Of faith and doubt and miracles
It’s an unsettling scene. The old woman is in a wheelchair, surrounded by young children in their Sunday best. They have laid hands on her, and with the crowd around them, they are shouting at the top of their lungs. What they’re shouting doesn’t sound like anything that means anything. They call it “speaking in tongues”: random gibberish to the ordinary listener, but to them, it’s a movement of the Holy Spirit. But in this moment, it doesn’t seem to be bringing them joy. The children’s faces look pained more than anything else. They look flushed and distraught, as if they’ve worked themselves up in a tearful frenzy to demand something of their parents. Except this is something their parents have taught them to do.
The woman herself is also speaking in tongues, her eyes closed, her hands outspread. After about a minute, she begins to rise slowly from her wheelchair. A cheer swells from the crowd. By the time the 2-minute-long clip ends, she is standing—sort of. One of the children has a hand supporting her from behind. The crowd keeps clapping. On stage, the men keep dancing.
I don’t know why this particular clip popped up in my Twitter feed last week. But it was oddly synchronous with my recent reading about a couple figures known in the charismatic church tradition as “faith healers.” This is hardly in my own denominational wheelhouse. My roots are Anglo-Catholic. My parents’ roots are Baptist. We tend to reserve judgment in such matters. Once, we spent a torturous lunch with a man who was steadfastly convinced he and his wife had witnessed miracles, including one or two involving bodily functions which he insisted on detailing for us blow by graphic blow. We were laughing for days afterwards.
Yet here I’ve been for the past week or so, reading up on faith healings. My catalyst was a new film dramatizing the beginnings of the so-called “Jesus movement” in 1969. In 1971, it caught the attention of TIME Magazine, which dramatically dubbed it a “Jesus revolution.” Thousands upon thousands of young people, hippies and drifters and druggies, were getting “saved.” Then, as proof of their new faith, they were getting baptized in the Pacific Ocean. To the clinical outside observer, it was all very strange. But then, those were very strange times.
The movie isn’t great. But the history is fascinating. I wrote a little about it last weekend in a short article on Lonnie Frisbee, who perhaps more than any other single figure was responsible for launching the movement, revolution, whatever you called it. But what began with a bang tragically ended in a whimper as he stumbled into disgrace, addiction, and obscurity. Today, nobody outside a very specific niche would recognize his name, and he’s not alive to remind them. He died in his 40s in 1993, for the same reason numerous other 40-something men were dying in 1993. Of course, that part’s not in the movie.
For the curious, Frisbee left behind a patchwork-quilt biography in three parts—part transcribed dictation, part ghostwriting, part recollections from friends. It’s very strange, sad, meandering stuff. By his own account, he received his calling in 1967 when he was 17 years old, high on LSD, wandering naked through Tahquitz Canyon and screaming, “God, if you’re really real, reveal yourself to me!” That was when he had a vision of himself baptizing people in the ocean. Two years later, the rest was history. Or so the story went.
And still, I kept turning the pages. Because for all his foibles, stumbles, and eccentricities, Frisbee seemed utterly sincere. Then I got to the parts where he began to claim, very sincerely, that he had performed miraculous healings.
It was a power he had always wanted, from the time he was a small boy. He was beaten, rejected, or molested by almost every adult male in his life, but he idolized men like televangelist Oral Roberts, now known as the father of prosperity gospel theology. Roberts’s “faith healing” ministry was legendary. One day, young Lonnie earnestly told his beloved blind choir teacher that if only she could have Oral Roberts lay hands on her, she could get her sight. Then he burst into tears. That night, he cried himself to sleep.
Frisbee is proud of his younger self for having the “guts” to say this, and proud that he went on to become a faith healer in his own right. To give him as fair a shake as possible, other sincere people claimed to back him up with eyewitness testimony. Once, a witness attested he had pointed to a blind man and declared, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you can see!” And, in the witness’s words, “That man got his sight back.” Naturally, I have questions. How do you know? Was it immediate? How blind was the man to begin with? Another witness was more explicit. He had brought his mother, whose mouth, tongue and gums were full of black lesions. Frisbee commanded a “foul spirit” to come out of her, and immediately the man testified she began coughing and retching. “When she stopped,” in the man’s words, “her mouth was healed.”
Well, what does that mean? God only knows. A part of me pauses to wonder. Another part of me responds like the writer Andrew Klavan, when a friend earnestly insisted to him that her famous boyfriend had healed a man’s shortened leg. “No, he didn’t,” Klavan said. “I saw him!” she said. “No, you didn’t.”
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