March of the Midas messiah

Morris Cerullo can heal your sickness, get God to cancel your debts, even exorcise your possessed computer. The supercharged evangelist has made millions with his Christian roadshow and sent thousands of people away happy. And that's the real miracle. Photographs by Dario Mitidieri
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Morris Cerullo. You've got to admire him. Well, maybe not admire: it's more the feeling of being face to face with a Komodo dragon. He holds thousands spellbound, shows them miracles, fills their bodies with electricity. Morris Cerullo parts people and their money with the ease of Moses parting the Red Sea.

The last time I attended Cerullo's Mission to London, which returns to Earl's Court Stadium on Monday, I saw a deaf and dumb girl cry "Haroorah!" I saw a woman with heart trouble do aerobics. I saw people drop their crutches and dance. It had to be true. They said it was. And you don't lie in the sight of God, do you?

As Cerullo brings his evangelical roadshow back to our shores, you've got to greet him with awe. He can conjure up money from nowhere. Never since have I seen so many poor people throw their last pennies into buckets. "Ask," says St Matthew, "and it shall be given to you." Morris Cerullo asks, and indeed they give. It's a miracle.

And there have been many more. In 1994, 8,000 circular letters invited recipients to experience Cerullo's Miracle of Debt Cancellation. "Lay your hands upon the Miracle of Debt Cancellation Reply. Let the anointing flow into your life ... write down the amount you need to cancel all the debts in your life. Then act on on your faith. Send your Miracle of Debt Cancellation Harvest Gift of pounds 30, or more as the Holy Spirit will lead you". "Every debt you owe can be cancelled," the leaflet promised. The justification? II Kings, 4:1-7, which is the story of Elisha, a widow and a multiplying pot of oil. Yes, and the Little People make shoes in the middle of the night, as well.

Camelot's Finger of God advertising is uncomfortably similar to this Prosperity Theology. Man may not live by bread alone (Matthew 4:4), but having several slices represents virtue, while poverty and illness indicate a lack of faith. Thus Morris and his preachers dress in fine-cut suits (Genesis 27:11, "Behold, Esau my brother is a hairy man and I am a smooth man") and proclaim that they, too, were afflicted until they found the Way. This is also one of the rallying cries of self-help gurus.

The flipside of self-help is Help Yourself. A huge industry revolves around the belief that giving someone money will transmit their Midas Touch to the donor. And yet the majority of self-help gurus have made their millions purely from other peddling their opinions. And so with Cerullo. In 1993, the promise that pounds 5 per soul would save the souls of family members was reputed to have raised pounds 27m. Mailshots have asked devotees to give seven pounds each week for seven weeks for seven miracles; to hand over pounds 49 to salvage his computer system after Satanic sabotage. Five hundred years after Luther, his heirs are peddling indulgences.

Father Kieran Conry, of the Catholic Media Service, while politic, is not keen. "The association of ministry and money is never a good thing. Simony is illegal within the Catholic Church". And miracles? "If they do happen at Lourdes, they don't happen at the intervention of an individual." Cerullo's followers would no doubt counter that Lourdes' recent record, compared with the 2,000 a week they claim, shows which approach works.

Damian Thompson, author of The End of Time: Faith and Fear in the Shadow of the Millennium, published by Sinclair Stevenson next month, says: "There is a powerful urge abroad to find something else. It's partly that old ways have been breaking down: family structures, politics, the established churches. People are looking for something that will bring about that miraculous transformation in the world. Religious fervour is common in times of crisis and insecurity. The New Age movement has the same traits."

So: the market is out there. How do you tap it? First, pick your creed. Try to give something old a modern twist: age adds gravitas. New Age leaders love Buddhism, and the Druids; Self-Helpers quote Freud, Jung, Fromm and myriad psychologists. Then, once you've picked your slot, learn it inside out. "Cerullo's not an educated man," says Thompson, "but he's a smart one, and he knows his Bible."

Next, pick your target market - people who are depressed, stressed and longing for rescue are ideal. Studies pretty much prove that stress massively increases suggestibility. There are a lot of people out there ripe for the milking.

Make the Bible your inspiration. Galatians, for instance: "Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap" justifies a six-figure advertising budget. Be "the voice of one crying in the wilderness" (Isaiah 40:3) with full-page protest ads when the Advertising Standards Authority bans your poster campaigns, making you a victim of a cynical media and an unbelieving establishment. And above all, remember these words from Matthew: "Where your treasure is, there shall your heart be also"; or Genesis: "Ye shall eat from the fat of the land"; or Matthew again: "They presented unto him gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh".

Tap into old superstitions. There's nothing more emotive. Numerology is great, especially combined with the book of Revelation: 666, the 10 nations of Europe, four plagues, seven angels; and that spiffing examplar, the Millennium. "It's very powerful," says Thompson. "A lot of the people who attend Cerullo believe we are at the End Time, that Armageddon is upon us: not necessarily in the year 2000, but soon. And because they feel that they will be raised above it all they're perfectly happy about it. "Of course," he adds drily, "there's also that element of superiority."

Which leads us on to community. If your followers feel they are party to a secret, you're well away. Back it up with pressure to conform, to follow the party line. Encourage them to cut ties with old, sinful ways. Urges to leave or to question can thus be quelled by the fear of what to do next.

While maintaining your status as leader, make sure everyone knows you've suffered like them. A bad past, like Cerullo's upbringing in a New York orphanage, beaten "with paddles", is useful. Put on shows of modesty: call yourself: "This little Jew preacher" and other hair-shirt phrases. Your followers will feel that if they can be like you, they, too, can reap the benefits.

But most of all, give a good show. Mission to London spectaculars are top showmanship, brilliantly choreographed, with the emotional power of a big rock concert. Terrific music, massive sound systems and 6,000 people displaying ecstatic joy can loosen the grip on your credit card. These techniques pump up stress levels, and stress can have amazing effects. Canadian neuroscientist Michael Persinger imitated the production of stress levels with low-dose electrical charges applied to volunteers' brains. Resulting "visions" included God, Allah and the Devil. Dramatic religious conversions rarely accompany tranquility .

And so to the miracles. I once experienced something similar to the celebrated Toronto Blessing, which has people laughing, collapsing and crying all over the country. An osteopath pressed a spot in the base of my thumb and gave me the most incredible head-rush. I felt so happy and relaxed and grateful that I would have done pretty much anything for her.

And then there's hypnosis. Psychotherapist and hypnotherapist Anna Fenton says: "If someone's in the right frame of mind, touching them in the right way can be a powerful form of rapid trance induction. And in trance, as anyone who has watched Paul McKenna knows, all sorts of things can happen. Speaking in tongues would be just one of them." Damian Thompson agrees: "It's easy to make people fall over. If you push them in the middle of the forehead, they're expecting to fall over and know people are waiting to catch them, so they do." Slain in the Spirit or hit on the right nerve? The SAS kill with their bare hands, remember.

But showmanship - with shamanship - is all, really. A large enough staff can manipulate any crowd. Morris has cohorts "helping" people up to the stage. Watch closely and spot the people "overlooked" in the rush: usually people who obviously need their crutches. Later, people crowd around the foot of the stage so Morris can "throw" the power at them. As invisible beams zip from his fingertips, waves of believers crash backwards. Have you ever been on a crowded escalator when someone tripped at the bottom? Same effect.

The thing is, the crowd themselves are lovely people. They exude faith and joy, offer help and sweetness. Miracles or no, many of them walk away with a spiritual uplift that helps them through their troubled lives. But healing? After the show I asked a member of the St John Ambulance Brigade how Missions compared with a normal day. "About the same, really," he said. "A bit busier. Loads of hyperventilation and the odd suspected heart attack. Oh, and there's always a big run on sprained ankles."

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