For weeks, I walked past the Palace Theatre in London, wishing I was among the lucky few who would get to go inside and see illusionist Derren Brown’s latest show, Miracle. I’m a big fan of Brown’s and I love the way he blurs good old sleight-of-hand with Neurolinguistic Programming, using explanation to simultaneously enlighten and obscure. So I was only too happy to tune into Channel 4 last night to watch the recorded live show of Miracle.
To my surprise, I’d seen it already.
I used to attend an evangelical, Holy-Spirit-seeking church. In Miracle, Derren (an atheist) takes on the mantle of preacher, healer, and miracle-worker, planting his tongue firmly in his cheek and calling on the Lord for divine intervention in his audience’s health problems. Anyone who has ever seen a faith healer in action would admit that his mimicry of their style and actions is note-perfect. He made headlines today, and blew up British Twitter, by both “healing” a woman’s defective eyesight and temporarily taking away a man’s ability to read. For some people, the show was doubtless just an entertaining diversion. But for me, it brought back a lot of memories.
I used to think I had interacted with God and experienced miracles. Now, of course, I don’t believe that anymore. There is such a gulf in thinking between Christian Me and the current Atheist Me that it’s hard sometimes to even remember why I became convinced of all the things I believed. Looking back, though, I can see that the branch of Christianity I was involved in – far from, say, your village Anglican or Episcopal Church – worked hard to maintain the impression that miracles big and small were happening all the time. We heard testimonies of miraculous healings, of people returning from the dead, of God’s provision of a financial blessing at just the moment it was needed and in just the right amount. Then of course, there was Sunday morning worship, which was often filled with strange events, like people being “slain in the Spirit” (this happened to me numerous times). There was an episode or two of spontaneous laughter that tore through the congregation like wildfire. There was the worship, which was almost hypnotic in its repetitiveness, opening us up to deep emotional experiences and probably increasing our suggestibility. There was prayer in tongues, where we would speak fluently and passionately in a “language” we didn’t understand. And there were healings, too.
Eventually, the cracks in the “miracles everywhere!” image started to show. At some point, I came to realise that the biggest healings, the most remarkable events, were ones that happened in far away places, in circumstances that were never or rarely corroborated. I heard from visiting preachers about how they’d raised a dead person to life in Africa or Siberia. I heard stories about big healings; people being cured of total deafness or total blindness or getting up and walking. But these things never seemed to happen close to home. As terrible as it was, as bad as I feel about writing this, and as much as we prayed for a different outcome, everyone who was terminally ill at our church just, well… passed away. Apparently we in the developed world don’t have enough faith to see them healed (unless we wanted to say that “Well, the Lord answered us and they got their healing – in Heaven!” which is obviously moving the goalposts significantly and pretending that the one outcome we were praying against was actually an answer to that prayer. And believe it or not some of us did actually say that). Yes, unlike the poor and virtuous in other countries, we weren’t desperate enough to have true faith. Or so the narrative went.
I remember a moment when one large crack started to appear, when I went with my church to a multi-church conference in a large arena. At one point, people who needed physical healing were asked to come forward, and we all prayed for them together. As I stood up in the stands, I looked down at the people who had come forward. There were lots of people, but what caught my eye the most was a man in a wheelchair. Not just the standard, wheel-you-out-of-hospital-to-the-car wheelchair, but an electric thing with a headrest. Throughout the praying I kept my eyes trained on him.
Of course, he didn’t get up and walk, and even as people queued up at the side of the stage to testify how God had healed their lower back pain, or slight hearing problem, or arthritic wrist, he sat there motionless. I wondered: How must it feel for him to sit there, knowing that God could heal him at any time, and God doesn’t do it?
That event was one of many left me with a question in the back of my mind. Why did God only heal the “easy” problems, when so many of us really did believe that he could heal the hard ones? Was it really just a lack of faith? Was it really our fault? It was clear that the visiting preachers who claimed to have raised the dead and so on in other countries had enough faith to see those kinds of miracles; even if the congregation in the developed world lacked faith, why were the visiting preachers also hamstrung?
The most useful thing, to the church at least, about creating the impression of constant miracles, was the effect it had in stifling any reasonable doubts about Christianity. I live in an area with many vibrant churches that seem to lean towards an evangelical, pentecostal kind of direction. That is, they place emphasis on God’s work today and divine intervention in everyday life, including miracles. Sometimes I’m approached by Christians who attend these churches, who try to evangelise to me. I usually try to give them the same answer (that is, before saying “Oh, there’s my bus!” and running away): I tell them that I don’t believe in Christianity, partly because I think there is a lack of compelling evidence.
But even while these conversations are happening, I can feel a sinking in my stomach. I know it’s a futile discussion – because I’ve been on the other side of this conversation, and I know that to them, there is plenty of evidence. After all, what is evidence if not seeing something with your own eyes? Seeing is believing. And they probably saw “miracles” just this past Sunday morning. Heck, maybe they were slain in the Spirit on Tuesday at their Bible study, or maybe they prayed in tongues just that very morning while getting dressed. To them, this is “evidence”, and if you’d only attend their church, you’d see it with your own eyes, too. It can be really hard to talk people round from this way of thinking.
But seeing is believing. So instead of talk, Derren shows them that there is nothing supernatural about their experiences by replicating their experiences perfectly. In doing so, will he change any minds about miracles? I think so.
I hope so.