Below is the transcript of an interview I did for a local church newsletter with a charismatic friend – Ben Wylie – exploring my religious background, church experiences and why I left the charismatic movement. Kudos to the church – itself charismatic – for being interested in hearing what I had to say.
Ben: Thanks for agreeing to this little interview. Your church experiences are remarkably varied, taking you from traditional Church of Ireland to Pentecostal to Presbyterian back to Pentecostal to Word of Faith charismatic to reformed charismatic and back again to Presbyterian! Whew! How did it all begin?
Stephen: My parents were not Christians but my grandmother was and as a family we would accompany her to an old traditional Church of Ireland. I never liked it much and when I about 11 or 12, I was left behind with my grandfather – who worshipped only at the local pub – while everyone else headed off to church.
Ben: So, what brought you back to church?
Stephen: When I was about 15 a close friend of mine had become a Christian and was attending a local Pentecostal church. He pretty much bullied and cajoled me into going! Surprisingly I loved it, largely because it was very different from the stuffy environment I had always associated with church, and a few months later I too had become a Christian.
Ben: Did you begin at this time to have any problems with the Pentecostal movement?
Stephen: No, not at all. I simply got involved in a youth group in a neighbouring Presbyterian church and started going there. I attended that church for around 6 or 7 years and during that time I had some of the best experiences of my life, including mission trips to Croatia (shortly after the war there) and Hungary.
Ben: So what was it that led you back to Pentecost?
Stephen: The refusal of the church to modernise and change frustrated me greatly and I was hearing whisperings of some amazing things that were happening back in the Pentecostal church I had attended at first. They had just experienced a little of what was known as the “Toronto Blessing.” There were rumours of powerful manifestations of the power and presence of God. I was attracted primarily because they seemed to promise an experiential dimension to faith that I had been missing. God seemed to be moving there in powerful ways and I wanted a piece of the action, I guess. There were indeed some rather odd experiences to be had!
Ben: I’m intrigued! Tell us more about the sorts of things you experienced there.
Stephen: Most of the typical Pentecostal manifestations were present: speaking in tongues, words of knowledge and prophecy, “slayings” in the Spirit, and general Pentecostal exuberance. I played drums there and on one occasion about two thirds of the congregation formed a conga line and danced right out of the church leaving us playing to a small group of bewildered more reserved people!
Ben: And did you experience anything directly yourself in your time there?
Stephen: Not much. I don’t recall ever being “slain” in the Spirit, but I did experience people trying to push me down a few times and witnessed many other people clearly pushed to the ground. I also had experience of receiving a personal prophecy. The prophet told me God told him that I was going to be a pastor. Of course, I had just told the prophet I was studying theology so I suspect he was simply playing the odds! I also eventually did learn to speak in tongues. I remember in one particular meeting being called to the front with a group of others to be prayed for to “receive the Holy Ghost.” People actually expressed their disappointment afterwards that I didn’t speak in tongues. I felt guilty and angry. But later on that same night when I was praying at home I ended up speaking in tongues, which I can still do to this day.
Ben: I want to come back to your experiences shortly, but could you tell us a bit more about your charismatic experiences after you left this church.
Stephen: Yes, I had met my wife here but as she didn’t enjoy it very much we left shortly after we got married and went to her family church – another Pentecostal church, but far less wacky. After witnessing some rather unsightly church politics we left this church and I vowed never to go to church again! Around this time I began battling with severe depression and anxiety. It was about 9 months or so before my wife got me going to another church where a group of friends had gone. It was a Word of Faith church. This is pretty much the extreme end of charismania – those who believe Christians should always be healthy and wealthy and that you can use the Bible almost like a spell book to ward off “demons of illness” from your life. I’m still embarrassed that I ended up here, but it happened during a psychologically problematic period of my life during which I was emotionally and psychological vulnerable. Perhaps I hoped these guys had the answer. I just wasn’t in my right mind. As I got a handle on my own mental health my rational faculties returned; and when they did charismania didn’t stand a chance! We left for a reformed charismatic church – part of the Newfrontiers network – but my belief in such things had already shattered.
Ben: So, you gave up on the charismatic movement, but didn’t you think there was anything genuine that you witnessed in all your time there? What about your experiences of speaking in tongues, for instance?
Stephen: I met a lot of very good and godly people, even in the wackiest of places, but I saw very little that could even plausibly count as a genuine supernatural event or phenomenon. I don’t regard my ability to speak in tongues as supernatural in the slightest. I desperately wanted to do it, I had been around people who did it all the time, and I simply copied them. I think that’s what tongues speech is: a big game of Let’s Pretend.
Ben: I confess I find it bewildering and even a little shocking that you speak that way. I speak in tongues and I regard it as a blessed thing to do. I can’t imagine giving it up! All I know is when I do it I feel close to God. Didn’t you ever feel like that?
Stephen: I did. I felt spiritual. I felt part of a spiritual elite. But I wasn’t doing anything supernatural. Speaking in tongues is a very natural thing. Linguistic research into the phenomena of tongues speech has been absolutely devastating to the practice. We know it is not language. Linguistic research has shown that tongues speakers take syllables and sounds from their native languages and babble them out so they sound like a language when it fact it’s just gibberish. This also explains why a Chinese tongues speaker will speak a different “tongue” to an English tongues speaker. Each uses sounds from their native language. If tongues was a truly supernatural phenomenon this would not be the case, but rather people could speak in other languages without having been taught them.
Ben: But might it not be a private prayer language? I find tongues most beneficial in this sort of context?
Stephen: I have no doubt people find it beneficial, but they do so because it operates like a form of meditation, not because they are speaking any kind of divinely-bestowed language. At best tongues-speech is a form of meditative babble. That it has good effects – like making people feel spiritually blessed or close to God – does not mean it is remotely a genuine phenomenon. After all, we see the same practices with identical results in other religions. For example, Hindu tongues speakers will report the blessed benefits of their practices too.
Ben: I wanted also to ask you about faith-healing, because I know a large part of your recent research project has focused on that. You once believed God healed people, but now you don’t?
Stephen: I believed God healed and I believed the many testimonies and stories I heard during my time as a charismatic. But I didn’t stop to analyse them, I took them for granted. I knew God healed, so when someone claimed God healed them I didn’t think to examine it. Healings were just to be expected. They were normal. But I began to be uneasy. Most of the healings were rather trivial – warts falling off hands or headaches and other pains going away. The disabled kid never received healing. The guy with terminal stomach cancer just got worse and worse and died. Serious physical conditions never ever got healed. It made me wonder, and so I began to investigate healing stories and time and time again there was no reason to think that there had been any supernatural intervention. In fact, in most cases just a cursory examination of the healing claim is enough to dispel the myth of a miracle. Some one or combination of the following is typically at work: placebo, exaggeration, misdiagnosis, the body’s natural healing abilities, the “Chinese-whisper” effect, medical treatment, and plain old fraud.
Ben: So you conclude that God does not heal?
Stephen: Not exactly! God might heal. In fact, he might heal all the time. My point is primarily an epistemological one: we have scant basis for believing that God does heal, and certainly not anywhere near as regularly as Charismatics make out.
Ben: What would convince you then that God had miraculously healed someone?
Stephen: One thing that would convince me is if there was clear physiological change quite outside the limits of what we know about how our bodies work. So, if a man without eye balls suddenly grew them in his head, or an amputated limb suddenly grew back. Alternatively if a healing evangelist had an astounding success of curing people, such that, say, a very high proposition of people with cancer for whom he prays get completely healed – enough people to clearly beat the odds of it all being explained by spontaneous remission.
Ben: I agree we rarely see things like that but I’d love to send you some stories of amazing healings I’ve come across to see what you make of them. For now, I would simply say that I’ve seen belief in healing do a lot of good. It gives sick people hope, and praying for healing is an excellent way to connect with people and minister to their problems. Do you see any value in that?
Stephen: I don’t have any problem at all with prayers for healing, as long as a sick person isn’t being given unreasonable expectations or made to think that they need to give money or have more faith. Sadly there’s so much scope for abuse. People have had their expectations raised so much that rather than seek medical help they seek prayer, with sometimes fatal consequences. Others, assuming they have been healed, quit taking medication, with equally potentially fatal consequences. Others hand over money they can ill-afford to spare in the hope that God will bless their generosity. I think churches would be better off supporting people’s practical needs in practical ways, and perhaps help people to face life-changing illness in emotionally helpful ways that doesn’t chiefly involve holding out hope for healing that sadly very rarely comes. There are many ways faith-healing can be physically, emotionally, and psychologically damaging. Human beings get sick and we die – no amount of faith or faith-healing can change that.
Ben: Thanks for talking us through your experiences and thinking, it was all too brief! We’ll have to catch up and get into these issues a bit deeper.
Stephen: Thank you for having me!