Derren Brown and Religious Studies

I am in the process of watching Derren Brown‘s new film Miracles For Sale. I have seen his earlier work, including another film on the subject of what we might call belief systems or religion, Messiah. Derren Brown is a mentalist and magician that is well-known in the UK, and is frequently critical of what he might call the more dubious practices within the realm of “religion” or “spirituality”. His film and tv show work on the subject typically uses the skills of mentalism to mimic the such phenomena as physic powers, faith healing and so forth.

His latest film’s premise is to take a “man off the streets” and train him to be a faith healer. The sensational climax is when this ‘faith healer’ “passes” as a faith healer in Dallas, Texas. Throughout the film Derren plays up the notion of faith healing as a scam and to “debunk it”, framing this as a moral issue of revealing scam artists.

You can see a clip here.

While Watching this film, it has come to me that this would be a perfect film to address to a 4th year or graduate seminar class about the nature of the discipline of Religious Studies. I would ask the students what is the first thing that comes to mind or what they might think about the show–framing their answers to be as if they were a response by a professional academic of Religious Studies. I predict a number of responses from students that I would take issue with. And I would want to fail them for all of these responses.

I predict students might agree with Derren Brown, and argue the veracity of the religious claims to fail healing. I bet some students would be offended by the film or some how become defensive about faith healing. I predict some students might chime in about the moral implications of the show, from whatever perspective.

To all of these responses I would want to fail the students. These positions are not the purview of a religious studies scholar. These  responses are not critically aware or self-reflexive enough to encapsulate a very nuanced understanding of religion (whatever that is).

More interesting responses might be answering questions like:

  • How does the ideological agenda of the Derren Brown film mimic the subject it is critical of? How is Derren Brown doing anything different? Is his position not just as ideological (thus “religious”) as the faith healer?
  • What techniques does Derren Brown use to debunk the target of his shows that he also uses on the audience watching the show?
  • He is often referencing a kind of moral superiority to build the sympathy of his audience. What purpose does this serve?

Note the difference in these questions. These questions avoid become inmeshed in the narratives of either faith healing or Derren Brown’s skepticism. These questions attempt to understand the meaning-laden narrative that Derren Brown builds as much as that of faith healing. This is not a matter of taking a “two sides to every issue” response. Rather, it is a matter of applying the same techniques and perspective to every angle of a situation.

If we get caught in the narrative that Derren Brown weaves, we lose self-critical awareness. The same could be said for faith healing.  Whatever critical skills we learn, we must apply those to our own ideological positions and belief systems as much as anything else. Otherwise, we are as guilty of whatever sin our subject matter is committing as they are. Otherwise, we are shilling sub-standard product. Otherwise, we are as much charlatans and propagandists as those we are critical of. Is that really the job of an academic?

This, of course, is a trick question.

How should we analyze Derren Brown’s Miracles For Sale?

I leave it to the reader to think of an appropriate, professional response to this question. You will be graded.


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