God help us

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Watch out - Jesus is on the march. At a Surrey church service for the Toronto Blessing, otherwise sensible people fall to the ground and bark like dogs. At the evangelist shows of Morris Cerullo, the born- again throw away their sticks, rise from wheelchairs, discard their dark glasses. Across the world, evangelical Christianity is exploding as the traditional kind steadily declines. And it's not just religion. The last years of the century are witnessing a rising crescendo of psychobabble and New Age trendiness. So here we go, screaming towards the Millennium. By Ian Cotton. Photographs by Dario Mitidieri

Hands extending upwards, triumphant, like cosmic cricketers appealing the catch. Hands at the chest, pleading the anointment of the Holy Spirit. Or one hand on a sick man's shoulder, the other stretched skyward in finger-pointing supplication, like a saint calling down lightning from Heaven, or a portrayal of the Pentecost.

This extraordinary visual language is the body talk of so-called evangelical or charismatic Christians in the late-20th century; and, as these pictures show, it links groups as diverse as the followers of Morris Cerullo, the American "right-wing fundamentalist", through such cosmopolitan congregations as Notting Hill's Kensington Temple, to the Northampton-based Jesus Army, who, if political at all, are radical, even left wing.

As the Millennium looms, something quite remarkable is happening to traditional Christianity. The predictions made 30 years ago by several sociologists, historians and the odd economist - such as the American Peter Drucker, better known for anticipating privatisation - are coming good. What started in the Sixties with do-it-yourself "house churches" - churches formed in people's front rooms, later in rented premises such as school halls - has become a global, revolutionary tide.

At the beginning of this century, "Charismatic Christians" represented less than one per cent of the world's Christians. Today, they comprise more than 25 per cent, or 400 million people. By the year 2000, the estimate is more than 30 per cent, almost one in three. In Britain, the house churches had perhaps a hundred members in 1970; by the late Eighties, this figure had become 100,000, and today it's more than 160,000. London's Kensington Temple, one of the groups photographed here, which had only 500 members ten years ago, now has more than 5,000.

Some believe that we are currently seeing the fastest expansion of Christianity ever. In Africa, the Zairean Evangelical Church is growing by seven per cent annually. In South America, the number of evangelical Protestants has soared from five to 40 million since the Sixties. In Korea, Protestantism has ballooned from eight per cent of the population at the end of the Second World War to more than 40 per cent. By 1994, even mainland China had 11million converts.

As Howard Snyder, the theological historian, points out, Christians now number more than half the population in two-thirds of the world's 223 nations. "Christianity," he says, "has become the most universal faith in history." But it is this roller coaster kind of Christianity which is on the march. The traditional version continues its gentle and genteel decline. Between 1970 and 1990, for example, the major religious denominations in the UK lost 1.5million members.

The key quality of this new-look Christianity is supernaturalism. The "New Christians" really do believe in God's magical, supernatural power. They believe He can cure the sick, enrich the poor, move mountains, divide seas, and destroy or create whole cosmoses. They believe he intervenes in individual lives in quite surprisingly everyday ways. A soldier tells how God preserved him from terrorists in Northern Ireland; a builder how He found him an elusive set of tiles; a single parent how He dropped a much-needed, five-pound note clean in her path.

Despite huge variants of politics and theology, the new religious groups also share a quite memorable style of worship. Typical are Morris Cerullo's annual London shows, and of these the most remarkable was his first great circus in 1992, partly because it had been preceded by a pounds 150,000, come-see-the-miracles advertising campaign, featuring smashed white sticks and discarded wheelchairs and dark glasses.

The result was religious theatre of some clout. There was the huge, resounding Earl's Court venue. There were the serried ranks of believers: black Pentecostals dancing, T-shirted teenagers, the crippled in wheelchairs, and the impressionable with their hallucinated, locked-in stares. Facing them was Cerullo. Short, squat and gladhandedly Italian, he and his chums looked very much like a Mafia convention, very little like Jesus.

Each evening began bright and breezy, gradually shading into preaching and dissertation, then rising steadily towards the climactic moment - very heavy on the music, this - when new converts would be called forth and the sick would be "healed". Charismatic choreographers are like the ancient Greek dramatists: they send their audiences out into the night emotionally purged - and it is these moments of therapeutic emotionalism that are the movement's greatest attraction.

Psychotherapist Ray Wyre, of the Faithfull Foundation in Birmingham, says: "What people don't appreciate are the quite extraordinary psychological forces released at such moments. I don't believe such forces are divine, but I do believe they have quite unimaginable power - power that is only just now beginning to be properly understood."

A charismatic would, naturally, say that this is the power of God, yet one cannot but note the parallels with another great 20th-century phenomenon, the discovery of the "subconscious" and the rise of psychoanalysis. Freud's benchmark Interpretation of Dreams was published in 1900. In1906, there was the great outburst of "talking in tongues" in San Francisco, which was widely seen as the charismatic movement's seminal moment. By the Fifties, when Billy Graham and psychoanalysis were conquering Middle America, evangelism and psychiatry had permeated mainstream culture. In the Sixties, with undergraduates turning to both yoga and Jung, we called it the counterculture. Come the Seventies, the rise of the house churches developed alongside "expressionist" countercultural therapies such as est and primal scream. Finally, by the Eighties, certain forms of psychotherapy were indistinguishable from some of the new religious services. And you could sum up the therapeutic quality they shared in one word: "abreaction", the term used in psychiatry for the emotional recall of suppressed memories. This is also what happens at the climax of charismatic services - above all, when worshippers get "healed". As Freud pointed out, no amount of talking gets patients anywhere, unless, as he put it, they experience "affect" - feeling the suppressed trauma, suffering the pain.

In five years of talking with born-again Christians for The Hallelujah Revolution, my book about the religious revival, I lost count of the times they recounted histories of deep depression. There was the American "healer" whose wife had left him just before his conversion: further tragedies included his near-bankruptcy and the loss of his father in the Second World War. Then there was the millionairess, with a wild emotional history including childhood trauma, who converted as her business went bankrupt. There was the policeman who converted while under investigation for corruption; the sales executive whose marriage was falling apart; there was even Morris Cerullo himself, who lost his mother when he was two years old, and finished up in an orphanage, where he was regularly beaten "with a paddle". Charismatic leaders, it emerges, have comparable emotional histories to their followers.

A wealth of academic studies supports the links. Psychology has demonstrated the relationship between stress and enhanced suggestibility - crucial are Pavlov's dog experiments in the Twenties. Subsequent studies have confirmed that sufficient mental pressure can induce extreme suggestibility in humans. Put someone thus pre-programmed into the intense situation of, say, a battlefield, a therapy session, or, indeed, a highly-choreographed religious service, and things can escalate still further. At one worship session I attended, a believer who was suffering from mounting stress actually laid out another congregation member and had to be pinned down by four others.

Perhaps the most lucid exposition of such processes was made by the psychiatrist William Sargant in his classic book The Battle for the Mind. Sargant began by treating shell shock and trauma cases during the last war, then studied the brainwashing of captured Allied prisoners during the Korean war, and finally by studying religious conversions. At each stage, he was struck by the similarities of each process.

When dealing, for instance, with battle-shock trauma, he noted the impossibility of restoring speech to a traumatised catatonic unless the patient actually re-lived the original pain - and re-lived it via the most profound emotional explosion; mere verbal articulation wouldn't work. He developed a drug- assisted technique of luring his patients towards, not away from, emotional crisis.

One soldier, rendered dumb by shock, was relaxed sufficiently by barbiturates to articulate his appalling battlefield experiences, but "with very little emotion", Sargant recalled, and without fundamental change. Sargant then tried ether. "When taken over the same ground again, he told the story this time with far greater emotion, and at last became confused and exhausted, tried to tear off the ether mask, and over-breathed in a panic-stricken way until the treatment was stopped. When he came to and rose from the couch, an obvious change had occurred in him. He smiled for the first time and looked relieved ... this improvement was being maintained a fortnight afterwards."

Later, Sargant was impressed by the similarities between such techniques and what he came to realise happened at "experiential" religious services. In particular, he was struck by the correspondence between "hellfire services" and his soldier's abreaction terrors: "The fear of burning Hell induced by graphic preaching could be compared to the suggestion that we might force on a returned soldier, during treatment, that he was in danger of being burned alive in his tank and must fight his way out. The two techniques seemed startlingly similar." Religious climax, Korean brainwashing, therapeutic abreaction: all were fundamentally the same, argued Sargant.

Suggestibility accounts for much of the out-of-character behaviour reported by relatives of the "born again", but there is an even more remarkable effect of stress - one that is, if anything, even more conducive to religiosity. This is the seeing of visions.

We all know such tales. There were the First World War "Angels of Mons", "seen" by our embattled troops; and, in the Second World War, the remarkably varied visions of marooned survivors of the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious, sunk off Norway in 1940 - they saw harbour dockyards, rescue aircraft, even orange trees loaded with ripe fruit. They were also remarkably suggestible: if one man started waving, others copied him; if one stood up or sat down in his boat, so did his mates.

Recent developments in neuroscience have indicated the brain processes involved. At the forefront of this work has been the Canadian neuroscientist, Michael Persinger, who sits squarely on the notion that, if the correct stimuli are applied to the correct bits of the brain, the result will be quite predictable hallucinations. And what is a key precipitant, in his view, of such processes? Stress.

"The actual mystical or religious experience," he writes, "is evoked by a transient [a few seconds], very focal electrical display within the [brain's] temporal lobe." The other key, he says, involves, like abreaction, a form of memory. When such brain events, or "microseizures", occur, they give an individual access to "infantile memories of parental images ... (and) images from between four to five years of age... memories for which there are no retrieval formats." How would a "subject" interpret such images? "The former would be a universal source of God (parent surrogate) images, while the latter would foster conclusions of 'previous lives' or other memories."

In his laboratory, Persinger creates imitation stress-effects by firing low-dose electricity into the brains of volunteers; an adapted motorcycle helmet only adds to the surrealism of the proceedings. The results have included visions of God, Allah, and one unfortunate case where a subject declared Persinger should have his laboratory exorcised because the Devil was present. Need one add that Persinger is convinced comparable processes happen in charismatic services?

Indeed, it can be genuinely hard these days to figure out what is psychotherapy and what is religion. I remember one young ("religious") couple I met who described to me their conversion. It began with drugs. Their first "vision", in which, they said, they met "the Devil", sounded more like a bad trip than transcendentalism. The ensuing climax, when they met "God", involved the young man bursting out with "this roar from deep inside me, as if something terrible had cried out from within".

That sounded quite extraordinarily like the shrieks, roars and animal noises of Arthur Janov's countercultural - and strictly secular - primal scream therapy; not to mention the roars and bellowings of the latest, and most "expressive", religious therapy of all, the so-called Toronto Blessing. This movement started in 1994 in a little church near Toronto airport, then quickly spread around the world; by autumn, 3,500 churches in Britain alone had experienced the Blessing, whose symptoms include whole congregations exploding into "holy" laughter, moaning, yelling and thrashing on the floor, barking like dogs and crashing down as if poleaxed. At one ancient CofE church in Oxfordshire, I saw a member of the shrieking congregation collapse, symbolically, across the altar table.

Another charismatic group - the house church Pioneer, in leafy Surrey - held a meeting for the Toronto Blessing in autumn 1994 at a cinema in Esher. They anticipated maximum animalistic yells and growlings, so much so that they positioned a huge lion poster from Walt Disney's The Lion King right over the podium, with underneath the words the main attraction. Within minutes, a hundred or so people were on the floor, the women screaming as if giving birth. Typically, a believer would start by trembling, then shake and bounce like a high diver about to leap off the board, and end up making outraged jungle roars, threatening anybody within ten feet. Primal scream or primal Christianity?

Perhaps the most striking thing about New Christianity is how well it fits with all the other things that are happening as the 20th century rackets to its end. A moment's reflection makes clear, surely, that we have been buried deep in millennial psychology for decades now, whether it be the apocalypsism of the green movement, the crash psychology of the money markets, the survivalist groups such as the Oklahoma bombers, or even, arguably, our ongoing obsession with child abuse. (The last time this emerged as a major European obsession occurred in 1899, in fin-de-siecle Vienna.) But behind all the pseudo- cultural alarums lie the crucial realities, and the most important of these are the social implications of the information revolution and its devastating effects on employment and social cohesion. One way of interpreting movements such as the Toronto Blessing is that they are a kind of warning of a wider social hysteria gradually bubbling up the pipeline, still to emerge.

In December last year, the South African charismatic leader, Rodney Howard- Browne, held a Toronto Blessing-style meeting at Olympia. At the climax, two lines of believers wound from the ground to the first floor balcony above, where pastors blessed them. Almost every last participant was "slain in the spirit" and fell down.

It was an unforgettable picture, full of that spooky neo-medievalism so characteristic of the charismatic revival, yet so incongruous in our hi-tech times. To dismiss such an event as irrelevant or neurotic is a mistake. Walter Langer, the American psychiatrist, wrote that vulnerable, or "neurotic", people differ from the average person not in kind but in degree: "The cultural pressures have had, for one reason or another, a more telling effect on them than they have had on the average", so that their behaviour "presents us with a magnified picture of what is going on".

In Europe, we have seen, with the dreams of Thousand-Year Reichs in the Depression, how people on society's margins can move to the centre and seize power. We should at least be aware that, in the economic bad times looming, something comparable could happen once again

Comments