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Derren Brown, healing and psychology of belief

JamesKnight300Regular Network Norfolk columnist James Knight gives his take on the recent Channel 4 Derren Brown programme Miracles for Sale and the psychology of belief.

Over the Easter weekend I decided to watch Derren Brown's new programme ‘Miracles for Sale’, which was aired on Channel 4.  I thought it might be a useful addition to my project on psychology of belief and the patterns found throughout beliefs one observes. 
The premise of the show is that in order to expose faith-healers as being con-men or charlatans Derren Brown attempted to train an ordinary member of the public as a faith healer.  After lots of training they took him out to Texas (the heart of the Bible Belt), and tried to pass him off as a UK pastor with the gift of healing.  Derren Brown makes it quite clear that:
“This programme is not a comment on the church, or belief, or even, before some people get upset, the idea that God can or can’t heal. It is about a specific fraud, a greedy trick that has nothing to do with God whatsoever, beyond the fact that his name gets shouted around a lot. We made the show with the involvement of Christians and pastors who had been involved in that particular scene.”
DerrenBrownAs a Christian watching the show, although I couldn’t support their mendacity, I found myself largely on the side of Derren Brown (pictured right courtesy of Channel 4) and his assistants - as we were given a tour of the many fraudsters who were conning genuine believers by having inside information about them and using that information to feign Divine prescience.  
In some cases the pastors even had information fed via a secret microphone, which they then presented as Holy-Spirit inspired prophecy – convincing the believers that God was imparting special knowledge, and that such knowledge was worth a few dollars in the collection bucket. 

I should imagine that most Christians would be appalled at this; but of course, the atheists have been buoyed by the programme - it has compounded what they thought they already knew - that healing is a sham or a delusion, and this show helped reinforce their position. 
I thought this is worth sharing because I once attended Davey Falcus's testimony night when he came to Norwich, and saw God heal many through him. That night I was moved in ways like I’ve never been moved before.  I met a woman whose right leg was deformed.  She told me the Lord had spoken to her and that she was going to be healed that night.  Imagine my astonishment as I saw her walk to the front (with help) and observe Davey pray over her - and her fully healed leg was restored, allowing her to walk properly.  I might have been even more astonished if I hadn’t just seen a woman who was blind in one eye miraculously have her site restored.  This is another (different) evening that someone actually filmed - here's a clip...

What we have, inevitably, is the irresistible force of grace meeting the (nearly) immovable object of scepticism – the atheists will think my experiences must be delusion, yet grace is so expansive one can hardly be blamed for embracing miracles when they believe God created the whole universe. 
Of course, I can just about agree with the more eloquent atheist spokesmen like Christopher Hitchens, in that one's sense of decency is outraged every day at extremism.  The epitome of disfiguring the gospel comes in the surrendering of the mind to behaviour that tarnishes the reputation of Christianity through some way of life that seems far worse than atheism. 
To that end what the atheist disapproves of the intelligent and wise Christian is likely to disapprove of as well. The show exposes some obvious conmen, who later admit their guilt.  But it remains a big question whether in some cases the showmen who preach the 'sow and ye shall reap’ gospel that they've redefined as a gospel of financial incentive really do find themselves starting to believe it, or whether they have just gotten so used to spin that everything that smells of 'prosperity' blends together as a fait accompli Christian mandate.
What disturbs me is that when the sick and poor do not get the results they are hoping for the pastors have no compunction about telling them their lack of success is because they didn't have enough faith.  This is serious pathology, because it shows an insidious detachedness from the personal emotions of those most in need, and it paints God as some sort of celestial tyrant who enjoys playing with people minds and doling out 'tough luck' stories if they do not pull themselves together.
Secondly, it bears resemblance to a pattern of behaviour I've noticed in those most opposed to universalism.  I will try to explain it.  I can just about sympathise with those who believe universalism is inaccurate, I can even accept that some have reason to believe that the Bible talks of an everlasting hell in which the un-saved will be stuck in eternal torment.  I myself have some intelligent Christian friends who cannot find a way to support universalism.  I can, I think, sympathise with their position – after all, most have been conditioned to believe in a set of key doctrines, so their church history has a legacy of firm positions that have probably followed them into adulthood.  But what I think shocks me most is this; taken a certain way, the New Testament verses about hell contain perhaps the most outrageous and disturbing words ever spoken.  That there is any possibility that any human being could become aware of God’s love and grace when ‘Every knee shall bow’ and yet still end up spending eternity knowing he has ended up on the wrong side of the door seems a purely human conception, it seems at odds with the person of Christ, even though He is known to have spoken frankly about a separation.
Perhaps the psychological patterns I’ve observed show that when eternal hell is believed in to the extent that a man is willing to speak of hell for the lost with the same manner he might employ to describe a bus not turning up, we are seeing the same patterns of pathology that I mentioned last week when describing the pattern of traits in anti-evolutionist creationists.  In truth, the mere thought of anyone spending eternity in hell for what would be at worst a list of finite crimes ought to induce utter despair and dejection in every man or woman who is capable of rational thought – and the strength or weakness of despair and dejection of any man tells a truth about his psychology.
Even if a man cannot bring himself to be a universalist, he ought to be heartbroken at the thought that even one single creature could be relegated to such a fate – and one might suggest it is quite unnatural to speak of hell without expressing the slightest regard and admission that this is the most troubling question in the whole of Christianity – and that a man not troubled may be inadvertently speaking important truths about human psychology and the dangers of this kind of pathology.
What I am finding as I study the patterns of belief, against patterns of conviction, is that there are more and more signs that the matter of detail that describes the belief (be it anti-evolution, homosexuality is a sin, people are doomed for hell, or whatever) is almost trivially incidental to the pattern of pathology one observes in a person’s psychology. 
If the detail of the beliefs is secondary to the psychological driving force behind the beliefs, then that has important implications for Christian Vs Atheist apoplectics, Christian theorising, and the tracking out of one’s own journey of progression in Christ.  This really could be something hugely significant that hasn’t been given anything like the attention it requires. 
A lucid development of this project could help us make great inroads, not only in the domain of Christian apologetics, but also in the interest of sectarianism and disagreements within Christianity from the varying factions and denominations. That there is only one Lord is a comfort that works hugely in our favour.
Continued next time.



The views carried here are those of the author, not of Network Norwich and Norfolk, and are intended to stimulate constructive debate between website users. We welcome your thoughts and comments, posted below, upon the ideas expressed here. You can also contact the author direct at  

James is a Christian writer and local government officer based in Norwich.
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