Monthly Archives: July 2015

Miracles at New Wine?

New Wine is a network of churches which first came to my attention when I was investigating the leg lengthening parlour trick that occasionally reappears on the Church scene. I discovered that there was a leg lengthening miracle claim at the New Wine annual conference in Sligo, Ireland 2014. I contacted the person in question and told them they were probably the victim of a hoax, and linked to a Derren Brown video in which he gives one explanation of how the trick works. This wasn’t accepted by the person in question, who insisted that their leg was shorter and now it’s not. When I asked if there was medical evidence – in particular a diagnosis by a medical professional rather than a self-diagnosis or diagnosis by the healer, I received no further response.

Anyhow, this episode put New Wine on my radar and I kept watch on their 2015 conference which has just finished. Again, there were healing claims made. Apparently during a seminar by John Derneborg there were several people healed. So, I asked what kind of healings these were and if they were being medically verified. A few days later I received a response that healings included “arthritis to knee and shoulder pain,” but that since the conference was still in progress no one would have been checked by their doctor. I was referred to the following testimony:

https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=747377898717842&id=100003369178834

The first thing to notice is that this is – as is typically the case with the vast majority of healing claims – a case of pain reduction. It is well known that pain is incredibly susceptible to the power of suggestion – the placebo effect – and in the rush of adrenaline of a healing service pain can seemingly disappear, even for some time. For this reason it can be incredibly misleading to hear testimonies right after the supposed healing event, since it’s simply the nature of pain to come and go. A friend of mine with fibromyalgia will often go for days or weeks without pain before suffering once more. I was informed that this alleged miracle happened on Monday night and the lady was still pain free on Wednesday. But this is not remotely abnormal. Furthermore, I do question the lady’s testimony somewhat, wondering if she is not maybe over-stating things a little or giving a false impression of her condition? If she had a number of conditions that were all relatively severe, how is it that she just forgot to bring all her medication to a conference that was to last a number of days? Admittedly that’s not totally implausible, but I wonder how bad her pain was just prior to coming to the conference. If it was severe I doubt she would have forgotten her medication. In any event, it would be interesting if New Wine followed up this case and reported back as to whether this lady’s arthritis and fibromyalgia has really gone for good. If they do so I will post the results on this blog site.

New Wine has also been running a blog, recording daily events from their conference. One in particular is of interest to me, since it included stories alleging God to be a work. You can find these testimonies here:

http://www.vox.ie/vox-blog/2015/7/15/vox-live-blog-sligo15-day-five

I want to look briefly at the first two testimonies.

In the first, a couple were told that their baby “could have a syndrome that was “incompatible with life,” and that “after weeks of prayer…the next scan was clear.” Now, it shouldn’t take much digging to see that this is not as miraculous as it might sound to less discerning ears. The baby in question “could have” a syndrome – could, not did, could. It other words there doesn’t appear to have been a diagnosis in this instance.

I know what it’s like to be a parent in that situation. When my son was born medical professionals were alarmed at his large head. He had to be checked out at a centre specialising in infant development as well as having a scan on his head at hospital when he was only a month or two old. It was an incredibly worrying time and all sorts of nightmare scenarios went through our minds. After all the tests and anxiety we finally found out what was wrong with him: he just had a big head! However, for a number of weeks we genuinely thought there was something wrong with him, though – as with the New Wine case – there was no diagnosis of any illness or condition. Despite this the feelings of relief a parent feels when the nightmare scenarios are ruled out quite easily leaves one with the feeling that Someone Up There has been pulling strings on one’s behalf. The truth is that the child was not suffering from a condition that was life-threatening in the first place.

The second case is a slightly different claim, concerning a miraculous provision of petrol. I’ve heard this sort of story on several other occasions, including the pastor of a church I attended several years ago. It’s like a modern day version of the Old Testament stories concerning the miraculous provision of oil; a feat performed by both Elijah and Elisha. The New Wine story runs like so:

Margaret from Killarney was taking a friend for lunch in Cork when she noticed the petrol light was flashing. With about 20 miles to go she decided to risk it, planning to stop at a petrol station on the way home. But they stayed longer than they had originally intended and found themselves driving home after dark. “Every petrol station we passed, was closed,” Margaret said. “I began to pray Psalm 23: ‘The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not be in want’. My friend was not a Christian but I challenged her to believe with me for a miracle – that God would not let us be stranded on the side of the road. 87 miles later on an empty tank of petrol, we arrived safely home in Killarney…”

What are we to make of this? My first concern is with the estimation of distance involved. What exactly is “about 20 miles?” 15 miles? 17 miles? Given that distances in Ireland are given in kilometres, has this lady mistaken kilometres for miles? Further she claims her round trip was 87 miles in total. However, the distance from Cork to Killarney is 50 miles. Add to this the “about 20 miles” of the outbound trip from Killarney to Cork when the fuel light came on and we have 70 miles at the most, suggesting either an overestimate of distance or a confusion of miles with kilometres. So, I suspect the distance was significantly less than 87 miles. In any event, depending on the model of car, even this distance is not extraordinary. Some cars light up when there is still as much as a quarter tank of petrol left, some even capable of doing 100-150 more miles. It’s hard to make a definitive judgment, but on what we have been told there is nothing that strikes me as requiring a miraculous explanation.

Unfortunately few Christians will stop to ask such questions. I suspect when it’s re-told the first story will simply become one in which a baby was cured from a fatal illness. Or, upon hearing the petrol story, how many will stop to ask questions about the model of car, how many miles it can go once the fuel light turns on, and how far Cork is from Killarney? And herein lies a blight in modern Christendom: the lack of discernment in the face of miraculous claims. I suspect so many desire to see God’s hand at work in their lives – particularly during difficult moments – that they will claim His intervention when there is little reason to do so.

Stephen J. Graham

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Filed under Charismatic Movement, Faith-Healing, Miracles

Faith Healers: Pulling Our Legs?

My regular readers may already know that I’m currently planning a book examining supernatural claims, particularly within the Christian church. A large part of this work will involve looking at the various healing claims flying around Christendom. To this end I hope to investigate a number of supposed cases of divine healing, and so I began looking around to see if there are any claims worth checking out further. This process has only just begun, but it got off to a rather frustrating start.

I first came across a church based in Northern Ireland called Causeway Coast Vineyard Church, lead by a man called Alan Scott. On May 26th Alan Scott tweeted:

Looking forward to continuing conversation on the gift of faith at 6:30 service tonight. So many people healed over the last few weeks.”

To which I responded:

Are these healings being medically confirmed and documented? I’m genuinely curious, but sceptical of healing claims.”

Alan Scott’s reaction to this was to block me on Twitter. I sent him a message on his personal website expressing my disappointment and failure to understand his reaction. He never responded, and I’m still blocked.

I quickly discovered other members of his church making other claims. The Youth Pastor at Causeway Coast tweeted on 30th May: “One of our young guys got incredible news today that her cancer is all gone after our young guys prayed for her! #childlikefaith #thankful.” Intrigued I asked “What sort of cancer was it, and had she been receiving orthodox medical treatment?” I received no response.

The Director of Evangelical Alliance in Northern Ireland, Peter Lynas, also happens to attend Scott’s church. Around the same time, Lynas retweeted a video that was originally posted by Scott. The video was a testimony from a young woman who claimed to have experienced a healing in her ear. You can watch the short testimony here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5m_GfEn5gfo&feature=youtu.be

I responded to Lynas: “Is this being medically documented and verified? I’ve seen similar testimonies that turned out not quite what it seemed at 1st.” I added “In just a few weeks your church has claimed multiple healings, inc. deafness and cancer. Willing to have them investigated?” I received no response.

On the 6th June I wrote to Causeway Coast Vineyard, introducing myself and my plan for my book, asking about the claims that had been made recently, and if I could investigate them further. I received no response. On Sunday 28th June – three weeks after my letter – I emailed the church with a reminder and a copy of my letter. So far I have received no response.

Shortly after posting my original letter to Causeway Coast I wrote to Mark Marx, a member of the church and the founder of a ministry called “Healing on the Streets.” Again, I received no response. I sent several messages on Twitter, also receiving no response. So I decided to research a little into Healing on the Streets to see if I could find any information or testimonies that I could follow up. I initially discovered a street healer in America called Todd White and watched several of his videos on Youtube. I was rather deflated to see that his signature move was the old leg lengthening parlour trick. This is a trick that has been part of the arsenal of every two bit healer across the globe. It smacks of chicanery. It reeks of charlatanry. It’s been shown time and time again to be fake. James Randi and Derren Brown are amongst the many sceptics who have conclusively demonstrated what really lies behind the trick. The ruse can be achieved in a number of ways, and Randi describes one way in his book “The Faith Healers,” or you can watch Brown performing it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cpz_9_KalFY. If you ever see a faith healer perform this wonder, alarm bells should be ringing. Even without this knowledge it should make one wonder: is it not strange that God would regularly expand countless legs by a mere inch or 2 but never re-grow a missing limb? And should we forget babies with AIDS, thalidomide children, and meningitis, and praise Jesus for dealing with the real scourge of the earth: people with one leg slightly shorter than the other? How odd it is that God would do an overabundance of miracles that can be easily faked, all over the globe by anyone with a little training.

If a faith healer performs an alleged instance of healing that has been shown over and over again to be false, used by chalatans to manipulate the faithful (and extract money), and which is quite easily faked, then he bears a burden of proof to show that his version of the healing is genuine. Until such time as he does so, his ministry should be disregarded and his claims rejected.

Naturally I wanted to know if there was any connection between Todd White’s Healing on the Streets and the Healing on the Streets of Mark Marx. To my chagrin I soon discovered that Mark Marx performs exactly the same signature wonder as Todd White: he makes slightly shorter legs grow out before your very eyes! You can see him perform it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wW2IgE78qzQ and the feat is performed in several other Healing on the Streets videos (does Marx train people to do it?). In this particular video I found it strange how sure Marx was that the woman’s leg would grow – he knew before he prayed that it would grow out, and made sure everyone had a good view to see this marvel that was sure to occur. How was he so sure? Moreover, rather than pray he seems to command the woman’s body to grow and heal. Anyhow, astounded, and rather disappointed, I tweeted Marx: “Is this a genuine miracle in your view or are you simply performing the trick exposed many times” – and I included here a link to Derren Brown’s video above. Marx finally responded: he blocked me.

This was both an amusing and incredibly frustrating episode. What are we to make of it? What are we to make of the lack of straight answers to simple questions? What are we to make of the lack of tolerance for daring to ask questions at all, and of the silence in the face of honest enquiry?

A less generous interpretation is to see Marx as yet another trickster, building a reputation and drawing in a steady stream of cash as an in-demand speaker and healer. But I’d rather not accuse Marx of that. I hope he’s honest, but just self-deceived. After all, psychologists are aware of mechanisms that could be at work here, deceiving even the faith-healer. Take, for example, the now famous ideomotor effect. This occurs when, through the mechanisms of suggestion or expectation, the body undergoes some sort of involuntary movement – often incredibly slight – without the person being aware of it. American psychologist Roy Hyman concludes that tests on the ideomotor effect show that “honest, intelligent people can unconsciously engage in muscular activity that is consistent with their expectations.” It is this ideomotor phenomenon that is responsible for what happens during activities such as Ouija boards or table turning (it’s not demons or the ghosts of the dead, folks!). It also – if Marx is an honest man, genuinely believing himself to be a conduit of divine power – explains what lies behind Marx’s leg growing marvels. I wonder, could Marx produce examples of this kind of healing occurring when he isn’t actually holding or touching the person’s feet or legs? Since he seems to perform the wonder on a regular basis it shouldn’t be a problem to independently verify whether or not any limbs are growing at all. Can he produce any such evidence, or is he willing to undergo such investigation? Chris French, Professor of Psychology at Goldsmith’s University of London, cautions: “The ideomotor effect is capable of producing powerful illusions that can be exploited by the unscrupulous. Those whom they fool are usually well-intentioned, often highly intelligent individuals. But the demonstrations used to convince them of the claims are never carried out under properly controlled conditions.” Can Marx provide an example of a person’s leg growing where there is medical evidence – not just self-diagnosis or diagnosis by Marx – of complications caused by having one leg shorter than another, and where medical evidence is subsequently sought after the supposed miracle to confirm that healing really has taken place? Since Marx seems to come across a rather uncanny number of people with this condition, should it be so hard to produce just one example that meets such basic criteria?

In the absence of a proper response from Marx, it’s difficult not to conclude that all that’s going on here is either self-deception, or downright trickery. Personally I prefer not to think the latter. Anyhow, Christians should have nothing to do with such claims. The Bible calls Christians to show discernment. Discernment isn’t something mystical or other-worldly. It’s simply the application of one’s rational faculties and the determination not to be so gullible in the face of every seemingly magical or supernatural phenomenon that we come across. Most of the time, it’s just someone pulling our legs.

Stephen J. Graham

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Filed under Faith-Healing, Miracles