Misplaced Faith

I’ve always liked Derren Brown. I remember seeing him years ago performing card hustles and (by his own standards) simple mind-reading tricks on chat shows and naff entertainment programmes which barely lasted a series. After that I watched with interest as his star moved firmly towards the ascendent. His series Mind Control and then Tricks Of The Mind were a consistently fascinating mixture of sleight of hand, NLP, suggestion and showmanship. I loved the way he put one and frequently two over on members of the public and, pleasingly, po-faced celebrities. Around that time I saw him perform live in The Waterfront, Belfast, and was bamboozled by the range and scale of mental and physical stunts he pulled off so effortlessly. The show’s denouement involved a lengthy and convoluted routine  which involved making the entire audience think of a specific word. Just before the word was revealed I whispered “Symposium” under my breath. Sure enough, “Symposium” was the magic word. My brain reverberated like a boiled ham in a pot as Derren tore open a brown envelope which had been visible in an upstanding  clasp all evening to display the word written on a very long piece of paper. The auditorium rumbled with a collective intake of breath. My eyeballs juddered in their sockets and, a slight feeling of nausea notwithstanding, I was pretty astounded by what I had just witnessed and experienced. I felt like one of those mopes Derren diddled in Tricks Of The Mind: amazed at Derren’s audacity, envious of his ability and slightly irked that I possessed no such abilities.

Well done, Derren said. We’ve managed to transfer a word telepathically.  This, of course, was not the case, and after the applause subsided and the curtain came down Derren returned to the stage to explain how it was done. This has always been a key element of Derren’s act: the debunking of the fraudulent side of so-called “magic”. Derren tells you upfront that he has no supernatural or psychic abilities and he baulks at the idea that anybody does. Of course, this is another distraction technique, a means of making you feel at ease, an accomplice in his schemes, when he is in actuality tricking you in a different way. The verbal equivalent of asking to admire your watch while he is picking your pocket with the other hand. Nonetheless, I have always been intrigued by this  element of Derren’s performance. It is the same reason that I loved Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige: the combination of finding out how tricks were done coupled with the suspicion that there was something sinister or even supernatural going on at the same time. It’s a powerful dynamic which appeals to the human desire to be tricked but within certain parameters. It’s the same reason we watch Horror films: we want to be scared yet at the same time need to feel safe.

As Derren’s career has progressed it seems that he has become more interested in the debunking than the performing. The latter still plays a vital aspect of his routine, a slick, funny halfway house between Victorian parlour pranks and contemporary street hustle. The debunking, however, has taken centre stage. In recent years, Derren has made documentaries and one-off specials on psychics, mediums, people who claim to commune with alien species… all of whom are quite rightly shown up to the hucksters that they are. I don’t mind that. There are a lot of very dangerous people in the world who thrive both financially and egotistically on the weaknesses of others. There is no doubt that such people should be exposed and I am glad that somebody has the nerve to do so and do it in a non-pious way. 

Interestingly, when dealing with this brand of charlatan Derren is always open about, to use his phrase, “his days as a Christian.” Obviously, as a Christian myself I find it saddening that he has lost or left behind his faith though I can understand how his logical and rational mind has led him to this point. I can appreciate that someone so clearly intelligent would wrestle with the concept of faith and acceptance of a higher entity. What I find puzzling is Derren’s unabashed advocacy of people like Richard Dawkins, a gifted scientist who may claim to expose the shortcomings of religion when in actual fact his approach is a spiteful, bilious attack on Christianity. Or, to be frank, Christians themselves, whom he dismisses as unthinking, unreasoning idiots. I can respect any difference of opinion but when it resorts to childish name-calling and character assassination one really has to challenge the validity of the argument. One of the questions I have for Dawkins and Derren is the myth that faith is by nature blind, that there is no hard “evidence” for not just the existence of God but also his nature as a benevolent, paternal Creator. If I ever had the chance to sit  with Derren with a coffee or cold beverage then this is no doubt one of the things I would love to chat about. There is the danger with his work, much as I admire it, that it suggests that all faith is harmful, that any belief which cannot be explained through a simple “scientific” argument is therefore incorrect. I am not doubting that any belief system should be tested and probed. In fact, The Bible talks specifically about the dangers of being blindly led by the nose. Yet to dismiss any faith out of hand, as Dawkins does, is nonsensical and becomes a strange form of unchallenged faith in itself.

Which leads us to Miracles For Sale, Derren’s new programme which was shown on Channel 4 last night (it’s no accident that it was broadcast on Easter Monday, but we’ll let that one slide). It was essentially an exposé of a particularly virulent brand of charlatan: faith healers who weedle an ungodly amount of money out of the sick, weak and needy. This practice is common throughout the world but is particularly endemic in the States where the power of cable television and the power of the Bible Belt combine to have maximum impact. The expansion of the Internet has also aided their cause, meaning that “healing services” can be uploaded to YouTube or streamed live so viewers can indeed see the lame walk, the deaf hear and the blind see.  These men, for they are mostly men, are claiming the miraculous power of Jesus Christ yet, as Derren pointed out, they have not provided any evidence to validate their claims. As he proceded to demonstrate throughout the show, their acts of healing were just another form of confidence trick which involved stooges, plants, in-ear microphones and the like. A shortened leg can be “healed” by slightly adjusting a slip-on shoe. A deaf person can be “cured” if they are only partially deaf to begin with. Arthritis, an ailment which afflicts several of my close relatives, can be remedied by lifting the sufferer’s leg until it hurts then easing it down again to relieve the discomfort and asking, “Has the pain subsided?”.

These are not the only weapons in the faith healer’s arsenal. Their “sermons”, for want of a more fitting word, are bolstered by the same kind of rhetorical techniques which shape any form of public speaking (pacing, pauses, rhetorical questions, pitch and timbre of voice etc.) yet in their case they are demanding money, not applause. They use music in the same manner that any traditional praise service would yet the subsequent collection amounts to thousands and thousands of dollars. Mircales, as Derren deftly pointed out, are not cheap.

There is no doubt that the people who perpetuate this perversion of Christian principles are guilty of abhorrent crimes. They are no different to those who run pyramid schemes or hoaxes or even those who walk into a bank with a shotgun and an empty sack. They are thieves and deserve to be locked up for their crimes and made to pay back everything that they have stolen and more. That aspect of the show was not in question. Derren clearly demonstrated the despicable ends these mountebanks will go to in order to achieve their goal. Pleasingly, he was very careful not to suggest that all Christian ministers are guilty of thievery and all Christian believers are guilty of being compliant sheep. In fact the show featured an epilogue with Derren speaking to camera about the intention behind the show was not to offend the faithful but to unmask faith healers as the rogues that they are along with their inverted “Prosperity Gospel” teachings.

However, for me there were several problems with Miracles For Sale. The main one was the involvement of Nathan, a member of the public who was picked out of a group of enthusiastic individuals who applied to an advert, planted by the show’s production team, to be a television presenter. Derren’s shows have always involved ordinary members of the public being taught to do extraordinary things such as predicting the outcome of a greyhound race or holding up a security truck, but here the dynamic was awkward from the beginning. Derren was going to train Nathan to be a pretend faith healer, to help him learn the same techniques and tricks that the sharp-suited, coiffured salesmen use in their daily scams. Naturally, this would involve a lot of deception and, not to put too fine a point on it, lying, something Nathan was uncomfortable with from the outset. There were moments when he was clearly distressed about telling half-truths or total falsehoods, not to the corrupt faith healers that they were targeting, but to members of their congregations, people who worked for them, people on the street and so on. Derren went to great lengths to defend this undercover approach, saying that one needed to be a hypocrite for a short while in order to expose the corruption rooted in the heart of this ministry. He contended that in this instance the ends did justify the means. However, as Nathan became more convincing in his role as slick, debonair “Pastor James” (his character has the same initials as Jesus Christ and it surely didn’t hurt that Nathan physically resembled Good News illustrations of the Son of Man) his ability to lie convincingly became equally slick and debonair. The show drew attention to this discomfiting transformation but that does not mean that it excused it.

Secondly, there was the persistent, nagging feeling that Derren was shooting fish in a barrel. The footage of  these other pastors supposedly channelling the Holy Spirit when in truth they were listening to in-ear microphones was both outlandishly amusing and pitiful. Surely anyone in their right mind can see that faith healers of this ilk are pretty unseemly individuals, though the shots of an excitable speaker condeming homosexuals appeared to have been chosen for particular effect, so I was left wondering why Derren went to such great lengths to show them up. Months of preparation and training led to a service from “Pastor James”, an evening of praise and healing. This would have been more impressive had it taken place in one of the sparkling, money-soaked arenas the head honchos use when liberating people from their money. Instead, it was performed in a decrepit-looking theatre. No flashbangs and fireworks. Just a stage and some lights and a big television screen bearing the likeness and name of the Pastor. Admittedly, the lowkey nature of the event was a knock-on effect of their decision not to employ and therefore lie to a Christian PR company in Texas but it did mean that the show ended on a muted note. There were many empty seats in the theatre and the producers evidently used tight camera shots to make it appear as if there were more people in attendance. Ironically, they might have been able to emulate the patter of the consummate faith healer but none of the professionalism. This evening involved some acts of “slaying people in the spirit”, as if to bang home Derren’s point about how unscrupulous these false prophets are, but it was closed with an odd speech from Pastor James, a carefully worded platitude advising those listening to think carefully about what they did with their money, that they should be wary of trusting anyone who purports to trade miracles for cash. I can appreciate Derren’s reasoning in including this statement. I understand that it was the final way of highlighting the corruption of faith healers still working in great numbers today. However, it fell largely flat because of both the lack of a substantial audience and, truth be told, the way that they responded. Many of them nodded and wept and prayed, just as they had done when “Pastor James” was talking about his time working as a healer in Uganda. The message was mishandled and therefore its impact was dampened.

In summary, I found the show to be a brave attempt to tackle a problem which is a justifiable cause for concern. However, it was overlong at an hour and a half and as is often the case with “religious programming” did not feature much input from genuine Christian believers. We were told that Christians were consulted about the programme but it would have benefitted from more of their thoughts. At least then Miracles For Sale would not have seemed quite so one-sided. It might have revealed something more about why exactly people attend these services, what they are seeking when they get out the wallet or chequebook and place their faith in someone who, to quote Chaucer, could not care less if their soul goes blackberrying.

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One Response to “Misplaced Faith”

  1. lladro figurines Says:

    Interesting write up .

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