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Struck by ‘Golden Miracles’

TIMES RELIGION WRITER

In the heart of the Sacramento Valley, where 49ers flocked to mine a mother lode of riches 150 years ago, Christian believers are proclaiming a new and godly gold rush: The Holy Spirit, they claim, is miraculously transforming porcelain crowns and silver fillings into gold.

Never mind that they can’t seem to prove it. Disregard the dental records that contradict some of their claims. The reports of divine dentistry have taken on a life of their own as they rapidly spread on the Internet and in evangelical media, stirring up a frenzy of excitement through revival churches in California and worldwide.

From Seattle to Springfield, Texas, to Florida, Brazil to Britain, believers are hailing the transformed teeth, the appearance of gold dust and a host of other claimed miracles as proof of a powerful “move of God,” bringing renewal to Christian churches at the start of the new millennium.

The reports are fueling a growing and controversial movement to revive “miracle ministries” as a way to personally experience God amid disenchantment with rote religious rituals.

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Reports of miracles are as old as human history; even in today’s scientific age, nearly 80% of Americans in a recent CBS-TV poll said they believed in them.

But ministries stressing the miraculous have taken off among the estimated 500 million charismatic and Pentecostal believers worldwide who comprise Christianity’s fastest-growing segment.

Here at the Family Christian Center, Pastor Rich Oliver draws back his lip and displays a glittering gold crown he says God gave him in March. Actually, dental records show his previous dentist put the crown in on April 29, 1991. When confronted with those records, Oliver says: “I’d have to say I was absolutely wrong . . . [but] none of it distracts from the fact that I know God is a healer.”

Nonetheless, Oliver touts his congregation’s ‘gold rush’ on the Internet and lines up other church members to witness about how God changed their teeth--and lives.

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One member, Jan Rosenberg, said God changed her filling to gold to bolster her spirits after a deep bout of depression over her mother’s death. A few days later, her right forearm started itching and suddenly, she says, a tiny cross was divinely etched into her skin.

“You just get goose bumps, you feel God loves you so much,” Rosenberg said.

Center Teaches How to Minister in Miracles

Family Christian Center is the locus of an expanding California Revival Network that, in the last two years, has attracted nearly 100 churches as members. Co-pastors Rich and Lindy Oliver started the network after switching to a revival focus in 1996; now, among other things, they run a school to teach people how to minister in miracles.

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Among those churches--and others in which evangelical Christians stress ecstatic expression, miracles, healings, prophetic intuition and “signs and wonders” in their worship--gold teeth have become the latest and flashiest form of supernatural phenomena attesting to God’s power.

“God is so much bigger than religion has portrayed him to be,” says Lindy Oliver. “He is not only creator but healer, and he heals us because he loves us.”

The expanding use of miracle ministries, however, is also drawing fire. To Hank Hanegraaff, president of the Christian Research Institute in Rancho Santa Margarita, the reports of gold teeth underscore the alarming depths to which evangelical leaders have fallen in turning to supernatural phenomena to overcome religious ennui and build congregations. He describes revivalist practices with a choice list of withering phrases: from a “National Enquirer gospel of cheap sensationalism” to “occult Christianity” to “two-bit, sleight-of-hand, sleight-of-mind cons.”

“There is a paradigm shift within the evangelical world from an age of clear teaching of the word of God to an age of esoteric experience,” said Hanegraaff, who attacked the practices in his 1997 book, “Counterfeit Revival.” “We are not in the middle of a great awakening; we are in the middle of a great apostasy.”

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He argued that Christians need to “get back to the basics” of service to the poor and needy, rather than dwell in exotica that open the faith to skepticism and ridicule.

Indeed, the gold-teeth reports have already drawn the attention of Michael Shermer, president of the Skeptics Society, who dismisses them as a “classic urban legend” and raises the pugnacious question: “Of all the things going on--cancer, war, disease--God is busy changing fillings? That’s the best he can do?”

But the way revivalists see it, they are simply reclaiming Christianity’s original tradition of power evangelism--a vibrant faith that pulsates with the visible grandeur of God manifested through miracles, repentance and conversions that dramatically change lives. Over time, Oliver argues, Christian worship has been reduced to listless liturgies, tired traditions and pro-forma rituals of “three songs, an offering and a homily.”

“The American church is the most dried-out, uptight church in the world,” Oliver declared. “When I grew up, I thought the preachers all looked and acted like undertakers who ought to work at a mortuary.”

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That theme--rescuing the faith from the rigidity of religious institutionalization--has been endlessly replayed in Christian history.

To propagate a faith beyond a generation, scholars say, dogma and organization are required. Yet, over time, that very institutionalization often disenchants some faithful who begin to yearn for a direct experience of God--or, in today’s popular parlance, “less religion and more spirituality.”

“People become impatient with all the folderol of high ritual,” said H. Newton Maloney, a professor specializing in religion and psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. “They want direct, born-again experiences.”

Maloney, an ordained Methodist minister, said the history of his own denomination is a case in point. Like today’s revivalists and faith healers, Anglican cleric John Wesley preached the possibility of direct contact with God through healings and such when he began his Methodist movement in England in the 1740s. By the 1850s, however, that focus had faded as the movement became established and “people thought these things were beneath them,” Maloney said.

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Eventually, Maloney said, the Methodists proved too staid for some members, who broke away to form the Assemblies of God, Nazarenes and other Pentecostal denominations.

Now the Assemblies of God has become too institutionalized for people like the Olivers, who remain affiliated with the denomination but aligned with an independent network of revival churches.

Spreading the Message of God

Oliver is a bear of a man whose deep-set eyes seem fixed in a perennial squint of bemusement as he ticks off a list of what he sees as the sins of organized religion today. Too many artificial rules, he says, like enforced decorum in services and bans against women in church leadership. Too much energy expended on largely marginal matters--such as trying to divine the date of Christ’s return. Too much hierarchy, bureaucracy, intolerance. What does all of that have to do with Christ’s basic message to love God and love others?

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People “want to know, what is the Lord doing in my life right now?” he says.

The couple says they were good Assemblies of God members who, 27 years ago, even signed pledges not to play cards or see movies. They dutifully preached, taught Sunday school, gave offerings, witnessed about their faith.

“We did that week after week,” Oliver says, feigning a snore.

Three years ago, their spiritual lives were shaken when they ran into an old friend just back from a long-running revival meeting in Pensacola, Fla. After watching videos of people shaking, collapsing and reportedly being healed by the Holy Spirit in Pensacola, the Olivers headed to Florida themselves. On their return, they turned their ministry upside down.

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Their new approach is apparent in their services, where they have radically loosened the reins. During a recent visit, a rock band belted out a song praising the virtues of “dancing undignified” for the Lord. The aisles were filled with people boinging about like pogo sticks, barefoot, singing. Oliver choreographed showy moves, first blowing a shofar, then brandishing a sword to pray for his members to succeed as spiritual warriors.

After that, the healing services began. “Who’s got a need?” Oliver bellowed. Several people stepped forward. One youth with gel-spiked hair asked for help with a sore back. A team of women clustered around him, laying on hands, as one led a rapid-fire entreaty to God: “Lord I pray for miraculous healing in the name of God you said you would do it we claim victory you are Lord over the enemy of sickness we speak healing now we ask it be gone.

“How’s it feeling? Still sore?” the prayer team member asked. “Yeah,” the youth said. The women resumed praying.

After several minutes, those feeling healed gave triumphant testimonies. Kristin declared her leg pains gone, then, apparently overcome by the Holy Spirit, jerked and fell to the ground. Shannon said she could finally carry her daughter again, now that arm pains from a sciatic nerve had vanished. Joe, the youth with the sore back, said he was cured, too, then spryly bent from the waist to prove it.

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The promise of such spectacular spiritual outpourings boosts attendance at the California Revival Network congregations. Harvest Rock Church in Pasadena is one of them, but most are located in small, nondescript communities like Orangevale: Colfax, Folsom, Rocklin, Salida, Danville, Hayfork, Vacaville, Yuba City. “Jesus is the same today as yesterday: Yesterday he healed people, and today he heals people,” declared Bill Johnson, a revival leader in Redding.

That proposition, however, is not uniformly embraced by all Christians. Some, known as cessationists, believe that the miracles recorded in the Bible were necessary credentials for Jesus to convince unbelievers of his divine authority. But the miracles ceased with completion of the New Testament, which could henceforth serve as the authoritative word of God, argues Bob Thomas, a professor of New Testament at The Master’s Seminary in Sun Valley.

Other Christians believe in some miracles but not reports of others. The Anaheim-based Association of Vineyard Churches-USA, for instance, was developed by a man, John Wimber, who preached that the key to church growth was a ministry based on such miracles as physical healings and demon expulsions. But reports of gold teeth and uncontrollable “holy laughter” have no biblical basis, argued association president Todd Hunter.

Hanegraaff contends that the reputed miracles are usually caused by trickery, a hypnotic “power of suggestion” or peer pressure to claim a cure even when one has not occurred.

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Family Christian Center distributes documentation forms for the claimed miracles, and has received about 80 back. But none of several cases referred by senior associate pastor Don Quattlebum could be confirmed--either because the claimants did not return phone calls, declined to speak or failed to provide conclusive evidence.

One woman who says God healed her of breast cancer also had chemotherapy and a mastectomy; another who said two crowns turned gold was contradicted by her former dentist, who said he did the handiwork.

Officials Dismiss Miracles as Delusions

Still, Christian history is filled with cases of healings believed to have no natural explanation. The Roman Catholic Church, for instance, has investigated thousands of them with a well-established verification process in cases of candidates for sainthood.

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The church deems some claims of miracles to be worthy of credence. But officials dismiss as delusions many others--such as reports a few years ago of the face of Jesus in a San Diego billboard ad for spaghetti. “It’s just natural to find people trying to ascribe more meaning to an event than really it has,” said Father Gregory Coiro, spokesman for the Los Angeles Archdiocese. “I think it’s all wrapped up in people’s desire to be in touch with something of mystery.”

Such debates don’t particularly interest believers like Rosenberg. Her dentist won’t confirm her claims of God-given gold crowns, but to her, it hardly matters. What does is how belief in the miracle has renewed and comforted her.

“God was saying to me: ‘I want you to know I’m real. I love you,’ ” she said.


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