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.

9 Responses

  1. I found this programme so interesting and engaging – as you’ve noted however, I did not see the relevance or need for approaching the gates of Copeland; all it succeeded in doing was jeopardising the whole task.
    But the program was essential viewing for me whether it broke new ground or not – I had not heard of this sort of corruption going on before.

  2. […] Richard Bartholomew has a provided a comprehensive outline of the show, which can be found here. […]

  3. Richard, I must respecfully disagree with you when you say the programme didn’t break new group. I don’t think anyone has ever attempted a “faking it” type attempt at faith healing before. Randi may have exposed Popoff, but that was in America years ago.

    And as Steph said in her comment, she was unaware of this type of con trick, and lots more people (including many christians and church leaders) are unaware of it either.

    So well done to Derren Brown and C4 – more please.

  4. As a Christian who definitely does believe in the power of the risen Lord Jesus Christ I am thrilled that someone like Derren, in the public eye with a lot of influence, has done such a fantastic programme. People of faith can be really vulnerable and while there are things that happen that can’t be explained life is a mixed bag of good and bad – the nature of being human and in our world. We need faithful leaders who are humble and have integrity as they lead others – we need communities which support and accept people the way they are and love them as Christ did – brilliant end to the programme – was the talk – I felt so able to say amen to all that so thanks Derren and all the crew and Nathan – I totally understand where you’re all coming from – well done for doing what the rest of us can often feel so powerless to impact on.

    • Is Derren Brown a born again christian or not,i believe he is not, so he cannot understand spiritual things cos he is a natural man(1Cor2:13-15).He is just an illusions who i believe doesnt even believe in Jesus Christ.

      • Derren Brown used to be an evangelical Christian but lost his faith and I think he’d describe himself as an atheist now. However he said at the end of the programme that his target was only the “fake healers” and not christianity in general.

        I am not quite sure what you are implying when you say “he cannot understand spiritual things” – all I know is that he showed an exceptional understanding of what happens in many pentecostal meetings – far greater than most Christians have.

      • Derren doesnt claim to be a Christian and the programme wasnt about mocking God, religion or peoples faith.

        I am a born again Christian and I am repulsed at these charlatans who ‘encourage’ to pay for a miracle touch from God. I never saw Jesus ask a blind man for 20 shekels before he prayed for his healing.

        If he turned over the tables of the money changers in the table what do you think his reaction would be to these thieves and liars today?

        Well done Derren and the team for a well made and compassionate approach to such a delicate subject

  5. I think we live in the age of FAITH PORN. This is my term for an addictive state in people who absolutely HAVE to believe in something utterly remarkable and outside of normal experience. I remember when crop circles were a brand new thing, about 15 years ago. There were 2 men who came forward and claimed credit for making the circles, then actually demonstrated their technique. As I recall, they couldn’t get anybody to believe them: the UFO community wanted to keep on believing that flying saucers had made these crop circles, and so the simplest and clearest explanation was ignored: the circles HAD to have an extraterrestrial origin.

    In Christian circles, this kind of devoted delusion is too often tagged as “faith”. Many of these people are addicted to a supernatural explanation for what they’re seeing. It’s part of a very strong, overdeveloped craving for contact with the supernatural. Even faith healers that have been unmasked as phonies still have followers, because the followers refuse to stop believing. This is an addiction, just like sexual addiction. It’s extremely unhealthy.

    • Very interesting Alice. I have been a witness to this first hand. Supposedly, God was handing out angel feathers, jewels, and gold fillings. The faith healer pushed my husband and myself trying to create a slain in the Spirit experience. I have actually had to lay down due to prayer before, but it wasn’t this way this time. I have seen people die and their relatives be told they couldn’t receive healing because they had some failure of faith they wouldn’t give up. I hate this kind of guilt being piled on top of people’s grief. If I didn’t know Jesus personally, I would chuck the whole thing!

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