Two weeks ago, the well-known and deeply evangelical Hank Hanegraaff converted to the Eastern Orthodox faith. Host of the popular radio show The Bible Answer Man, Hanegraff was chrismated after a long and tremendously successful career of answering callers’ questions about Christianity in the face of modern, potentially heretical new teachings in the Protestant community.
For Hanegraaff, the safest place to turn in the face of popular new theology in contrast to his own beliefs was the ancient tradition of Orthodoxy.
As the second largest Christian denomination in the world, dating back to the time of the apostles, the Eastern tradition has remained unchanged and immovable for over 2,000 years. Of those who, like Hanegraaff, are uncomfortable with the rapidly developing doctrines of modern evangelicalism, many have found Orthodoxy to be a refuge.
Because we are a university that greatly values tradition, both in Christianity and in the liberal arts, the conversion of a major Christian leader toward an ancient faith should interest us both intellectually and spiritually.
At the University of Dallas, we celebrate the original great works, calling for a return to the sources and a celebration of the ancients in our elite Core curriculum. In the Rome semester, students journey to these ancient locations, examining history and deciding for ourselves how we are to respond to its implications.
We are not perfect, nor do we always think critically and independently as our mission statement instructs us, but we are set apart from the world in our own little Bubble — why? Because we read the original controversial texts for ourselves instead of relying on opinion soundbites, because we seek out the sources of the news that scares us, because we put ourselves in situations that make us uncomfortable so that our minds can be tested and our faith can be expanded.
Though UD is an enthusiastically Catholic university, it is clear from the structure of the Rome semester curriculum that it also holds some respect for the Orthodox tradition.
Last year, Dr. Elizabeth Robinson led the Spromers of 2016 through the Orthodox Cathedral of St. Andrew in Patras, Greece, where students were able to venerate the relics of the apostle, including pieces of the cross upon which he was martyred. We studied the details of Eastern architecture and the intricacies of Byzantine iconography in our Art and Architecture course, walking through several Greek Orthodox parishes during our time on the Greece trip. It was a beautiful journey through a beautiful faith.
But now that Hanegraaff has become a member of this long-standing tradition, many of his followers, rather than greeting him with respect and love as UD greeted the Orthodox when visiting the Greek churches, have instead turned against him, reacting with a visceral hatred toward the ancient faith not unexpected but nonetheless alarming. Headlines accusing him of having left Christianity altogether have surfaced in a tidal wave of negativity from disgruntled charismatics.
Once a champion of evangelical Christianity, Hanegraaff made his name arguing in 20 published books and hundreds of radio episodes against cults, heresies and non-Christian religions. Now, it seems he must rally against yet another heresy: one that would reject not only a major form of Christianity, but in fact the very form of Christianity in which all other denominations have their roots.
The liberal arts traditions we at UD hold so dear are in the same precarious position as ancient Christianity; that is, they are rapidly becoming less and less valued by society all the time, and when they are noticed by the world around us, they are often criticized as irrelevant or uninteresting.
In the same way that we don’t regard the core texts we read at UD as primitive or otherwise invalid, instead cherishing them for their historical value, so should we treat Orthodoxy with the same respect.
As members of a Catholic school that values the liberal arts, even if UD students don’t agree with all the tenets of Orthodoxy, we ought to defend the move toward traditionalism.
Unfortunately, since Hanegraaff’s conversion, several major radio stations have dropped him from their networks, costing him millions of listeners and a dramatic portion of his livelihood.
Perhaps what is most upsetting about this negative backlash against Hanegraaff is that it has emerged from the very community of people who ought to be the most loving and understanding of all, according to their own theology. Christians pride themselves on their compassion — it’s how the church markets itself to outsiders — and yet, many in the Protestant community have reacted with blatant hatred against Hanegraaff, denouncing him as a non-believer and calling for boycotts of what little radio access he has left after being let go by so many stations.
In an era where secularism has almost entirely overtaken our culture, one would hope that a return to traditionalism would be lovingly embraced, but regrettably this is not the case. So much of popular evangelicalism today is disturbingly anti-Catholic and anti-Orthodox, despite Protestantism’s historical ties to Orthodoxy and Catholicism.
Hanegraaff decided two weeks ago to make official his commitment to the same pursuit of truth for which we strive at UD, despite a massive, painful uproar from the public. I hope that as fellow Christians and seekers of truth, should we find ourselves in a similar position of having to defend the faith, we too will be able to do the same.