B.G. Hilton – Author

In Search Of… S05E02 Faith Healers

Pictured: medical assistance

Ugh, this one is going to hurt.

We open on faith healing as the term is usually used in modern America. A preacher with a strong Southern accent is trying to heal parishioners with dramatic flourishes and very bad organ music. Lots of people waving hands in the air, and the preacher demanding that the audience gives a ‘clap offering.’ This indeed leads to a round of polite applause for the Almighty. Good for Him, He could use some positive feedback. We cut away to a doctor in a white suit who very politely says that faith healing (at least in its more dramatic forms) is questionable. Nimoy says that faith healing is a thing, but it’s controversial.

So far so ordinary. Wild claims on one side, sober talking heads on the other — a fairly standard ‘In Search Of,’ I think. But then things get odd. Nimoy informs us that ‘faith healing’ is the oldest method of treating disease, but before I can say ‘do you have any evidence for this’ or even ‘define your terms,’ we’re looking at footage of Kenyan faith healing. I don’t know if this comes from another episode, but the next two short sequences do. One is from the ‘Voodoo episode and the other from Witch Doctors.

This is important in a couple of ways. Lots of religious traditions have a ‘healing’ element. Does that make them faith healing? In a broad sense, yes, I suppose. But Nimoy claims that ‘the practices may differ, but the religious principles remain the same.’ But do they? I mean seriously, if you asked the Southern preacher if his work is similar to that of a Voodoo priest, I doubt you’d get a polite response

This is important in looking at this episode, because it really determines what we’re saying. Are we saying it’s possible for a person to heal themselves through mental positivity or somesuch, or are we claiming a supernatural being deliberately interferes in biological processes when asked to do so, or some combination of the two? If the former, than no it probably doesn’t matter whether the ‘faith healer’ is a Christian minister, a Peruvian shaman or a  Voodoo practitioner. And it seems like this is what the episode is arguing for – but tellingly, it stops well short of saying so, possibly out of fear of alienating a very large segment of their audience.

Anyway, the episode has a very short history of Christian faith-healing, leaping directly from the New Testament to 20th Century America without anything in the middle. There’s some interesting footage of an uncharacteristically female faith healer haranguing her audience. She’s talking sheer gibberish, but she’s so charismatic that it’s mesmerising nonetheless.

We close in on a particular faith healing ceremony in Chicago, run by this beefy looking guy with wonderfully expressive eyebrows. His healing technique seems to involve grabbing peoples heads and bobbling them around. He says that he believes in modern medicine, up to the point where it can’t help and then faith healing takes over from there. This echoes a point Nimoy made earlier – scientific medicine has limits but no one is particularly interested in staying within those limits.

The ceremony itself is weirdly fascinating.

Now we’re talking to the doctor from earlier – Dr Council Miller. I had to play this section of video several times to confirm that I hadn’t misheard, and his name is indeed ‘Council’. Not making fun of the guy, just imagining his life of sighing and spelling out his name over the phone, like, several times a day. Anyhoo, he very diplomatically questions whether people healed by faith healers actually have a diagnosable physical ailment. It’s one of the politest ways I’ve ever heard anyone call bullshit. And the guy rocks a white suit.

The preacher from before (whose name is uninteresting and therefore forgettable) basically just claims that scientific medicine agrees with faith healing without going into any details.

And now we’re talking about cancer. Some generic 1970s-y hospital footage, and we’re talking to a doctor who looks like an extra from McCloud. He talks about how cancer patients look outside the medical establishment for help. He’s quite empathetic about it, accepting that people who can’t be helped by science will look elsewhere – but he basically says that there are no miracles to be found.

Now we’re looking at a black Christian church, and holy crap is the music like a million times better than in the white church. Do we interview the reverend? No, what would be the point.

Now, to my surprise, Nimoy asks the question I asked earlier, about whether ‘faith healing’ is a case of ‘mind over matter’ or it’s caused by an outside force. We’re talking to Bernard Gran, a Canadian biologist who did a lot of research into psychic phenomena. He claims that he proved that psychic healing is an objective force rather than the result of a placebo effect.

Ah. Well. Now here’s another question – is psychic healing the same as faith healing? Assuming for the sake of argument that psychici healing is real, is healing energy coming off of a psychic the same as a miracle from God? Not a rhetorical question, I genuinely have no idea. But Dr Grad calls the psychic healing used ‘laying on of hands’ so maybe he does mean faith healing? Or maybe he considers faith healing a form of psi power? It’s annoyingly unclear.

So Dr Grad proves psychic powers by torturing mice, which admittedly wasn’t that far off what real scientists do. Grad has this Hungarian faith healer attempt to heal the mice that Grad has wounded. ‘The results are startling’.

Now, Grad says something interesting: he actually states the case that the filmmakers have been dancing around. He claims that the healer ‘stimulates the body’s own healing properties’ through a ‘transfer of energy’. He claims this energy is related to consciousness, since it ‘seems to know what it’s doing.’

Back to the 70s hospital and the doctor (not the doctor in the white suit, the one who looks like someone who might annoy Bill Bixby and turn him into the Hulk) says that he thinks that the power of the mind may be useful in healing, but really who’s to say?

Then we return to Nimoy – oh, I forgot! He’s in in a room in a hospital that’s meant to be a lab, but is right next to a nurses’ station. He’s not in a labcoat, but wearing a white sportscoat that I think is meant to suggest a labcoat, but makes him look more like Vincent Price playing a barber. He sets up this little story left over from the ‘Life After Death’ story tht I straight-up don’t remember, about a cancer patient counsellor. We see him talking to a young patient, then he talks about convincing said patient to visualise his cancer as a monster, then viualise the cancer shrinking. The cancer, at time of filming, was in remission.

It’s a nice story. I don’t mean that in a cynical way at all, it’s a genuinely nice story, regardless of whether the visualisation technique actually accomplished anything. But again, it just adds to the vagueness of the case being constructed here. Christian faith healing = any other religious tradition of faith healing = equals healing by a psychic = the power of positive thinking.

So not an un-entertaining episode, but somehow an irritating one. If you think about it, the words ‘faith’ and ‘healing’ aren’t super precise to begin with. Making them vaguer is extremely unhelpful.


“How do we define ‘miracle’. Is it what medicine calls a ‘cure’?

I’m no theologian, but that’s the worst definition of ‘miracle’ I’ve ever heard.

Summing Up

Nimoyness: 6/10, Precision: 2/10, Clarity: 1/10, Just what are you saying?: 3/10, Fun: 5/10 (Black church segment only). Overall: 17/50. Fail.

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B.G. Hilton - Author