Friday, June 24, 2011

Charismatic Experiences, Part 1

For those readers who are not familiar with the term, charismatic experiences are seemingly super-natural events that may involve strong emotions, and/or hypnotic states. For example, receiving prophetic messages, being “possessed” by some sort of spirit, speaking in tongues, loss of emotional/physical control in worship, etc., would all be charismatic experiences.

I was brought up in a Christian tradition which, for the most part, rejects charismatic experiences. But when I was in my early twenties I had two friends that were members of the same church as me who visited a Pentecostal church and came back reporting that they themselves entered into a state of consciousness by which they could speak in tongues. Both of them were convinced that it was the authentic work of the Holy Spirit. I was curious about these experiences and so I visited that same church and tried to be as open minded as possible. Nothing happened to me. It was a bit disappointing really. I would have honestly loved to have experienced something miraculous.

On a few other occasions, I have been invited by Pentecostal friends to visit their churches. Some Pentecostal churches are fairly subdued, just a few people privately muttering in tongues, or maybe a testimony or two about a healing. Others are just wild. I once visited a church where halfway into the song service the worship leader jumped off the stage and started running around the perimeter aisles of the auditorium screaming like a crazy man, and the pastor started shouting, “That man’s possessed by the Holy Spirit!” A few seconds later, a wave of emotion swept over the crowd and people started falling down on the floor and rolling around laughing or crying, or sometimes both. For the people of that church that may have just been like any other Sunday, but for me it was an incredibly bizarre experience. My friends assured me that it was the work of the Holy Spirit, but I had my doubts.

I confess that I am skeptical that there is anything supernatural involved in these experiences. I’m skeptical for a couple of reasons. For one, as I mentioned before, I grew up in a Christian tradition that is skeptical about charismatic experiences. My father, especially, instilled in me a skepticism towards these events. He often pointed out, I think correctly, the role of emotion in charismatic churches. I am also skeptical about such experiences because I know how easily people can be manipulated. P.T. Barnum famously said, "There's a sucker born every minute." A crass way to put it, but a truer word has never been spoken.

To illustrate this, I’d like to point to the work of Derren Brown. Derren Brown is a British entertainer who specializes in a type of performance known as mentalism. Mentalists use a combination of hypnotism, subliminal messaging, and other forms of subconscious suggestion to manipulate people’s thoughts and emotions. A good mentalist can convince an audience that they have supernatural psychic abilities. And Derren is one of the best in the world. Derren openly admits what he does is strictly showmanship. Even so, after his shows some people are still convinced that he has supernatural powers. You can find all sorts of funny clips on Youtube of Derren doing things like paying for expensive jewelry with plane pieces of paper, or convincing a man who wants a leather jacket that he actually wants a BMX bike - all through the art of suggestion. He always uses real people for his shows, not actors. And he is able to do this for the simple fact that he is very well practiced at manipulating people.

So what does this have to do with charismatic experiences? Well, believe it or not, these same techniques are used by some charismatic church leaders to bring their parishioners into the state of mind in which they have their "spiritual" experiences. It's also the same techniques that psychics and other new age miracle workers use. Derren himself often felt frustrated seeing these people on TV claiming to be empowered by the Holy Spirit, or having psychic powers, when in fact he knew that they were using the same tricks that he uses. He felt that these people were praying on the naivety of others for financial gain. So he decided to do a little experiment to see if he could convince, not just random people, but the experts themselves, that he too has these abilities. He recorded this as a television special in hopes of opening people’s eyes to how easily such “powers” can be faked. He takes aim at several different groups: psychics, people who claim to have been abducted by aliens, people who claim that they can talk to the dead, and, most interestingly, evangelical Christians.

It is both fascinating and disturbing to see how easily such experiences can be produced by someone who knows what they are doing. You can watch the entire special by following the links below. If you are just interested in the Christian portion, watch the first few minutes of clip 1 and then skip to clip 3. It is well worth your time to watch them. If any of my readers are of charismatic leanings, I'd love to hear what you think when you watch this video. I’ll post some further reflections of the value, or nonvalue, of these experiences in a later post. Here's a question for reflection: Do you think charismatic experiences are necessary for faith?

Derren Brown special part 1

Derren Brown special part 2

Derren Brown special part 3

Derren Brown special part 4

Derren Brown special part 5

Derren Brown special part 6

Derren Brown special part 7

Derren Brown special part 8

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