apologize, ever, for thirty years. Whatever that is, that isn’t Orthodox.
Soon this matter will be over for me. Some other things are coming, some rather large things. But soon, I will have said and done everything I can possibly do. I will have discharged any conceivable moral and ecclesial responsibility in these matters. And that is fine. I don’t live my life for Hank and I haven’t for 25 years. Besides, there is too much fishing to do. What happens after that is really not my responsibility but that of the ecclesial authorities. Should there be a scandal with Hank because OCN is currently promoting his Protestant books and materials to Orthodox Christians or another financial scandal, one thing is for sure, I will bear absolutely none of the blame for it. Hank had better hope a bishop doesn’t decide to lay hands on him, and I don’t mean in the sense of ordination either (He can’t be ordained in any case since he’s divorced, btw.)
Another thing to consider is that the way that this has played out. Unfortunately his clergy at St. Nektarios, the relevant figures at Ancient Faith Radio, and Orthodox Christian Network have given the Orthodox a very bad name among better read Protestants, not to mention Catholics. They used to have the idea that the Orthodox were serious about tradition, virtue and such. But seeing how they have run headlong to import the Evangelical hero worship personality cult format into Orthodoxy, they just lost any credibility they had with thoughtful non-Orthodox. Tradition took a back seat to fame and power. Oh, I am quite aware of this new group of inquirers at Fuller Seminary because of the celebrity of Hank and other instances but this is facile. First, we don’t do immoral things so that good things may come out of it. Second, if people are converting because of Hank, then they are converting to Hank. That is, its for the wrong reasons and quite possibly with the wrong object as well. Besides, what will their conversion mean if they find out he is an intellectual fraud? And Hank is after all just a layman and not a scholar or any other kind of substantial figure. He’s a guy with a Protestant business who talks from a de facto teleprompter. These kinds of remarks simply buttress my contention that Orthodox people are involved with hero worship because they are making excuses for immorality rather than showing there isn’t a problem here. The ends do not justify the means.
While my work is nearing an end, there is still quite of bit to do. We continue to compile information from sources old and new. And of course Hank continues his slow decline in the marketplace, losing a station here and there. Soon, according to his own reporting, he will have to take some kind of leave of absence, which will likely include Protestant fill ins on the BAM show, broadcast to the Orthodox faithful via OCN. Another facet of this story also needs telling. Hank didn’t do this by himself. He had help. We wouldn’t be in this situation probably if others had not also acted immorally. But that is a discussion for another post.