A member of the public is persuaded to make an assassination attempt on comedian Stephen Fry. A studio audience is transformed into a baying mob through deindividuation techniques. A social worker is made to feel so guilty he confesses to a murder he did not commit. Welcome to the extraordinary, mind-bending world of Derren Brown.
These three scenarios were all part of Derren Brown: The Experiments, Channel 4’s latest series of specials featuring the controversial illusionist and debunker, which drew a Friday night audience of over 2 million through October and November. Brown’s previous high-profile stunts have included playing a live televised game of Russian roulette, and appearing to predict the results of the National Lottery correctly. In the UK he is currently peerless as a stage performer. He is also a prominent atheist, and a critic of some of the more charismatic aspects of evangelical Christianity. He has earned the respect both of the magic community and the cynical general public, and has established a rare and almost untouchable celebrity founded on his apparent cleverness. Brown is a modern icon of intellectual cool; the Church will ignore him at its peril.
That’s a Church, by the way, that lost Derren Brown. As a teenager, the same man was seen enthusiastically evangelising the heathen with the rest of his Pentecostal congregation; even at university, he retained his faith for a time. Brown explains in his partautobiography Tricks of the Mind that at this point, when he began to train as an illusionist and learned how to manipulate people, he cross-referenced this new knowledge with his charismatic faith and found the latter to be fraudulent. However, this decision was also formed in a crucible of bad experiences. Warned away from magic by concerned Christian friends, and shunned by his own church when his attendance became more occasional than religious, the final straw came when, during one of his early stage shows, members of the university Christian Union filled the back of the venue and prayed loudly in tongues, seemingly in an attempt to limit his demonic impact.
In his book, Brown makes a few uncharacteristically lightweight arguments against the faith, and aligns himself with a man he now lists as a hero, Richard Dawkins. I’m not sure his critique of Christianity quite rings true; the much stronger subtext is simply that he felt rejected by it. As a gay illusionist, he probably couldn’t feel more unwelcome in most churches.
Brown is driven by a passion for shedding light on the murky world of those who make money out of deception under the guise of psychic insight. Mediums, spiritists, psychics and faith healers have all been tackled and shown up as frauds through Brown’s TV shows. He is pouring light into areas which are dark purely because they dangerously mislead people. Yet it doesn’t stop there. While he is balanced enough to point out that not all of the Church is manipulative, his revelations around the power of suggestion and mind control can, and should be, levelled at some of what is done in the name of Jesus.
Now, I have seen healings take place in front of my far too cynical eyes; I have received dead-on words of knowledge from others that would otherwise represent an extraordinary coincidence. However, there are elements of some ‘Holy Spirit Ministry’ which tremble under Brown’s critique.
For instance, he urges caution at the amount of control a leader can exercise over an audience; especially with regard to the power of suggestion. Hysterical environments can be whipped up and managed; a charismatic leader can misuse their influence. This is the case with stage hypnotism, and even with Brown’s own West End shows, where he is able to lead an entire audience to make specific choices through subtle use of hidden language. In a religious context, exactly the same effect could be manufactured, with congregations led to believe that they have heard from God…or that he is calling them to make a donation. Not that Brown’s challenge is to the charismatic Church alone. His manipulation of repetition and imagery to evoke guilt and other emotional responses also chimes with other more traditional expressions of Church and worship.
‘Cold reading’ is the art of reading body language and other ‘tells’ when interviewing a subject to quickly ‘know’ a seemingly miraculous amount of information about them. Brown is both a master and a fierce critic of the practice, especially in supposed psychics; again, his concerns can be applied to the Church. Ever watched a TV preacher you didn’t trust, delivering a remarkably accurate ‘word’ for someone?
He is also concerned that Christians take an uncritical approach to their relationship with God in prayer. When a prayer is answered, he says, we claim it is God; we quickly allow ourselves to disregard and forget information which doesn’t fit the pattern that says he is active in our lives, or tell ourselves the answer was ‘no’. In addition, we can edit our faith stories to make them more exciting or interesting.
Some might see Brown as a dark and dangerous man. Yet he offers a vital challenge to the Church. The truth is we are sometimes guilty of many of his charges, but we need to stand up to them. Brown compels us to put our house in order – to guard ourselves against the subconscious pitfalls of charismatic ministry. His remarkable popularity means that many people now approach the idea of faith with new levels of cynicism. Yet the truth is that we follow a God who doesn’t need hysteria or manipulation to move among us. The fruit of the Spirit cannot be faked or suggested; we should look for and encourage it in our churches, and through so doing will become a body that soars above Brown’s critique.
Five shocking Derren Brown Moments
1. Russian Roulette
Brown’s most infamous stunt involved his apparently playing Russian roulette with a real, loaded gun, live on television. Broadcasting from a secret location, said to be in Jersey, he correctly predicted the chamber which held the one bullet, firing it into a sandbag after an apparent last-minute change of mind.
2. The Séance
Fuelled by his passion for disproving so-called psychic phenomena, Brown held an as-live séance to ‘contact the spirit’ of a woman who wasn’t actually dead. Employing the methods used by spiritualists, he led a group of university students to believe they had successfully reached the woman, before bringing her into the room – alive and well.
3. Miracles for Sale
Targeting evangelical Christian faith healers, this documentary followed Brown as he attempted to turn an ordinary member of the British public into a big name in the American Bible Belt. While he might have hoped for more, the show ended with a low-key rally where the truth was revealed; nevertheless, even as a Christian viewer it was hard not to agree with most of Brown’s points as he shed light on a corrupt ‘industry’.
4. Predicting the Lottery
As part of a 2009 series of ‘live’ shows, and amid a flurry of publicity, Brown appeared to successfully predict the results of the National Lottery draw. The conceit of the show was that he was harvesting the mind power of a group of volunteers; the truth, of course, was that this was simply a classic illusion.
5. The Heist
Arguably the most impressive of all Brown’s stunts to date saw him convince a group of participants to rob a security van in broad daylight – despite never mentioning the crime. Using expert powers of suggestion to seemingly plant the idea into his subjects’ minds, he successfully manipulated the group to apparently commit this serious crime, albeit in a fake environment.