I am convinced that Evangelicals are more obsessed with the occult than actual partitioners of magic. For a group that blanches at the thought of Pokémon or Halloween, they seem to have an almost intimate knowledge of magic. Whether or not this was for insuring that us young and impressionable Christians never joined the ranks of our local goth pagans and Wiccans, Christian media’s approach to further demonizing the occult is heavy-handed.
Christians are very good at commercials. Doom and gloom? You got it. Bad acting? By the bucketful. I learned a lot through those commercials. My mother kept the television tuned to TBN at all times. The Trinity Broadcasting Network ran any number of vintage Christian movies, commercials, and re-runs of Benny Hinn Specials. Benny Hinn, the megachurch pastor who became known for making church-fulls of people pass out from “The Holy Ghost”, was an enigma. I used to watch him, entranced by his snow-white suit and bushy eyebrows as he ran and shouted across the stage. I believed with my whole might that Benny Hinn was real. That when he pressed his hands out toward the television screen, that his healing could actually reach us.
I used to watch my mom as she stretched her hands back toward him. Her eyes were shut tight, lined deeply grooved in the skin around them. It was the most peaceful I ever saw her when she was praying along with the television. I wanted if nothing else to believe for her sake.
One day, my mom got word Benny Hinn was coming to our local arena. She got tickets and I was the lucky one who got to attend with her. Gone were the green banners for the Milwaukee Bucks. Instead, gigantic banners of Benny were unfurled, his face scrunched in excruciating, holy pain as he conversed with the most high. My mom was wearing her Sunday best. Near the entrance, protestors had gathered. One of them yelled, “He’s taking your money and laughing all the way to the bank!” My child's brain thought that this person was so awful for saying such a thing. How could he say that when Benny would skip across the stage, overcome with holy purpose? There was no way Benny Hinn was like some sort of cartoon miser, diving into pile after pile of crumpled dollar bills and gold coin tithes.
Inside the arena, we made our way up to the nose bleeds. You could just make out a white dot on stage. There he was. In all his magical glory. Anyone who could wear that much white for extended periods of time without becoming mussed up had to be a divine being.
Like any other church service, we rose and sat in time with others to sing gospel songs and nodded along to the various testimonies. I was on pins and needles waiting for the big moment. The moment when he would wave his hand out across the crowd and create a cascade of falling bodies. Like a wave at a sporting event but so much more terrifying. I didn’t know if I believed it all or not. The people sure looked convincing enough as they slid down carpeted steps after being caught in the wake of his mighty, sweeping hand. I looked back at my folded-up arena seat. Wondering how badly it would hurt if I feel against it while overcome with the holy ghost. I glanced at my mom and her face shone with her belief.
The moment finally came. The thing about any good televangelist is that they have to have some sort of catchphrase. Something that sets them apart. Take TD Jakes, for example, has a deep, bass-filled voice that makes his “hallelujah” all that more impressive. Pair that with the flashy suits and even flashier bravados and you have a show.
Benny’s word was, “Touch”. Two syllables. He came down hard on the “ch”, drug it out long through a grimace, as if the power of God was so great, he had to filter it out safely through his teeth.
The moment had finally come. Benny’s hand waved over the crowd and people fell like dominos. As the wave was a terrible thing to see. Each row of people had some that either went down completely or wavered on shaky legs. I let my knees waver and gripped the back of the seat. Whether or not it was because of Binny’s divine connection to God or my wish to not disappoint my mother, I wanted to believe that I would also sway a bit from his magic hands.
Wanting to believe and believing are two different things. Maybe faith is somewhere between the two. My mother’s faith is as much a part of her as her hands, as the wrinkles around her eyes as her smile with perfect teeth she forgot to pass down to me.
Our brains are incredible things. We can convince ourselves of almost anything, with the physical symptoms to match. Take Franz Anton Messmer for example. This German doctor coined the term, “animal magnetism”, with a belief that he could cure ailments through magnetizing the fluids within a human. The patient would swallow metal shavings, and then Messmer would touch a magnet to the ailing points of their body. Those who received his adulations were known to cause fits of shaking, screaming, and fainting. It caused a sensation in the 1700s, with many seeking out help. He eventually would claim that just his hands were capable of creating the same effect. People came far and wide to experience his magic hands, gathering in salons and the like. And it was, without a doubt, pure baloney.
Through a series of tests and what is thought to be the first placebo test, Messmer was outed as a fraud. It became clear that those who knew they were expected to behave in a certain manner or believed so fully in the power of magnetism, or mesmerizing, could experience a physical reaction. This is now a version of hypnosis.
So, when I felt the waver in my legs, as a watched in terror as a sea of people wavered and stumbled before me, slowly edging its way up into the nose bleeds, was it faith or my own determination? Was it truly the magic hands of Benny Hinn or simply my brain allowing me to experience what I so badly wanted? I added this moment to my very short list of reasons I believed. Most of the items were results of not having the reason to believe anything else.
I had always thought that sitting in a pew would be enough. That the gleam of the faux gold accents in our home church would move me. Seeing people overcome with “The Holy Ghost,” jumping and shouting and convulsing under white sheets, made me in awe of a God that never showed up. Except, of course, in framed velvet art of him as a brunette white man, or as the explanations for tough questions. What I felt for my God was fear. Despite the warmth in Benny Hinn’s voice, I didn’t see it as an example of what our safe and understanding protector could do, it was more so what he was capable of.
We left the arena in a crowd of mostly white people, all who seemed to share the same high one feels after leaving a really good concert: sure of ourselves. United. I think about how this was my largest checkmark in my reasons to believe, and not that there was some limitless love in the great beyond just waiting for me.
The love and awe I have found after leaving religion are like a punch in the gut. It makes my legs grow weak with its intensity. I am amazed at my own and other’s capacity for intimacy and forgiveness. I do not have to will my body to convulse, nor feel something that really isn’t there. When I need a good show, I know where to find one, and it no longer requires a pew.