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

Words of Knowledge

A statistical approach is also very useful in analyzing the revelations commonly referred to as “words of knowledge”16. Certainly some of these seem to be very “general” and could be expected to apply to at least one or two people in a congregation. More specific ones, however, are less easily dismissed, as I demonstrated in my report on Wimber’s Sheffield conference.17 A good example of a highly specific word of knowledge occurred at the Harrogate conference, when John Wimber announced the following revelation:

“There’s a woman named Janet who at eleven years of age had a minor accident that’s proven to be a problem throughout her adult life. It had something to do with an injury to her tailbone but now it’s caused other kinds of problems and so there’s radiating pain that comes down over her—er—lower back and down over her backside and down her legs. It has something to do with damage to a nerve but it also has to do with some sort of a functional problem with the—um—I think it’s called the sacroiliac.”

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.

There was indeed someone who matched this description exactly. She was in the overflow hall down the road, where she received prayer for healing. Over a year later she wrote to me, “My back appears healed and I am not receiving any discomfort from it.” Elsewhere I have analyzed this example and worked out the statistical probabilities of correctly guessing all these features by chance alone. I found that, even with very conservative figures, the chances against accurately diagnosing all these various details by chance alone were at least three million to one.18

Moreover, those responding to such highly specific words of knowledge also tended to report higher degrees of associated healing than those responding to less specific revelations. This process is obscured in the overall percentages of people receiving healing because at the Harrogate conference many more people responded to a less specific word of knowledge for anyone with skeletal problems (including arthritis) to receive prayer: their degrees of healing ranged from “a great deal” or “total” healing through to “little” or none. It was only in the subsequent statistical analysis that I discovered the tendency for more specific words of knowledge to be associated with greater degrees of healing.19

A statistical approach is also very useful in analyzing the revelations commonly referred to as “words of knowledge.”

One of Wimber’s critics—Dr. Peter Masters of the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London—regards supernatural revelations in the Bible as divinely inspired but classifies contemporary revelations like those given to Wimber as examples of occult “clairvoyance,” which he describes as “disobedient to God’s word and highly dangerous.”20 He is right about the dangers of occultism, but may be mistaken in classifying all modern revelations, including those occurring in Christian contexts, as “occult”.21 Certainly I have found that the revelations associated with Wimber and some of his associates are far more specific and accurate than comparable data available from scientific studies of “extra-sensory perception” or of the revelations attributed to psychics and mediums.22 There is also evidence of fraud involving a well-known British medium named Doris Stokes.23 However, in my studies of Wimber’s conferences I have been able to rule out the likelihood of fraud on the grounds that those registering for the conference had no previous contact with the American visitors. The conferences were advertised in popular Christian magazines and organized by different groups of local Christians who had no control over those who might apply to attend. Moreover, through their exposure to the training received at Wimber’s conferences many “ordinary” Christians have also begun to receive similar kinds of divine revelations in the course of their own ministries.24

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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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