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A Social Anthropologist’s Analysis of Contemporary Healing, Part 2

The Power of the Cross: The Biblical Place of Healing and Gift-Based Ministry in Proclaiming the Gospel


How do doctors respond to claims of healing? Are there any lasting social effects when people experience divine healing?


Physical and Spiritual Phenomena

Since John White is contributing a chapter to this book concerning the physical manifestations which sometimes seem to accompany the working of the Holy Spirit, here I shall confine myself to a few brief remarks arising out of my own investigations.32

When some people at a Baptist church in Leeds began to display behaviour such as shaking, weeping or falling over (Jer. 23:9; Dan. 10:10; Neh. 8:6, 9; Jn. 18:6; Rev. 1:10, 17-18)33 during a healing service led by some of Wimber’s team, a critic later described the events as a case of mass hysteria. This opinion was expressed by a theologian with no training in psychology or psychiatry. However, it led me to include in my follow-up interviews a simple psychological test which gives a preliminary indication of the plausibility of this explanation.

A retrospective study of a case of mass hysteria among some English schoolgirls confirmed the hypothesis of Professor Eysenck that more hysterical individuals tend to rank high on scales of both extroversion and neuroticism.34 However, only twelve out of the one hundred people in my random sample ranked high on both these scales, and all but two of them were only just over the border into the ‘high’ category on only one of the two scales. Nevertheless, virtually all of these 100 people had themselves experienced at least some of the physical phenomena. I found that reports of these experiences were spread across all the different psychological categories of people and were by no means confined to any one psychological ‘type’. This argues against any theory that these physical phenomena can be explained away by a theory of mass hysteria.

It is difficult, and in several cases probably impossible, to explain away these and other kinds of experiences.

Another theory is that these phenomena can be explained away as a form of learned behaviour. A number of experts agree that some form of auto-suggestion can influence such behaviour in at least certain cases. In my questionnaire at John Wimber’s Harrogate conference I asked people to indicate whether or not they had experienced such phenomena in the past or for the first time at Harrogate. The question then arose how to interpret the statistics. For instance, among those who had fallen over in the past, 69% (499 out of 725) did not repeat the behaviour again at the Harrogate conference. It might therefore be argued that this was not ‘learned behaviour’. On the other hand, the fact that 31% did fall over again might be regarded either as ‘learned behaviour’ or else as further genuine ministry from God which necessitated this kind of phenomenon. However, it was clear that ‘milder’ phenomena such as the tingling or shaking of hands, weeping or changes in breathing were much more likely to be repeated or else to be manifested for the first time than were more ‘dramatic’ forms of behaviour such as falling over, screaming or shouting. These ‘milder’ phenomena are often associated with ministry to others (including weeping in the context of intercessory prayer) and are quite likely to be repeated, whereas phenomena connected with receiving ministry tend to recur less often and usually cease once the ministry is completed.

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Category: In Depth, Winter 2009

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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