On the 84th night of the revival, the air was charged with collective energy and the floor shook from pounding feet. A spine-tingling roar rose from the crowd. They were calling to God for oil and fire. • Eight thousand people filled the tent. They had come from all around the world, bringing walkers and wheelchairs and chronic pain. They were here for the Florida Outpouring in Lakeland, the hottest thing going in religion these days, and some wore T-shirts that said It's Hell Without Jesus.
Above them stood their spiritual leader: Todd Bentley, 32, a stout, balding Canadian with flames tattooed on the back of his neck. He was known to boast about healing through violence. He had been videotaped telling stories about kicking a woman in the face, slamming a crippled woman's legs against the stage and knocking out a man's tooth. This was done, he claimed, on behalf of the Holy Spirit.
"Kaboom-boom!" he shrieked. "God's been pouring the gas. And then the match. KABOOM-BOOM!"
Bentley paced the stage as he spoke, head sometimes jiggling like a bobblehead doll. He said his staff was working overtime on a catalog of healings and resurrections, verified by X-ray and blood test.
"The devil is shaking in his boots!" he bellowed, and whatever he said after that was lost in the clamoring of the crowd.
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The revival has become a worldwide phenomenon. More than 400,000 people have attended, from more than 100 countries. In his online biography, Bentley says God delivered him as a teen from a "lifestyle involving criminal activity, youth prisons, drugs, sex, satanic music and bondage." He traces his fixation on fire to the Day of Pentecost in the second chapter of Acts, when the Holy Spirit descended with tongues of fire and a mighty wind.
In the Christian blogosphere, Bentley has been demonized. Religious observers say his methods veer toward New Age mysticism and the occult. Many call him a false prophet. In any case, his style has more in common with Austin 3:16 than its biblical antecedent: It seems borrowed from Wrestlemania.
"Bam!" he said, in the meeting's fourth hour, in an open field next to an airport, as God TV propelled his face into homes across the planet. "Bam bam bam bam ba ba bam bam bam!"
Get out your credit cards, he said. Write a check. Click on the blue button on the Web site. "You reap what you sow," he said. "Generosity and the anointing go hand in hand."
Some guests took this as their cue to walk outside for a burger and a $3 lemonade. They returned to find Bentley surrounded by fellow preachers, in the midst of a formal religious commissioning.
"Your power will increase," said Peter Wagner, a white-haired minister from Colorado. "Your authority will increase. Your favor will increase."
Bentley grinned, hands outstretched, head still bobbing, as another pastor anointed him with oil, special revival oil FedExed from Africa, and slew him in the spirit so he fell to the stage.
He was down for nearly 15 minutes. The prophets prophesied: One said Bentley was a tugboat breaking the ice of religious tradition; one spoke of glory issuing forth; one blew wind from her lips and shook her head so fast that her hair was a golden blur.
Bentley twitched as he lay there, occasionally raising his hands in triumph. Early in the fifth hour he stood up and the crowd rushed in to form what resembled a mosh pit. Someone wheeled an old woman on stage and he touched her for a while before she was whisked away.
"Let the wind of your spirit stoke the fire," Bentley said.
A long-haired man writhed on the stage. When Bentley touched him he began walking like a fiddler crab and nearly knocked the lectern into the pit. Bentley made a wide sweeping motion with both hands, directed toward a thicket of people on stage, and they recoiled. People lined up and he knocked them down, bodies cascading like dominoes. "Bam! Bam! Bam!" He wiped his face with a white cloth. At 11:43 he checked his watch, and then he was gone.
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Fire of God!
Two human walls formed below the stage, and thousands lined up to walk through and be touched by Bentley's associates. Fire of God! the associates yelled, rubbing heads, pushing shoulders, blowing in faces. People cackled and convulsed.
Ellie Carroll, 45, a breast cancer survivor from Texas, sat and watched. She said the power is real: Sometimes her skin burned, sometimes she felt glued to the floor. Sometimes it seemed as if she was drowning in liquid butterscotch. "When the fire of God comes on you, it is violent," she said. "It took a while for me to be okay with it."
Carroll was once a youth counselor and a wedding planner. She sold or gave away her possessions to join the movement. She gave Bentley's organization nearly $1,000.
Weak from the cancer and a scorpion bite, she needed a walker to get around. But she knew she would be healed.
At 12:38 a.m., as bodies littered the floor, a man with a microphone told everyone to go home. Carroll was still waiting.
"Guys!" the man said. "You can minister and pray to each other outside the fence."
Carroll struggled to her feet. Another man brandished a megaphone.
"I'm gonna cut on the siren," he said. "Five. Four. Three. Two. One."
Carroll thought she might handle things differently if she were in charge here, but she had no complaint; she believed God was directing their every move. She hustled toward the door, gripping her walker, and behind her the siren howled.
Thomas Lake can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3416.