Monthly Archives: September 2015

The Charismania Collection

It suddenly hit me that I’ve written a fair few articles on various features of charismania, so I thought I’d post them all together as a “Charismatic Collection.”

FAITH HEALING

Does God Heal? This is an introduction to the primary considerations why we should approach healing claims with caution:

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2014/01/27/does-god-heal/

 

Divine Healing and my Charismatic Deconversion: Here I briefly discuss my exit from charismania and discuss one particular healing claim I’m personally acquainted with:

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2014/03/18/divine-healing-my-charismatic-deconversion/

 

Faith-Healers: Pulling Our Legs? I wrote this article shortly after discovering that the old faith-healer leg-lengthening trick was alive and well in my homeland of Northern Ireland:

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2015/07/03/faith-healers-pulling-our-legs/

 

Marx of Suspect Healing: In this article I present reason for scepticism in the face of the increasingly popular “leg growing miracle,” with particular reference to the faith-healer Mark Marx from Healing on the streets.

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2015/11/07/marx-of-suspect-healing/

 

Debating Claimed Healings & Miracles – A Public Invitation to Peter Lynas: I think it’s only fair to give ones opponents a right of reply. In this article I invite Peter Lynas – the head of Evangelical Alliance in Northern Ireland and Director of Causeway Coast Vineyard – one of the biggest charismatic churches in Northern Ireland – to a public debate, and explain why I think I’m well placed to examine their claims. Peter and his church make a lot of claims, but they never produce evidence, submit their claims to examination, or even answer basic questions. In fact, several months later Lynas is still ignoring me.

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2016/02/27/debating-claimed-healings-miracles-a-public-invitation-to-peter-lynas/

 

What’s So Wrong with Faith-Healing: In this article I discuss a number of features of faith-healing claims and practices which are dangerous, and even potentially deadly.

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2015/12/09/whats-so-wrong-with-faith-healing/

 

Dishonest Charismatic Claims: In this article I discuss the tendancy to overstatement and flat-out fabrication which continually dogs charismatic miracle claims, looking at Charisma magazine’s report about the alleged healing of a teenager from cancer, and Robby Dawkins claim to have raised a man from the dead.

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2016/04/17/dishonest-charismatic-claims/

 

Robby Dawkins & The Fake Resurrection: This is an examination of Robby Dawkins’ claim to have raised a man from the dead. I include here the full text of the testimony of the man’s sister which gives a very different slant on the matter.

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2016/04/29/robby-dawkins-miracle-worker-or-factually-challenged/

 

Healing & Disobedience: This is a brief reflection on the claim that if we don’t heal the sick we are disobedient to the commands of Christ.

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2016/05/19/short-article-1-healing-disobedience/

GLOSSOLALIA

Speaking in Tongues: Gibberish? In this article I discuss whether or not tongues speech is genuine.

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2014/01/26/soeaking-in-tongues-gibberish/

 

The Apologetics of Tongues Speech: I respond in this article to the various explanatory gymnastics used by defenders of tongues speech, concluding that things don’t look so good for the “gift of tongues.”

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2014/03/26/the-apologetics-of-tongues-speech/

 

PROPHECY

Charismatic Prophecy: Christian Astrology? I attempt to demonstrate that modern prophetic words are often little better than astrology, and are probably best explained in the same terms: by the so-called “Forer” (or “Barnum”) effect.

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2015/09/14/charismatic-prophecy-christian-astrology/

 

MISCELLANEOUS MIRACULOUS

The Charismatic Movement and Princess the Hypnodog: There are similarities between the two, or so I argue, in particular in terms of tricks, and how easy it is to be fooled:

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2015/05/13/the-charismatic-movement-princess-the-hypnodog/

 

Miracles at New Wine: I analyse a number of miraculous claims that came out of the New Wine Conference in Sligo, July 2015, in this article:

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2015/07/17/miracles-at-new-wine/

 

Moreland and Miracles: In this piece I argue that JP Moreland’s standard for believing miracle claims is way too credulous:

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2015/09/05/moreland-and-miracles/

 

Our Lady of the Illogical Leaps: A look at the often silly world of theophanies:

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2014/02/20/our-lady-of-the-illogical-leaps/

 

Explain That! A Guide to Investigating Miraculous Claims: Every charismatic has a miraculous anecdote ready to fire at the unprepared sceptic. This article gives advice as to what we should do when faced with miraculous claims:

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2016/03/19/explain-that-a-guide-to-investigating-miraculous-claims/

 

Non-Charismatic “Gifts of the Spirit”: There are many miracle claims outside the charismatic movement. I discuss a few of them in this article, showing how they are evidentially comparable with charismatic claims, and challenge the charismatic why I should give any more credence to his claims than those of Christian Science of even milk drinking statutes!

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2016/02/15/non-charismatic-gifts-of-the-spirit/

 

The Seduction of Charismania: It’s not easy to break away from the Charismatic movement – it took me years. In this article I attempt to explain its allure and why people get trapped.

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2016/02/11/the-seduction-of-charismania/

 

The Limitations of Eyewitness Testimony: This articles addresses the many problems of appealing to eyewitness testimony as proof of some miracle or other. I outline 4 problems with eyewitness testimony illustrating how and why it is often unreliable and not good enough by itself to prove a miraculous claim.

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2016/05/10/modern-miracle-claims-the-limitations-of-eyewitness-testimony/

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Filed under Charismatic Movement, Faith-Healing, Miracles, Prophecy, Tongues

Charismatic Prophecy: Christian Astrology?

Having already written several articles on divine healing and the phenomenon of glossolalia, I want to turn my attention to the gift of prophecy, or what all too frequently gets passed off as prophecy these days. The following “prophetic word” from Alan Scott, the leader of Causeway Coast Vineyard in Northern Ireland, appeared on Twitter on Saturday 12th September 2015:

Perhaps possibly potentially maybe a prophetic word for some – or even one church leader – in the church in the UK:

As in the natural.

So in the spirit

This is a season of transition and migration within the body as God moves His people

Many long standing ministers and ministries responding to fresh priorities and boundaries

God is upsetting, relocating and recreating.

I hear doors opening and a season of open doors emerging

Old tensions and offence being swept away from the body. Old divisions being swallowed whole by fresh compassion.

A new kingdom ordinance around the gifting of administration.

In particular wise administration coming upon the church in the UK

New solutions to old problems and the capacity to administer according to the wholeness and purpose of God.

An increasing authority emerging from a fresh vulnerability and a much grace for many needs

I hear some upheaval as leaders receive new orders

And so get ready for transition and relocation as God move his church from ambition to acceleration. Raising leaders according to the need of the moment.

The butchering of English grammar in these few sentences – and given the lack of punctuation it isn’t obvious how many sentences there actually are – is not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is the vagueness of the prophecy, and the rather evasive way in which it is written. It’s pretty much a bunch of fuzzy ramblings that “perhaps possibly potentially maybe” apply to someone in the church in the UK. This sort of hazy prophetic style isn’t an isolated example either. In my 15 years of experience in the Charismatic movement, and my recent research into supernatural phenomena, I have discovered that this is all too common from so-called “prophetic people.” For example, I recently listened to a prophetic seminar which was hosted by a leading UK church to see what kinds of prophetic words people would be given. The seminar was little different from what I have heard countless times before. Such seminars may as well be titled “How to Grow in Cold-Reading Techniques.” They prey on the fact that a huge number of people desperately want to hear directly from God about what they should do, what job they are to take, what neighbourhood they should live in, what school they should send their kids to; in short, to be assured that God really is interested in their lives. Here are a few samples from the workshop:

You are a man who sets captives free – a broken vessel, but God shines in the cracks. You are a man for men, with a worshipper’s heart. If this isn’t a reality now, take it as a promise for the future.”

“God sees you through the eyes of kindness – you have a father’s heart – God wants to take you to a new level of intimacy with him – just to be in His presence – God will give you the gift of wisdom.”

“God has transformed something in your life into something beautiful. I had a vision of you in a field, dancing. Go for it! Others will join you!”

“God will drop a bomb – a good bomb, and God’s been building something in you. It might be messy, but things will fall into place.”

“God sees you as very useful – but the enemy has attempted to throw a spanner in the works.”

The vast majority of this strikes me as little other than a sort of Christian astrology. Of course, some people swear that astrology is genuine. They regularly pay attention to their readings and claim that they are uncannily accurate. Many people on the receiving end of prophetic words also claim that they are strangely accurate. In fact, the same explanation for the accuracy of astrology applies to much of what passes for prophetic words: the so-called “Forer Effect,” also called the “Barnum Effect.”

This psychological phenomenon was first illustrated by Bernard R Forer in 1949, and has been demonstrated over and over again since. The Barnum effect creates an illusion of accuracy; occurring when a person takes even the most vague predictions or statements and interprets them as specific to themselves. Often the person will focus on those aspects of a psychic reading or prophetic word which are particularly relevant but play down the parts that are not. In Forer’s demonstration a group of students were given a generic personality profile which was supposedly written just for them. Of course, the students were amazed at how accurate it was. The truth was that each student had been given exactly the same profile, which had been written using statements that Forer got from an astrology book. In such experiments the readings are all vague enough to allow each person to interpret the statements in light of themselves. You can see James Randi perform the trick here on a group of students: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Dp2Zqk8vHw

Such statements – commonly called “Barnum statements” – are what make practices like cold reading, palm reading, astrology, and mind-reading possible. In these cases a reader will throw out a bunch of general claims hoping to get a hit. Many people are fooled by it, even to the point where they forget all the incorrect guesses that were made in the process and remember only the hits. Thus, Barnum statements work side by side with another psychological phenomenon: confirmation bias. Barnum statements work because humans are often very similar to one another. Statements like “I sense you hold back a lot in social situations,” would be a hit with a large majority of people. Or, “I get the feeling that you long for the days of your youth.”

What we really see in modern charismatic prophecy is a Christianized version of the Barnum Effect. Re-read the examples quoted earlier. I suspect that the vast majority of these statements could be interpreted by the vast majority of Christians as being applicable to their lives. Moreover, not only are they inherently vague and applicable to huge numbers of people, but they often come with built-in safeguards such as, “If this isn’t a reality now, take it as a promise for the future,” which is almost guaranteed to be a hit with anyone who already believes in modern charismatic prophecy.

Take another example provided by Charismatic leader Jack Deere, a darling of the Vineyard movement. He was told by a prophet that his father had “dropped the ball” when Deere was young, and that God had allowed Deere’s athletic ability to be frustrated so he would follow intellectual pursuits. Deere reckons these were remarkable prophetic insights: his father had taken his own life, and sports injuries had plagued Deere’s youth. But, once again, we might simply be seeing the Barnum effect at work, (I say ‘might’ because, of course, it’s possible the prophet knew more about Deere than Deere realised). Let’s face it, every father fails or “drops the ball” in some regard. In fact having childhood problems with one’s father is the stuff of psychological cliché. Moreover, how many of us men think of ourselves as having some ability – often athletic – that didn’t quite reach its full (often, imagined) potential? These strike me as statements that quite easily apply to a large number of men.

Not that all prophecies amount purely to vague ramblings. Sometimes there are more specific predictions made. I was once told by an itinerant prophet that I would be a pastor. That’s a more specific prediction. However, he told me this right after I had informed him that I was studying theology. Playing the odds, perhaps? Other prophecies might warn of specific catastrophies that will only be averted by the person performing actions X, Y or Z. Of course, when the person performs these actions and the catastrophies do not happen the prophet can be applauded, and everyone remains oblivious to the fact that the catastrophies in question in all likelihood would never have happened anyway. It’s a bit like a madman waving his arms around wildly to keep the man-eating lions at bay who, when it’s pointed out there are no lions around, responds, “See, it must be working!”

Lastly, there are the predictive and specific prophecies that meet a rather different end: they turn out to be flat-out false, like Kenneth Copeland’s prophecy in the early 90s that Islam will fall and become nothing in 1995. Or Benny Hinn’s long list of prophetic failures, such as that the 1990s would see the collapse of the US economy, the death of Fidel Castro, and the homosexuals of the world destroyed by fire.

Of course, in light of the spectacular failures of these more specific prophecies it’s not difficult to see why “prophetic people” often retreat to vague statements and spiritual platitudes that could be true of almost anyone. In either case there seems little reason to think that the omniscient creator of the world is behind any of it.

Stephen J Graham

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Filed under Charismatic Movement, Prophecy

Moreland and Miracles

Every time I’m tempted to think Charismatics are stupid I remind myself that I was stuck in Charismania for well over a decade. Rumours and promises of the supernatural can be incredibly alluring. When people are so desperate to experience God their levels of credulity increase dramatically. But that doesn’t mean many of these people are not intelligent. Of course they are, and I was reminded recently of one highly intelligent thinker for whom I have the utmost of respect, and who also happens to be a charismatic: JP Moreland.

JP Moreland is an influential Christian philosopher and apologist. His text “Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview,” co-written with William Lane Craig is one of the best standard Christian philosophy books on the market. I also particularly like his shorter volume “The Recalcitrant Imago Dei,” in which Moreland discusses several features of humanity which are difficult to accommodate within a naturalist worldview, such as: consciousness, rationality, morality, freedom, and personhood.

And so, naturally curious about his charismatic beliefs, I picked up a book he had written called “The Kingdom Triangle,” in which he has a few things to say about Christians rediscovering the power of the Spirit, and in which the influences of his Church – Anaheim Vineyard – are quite apparent. Admittedly Moreland’s language is often baffling when he speaks of such matters. He invites us to “seek to bring God’s supernatural power to bear on [needs],” as if God’s supernatural power is ours to distribute. He encourages us to “grow in the miraculous” as if the occurrence of miracles were down to our personal growth. He also speaks about how we “grow in power,” as if wonders happen because of how spiritually strong we are.

Moreland doesn’t have a lot to say about phenomena such as speaking in tongues or prophecy – though he clearly believes in such gifts – but he does have a few things to say about divine healing, a main emphasis of the Vineyard brand. Moreland even has some stories to tell, and some advice for the rest of us concerning the proper epistemic reaction to such testimonies.

I want to share a few of Moreland’s anecdotes, and critically assess his advice that the rest of us should believe such testimonies when we hear them. I’m not normally impressed with testimonies of healing, but Moreland makes me listen more than usual, largely because this is an obviously intelligent and coolly rational mind who is far less likely to be deceived or mislead than Joe Bloggs. Anyhow, here’s a summary of Moreland’s account of his own healing:

Moreland came down with a dose of laryngitis. The timing couldn’t have been worse for him, as he now had to cancel a 3-hour lecture he was to give at another church, not to mention having to cancel academic classes which would mean he had overshot his quota of missed lectures for that semester. After church that Sunday he just wanted to get home, and had to make phone calls to cancel his lectures, but just before he left some elders from his church prayed for him. One placed their hand on his throat, and when they prayed Moreland felt warmth rushing through him, and within minutes his laryngitis was gone. He never had to cancel his talks after all.

This testimony is the most significant in Moreland’s book, because it is first-hand. Other testimonies Moreland recounts have a sort of hearsay folk tale quality to them. There was a young woman in China who came down with a virus doctors had never seen before, and for whom everyone had lost hope. However “following prayer she was healed and fully recovered.” We have a Thai missionary reporting that a church service he was conducting was interrupted by a village leader desperate because the rains had not yet come and the crops were soon to be ruined. However, the church prayed and fasted for 3 days and on the 4th day it rained. Or consider another missionary tale of a boy with a hernia in a Brazilian village. The missionaries laid hands on the boy and the hernia disappeared during prayer. Moreland also recounts the tale of a young girl who had two parakeets, and when one of these birds died the little girl prayed for another and found another just like it up a tree the very next day.

Moreland clearly believes sharing such stories is vital to boost our faith. He admonishes us to “read to grow in faith from the testimonies of others as they bear witness to the things they have seen and heard.” Further, when faced with stories of the miraculous Moreland advises: “if there is credible eyewitness testimony for an event, including a miracle, then, all things being equal, one ought to believe the event even if there is no medical proof.” [Emphasis mine]

Now, what are we to make of all this? It seems to me that Moreland sets the bar far too low for miracle reports. There are lots of good reasons to be (at least prima facie) sceptical of miracle reports even when they come from credible eyewitnesses (please remember I write this as a Christian – not as a naturalist).

Consider first-person healing testimonies. People are often very poor witnesses concerning themselves. Many don’t have a terribly good grasp of their own medical condition, so that what seems serious and incurable to them perhaps isn’t so to a medical professional. Cancer is a good example here. Many people think of cancer as if it’s a single illness which must be cut out or destroyed by chemotherapy. Few people realise that there are many forms of cancer which behave very differently from each other, and that many forms of cancer can spontaneously remit. Illnesses can behave in ways that can surprise many non-professionals who easily lapse into certain presuppositions when they think about illness. This might cause us to think a miracle has occurred in some case when in fact an illness is simply behaving in a natural way, albeit in a way that most of us don’t associate with the illness in question.

Further, when illness strikes close to home we can catastrophise matters. As someone who suffers from health anxiety I understand only too well the distorting effects health worries can have on our perceptions. Also, there is a strong temptation when testifying to healings to overdramatize things a little, to “sex-up” our stories, make them more interesting than perhaps they are. I’ve witnessed a large number of such testimonies in my time in charismania.

On top of this we must also keep in mind that many investigations have been undertaken into miracle claims which have yielded not-so-good results for miracle testimonies. Many alleged healings turn out to be dubious at best, and, sadly, often fraudulent, deceiving even intelligent and credible witnesses. How many credible witnesses saw people rise out of wheelchairs at a WV Grant crusade, not knowing they weren’t disabled in the first place or were stooges planted by the faith healer? Related to this problem is the lack of medical follow-up. Moreland says this doesn’t matter, but it obviously does. Many healing testimonies are given moments after an alleged healing. However, the sad fact is many of these people wake up the next morning only to find they are not healed, or go to the doctor only to discover the tumour is still there and that they experienced nothing other than temporary pain relief in the charged atmosphere of a healing service. And yet, credible witnesses wake up that very same morning and tell all their friends that a person with a painful tumour got healed and couldn’t feel the pain any more.

Furthermore, many witnesses do not understand the nature of illness and disease well enough to be considered good witnesses despite the fact that they might well be very honest in how they report some event or other. In fact, this ignorance is widely exploited by unscrupulous faith healers. For instance, a person might be brought on stage and “healed” of blindness. The faith healer will wave a brightly coloured handkerchief in front of their face and the person sees it and grabs it in their hand, and maybe even follows the healer around the stage. A person might honestly report that they saw a blind person healed. The truth is they were deceived. Faith-healers know that when people hear the word “blind” they typically think that the person can see nothing at all. But this is rarely the case. The vast majority of legally blind people have some visual ability, however slight. Most can at least see the blurred outlines of a brightly coloured handkerchief held in front of their face, and if not they can still hear well enough to be able to follow a healer’s voice around the stage. It all creates a very persuasive illusion.

I suspect there might be a misunderstanding of illness at work in one of Moreland’s anecdotes – the boy with the hernia that went away during prayer. I had an inguinal hernia in my late teens. With this sort of hernia a muscle tear causes part of one’s intestine to protrude, forming a lump in the groin. However, I was able to pop mine back in again at will. So, I wonder did the missionaries lay hands on this boy’s hernia – popping it back in temporarily – and think it went away under the power of prayer? Perhaps they then moved on to the next village, not knowing that the boy’s hernia manifested itself a day or so later. What we end up with is a credible witness report of a miracle that wasn’t a miracle at all.

These are just some of the reasons why we need to be cautious in the face of miracle claims: other articles on this blog give additional reasons. And these reasons lead me to think that Moreland’s claim that we “ought to believe” the sorts of anecdotes he recounts is rather epistemically wild.

Stephen J. Graham

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Filed under Charismatic Movement, Faith-Healing, JP Moreland, Miracles