Derren Brown vs Faith Healers

Earlier this evening Channel 4 broadcast Miracles for Sale, a documentary in which the illusionist Derren Brown trained up a scuba-diving instructor named Nathan to pose as a Christian faith healer. Brown showed some of the techniques used by faith healers – exaggerating the ailments of those who come forward for healing, using suggestion, and the hoary “leg-lengthening” routine – while Geoff Colman of the School of Speech and Drama (misspelt as “Coleman” in the credits) gave some method acting tips. Further advice came from two ex-Pentecostal faith healers; these were Mark Haville and a musician named Woody Woods. Haville, who is credited as “Specialist Programme Consultant”, is the author of a DVD called The Signs and Wonders Movement: Exposed, and from an interview here it’s clear that he today identifies with a Reformed strand of Protestant fundamentalism (curiously, Haville last year brought the documentary Expelled to the UK, apparently in order to stimulate a debate which he hoped would benefit Creationism).

Nathan was given a backstory as “Pastor James Collins”, including a fake (and slightly ropey) website called “Gifts of the Spirit Ministry”. Brown and the team then headed off to Dallas, where they met up with Ole Anthony of the Trinity Foundation, a well-known Christian watchdog organisation. Anthony explained what had originally motivated him, telling the story of a teenage multiple sclerosis victim who had committed suicide after donating $1,000 to a healer only to be told that her illness had continued to progress because of “secret sin”. Later, Brown talked with John Edwards, another former faith healer. Edwards, who has a blog here, explained that he had allowed his daughter to die from a brain tumour in the mistaken belief that she would be healed; this seemed to undermine Brown’s claim that faith healers are simply con-artists who don’t really believe in what they do, although this point was not explored.

Before arriving in the USA, Brown and the team had made links with an (unnamed) Christian PR agency to promote “Pastor James”, but they decided to sever the relationship for ethical reasons after realising that their deception could have devastating consequences for the agency concerned. Instead, they decided to self-publicise once in Dallas, persuading some local Christians to give out flyers, hiring a worship leader named Brenda, and introducing themselves to a certain Pastor Sean Pinder (who has some videos here). Pinder allowed “James” and the crew to film a service, which included healing a man who was deaf in one ear; to prove the healing, Pinder covered the man’s good ear and gave him instructions, but – as Brown points out in the narration – the good ear was not covered in way that would have obstructed hearing.

Pinder agreed to take part in “Pastor James’s” service a few days later, at the Lakewood Theater. Here, Nathan’s six months of practice and training were put to the test with a real audience: he gave his testimony, members of the (fairly small) crowd were slain in the spirit, and he showed supernatural knowledge of illnesses and provided healings. Then came the twist: a second address, in which, while maintaining his pastor persona, he warned the audience not to be taken in by bogus healers and denounced the idea of promising healings in return for money. The crowd appeared generally appreciative, although Pinder looked uncomfortable and his clapping at the end was decidedly unenthusiastic.

Harville and Edwards were both formerly members of the “Word of Faith” movement, a trend in Pentecostalism which stresses “health and wealth” (also known as the “Prosperity Gospel”). While in Dallas, Brown and his crew took the opportunity to check out a compound belonging to Kenneth Copeland, who is probably the movement’s best-known contemporary exponent (although he’s also very much a part of the broader Christian Right). The crew’s vehicle passed through an open gate to head towards a church on the compound, but they were quickly intercepted by the local sheriff, who took their details and gave them a criminal trespass warning. Copeland’s security alleged that they had twice been warned off the property, although this was disputed by the crew. It seemed odd that they should have jeopardised their project for what amounted to a bit of padding.

For light relief, there was also a segment with veteran faith-healer WV Grant, whose ministry, appropriately, is based in a converted car showroom. Exposing Grant’s charlatanism was easy pickings: a member of the crew (filming secretly) wrote a false name on a contact card, and Grant later duly repeated this false name as supposedly revealed to him by God. Later, Grant performed the leg-lengthening trick on Brown himself, unaware of his identity.

The programme didn’t break any new ground, and well-known footage of the James Randi exposure of Peter Popoff from 1986 served to emphasise this; as John Crace notes in the Guardian:

 …It wasn’t entirely clear why Brown felt it necessary to go to such trouble to turn an ordinary member of the public – the very likable Nathan – into a fake faith healer and take him to America to see if he could fool a bunch of gullible Texans, who have already proved they are happy to be taken in by their own fake faith healers.