words of knowledge

okay, so, derren brown.

i have to admit he's the kind of guy i think i'd love to hate. in my head i imagine him to be slightly smug and dismissive of people as he treats them like his playthings - daring them to try to outwit his freakishly intuitive nature.

but, it turns out, i don't hate him. i think he's bloody brilliant. and he's doing my head in.

if you watched his programs last night, i can't think how you escape wracking your brains as to how that kind of understanding of human facial expressions, mannerisms, body language is possible.

for those of you who didn't watch the programs, here's the big deal.

if that doesn't make you have big huge questions about all kinds of stuff, then i don't know what will.

so, let me tell you some of the things that it makes me think.

derren brown is absolutely exquisitely clear that he does not believe himself to be psychic at all. he doesn't attribute his gift to anything other than a honed skill in reading people, reading from their reactions to him, from the way they look, from the way that they carry themselves, from their manner, from the clothes they wear etc etc.

and he can tell you the most obscure things, the 'hidden' things, the things that no-one else could know - that he couldn't, or shouldn't know, but does. for instance, on the program prior to the lottery number prediction he told a man that the question that man had wanted to ask derren (but which he didn't because it was a silly question) was whether the man should shave his scrotum - i kid you not. the man had opened himself up to the question being guessed, so it wasn't an abuse, derren didn't reveal a 'secret' that wasn't openly offered to be revealed.

he was also very responsible with his gift too. a young woman's question (again guessed by derren) was whether she would end up living in america. derren was absolutely clear that whatever he said wasn't written in stone, that he wasn't pronouncing any definite future over the woman's life, but that he was offering his positive answer to her as a distinct possibility based on what he could 'read' from who she was.

so i began to wonder.

in my own context of faith and religion, we have such a thing as gifts of prophecy and words of knowledge. is this what derren does? or, more to the point, is what derren does, what we do?

what if the highly tuned gift that derren obviously has, is something that people who we designate 'prophets' have?

you see, i rather doubt that derren went from being someone with absolutely no intuitive gift, to predicting the lottery, overnight. i imagine that derren began to realise that he 'knew' stuff about people. and as this gift continued, perhaps he charted it a bit. clocked it. recognised that it was happening. then, perhaps with no 'faith' framework to fit it into, he decided that he would analyse what it was that he was keying into that gave him the 'knowledge' of these people that he, normally, wouldn't have.

so, after time, he begins to think of the exact facial expressions, the exact bodily posture, that gives away certain pieces of information. he memorises them, so that if they come up on other people, he knows.

now, this might make it seem like this is then a learnable skill, something that anyone can do - and therefore, de-mystified, and, perhaps, secular, rather than sacred. but, i would think that even if derren tells us exactly how he predicted the national lottery, there will be an exact number of '0' of us, who will, any time soon, be down the newsagents with the winning ticket.

but this is still an awesome gift - this is still a gift that has the whiff of the divine about it.

my point is that derren has done something with the gift that most of us would never do. he's analysed it. he knows it. he knows when it's his own stuff getting in the way. he knows exactly what it is that he's doing. he's made this 'talent' worth a million times more. he hasn't stuck it in the mud, worried that he'd be called a freak.

regardless of how we interpret this gift in light of our own understanding of God's revealing nature, of God's use of his people as prophets. how many of us would spend a year honing that skill? how many of us would use the skills uncovered by secular means to hone our divine gift?

i predict that you're either slightly irritated right now, or feel like your brain's going to explode - or both


Dan H said...

Wow. I take it you'll be watching on Friday? (I'll be at scape...)

The strange thing of course is that this prediction has nothing to do with reading people. Therefore I have no idea what he's going to say on Friday. But I can't help feeling that he knew all along that it was going to work, and all of that nervousness was an act. Even the revelation in the follow-up programme will be part of the act.

My skeptical brain is always interested in the reverse of what you've talked about, i.e. supposedly divine events that may just be human or natural. An interesting topic to raise!

Hope you're all doing well!

iain c said...

I find him fascinating - and all the more so because if you read his book, "Tricks of the mind", he tells his story - about how he grew up as a charismatic evangelical Christian and then, as he got into "stage hypnotism"/suggestion and "cold reading", he realised that it all seemed spookily similar to what he was experiencing in church contexts. He then explains that part of the motivation behind what he does is to debunk his charismatic Christian past...

Which means that the plot really thickens then, doesn't it?! If you look for "Derren Brown - Instant Conversion" on YouTube, I think that'll really give food for thought and discussion.

On the points you raise, it seems to me that from a Christian point of view, the whole "so what does it all mean for (so-called) words of knowledge, prophecy etc?" issue maybe roots back into the age-old dualism that, even though Gnosticism was declared a heresy, still permeated deep into Christian thinking and assumptions. What I'm saying is that I wonder whether the two maybe really are (often?) the same (i.e. DB's cold reading and hypnotic suggestion act and charismatic Christian phenomena, but that the desire to label one "this worldly and human" and the other "of and directed by God" is itself buying into a persistent Gnostic dualism. Or maybe I'm saying that I'm just very sceptical about charismatic stuff these days (having been very into it when I was younger) and want just as badly to debunk it - whilst still having a residual sense or desire to believe that at least some of it is "real" (i.e. genuinely communication to an individual from God)...

I've been itching to discuss all this with likeminded, friendly people for a while, so very pleased to see your article!

jody said...

Dan!, good to hear from you, hope you guys are doing well too.

yes, you're right about this prediction being not about reading people - and of course there are elements to his 'act' which are totally baffling in this regard, like when he bandages his face up (of course voice, tone and pitch etc will tell something), but also the fact that on the program i watched he unrolled a scroll at the end which had shown that he had 'predicted' most of the events of that night. he called it 'free association' - this is what he does prior to a 'show', sits in the theatre with no-one else around and just allows his mind to wander (or perhaps 'wonder' is the appropriate word!)

so, i don't think that i could say that this is just about debunking the charismatic tradition, for me, or him.

it is interesting what you say, iain, about his background - a book i will put on my birthday list immediately!

i rather wonder if the further he goes into this the more he will realise that this is something else. or perhaps it will confirm his own human power. i can see that this is something that has the power to draw to faith or push away completely. of course if he has already had a negative experience of charismatic christianity, that will have its effects.

i shall definitely be watching him tonight.

blessings, jody

iain c said...

I agree - it's certainly not all about debunking and he puts on a great show!

The intriguing thing for me with "predicting" what people in his audience will say or be thinking about is the degree to which he's succeding in being able to "plant" those ideas n the minds of susceptible people in the audience through suggestion prior to him carrying out the effect, so that his "prediction" is actually just calling back a thought that he'd planted in the first place. More manipulation, in ways that the people involved don't even realise is happening to them! Very interesting! And I do think that this planting of thoughts and cold reading is what is going on (unconsciously) is much charismatic/Pentecostal activity - but that the people doing it have learned to ascribe the sense impressions and the operation if the processes involved to the working of the Holy Spirit. This sounds cynical, very probably, but it's sometimes so "textbook" as to be difficult (I think...) to discount at least as a possible explanation of what's going on. The next questions (for me) are: 1 Does it necessarily matter all that much, if no-one gets hurt in the process; and 2 (contradicting myself!), Isn't there an issue of honesty, integrity, respect for people and manipulation raised if the techniques being used are (unintentionally) seemingly straight out of the stage hypnotist's handbook...?

Clearly, this doesn't account for "predictions" of events that can't be attributed to his suggestive influence, but as a stage magician, he'll presumably be using well-established conjuring techniques to pull those off (to amazing effect), but which no necessary connection with the suggestion & cold reading stuff.

In any event, he's very clever and a great performer!

Dan H said...

We just watched the "reveal" programme... so Jody, do you believe? :-)

Iain, I had no idea about his Charismatic past - did you, Jody? Time to get his book out of the library methinks...

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

>i rather doubt that derren went from being someone with absolutely no intuitive gift, to predicting the lottery, overnight.<

He did not predict the lottery. He had the crowd participate, but for those numbers he kept control, and then went into a "TV studio" where the camera jerked about in a non-human manner and where he revealed the balls and numbers afterwards. Of the three options he gave of how he did it, none of them were true, but he used the words "my" "trick" and "technology" in his closing speech.

As for the religion, just look at evangelicals predicting and how hopeless they are, and how precise they are when they look back. It's a nonsense.

jody said...


well, who knows what to think of derren brown's explanations on friday night.

he says it's one of two ways - there are certainly difficulties in that the balls were shown after the draw, the that balls weren't shown to the participants to verify, even with one of them and the fact that he was being deliberately ambiguous about it.

personally, i think i'm with the 'none of the above' answer, but it's interesting that the offers he gave to the 'audience' is to either choose to 'believe' or to choose to believe that he is a cheat, a fraud and a criminal.

i personally think that's much more interesting......

adrian, well, i've certainly met people who claim to have 'words', 'visions' and prophecies, which i think are pretty much made up out of their own heads, so vague, or perhaps they 'overinterpret'.

i also believe that God does pour out dreams and visions on his people in these last days.

and i have met people who claim to have prophesied things - some who i believe.

i have had 'words' from God, particularly about people being pregnant - however, i think that i might simply be subconciously noticing changes in their bodies before they do.

i can't simply go with the idea that it's all rubbish - that seems to be dismissing a lot of the evidence that there is. however, there is a lot of rubbish too, so that may be where our task of discernment lies.

Dave W said...


I do think there are people who have intuitive gifts. I don't think that there are gifts and abilities that are specifically spiritual and others that are not. God gives people to the Church and equips them to serve him.

Some he gives the ability to teach, others sing, others speak to others in different languages. Some will be born with a natural gift which they have to do very little with, others have to work hard at it, others might find themselves to do something that surprises them for a short period (there are stories of men preaching during the Welsh Revival who couldn't afterwards).

If that's right then it is well possible that there are people out there who do pretty much what a Christian does which sometimes gets labeled as a Word of Knowledge. The difference is, that it isn't given to the Church so is serving the wrong master.

There are also a lot of Christians who do these things and don't get given the label.

Dave W said...

By the way, If I'm right

That means the instinct to notice ever so slight changes in people -and know they are pregnant before they do is an ever so precious gift from God.

Perhaps that's where training and nurturing come in because such a gift would have wider uses in pastoral care.

dennisthemennis.co.uk said...

I dont watch derren much, its not thats its not my thing I just cant be arsed watching telly much. I think tho you have made a very valid point, assuming I am assuming the same assumptions I think you made that derren is indeed using a god given gift that we could all posess.

I doubt that makes any sense at all only I think you right in your assumptions.