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An illusion of miracles

18 November 2016

The atheist Derren Brown’s stage show draws heavily on religious influences. He talks to Madeleine Davies

Seamus Ryan

Miracle worker? Publicity poster for Derren Brown’s Miracle tour

Miracle worker? Publicity poster for Derren Brown’s Miracle tour

ON STAGE at the Palace Theatre, in London, Derren Brown is reciting from Jeremiah 33. A man called Adrian has just reported the release of a pinched nerve in his shoulder. At the touch of Brown’s hand on his forehead, Adrian falls backwards, like one slain in the Spirit.

“Let’s give the Lord a mighty hand of praise,” Mr Brown declares, over the strains of an organ.

A small queue of people seeking ministration has formed to the left of the stage. Kay, who has suffered from breathing difficulties for three years, is able to lift a suitcase full of bricks. A woman with knee pain describes feeling “like I have just stepped into a hot bath”.

“These people are genuinely healed,” Brown tells the audience. “Make no mistake about it, this is really happening.”

A consummate showman — Steve Martin’s Jonas Nightengale without the spangly jacket — Brown is well-versed in the occasionally lucrative world of faith healing. He learned one of his tricks (reciting Psalm 23 while slamming his hand on to paper bags, one of which contains a nail) from a pastor in the southern states of America, while researching his Channel 4 show Miracles for Sale.

It’s a “corrupt and foul seam”, Brown says. Benny Hinn, an American TV evangelist who claims to have healed people of AIDS, makes $100 million a year, he says. It is a “sheer tragedy” that those who are not healed are “told it is their fault for not having enough faith, or not paying enough money”. Tonight’s show is “not a criticism of the Church, or making fun of faith, but a criticism of a scam that exploits faith”.

Only a “tiny handful of people” have walked out, Brown says, after the tour is over. “All the Christians I’ve spoken to have appreciated the point, and have seemed to share my scepticism regarding these so-called healers. At the end of the day, it’s a scam that’s carried out at the expense of the Church; so I would hope that it would strengthen the scepticism of believers who had their doubts already, and challenge a few more, too.”


BROWN’s own journey from Evangelical Christian to outspoken atheist has been well-documented. His parents sent him to Crusader classes as a child, and in his teens he attended a “big happy-clappy church” in London, but it was “easy enough to grow out of it” as a student.

The path to atheism was intertwined with his exploration of magic and hypnosis. He was “fascinated by the fear and ignorance they brought out in my fellow Christians”, but also conscious of the “circular belief-system” of a friend who believed herself to be psychic. Determined to ensure that his belief had “some sort of intelligent basis”, he began exploring the historical evidence around the Bible, the key question being: “Did the resurrection actually happen? If it did, it made sense to believe. If it didn’t, I saw no reason to.”

His conclusion in the negative was decisive. “I was no stranger to how we might fully convince ourselves of anything we like, given that that was what I worked with for a living; so eventually my belief just fell apart for good.”

Miracle at the Palace (and on tour) was just the latest in a series of performances exploring the power of suggestion and seeking to expose the methods of those who claim to possess supernatural powers, including psychics and spiritualists. In Fear and Faith he set about converting an atheist to Christianity.

There has often been a macabre strain to these experiments. In Trick or Treat, a volunteer was hypnotised into thinking that she had been killed in a car crash after not wearing a seatbelt. In Pushed to the Edge, three people were persuaded to commit murder.

Miracle is unnerving — some would say blasphemous. It is a queasy marriage of theatre, magic, and the language and ritual of Charismatic Christianity. Brown appeals to God (“Father, give me a name”); speaks in what sounds like tongues; and declares the theatre “holy ground”, before apparently rendering a woman’s glasses redundant (he blows on her eyes, before crying “Satan, take your hands off this woman”). This trick is reversed for a man he accuses of scepticism: “Put in Mike the devil of blindness,” he commands. Mike is apparently unable to read from the programme until Brown lifts the curse. Chris is made to levitate onstage, before being laid out like Christ on the cross: arms outstretched, his feet pinned together.

Brown denies feeling any anxiety about the blasphemous elements of the show, or getting any sort of “thrill” from it.

There is a “fine line”, he says, between “preserving amazement in what’s supposedly happening, and debunking”. His claim, on stage, that what is occurring is “not just a psychological thing, it is a real physical thing”, is mimicry, and the opposite of what he actually believes.

“Equally, it is really happening in the sense that they’re not lying, or stooges. They are having a very real experience, and they really can move their limbs more than before, and so on. So it’s ambiguous, but, ultimately, of course, they’re not genuinely healed in a real, long-term, organic sense.”


ANYONE with “a knack for showmanship” could recreate the effects seen on stage, he says, “regardless of whether they believe in it or not”. It is a matter of “showing how a burst of adrenaline, and changing how we think about our suffering, can make a huge difference, and drastically change how we feel. I’m not ‘doing’ anything to anyone, or changing anything. The key thing is to have people understand what it is, and the limitations of what it is.”

He is not aware of anyone failing to grasp this, he says, although he is careful not to make conditions worse, by asking people to “bounce around on arthritic knees and so on”. In this regard he is, he suggests, more cautious than “dubious faith-healers”.

Conscious that, if advertised, the show could attract the vulnerable, he was careful not to reveal the nature of the performance, and encouraged the press to follow suit.

“It was important not to get the message out there that the show was about healing, otherwise, of course, it would attract people desperate for it,” he says. He was also careful to tell volunteers not to abandon medication or checks with doctors.


WHAT about those who believe in faith healing? Are all faith healers scam-artists? If religious experiences can be manufactured, are all of them fake?

“The clearest way of telling whether a pastor believes it is whether or not they’re using tricks,” he says. “If you see leg-lengthening, and physical tricks such as angel-feathers appearing, then you’re dealing with someone doing magic tricks.”

He has experienced the former trick himself, and believes that the explanation is simple: “The shoe on the foot you’re not watching is pulled a bit off that heel; so that leg appears longer than the supposedly short one, and then it’s slipped slowly back into place. It’s a trick, and you don’t do that and believe you’re doing something for real.”

He has met many pastors, he says, who “did it for years, and came to realise that all they were doing was working with suggestion”. They were “so caught up in that world that to own up to it meant facing huge rejection from the Church. Many were left depressed. One pastor watched his own daughter die because he knew he couldn’t give her any medication when she had apparently been healed.”

It’s a “blank fact”, he says, that no healer has been able to produce “medical evidence of actual change in people. Nothing ever grows back, or heals itself.”

The power of suggestion surprised even him, he says. He was not sure that sceptical audience members could reliably be “slain in the spirit”, and yet every night they were. And there were “remarkable healings”, such as the woman who, after a stroke, had not been able to feel the left-hand side of her body for 14 years, and was “restored”.

“What’s fascinating is realising the psychological component of suffering,” he says. “If this effect can be created every night on stage, is there something we can learn from it in our lives? Whether they last for long after the show is a different matter. Ninety per-cent perhaps don’t — though I get emails from people saying they’re still greatly improved.”

Accepting his theory does not mean abandoning your faith, he suggests. “Until we see evidence of real, organic change happening in people, it’s perfectly straightforward to decide there’s no reason to believe it. And I’m sure that’s OK within the context of also having a strong faith.”


WHILE other well-known atheists are belligerent in their opposition to religion, Brown remains interested in its resilience. The Church, he thinks, has become “an institution, powerful and political, and does what it needs to to protect itself. . . Meanwhile, at the heart of it all, there’s something worthwhile on offer: a feeling of meaning and transcendence, although the religion has since become rather disconnected from it.”

Religion “sticks well to us psychologically”, he says. “It’s an idea that usually psychologically benefits the believer, and thus it survives and is passed on. Atheists do tend to reduce God to a man in the sky, or attack this dogma, which makes him very easy to knock down and ridicule. I think they miss the deeper stirrings for personal meaning that it’s trying — albeit not terribly well — to articulate.”

Many with a faith become happier, he says, but “it can also deny us permission to grow and flourish in this life. I have Christian friends who are gay and have decided never to have a sexual relationship. Is that a benefit? To me, it seems tragic, but to them, presumably not.

"What ‘faith’ means will depend on the church you’re at, the people you mix with, and how it settles into your life through teaching and interaction. That may be beneficial, or quite toxic. And whether you’re better off depends on how you were before.

"A new believer may feel happy and connected after a lonely and unloved life. But if she seriously believes a set of facts about the world, decided in a time when people banged pots at the moon during an eclipse because they thought that witches were pulling it down from the sky, is that OK, or should it be just embarrassing? It depends, doesn’t it? It’s really none of my business.”


BROWN, who came out as gay eight years ago, was briefly involved in reparative therapy.

“It seemed at the time like a good thing that the Church were even taking an interest, and treating its believers as real, psychological beings rather than just shutting their ears and advising the conflicted to read the Bible more,” he says. “Clearly, we are psychological creatures, and I have no problem with looking at sexuality through that lens. I think it can be very helpful. But the therapy doesn’t work, and that really isn’t helpful. . . For anyone to tell the vulnerable that they should change — that their sexuality is wrong and broken — is such a bad message.”

He cannot think of anything he misses about being a Christian: “I remember one morning waking up feeling low about something, and realising I no longer had an objective yardstick of being loved by God, regardless of how I felt about myself. The next second I realised that meant that it was now up to me to find my own sense of self-worth. It was liberating and fascinating, and that was the only glimmer of anything ever being absent.”


SOME of Brown’s shows have involved people apparently dicing with death, suggesting a preoccupation with mortality. Does death frighten him?

“Not at the moment”, he says, although he’s thought about it “a lot”, and has had long conversations with the dying.

“For all but the tiny minority with a religious belief so deep that they can go happily to their deaths, fully expecting to be reunited with their loved ones in whatever form they imagine that takes, death is usually a lonely and scary business,” he says. He blames our disposal of “myth and superstition. . . We’ve lost touch with many cultural narratives and forms of meaning. We have no narrative for death now.”

He would like to see a return to some kind of ownership of death. The medical profession was “there to extend life, not provide quality of life, and the two may often be at odds. The dying person will often feel like a bit-part in their own death . . . whereas we should feel a strong sense of authorship at that time more than any other.”

Allowing death to “sit more comfortably in your life” while you are young and healthy is a good start, he thinks. “What we do in life has meaning only because our lives eventually end. As the philosopher Samuel Scheffler said, ‘Life without death is like a circle without a circumference.’”


AMID the trickery, Brown often channels a therapeutic voice in his work. His shows tend to combine magic with psychology, and a strong dose of self-help. In the first half of Miracle, he delivers a meditation on taking risks, illustrated by talking a volunteer through eating a shard of glass. Taking such a risk in front of 2000 people “changes the story you tell about yourself”, he tells her.

In the second half of the show, everyone except those of us in the vertiginous front rows of the upper circles are asked to stand and imagine we are on a warm beach, with the most idealised version of ourselves walking towards us. As the lights go up and the music swells, Brown tells us to “savour that image and expand it”, before he fires at us, “like pulling back on a slingshot”.

“There may be a physical concern, a worry or anxiety, that you now realise is gone,” he says. “Now, when you think about it, it just feels different, the worry is gone. . . Enjoy that release. . . Whatever has changed in you, take ownership of it, accept it so that you take it home with you today.”


WORRY is a topic that he returns to in his new book, Happy, in which he explores “why positive thinking makes us feel bad, why goal-setting doesn’t work, and why we might benefit from actually lowering our expectations”.

Writing it has led him to discover stoicism, which he has readily embraced.

“We worry so much about the little things in life, and lose track of the big things,” he suggests in Miracle, which includes a brief introduction to Epicletus. “It is not the things that happen to us, but our reaction to them. Our thoughts and actions are all we can control; so stop worrying about the things we cannot control. Then you will not become anxious.”

The show ends with what sounds almost like a sermon, on humanist lines.

“The miracle is the fact that a lifetime of chronic pain can disappear in an instant when you tell yourself a different story,” he tells us. “That is so much more beautiful and wonderful for me, because it is not about the power of God, but the power of us as human beings: that is a miracle.”


Happy: Why more or less everything is absolutely fine by Derren Brown is published by Bantam Press, £20 (CT Bookshop £18).

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