Friday, February 8, 2013

Fantasy, Faith, Fraud

I read incessantly. I have been reading incessantly since I learned how before I went to kindergarten. Throughout the 1980's, I scoured my parents' bookshelves for anything I could figure out; history, nursing manuals, theology - it didn't matter. Library trips were never frequent enough for me, so I often read the same books again and again.

My favorites were the inspirational little paperbacks from publishing houses like Baker or Zondervan or Whitaker House or, even further back, Logos or Creation House. They were easy to hold, very portable, handy to stash in the bathroom cabinet or under the couch for later, and often contained exciting first person narratives of escape from Nazis, torture by atheist Communists, or Bible-smuggling behind the Iron Curtain. Some were agonizing accounts of crippling accidents, drug addiction, brain damage, and poverty. Every one of them included miracles. Kathryn Kuhlman's miracle stories were good, Smith Wigglesworth was memorable, and I pondered Corrie ten Boom's vitamin bottle for decades, but Mel Tari was the miracle winner, hands down.

Momma didn't allow fantasy on our bookshelves, but Mel Tari made the Indonesian island of East Timor every bit as thrilling as Narnia or The Wizard of Oz could have been. Never mind the sick getting well. Like a Mighty Wind and its sequel, The Gentle Breeze of Jesus, had water springing out of dry ground, fruit appearing on trees, singing angels, broken bread growing back in a woman's hand, God showing movies on the clouds to weary itinerant preachers, a dead eye regrowing to match the seeing one, water turning to [non-alcoholic] wine, invisible umbrellas, non-consuming flames, corpses returning to life, shamans cutting their hair short (sure proof of God's power in the 70's!), and much, much more.

Oh, yeah. Aslan had nothing on the teenage Tari's God. It was like the book of Acts in Technicolor. Acts was my favorite Bible book, after all, but these events took place just a decade before I was born! Over time, I did wonder if Tari had exaggerated just a bit and I quit reading his books in favor of more staid Christian literature, especially stories of perseverance in the face of suffering that wasn't miraculously abated.

Twenty years later, when I was trying to shore up my faith in God and his powers to reverse nature, I remembered Mel Tari. Looking back at his stories after a few foreign trips myself, they seemed oddly "westernized" for 1960's Indonesia, but perhaps that was the fault of translation. Surely if Tari was genuine, he would have caught attention since. What had he been up to since his books became so popular?

So I googled Mel Tari. And what should turn up but a conviction for fraud in 1994. Nice. Shareholder in an American resort? Maybe my childhood hero was just another con-man who could spin an ear-catching yarn to eager Christian publishing houses in the 1970's and 80's. Like Jack Chick's buddy, John Todd. Like Mike Warnke, "ex-Satanist High Priest". Like Rebecca Brown, a mentally disturbed doctor who had her medical license revoked. And like Crying Wind, whose claims were investigated by Moody Press 20 years after they published her "testimony".

On a hunch, I looked up Cliff Dudley, Mel Tari's co-author who suggested publishing the tales in the first place. Turns out Dudley (now deceased) also co-authored Tammy Faye Bakker's I Gotta Be Me and Run to the Roar. In 1978, he co-authored the volume Choose Life or Death: The Reams Biological Theory of Ionization with Carey Reams, (an agronomist who promoted treating cancer with fasting and lemon juice, and had been convicted of practicing medicine without a license). And with Sidney Custodio, there was Love-Hungry Priest. (Custodio's name now shows up on lists of sexual abuse allegations against priests in California.)

Honestly, I really don't care if God had a celestial movie projector on an island north of Australia before VHS tapes. Angelic singing? Josh Groban's voice is beauty enough for me. And as handy as regenerative bread may be, it seems it is not available in stores. Or to malnourished African children. Now if there was a God who was able to keep his followers from falling, that would be nice. Able to keep them from abusing kids, lying to their fans, scaring people senseless, and taking money that was meant to help the needy. All in God's name, of course.

Mel, of course, stands by his story. He's still out there preaching and praying in Jesus' name, alongside claims that he's walked on water. And, hey, if silver jewelry is turning to gold at Mel Tari's evangelistic healing meetings, maybe I really am missing out.


  1. One of your best posts yet! :-) I too have pondered these things so many times. I grew up with non-stop miracle stories too, and I think of them now, wondering what was real, what was science, what was imagination.

  2. I am sorry that you haven't had the chance to meet Mel Tari in person. One of the most humble, filled of he Spirit men I have met in my life.

  3. Sounds like a con artist to me. I have been researching various people who make such claims in the name of the Lord. Unfortunately, I have personally experienced the devastation such fanatics can have on families. It angers me that people use the name of Jesus to swindle others for money and to gain fame and notoriety among religious circles. The Bible warned us of false prophets, but tales of miracles sell much more than humility.

  4. My brother got caught up in Tari's movement. He was speaking in tongues and having visions. One night my wife and I had him over to our house for dinner. My wife was then pregnant with our son. I was not convinced that Tari's book was true and had said as much. After supper, we - me, my wife, my brother and his then-girlfriend, were sitting in the living room talking. All of a sudden my brother blurted out - in front of my wife - that God had told him to tell me to "humble yourself" or my next child would die in the womb. Well, as it turns out, my son was healthy and turned out to have an IQ that is off he scope. He graduated from the US Naval Academy and served six years as a Naval officer on submarines and in special operations. After leaving the Navy, he went to Harvard and obtained an MBA and is now an executive with a large corporation. So much for my brother's visions! As for my brother, he and his girlfriend were married. A few years later they had a baby, born premature, who lived less than a year. As for Tari and others like him, Christianity has been filled with frauds dating all the way back to the time of the Apostles. Joseph Smith is a good example. They spin wild stories and attract hundreds, then thousands and even millions of followers - and they're frauds who preach "another Jesus."

  5. Whether or not Mel was a fraudster, the revival in Timor really happened. You can read another account of it from Kurt Koch's "Revival in Indonesia". Koch was a reformed theologian who was not at all pentecostal-friendly. His book is now available online in its entirety.