Miracles for Sale – responding to concerned young people
On Monday evening, Channel 4 here in the UK broadcast Derren Brown’s ‘documentary’, Miracles for Sale (I use the quote marks because Brown himself warns you never to trust him completely). It followed the paranormal debunker – a self-confessed ex-Christian – as he took on the sometimes-shady world of faith healers. He took a man with no church background, and turned him into a fake pastor, with the intention of running a healing meeting in the American Bible Belt. Most of his findings will have shocked no-one – he looked for instance at the ‘ministry’ of Peter Popoff, allegedly found to use an earpiece to aid his miracle rallies in the 1980s (Popoff’s wife was said to have fed him detailed information on his congregants, based on the registration cards they’d filled in).
Some of the programme was less comfortable however. While Brown claimed that his only target was the fake healers who make millions of dollars from healing scams, his brutal dismantling of these healings in Jesus’ name could not help but cast a question mark over manifestations of the Holy Spirit in general.
As a result of the show, the Youthwork office has fielded a number of messages from youth workers who are dealing with a kind of fall-out from the show. It seems that young people who are relatively new to the faith have been extremely concerned and dismayed by what the show ‘revealed’ about the activities of the Holy Spirit. Their doubts are perhaps understandable, particularly where the young people have come to faith in an environment such as Soul Survivor where miracles and manifestations are very much part of the story.
Derren Brown made a point of affirming those with genuine faith, and I think we should take him at his word. The show was not meant to undermine Biblical Christianity, of which the work of the Holy Spirit is an inextricable part. It might be helpful then, to look at some of the more troubling elements of the show, in order to assist you as you consider your response to young people who have found it difficult.
Derren Brown’s opening claim
The programme began with a short introduction from Brown, in which he claimed that no healer had ever been able to provide proof that a miraculous healing had taken place. On one hand, Brown has something of a point – conclusive miracle proof is rarely produced, but perhaps that is because it isn’t prioritised by the person who has been healed. Does the whole church need to get a little wiser to this; to seek miracle verification in the way that the Catholic church does?
However, this is another of those moments where Brown – for whom I hold much admiration in many ways – is being deliberately misleading. There are many confirmed miracles; a good friend of mine often visits the office of his doctor, on whose wall is pinned a scan of my friend’s once fatally-infected intestine with the words ‘Act of God’ written on it. It is important that we make this clear to young people: Derren Brown’s opening claim is not true; God does still heal today, and this can be verified.
Healing on the Streets and the power of adrenaline
In one segment of the programme, fake ‘Pastor James’ takes to the Texan streets to perform so-called miraculous healings using the tricks taught to him by Brown. When he appears to successfully ease the pain of several people, Brown explains to us that this is simply a psycho-somatic placebo effect; a brain-confusing adrenaline rush that leads people to believe they have been made well when they have not.
This is of course true, but that does not mean it is true of all healing. It is certainly not the experience of many of the Healing on the Streets teams who offer prayer in towns and cities around the UK each weekend (for example stories, visit: http://www.out-there.org/healingstories.htm). Unlike some of the street-healing that was portrayed in the programme, this healing is offered in a deliberately non-hyped manner; and in many cases takes place on a come-to-us basis, as volunteers set up a stand offering prayer, and wait for passers-by to take up the offer. The show did not claim to represent all street healing – only fake faith healers who sometimes take to the streets. If Derren Brown didn’t try to throw the baby out with the bathwater, why should we?
For that matter, we can’t be sure that some of the people who claimed to have felt healing at Pastor James’ hands, weren’t actually healed by God anyway. In Mark 9: 38-41, Jesus and his disciples discuss a man who is not part of their movement, but is performing miracles in Jesus name anyway – and Jesus seems quite comfortable with that.
However, for young people who have found themselves in the hyped-up surroundings of a ‘Big Top’ event, the concerns raised over adrenaline-rush healing may have been troubling. Yet there are countless stories of young people – some of whom may be in your youth group – who have experienced utterly life-changing moments in that kind of environment which have involved some kind of genuine experience of the Holy spirit. And does it not also make sense that when we encounter God himself, that might cause some sort of physical, adrenaline-charged reaction?
The scenes which seemed to prove that certain pastors and healers were cheating their way to ‘miracles’ and making a tidy profit from the faithful were deeply disturbing. It would seem to me that there are fewer clearer illustrations of Jesus words in Matthew 7: 15-20 – that ‘by their fruit you shall know them.’ Regrettably these people exist, but they do not represent Jesus – he makes that point powerfully himself. It should be reassuring to all of us that the very people targeted in this documentary were targeted by Jesus too – in many ways, we’re on the same side here.
Various people are seen being misled at the hands of ‘faith healers’, including Derren Brown’s stooge. While we should feel some sympathy for them, we should not forget that as Christians, we have a responsibility to show discernment when we engage with people who claim to be prophets and miracle-men. I John 4 v 1 tells us to: ‘test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.’ I hope this doesn’t sound too harsh, but some responsibility for the phenomena that Derren Brown is attacking does rest with those who do not show discernment.
Paying for a miracle
The miracle ‘business’ is just plain wrong. We can stand with Derren Brown and agree on this – and restate the fact to our young people. There is no Biblical precedent whatsoever for ‘sowing’ finances into the ministry of an individual.
Ultimately, if a young person’s faith is rooted solely in experience, then they are on shaky ground. Faith itself is, according to Hebrews 11 v 1, ‘being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see’. Christianity is not about certainty and physical proof, but about hope – not just for the life to come, but for a better life on earth as the Kingdom is extended. That hope is practiced and lived out through a relationship with God; through practicing the spiritual disciplines; through being part of a kingdom people.
Miracles happen, and praise God – they change and enrich lives. But they are not the basis of our faith; in fact they aren’t even limited to the people of God (see Exodus 7: 8-13). The basis of our faith is the cross of Jesus and His resurrection from the dead. This extraordinary story is the compelling basis for our response to young people – and the sure hope in which we ask them to place their faith.
In Miracles for Sale, Derren Brown has made a very important piece of television – because he has highlighted (much like Louis Theroux before him) things that are going on in the name of Jesus which do not reflect Him or His teaching. As youth workers, our role is to help young people to understand the distinction. My hope is that many young people will in fact end up knowing Jesus more clearly, not more distantly, as a result of this programme.
Martin Saunders is the Editor of Youthwork. Follow him on Twitter @martinsaunders