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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11 Comments

Filed under Faith-Healing, Miracles

11 responses to “Faith Healers: Pulling Our Legs?

  1. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard missionaries speak in churches while they’re back on deputation and they’ll share all sorts of supernatural stories of healing, stories which seem to have some unsettling connection to the benevolent offering they hope to receive shortly. But nobody is willing to inquire into the documentation for their claims.

    The credulity of many belief communities is truly disheartening. It reminds me of this old urban legend which I have heard shared in church as a real story:

    http://www.snopes.com/glurge/26guards.asp

    • Noelle

      Well, it’s a similar mentality to any kind of religious faith. You believe God redeemed someone and made them repent? You don’t have any reason to believe that other than their word and your faith in your religion. If we were going on logic and scientific proof alone, there wouldn’t be any religion. Lots of communities like this are very good at coming up with all sorts of explanations for their believers. In the religious community I grew up in, scientific inquiries into the healing showed a lack of belief and faith in God’s healing powers and therefore were unwelcome.

  2. Noelle

    Hm, are you looking specifically at individual faith healers? In the United States, there are loads of groups that practice faith healing. Many of them genuinely believe in it. Some are welcoming and others argue with those who question them, but some don’t want questioning because that’s somehow “bad” energy or whatnot.

  3. Pingback: The Charismania Collection | stephenjgraham

  4. Sian

    Stumbled across your blog. If you’re not already aware of it, you might find “Testing Prayer: Science & Healing” by Candy Gunther Brown (pub. Harvard University Press) an interesting read…

  5. Dawn

    Hi 🙋 I am an ex-member of the Causeway Coast Vineyard church and I would like to thank you for bringing this issue to light. When my husband and I were at the church we were witness to many leg growing, I had it done on myself. I mentioned to a member of the healing team one Sunday morning that my back was was quite sore, he at once jumped up and told me that he could take the pain away. I was sat on a chair with my legs at a right angle to my body, he then proceeded to grow my right leg. I am not a gullible person and I can tell you that my right leg has never been shorter than my left. My back pain is a result of a difficult pregnancy and when he had finished my back was still sore, to which he replied that I needed to have more faith. This perplexed me for sometime after to the point of me almost loosing my faith altogether. Shortly after we decided, having witnessed other questionable instances, to leave this church. But God was faithful and we found a church that has renewed my faith with abundance.

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  7. There was an Elim church in Liverpool that had claimed to have had a verified miracle in the 80s which was reported in the local paper. It was a blind woman getting her sight. I got hold of the press cuttings and they said no such thing. They reported on the healing rally’s and a woman’s claim that her eyesight had improved. No miracle blindness cure. Yet this story still gets an airing from time to time. It’s always somewhere far away geographically or far away in time.

  8. hobbesmommy

    Mark does claim to have seen limbs grow and the dead raised as well. Like you, I’d like some documentation. I was just at a seminar and left skepticism intact.

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