Hank Hanegraaff Converts to Eastern Orthodoxy: Here’s Why
The world of evangelical Christianity was rocked recently with the announcement that Hank Hanegraaff, host of the Bible Answer Man radio broadcast and President of the Christian Research Institute, converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. He was received into the Greek Orthodox Church through chrismation this past Palm Sunday, the day of the terrible terrorist murder of Coptic Christians in Egypt.
Now, Hanegraaff’s move from Protestantism to Eastern Orthodoxy has gotten pretty mixed reviews. For the most part, it’s just treated as a news worthy item. But some bloggers have expressed their concern that Hanegraaff is turning away from evangelical biblical theology; in fact rather extreme blogger has gone so far as to accuse Hanegraaff of actually leaving the Christian faith.
Now I see such reactions are completely myopic. I made a similar change over 10 years ago, when I was received into the Greek Orthodox Church. And I know several people who have also made the switch. And I think that what Hangegraaff is doing is actually very predictable. He of course has his own personal reasons for making the change from the Protestant church to the Orthodox Church, but his conversion is actually part of a trend that is going on worldwide; and this trend involves nothing less than a return to traditional ways of life and belief, what scholars call retraditionalization.
What we have to understand is that decades of secular globalization have actually detraditionalized cultures and societies, replacing traditional ways of life with more globalistic and consumer based lifestyles. So while traditional societies believe that every person born into the world is born into a moral obligation to conform their lives into a harmonious relationship with the divine meaning and purpose inherent in the world around us, globalistic secular societies reduce the human person to a sovereign individual who has no moral obligations apart from that which one chooses for oneself. And so globalistic secular societies tend to be very hostile towards traditions, since traditional conceptions of say religion, gender, and sexuality are now considered unduly oppressive, intolerant, and unjust.
Now the fact is that decades of this secular globalization has reignited and reawakened a hunger and a longing for traditional ways of life and society. It’s not just a matter of Farmers Markets being set up to counter the anti-communal effects of the local mall; globalization provokes similar sentiments that create a groundswell of support for a return to far more traditional and religious ways of life.
For example, we’re seeing nothing less than the re-awakening of Byzantine-inspired Christian civilization in Eastern Europe. Not only has Russia rebuilt over 15,000 churches since the end of communism, but a recent survey found that 30 percent of Russians would like to see a return to some kind of monarchical rule comparable to the Tsars. Just a few months back, the Catholic Bishops of Poland, in the presence of President Andreiz Duda and many Catholic pilgrims, officially recognized as the King of Poland and called upon Him to rule over their nation, its people and their political leaders. You have Hungary reincorporating Christianity into their constitution. You have the president of Moldova saying that his country has no future without Christianity. You have polls that indicate that the Orthodox Church is the single most trusted institution in nations such as Georgia and Bulgaria.
And we’re finding that this retraditionalization is particularly evident among young people. When Pope Benedict brought back the Latin Mass, also known as the Tridentine Mass, it was expected that the congregants showing up for its revitalization would be people over 60, who are old enough to remember their Latin from before the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s that replaced the Latin Mass with vernacular worship. Instead, to everyone’s amazement, the majority of congregants showing up were Catholics in their late-teens and early twenties.
And when asked about this, priests such as the Rev. Christopher Smith in South Carolina, who conducts a Latin Mass, note that young people see a great sense of beauty and reverence and devotion, and also a sense of historical continuity. They’re enamored with praying the same prayers that saints from 1,500 years ago were praying when they went to Mass, in the same language. And Fr. Smith has further noted that attendance at his parish’s Latin Mass has grown from about 60 to more than 300 worshipers.
Moreover, you have the renaissance of classical Christian education throughout the nation, which of course involves the revitalization of Latin and Greek as well as theology as the queen of the sciences and the reading of the literary classics. You have a mass boom in homeschooling both here in the States and in Russia. You have a return to big families, where it’s no longer an anomaly among conservative Christians to have 6, 7, or 8 children. In fact, the Amish are doubling in population every 20 years. You have the advent of Prayer Book Presbyterians and churches rediscovering the liturgical calendar and practicing things like Ash Wednesday. And the hottest thing in Christian circles right now is what’s called ‘The Benedict Option,’ a communal lifeworld modeled after the tradition of St. Benedict.
Now this retraditionalization is not only going on in formerly Christian civilizations; we’re seeing the advent of Sharia councils in the U.K. that arbitrate between conflicts among Muslims, the revival of imperial Shintoism at the highest levels of the Japanese government, a revitalization of Confucian philosophy among Chinese officials, Hindu nationalism in India, Islam in Turkey, and on and on and on.
And of course, we have a tsunami of nationalist populism sweeping throughout Europe and the U.S., all of which involve some form of reawakening localized traditions, customs, languages, ethnicities, and religions as mechanisms of resistance against secularizing globalist tendencies.
So in many respects, I see Hank Hanegraaff’s conversion to Orthodoxy as par for the course of the re-traditionalization that’s going on all around us in response to the virulently anti-cultural, anti-traditional dynamics of secular globalization. I think we have to understand that for many Christians, Protestantism doesn’t really cut it when it comes to satisfying this craving for traditionally grounded expressions and experiences of the Christian faith. There are certainly evangelicals such as Robert Webber who have recognized this impoverishment and have sought to reintroduce historic liturgical practices back into the lifeworld of Protestant churches, particularly those centering on the Eucharist. But for many, such as Hank Hanegraaff, those efforts are not quite enough and so they’ve turned to those very churches that serve as the resources from which such liturgical renewal is being drawn. That was certainly the case when it came to my decision to leave the Protestant church, as was the case with many of my fellow converts.
And so I do think that Hank Hanegraaff’s detractors are highly myopic in how they are interpreting his conversion; I think they fail to see that this is in fact indicative of a worldwide conversion away from a secularized vision of life and toward a more traditional vision of society, culture, and faith.