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