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A Social Anthropologist’s Analysis of Contemporary Healing, Part 1

Among the 1890 people who filled in a questionnaire, 621 had received prayer for some kind of physical healing. As some of these had prayer for more than one condition, there were a total of 867 cases. By the end of the conference, some noticeable improvement was reported in 58% of these cases. It is significant that, when I followed up the random sample of 100 people between six months and a year later, virtually the same percentage (57%) reported a sustained and noticeable improvement since the conference.

Although healings did take place at the conference itself, the primary intention of the conference was to train Christians to pray for healing in their own local situations. I therefore asked those I interviewed to what extent they had put the teachings into practice, and what results they had obtained. Though many had prayed for other Christians, with varying results, some of the most interesting cases came from the minority who had been willing to try praying in this way for non-Christians. Often they saw signs of God’s power in unexpected ways. For instance, the following account was related to me by a young woman in a northern English city:

“We’d been doing a scheme of door-to-door visitation … but I started off on the wrong street. I knocked on the door and then realized that we’d already done that street—but in fact no one had visited that house. I explained who we were and asked if there was anything she needed. She then said, ‘My baby’s got cancer.’

… I’d only been a Christian eight months, and it was a first in everything. I spoke to [my vicar] and he encouraged me to pray for the baby.… I’d been to Harrogate with him—just for the last day, and then I went to the team visit at the Grammar school—and he told me to do what I’d seen them doing.

I saw stage by stage, week by week, [the baby’s] recovery.… One day … I prayed all day.… I couldn’t get him out of my mind.… Even by bedtime I was still praying. I was about to give up because I felt God wouldn’t heal unless [the mother] made a commitment [to Christ]. The next day [the baby] was pronounced healed.”

From the hospital consultant concerned, I was able to obtain copies of the baby’s records. They confirmed this account in detail, and showed that the tumor did suddenly disappear in between two of the hospital examinations. It was also at the time when this young Christian had been praying.13

The consultant claimed that this was a case of “spontaneous remission.” However, the available medical literature on this particular type of tumor—called infantile fibrosarcoma—contains no reference to any other case of “spontaneous remission.” In fact, a detailed follow-up study of forty-eight cases showed that eight patients had died and the others had been treated by surgery, sometimes followed by chemotherapy or radiotherapy. The more severe cases had required amputation of the limb. There were no recorded cases of “spontaneous remission.”14

I found a number of cases which were similarly difficult or impossible to explain away by reference to known medical processes.

The case detailed above, in which the tumor disappeared after persistent prayer and without any medical treatment, was in fact a severe case. It involved a malignant tumor which had grown around the nerves and arteries. Treatment of it would normally have necessitated amputation of the baby’s arm. The consultant had no other explanation but the rather unlikely one of so-called “spontaneous remission.”15

“Spontaneous remission” is in itself a loose, catch-all term which does not explain anything but simply admits that an explanation for the recovery is beyond the present bounds of medical knowledge. Christians who have been praying interpret the events as a divine intervention, but the doctor has no other medical term than the rather hollow one of “spontaneous remission.” In a case of this kind, to speak in terms of probabilities and statistics seems a more fruitful approach than arguing about whether or not the healing can be “explained away” by calling it “spontaneous remission.” Such arguments involve the well-known problems of the “God of the gaps” theories, and seem to involve a rather mechanistic, nineteenth-century view of the universe. Nowadays, scientific progress in fields as diverse as genetics and nuclear physics makes much more use of probability and statistics. In medicine too, new drugs are tested and the results analyzed according to whether or not they are associated with a statistically significant difference among a sample of patients: they do not necessarily produce cures in everyone. Similarly, in examining cases of miraculous healing, a more fruitful approach is to ask how likely it is that particular results would have been produced by known medical treatments. Very often, we find that prayer is associated with outcomes which would have been very unlikely from a medical point of view.

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Category: Fall 2008, In Depth

About the Author: David C. Lewis [as of 1993] is a cultural anthropologist and is currently a Research Associate of the Mongolia and Inner Asian Studies Unit at the University of Cambridge, Cambridge, England, where he received his Ph.D. (Anthropology). He also serves as a Consultant Anthropologist for several Christian mission organizations. He has conducted research projects at Nottingham University and the Oxford Hardy Research Centre (Religious Experience Research Project, 1984-1985). He has written numerous scholarly articles and books, including Healing: Fiction, Fantasy or Fact? (Hodder & Stoughton).

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