Faith & Reason: Gold fillings can't be God's main agenda

It is easy to be sceptical about the miracles, signs and wonders of Pentecostal worship, but uncritical belief in them may show no more than self-indulgence
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THE PRICE of dental work being what it is, to get anything done for free these days classes as a miracle. Still, when church people in America, Canada, South Africa and Surrey started claiming earlier this year that their amalgam fillings had been turned to gold by God, my reaction was, I imagine, the same as any sensible Independent reader: scornfully dismissive.

In addition, since I'm in the faith business, there was a degree of exasperation: what are the neighbours going to think? Just because I happen to believe in a 2000-year-old resurrected man/god, I wouldn't want people to think I'm up for flying saucers, fairies at the bottom of the garden and a "rinse- and-spit" deity. The name might be the same, but my Jesus is the Jesus of calm cathedral evensongs (even if I don't get to them), not the Jesus of packed Pentecostal halls, or the Jesus of carpeted auditoria with expensive sound-systems. All too ridiculous, I thought. Ignore it and it will go away.

Nevertheless, it's the sort of subject that niggles, like a toothache. So, late on Thursday afternoon, I phoned Joel Edwards, the boss of the Evangelical Alliance. I have a lot of time for him. The Alliance is a loose federation of Evangelical and Charismatic churches and organisations, including some pretty wacky ones, and he does a good job fighting their cause in the real world, and stopping their fights in the unreal worlds that many of them inhabit. When I phoned him, he just happened to be working on his next book, writing a section on the gold-teeth phenomenon.

He reminded me, first off, that there was a racial element to the question. This brought me up short. I had been happy to pour scorn on excitable Americans, Canadians, and people from the Home Counties; I felt a little warier of dismissing the main religious expression of much of Africa and black America. Miracles, signs and wonders have been central to Pentecostal worship for most of this century.

He urged me not to be too Eurocentric in my approach. "I would plead for Western Christians not to be arrogant with our terms of reference. Things that appear to us to be different, or uncomfortable, or bizarre are not, ipso facto, outside God's domain." He had seen something of the Toronto Blessing four years ago, when worshippers in a number of churches began behaving strangely, falling about laughing or howling. He had watched a woman, sweating profusely, running around the building for an hour. "I thought, 'This is bizarre. Let me out of this place'." A week later he had met a man from the woman's church, who told him that she had experienced such a confidence surge, she was talking boldly about God for the very first time. This doesn't explain the phenomenon, but it did justify it, in Edwards's eyes. Besides, if you start issuing disclaimers, you end up disclaiming some of the core bits of Christianity, the events in the upper room at the time of Pentecost, for instance. "I'm afraid that's part of the deal," says Edwards.

But to accept every new phenomenon, however odd, would mean reshaping the Church along the lines of proportional representation. It sounds good, but somehow the tiny, fanatical parties end up holding the balance of power. Suddenly heresy trials seem more attractive. Surely we shouldn't allow the image of God to be shaped by all sorts of gullible weirdos? "No, no. There are too many gullible weirdos," said Edwards, with feeling. Having pleaded against the narrow-minded prejudice of the sceptics, he had some firm things to say about the uncritical prejudices of the believers. Quiet, private miracles, of healing, say, are fine. But when a group starts to use miracles as a "calling card", Edwards wants to know how the manifestation contributes to Christian development and mission. If he draws a blank, he says, he begins to wonder if the manifestation "is not just another example of Christian self-indulgence".

We had worked our way back to the teeth. He had seen footage of a congregation praying for gold teeth and had been seriously unimpressed. "In a world of such appalling hunger and deprivation, gold fillings can't be God's main agenda." He would take it more seriously if those claiming the miracle could produce a dossier of three bona fide cases verified by independent dentists. "Getting things verified was part of the methodology of Jesus. When he healed somebody, he sent them round to the priest." So, had the beneficiaries of oral enrichment produced any convincing evidence? "No." It seemed, then, that we had reached the same place, I getting there first, he taking rather longer on the journey, probably because he is kinder to the innocent, uncomplicated faithful than I am.

I do, incidentally, believe in miracles. In a world that functions by a combination of pattern and randomness, surprise occurrences will take place and can be seen to be more or less meant, though the meaning is usually a personal one. Where Joel Edwards and I agree is that when claims are being based on miracles, when they are used to prove something, that is the time to get forensic. Then you apply the same methods to God as you do to humans: when somebody turns up with a new appearance, you measure the new manifestation against what you know of him. And if you want to be really sure, you check the dental records.