Monday, May 17, 2004

Toronto Blessing and the noble savage... 

I had an extremely strange evening on Saturday, spent in the company of about four or five hundred born-again Christians in a service which was like nothing I'd ever experienced before. I went along, a typical cynic, because I'd been told that the people they had visiting had healed members of the congregation the night before - of asthma, broken limbs, back problems and the like - and, having a very visible skin disease myself, wanted to prove it was rubbish if they tried to do the same thing again.

The visitors were John and Carol Arnott, founders of the Toronto Airport Vineyard Church in the 1980s, at which many people have supposedly been healed and the phenomenon of 'holy laughter' has found a big place. Since the phenomenon has spread, with visitors to the church returning home and bringing the same things with them, it's come to be known as the 'Toronto Blessing'. Needless to say, the movement has pretty dodgy foundations.

There were some incredibly weird things going on in the meeting. Hysterical laughter would spread across the room and then fade (I felt like laughing at points, but not like that). People would fall on the floor when John touched them and start barking like dogs, or screaming uncontrollably, and by the end at least half of the people there were lying on the floor 'soaking in the holy spirit' after he had blown on them. Carol was 'casting out' demons from one woman as I left - a woman I'd already seen in an hysterical fit on the floor earlier in the night. As well as all this there was 'prophesying', 'speaking in tongues', 'testimonials of healing' and a lot of other stuff which seemed almost normal by comparison. The meeting lasted nearly four hours.

I can only say that I felt it was simply mass hysteria, but it was cynically-induced mass hysteria and it left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. A lot was done to sustain the tension in the room and force people into a group mindset. When the talk began John would force people to stayed zoned in by repeatedly making people turn to their neighbours and pray with them, or shout statements at them such as 'Fire on you!' I'm also pretty sure some people were planted to start off the laughter each time it happened, as it always seemed to begin in the same place. All this kept the tension going for the final 'laying on of hands', which put most of the congregation to the floor.

I had hands lain on me and of course I didn't fall, which prompted John to call to the member of the ministry team behind me 'More spirit on this one! More!'. So then I had two hands pressed around my ears and a man chanting to me that the holy spirit should fill me. But with his hands on my ears I was losing my balance, swaying a fair bit, and determined not to fall. In the end he gave in and said 'you're doing just fine... you've got the spirit in you... you don't need to fall', at which point I broke the spell by turning round and nodding agreement.

But all this, the cynical tactics, the laughter, the screaming and everything else, is annoying me much less in retrospect than what I remember of John's talk. Because the talk was vile in many ways - he would sidetrack simply in order to have a rant about evolution, for instance. But what really got to me was the huge emphasis being placed on emotional and spiritual contact with the holy spirit, and the de-emphasis of rationality. We were told to really 'love' Jesus, to stop questioning things and instead to soak in the holy spirit. Then we were told how fast Christianity was spreading in Asia and Africa, and he returned at several points to the example of Nigeria.

We were told at one point that the people of Africa, and Nigeria in particular, were really open to spiritual teachings, that they accepted these things more easily than we did and we should do the same. Which to me basically interpreted as 'these people are closer to their own weird rituals than you are, so they're more open to ours'. And here's the rub. Because so much of the talk seemed to centre on this sort of assertion and because that assertion is deeply founded in the 'noble savage' racist mentality, fetishising what we were once told to despise. How can an entire movement justify itself in that way?

I haven't been able to stop thinking about the meeting during the past few days. I've always been one for moral grey lines, but I've never felt quite so much that I might acutally be in the presence of evil. How ironic that it should be at a 'Christian' event...

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