Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Derren Brown - Miracles for Sale - Review and Critique

These people always cause trouble. Their minds are corrupt, and they have turned their backs on the truth. To them, a show of godliness is just a way to become wealthy.
1 Tim 6:5 (NLT)

Last night, Derren Brown did a TV expose of American faith healers. There's a link to the website here. I thought a lot of it was good and well done, but it could have been significantly better.

Brown started with a crowd of volunteers, and then picked and trained one to become a fake faith healer, using some of the techniques he was sure that many of the "real" fake healers were using. His target was specifically the faith healers linked to the so-called Prosperity Gospel who teach that in order for God to bless you the most, you need to give the most money to them.

I don't doubt that there are plenty of such people. The Bible warns about them (see above). I've written against the "prosperity gospel" before. I thought it was especially good how Brown at al worked alongside Christians and Christian organisations in trying to expose the con artists.

One of the problems they had was getting enough publicity in the US. Most churches were surprisingly well-guarded about letting Brown's fake faith-healer preach or publicising his event - encouragingly so. It was also encouraging that Brown decided not to use a US Christian publicist, for fear of destroying his business when it became clear that they were fakes.


Brown is of course dead right that a lot of "faith healers" are manipulative charlatans. But there are others too. I'm sure that some are well-meaning and wanting to see God at work, and get easily tricked into faking stuff without realising they're doing it, and then misled into running after money. I'm sure too that others are genuine. I have a friend whose leg was miraculously healed, and who has a letter from his NHS consultant to that effect.

One of the key ways of telling the difference is their attitude to money, sex and power. If they are getting rich from their status and their ministry, then I would suggest they aren't genuine. Maybe some of the healings might be, but their hearts are clearly in the wrong place. Jesus did lots of miraculous healings; the apostles did miraculous healings, but they didn't get rich from them - they got killed.

The well-known Christian leaders I have the most respect for are the ones who are either on fixed salaries / stipends (as in most of the C of E), or who have set up trusts so that they personally don't get book royalties, donations, etc (as Rick Warren, John Piper, etc) and are instead paid by the church they work for. They also make sure they don't profit in other ways - strict rules about accountability and so on. Billy Graham famously didn't allow himself to be unsupervised with any woman except for his wife - he'd even refuse to go along in a taxi if the driver was female.

Healing on the Streets is an informal British movement which got briefly referenced. When that sort of thing is done as publicity for big rallies with financial appeals, as with Derren Brown's examples, it may well be faked and wrongly motivated.

I'm pretty sure that most of the British stuff is in a different category. Let me explain. I've been to a big conference where we were encouraged to go out and pray for people on the streets. Not to fake stuff, but to go out and do it. I've also seen the leg lengthening thing done in that context, and I'm pretty sure it wasn't done like Derren Brown did it with the loosening of shoes. I think it was to do with posture and the angle the person was sitting at on a cheap plastic chair - if you slip slightly to the left because someone is pulling your left leg, it appears to become longer. I'm not sure if the person showing us that knew that he was faking it, but I know that "miracle" is easy to fake, even if you don't realise you're doing it. I know people who do Healing on the Streets, and they're genuine about it - they're doing it because they want to see God blessing people rather than to get money, sex or power, and they're not trying to do fake healings like on the film. I also know that God does sometimes heal people genuinely.

I know too that God does sometimes give people words of knowledge about others. It was interesting to see how they faked it on the programme, but the existence of a fake does not imply that real ones don't exist.

Lessons for us

I help to run a bi-monthly Service of Prayer for Healing and Wholeness. And it's really important for us to be clear that we're not in it for financial gain. So we don't, and we shouldn't take collections at services where we pray specifically for healing.

We should be clear it isn't about personalities - I read somewhere that best practice is only ever to pray for healing in pairs or groups, so that you never know which person's prayers led to any healings that happen and so detract from any possible personality cult. The Biblical model is that it should be done by the elders (plural) of the church, with anointing with oil, and that seems right. There is one person who heals, and it's Jesus, not me.

We should be clear in our attitudes that it's about us serving and laying ourselves down for others, just as Christ has done for us. If attention ever starts to drift onto us or onto the healings, push it back onto Christ, because that's where it belongs.

We should also be clear to distance ourselves from those who think that godliness is a means to financial gain. And that's partly why I welcome Derren Brown's programme.

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