Miracles galore

    This piece by Claus Larsen originally appeared on SkepticReport.

    Charles Ndifon.
    Charles Ndifon

    In these days of never-ending pandering to the cheapest thrills, it is not every day you get to witness a whole string of miracles, where people are cured of such varied ailments as ski injuries, whiplash, asthma and ovarian cancer. Blind people see, deaf people hear, diabetics are cured, fibromyalgia and even otherwise incurable sclerosis disappears! That sure beats watching “Wheel of Fortune” on a boring Thursday evening.

    So, in late March, 2004, I was all set to witness the travelling healer, Charles Ndifon, as he came to Hillerød, a town North of Copenhagen, Denmark, courtesy of some churches outside the State Church. The object was to perform miracles. Guaranteed, no less. Ndifon is from Nigeria, and he has become rather famous in Denmark for his appearances on TV, where he – presumably – has healed a lot of people. The programs have been very credulous, with absolutely no real investigations of any kind, so the stage was definitely set for a successful performance. I was not disappointed, although not for the reasons one might expect. It turns out there are a number of rotten fruits in the garden of miracles.

    Shortly before the show started, I took this picture from the parking lot. All three handicapped spaces were empty. Things that make you go “Hmmm…”

    Free miracles – for a price

    The admission was free, but the miracles came with a hefty price tag. After the first half-hour or so of mind-numbing chanting, the first call for donations went out. Plastic cans were sent around, and the money poured in – sort of. Danes and their money are not separated lightly, which even the preacher-cum-collector realized: He had to appeal to our sense of guilt, by referring to how rich we are here in Denmark, and how poor they are in Africa. The same ruse that parents use, when they want their children to finish what’s on their dinner plate. Conveniently, you could even donate by credit card, since a portable ATM-machine was available as well. Leave no stone unturned.

    The promise was crystal clear: Believe, and you will be cured. The bait was dangled in front of us at all times, never were we allowed to forget that simple message. But don’t think for a second that you could believe just this evening, and go home, cured. No, you had to buy your way to health. Buy the books, buy the CDs (“only” $20 a pop, a bargain for a home-made CD), buy the audio and video tapes, and, by gawd, you had to listen to them 24 hours a day. Literally! One of Ndifon’s assistant preachers told us tale after tale about sick people being cured, just by listening to the tapes, non-stop for three weeks! Isn’t that easy? Fork over your money, put your brain out of commission, and – voila! – no more pain and suffering, no more visits to the doctor or hospital. You buy a piece of Paradise, you buy a piece of me.

    (Elevator) Music from Heaven

    One key factor of getting people to buy was the music. From start to finish, only interrupted by pleas for donations, the band was playing inspirational songs, with lots of audience participation. Hands waving in the air, eyes closed, singing the “songs”, which consisted of very simplistic tunes, almost of a nursery rhyme quality. The music had only one purpose: It had to get you in a state of ecstasy. Your mind must stop wandering, all independent thoughts must be eradicated. To get you into the drone zone, you must sing the same line indefinitely, to a tune devoid of any musical qualities. It is exactly the same method we see in Eastern religions, where a mantra is echoing in your head, effectively removing rational thought, leaving your soul open to God – or your mind open for manipulation.

    Arriving in style

    After the donations (the plastic cans were quickly removed from our sight, never to be seen again), it seemed as if we were in for yet another lengthy musical dronification session, so my mind was already beginning to solve other, more intellectually gratifying tasks – like making the long overdue inventory of my fridge, and updating the grocery list (as you might have guessed, I did not stand, sing or wave my hands in the air, so my mind was still functioning at a tolerable level). Then, the star of the evening was suddenly there. No blazing trumpets or crumbling walls, Charles Ndifon simply appeared – perhaps miraculously – among the singers on the stage. The audience reaction was very interesting: Nobody gave any indication that Ndifon had arrived, no necks were stretched, no cheering, no nudging or whispering. That surprised me somewhat, until I learned just how effectively we had been prepared for how Ndifon works. He works by quiet force.

    Charles Ndifon is nowhere near your typical 1980’s Televangelist, praying loudly, running around, sweating buckets, screaming like a banshee, reciting Bible quotes like a maniac. He is subdued, eloquent, but rules with an iron fist. Make no mistake who’s the boss around here. When the ushers didn’t line up the people fast enough, he chastised them: “The people need to hear about how God works”, he said with a stern face, making sure that the message was not drowned in the mild chaos up front. When you drive your point home, you don’t want any dissent in the ranks.

    There was no lengthy preaching of any kind from Ndifon: He wasted no time, but went straight on to recite a litany of diseases and maladies, claiming that there were people being healed right now. Strangely enough, he didn’t “do” any healing himself, he left that task to a number of assistant healers, both from his own crew and some appointed from the Danish congregations. You may wonder why people need to get Ndifon to go to Denmark to heal people, if his ushers are able to perform these miracles themselves, but then you are missing the point: In the world of faith healing, the sick are told in no uncertain terms that they need those gifted few, who are in direct contact with God, who have been bestowed with God-like powers – the ability to heal, in this case – and who are able to pass this ability on to the chosen ones. Power play in extremis – who wouldn’t like the power to heal, even for a few, precious moments? Jesus, he knows me, and he knows I’m right.

    It was pretty hard to keep up with the long list of illnesses, but if people felt healed, they had to come forward and “testify” before the rest of us. There were cameras in the back, filming each show (videos available for sale!), but now, people began to film up close, using their own cameras: It was time to record the anecdotes, and there were plenty: Just the night I was there, at least 30 people came forward to “witness” that they had been “cured”, a quite impressive record. Or so it seemed.

    Mathematical problems

    Now, let’s stop for a second here. 30 people a night, for 5 nights in a row, is 150 people. Ndifon claims that at least a thousand people have been cured in the 13 years he has been a travelling healer. At the meetings, there was room for about 6-700 people, but let’s be very conservative and say that about 2,500 people attended the 5 shows. Were the 5 nights in Hillerød extremely successful (a whopping sixth of all his claimed “cures”), in fact the very highlight of Ndifon’s career? Not at all. It turned out that people were not “cured” at all.

    One man came forward and told of shoulder pains. They were now dwindling, and, with a little more on-stage exercises, the pain apparently disappeared. Just what any exercise of stiff muscles will usually do for you.

    One man came forward and told that he had an old ski injury. He actually said that he wasn’t aware that he had been healed, he had been told that he was! But, when pressed a little, he could feel that “something” was happening. Again, loosening up stiff muscles by exercising them.

    One woman came forward and said she had been suffering from ovarian cancer for 5½ years. During Ndifon’s prodding, it turned out that she had only felt a little pain that evening, but “suddenly” felt no pain. Her doctors had told her that her ovarian cancer was incurable, so Ndifon told her to go back to her doctors, because it was “gone now”. And got her off the stage. No need for people dying on stage, or embarrassing reports from real doctors.

    Such is the quality of anecdotes faith healers build their reputations on. With such low standards of evidence, no wonder Ndifon can claim so many “cured” people.

    The mundanity of too many miracles

    miracle2During the very intense healing process, where people were urged to rush to the stage to bear witness of their miraculous recovery, I was struck by the rather casual, almost business-like posture of this man. His name is Christian Hedegaard, who arranged for Ndifon to come to Denmark. Hedegaard is a healer, preacher and Chief Whip when it comes to collecting money. He also talks regularly to God on TV. My thought was, “How can he just stand there so nonchalant, when so many miracles are supposedly happening all around him? Shouldn’t he be awestruck by the wonder of God?” Perhaps when you see that many miracles, they tend to become rather mundane. God only knows.

    On my way out, I walked past the downstairs audience, those who were not fortunate – or quick – enough to see the healer in person, but had to make do with a big screen. Although there were assistant healers there as well, they obviously could not help this guy, who was standing all by himself, way to the back. I wonder what he was thinking.

    miracle3It was a cold return to the real world, but I felt a lot better with the wind in my face, and the stars shining brightly. Even if no limbs were divinely restored that night.

    Reprinted with permission from the author.

    Claus Larsen is the editor of SkepticReport, an online forum for skepticism and critical thinking. He lives in Copenhagen, Denmark.

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