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Press: Ex-Charismatic recalls emptiness of altar calls  

03 November 2023


IF WE look away from the headlines, as I am determined to do, the most improbable news of the week came in a long and very funny profile of a group of variously cancelled philosophers by Jemima Kelly in the Financial Times. From this, it emerges that Paul Marshall, the hedge-fund squillionaire who owns UnHerd and half of GB News, and is preparing a bid for the Telegraph/Spectator, also funds St Mellitus, where the paper claims that 30 per cent of “Britain’s” clergy are now trained.

This is not to knock UnHerd, which remains interesting and sometimes unpredictable, week after week. Last week, it had the most original and informative piece on Mike Pilavachi and Soul Survivor that you will find outside The Daily Telegraph.

Matt Broomfield, the author of the article, describes himself as a “once fervent young Baptist” who has since lost his faith. “The camps involved ecstatic praise set to sub-U2 rock music, speaking in tongues, faith healing, prophesying, and what we believed was the literal presence of the Holy Spirit, descending on the faithful to leave us quaking, weeping, or physically blown off our feet as we were ‘slain in the spirit’. I stood in the crowd of ten thousand young people, screaming and shaking, swearing to return home fired up with Christ-like passion, desperately wanting to believe the promises made by Pilavachi and his ilk were real.”

He is concerned to defend the Charismatics against the general prejudice, not entirely secular, that they are “weird, vulgar, and above all fundamentally American”. This reminds me of my late friend Andrew Walker, who remained proud of his working-class Pentecostal roots long after he had become an Orthodox.

Broomfield goes on: “I’ve witnessed the very real good an anti-authoritarian, non-conforming interpretation of Christianity can do in driving believers out from their staid pews to minister to impoverished communities in the UK and beyond.”

His criticism is more interesting: “In the Charismatic tradition, faith is an all-or-nothing, total experience, rather than a set of devotional practices (communion, confession, good works). . . It left me, like other former Charismatic Christians, enduring an awful, gnawing hollowness — both during and after leaving the faith.

“I felt this emptiness most keenly during a controversial practice known as the ‘altar call’, a crucial feature of Pilavachi’s summer camps. . . Time and again, in wave after wave . . . we shrieked and spasmed and rejoiced, in the grip of what I suppose psychologists would deem mass hysteria. All I knew was that I desperately wanted to feel Christ’s transcendent mercy and power resting on me, and sometimes did — or almost did. For of course, there was nothing there.

“Ever since leaving the faith, I’ve been grappling with that same, unfulfillable wanting-to-be, seeking out (sexual, chemical) extremes as a way to stifle the inner silence. The ex-addict turned born-again Christian is a stereotyped figure, but ‘addiction transference’ works both ways, and anecdotally I know many other ex-Christians who end up engaging in self-destructive behaviours as a way to fill the space left behind by a non-existent God.”

Mr Broomfield now works as a journalist for the Kurds of northern Syria, who are the victims of a quite forgotten war.

SAM BANKMAN-FRIED, the crypto king now on trial in New York for mislaying $8 billion of other greedy people’s money (TV, 6 October), was the subject of an essay by John Lanchester in the London Review of Books. It is, in part, a lucid takedown of effective altruism (EA): “Say, a charitable exercise has only a one in a billion chance of succeeding, but if it does succeed, will save humanity. . . You have $25,000 to give. Should you give it to a political party, to help fund your sick neighbour’s cancer care, to build wells in Africa, or to this one-in-a-billion long shot? The EA calculation is that it costs $5000 to save a life, so your long shot represents good value. The Expected Value of your bet is $35,000: 7 billion lives × $5000 each, divided by a billion for probability. Good deal! Though bad luck for your political party, your neighbour and those Africans.”

The question is whether anyone could really believe this, unless they had a predisposition to bring bad luck to their neighbours. Lanchester quotes a diary entry that the young billionaire made: “In a lot of ways I don’t really have a soul. This is a lot more obvious in some contexts than others. But in the end, there’s a pretty decent argument that my empathy is fake, my feelings are fake, my facial reactions are fake. I don’t feel happiness.”

Lanchester calls it “a glimpse into the abyss. He has no moral compass, other than one on loan from EA. Many people borrow their moral compasses from religion, but all religions have a place for empathy, even if it’s selectively applied. EA has no place for empathy, and neither does SBF.”

The oddest detail is that Mr Bankman-Fried’s parents are professors of law at Stanford, and his mother specialises in ethics. Here he is on trial for one of the largest financial crimes on record, and you have to wonder: what did they teach him?

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