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Nicky Gumbel on encounters with the Holy Spirit

NickyGumbelNicky Gumbel is one of the most successful evangelists of his generation. A former barrister, he’s now the vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), an Anglican church in South Kensington where 4000 people come to worship each Sunday and which has helped to plant new churches around the country. He also runs Alpha, a 10-week course on Christianity, which over 27 million people around the world have taken, including 300,000 prison inmates. The app, Bible In One Year, written by Nicky and his wife Pippa, has been downloaded 850,000 times. Despite this success, he still lives in a vicarage, rides around on his bike, and is nick-named ‘Humble Gumbel’ by colleagues.

I met Nicky and Pippa in 2013, when I did the Alpha course. I liked them and admired their devotion to their vision of ‘re-evangelizing the nations, revitalizing the church and transforming society’. I’m also fascinated by the central place of ecstatic experience – or ‘Holy Spirit encounters’ – in Alpha and charismatic Christianity.  Indeed, I’m writing a book about ecstasy in modern secular culture. How important are such experiences, and are there psychological explanations for them?

HTB is famous as the Anglican church which got the Holy Spirit, in the late 1970s, in the early 80s, and again in 1994 at the time of the so-called ‘Toronto Blessing’.

Yes, there have been strong movements of the Holy Spirit, although our theology has never changed. Certainly, since 1982 we’ve regularly prayed ‘Come Holy Spirit’. I see it as like the ocean – there are always waves, but sometimes it’s more gentle and peaceful, and sometimes there are huge waves. I don’t know why sometimes we pray ‘Come Holy Spirit’ and dramatic things happen. We’ve always said that’s not important – sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t. These days things are much more gentle.

Do you miss those earlier days, or would you like to see another big wave?

I don’t feel strongly about it either way. When there’s a big wave it’s often a mixed blessing – it’s certainly a blessing for the people who experience it, and they may go on to do great things in their ministries, but for other people it’s more challenging, because they’re either saying ‘that’s weird’ or ‘why is it not happening to me?’ I’m not pining for those days. We’ll carry on praying ‘Come Holy Spirit’. What strikes me is that even the Alpha weekends when you don’t see anything dramatic, you still hear amazing stories of what happened afterwards. Often the Holy Spirit does its work in gentle ways. Obviously on the day of Pentecost it was a powerful manifestation. But it’s not always like that. What matters ultimately is the fruit, and for people’s lives to become more loving, gentle and peaceful.

Why is the Alpha course so successful?

People know there’s something more than materialism. Materialism is not deeply satisfying, and you can see that. All the people who get to the top say there’s nothing there. However much money you have. I was talking to a friend of mine who is very wealthy. He’s in his mid-70s, and he said ‘money is so toxic, it’s destroyed my life’. It’s destroyed his son – he gave his son too much money and he’s never worked. Fame is the same. It’s very nice for the first year, but then you soon discover it’s quite complicated – you can’t go out for a walk in the park. It doesn’t satisfy. Sex is the same. Yes, there’s pleasure, but actually, people who live very promiscuous lives end up living very complicated lives and it doesn’t satisfy the deeper hunger. So there’s a spiritual hunger, a gap. And people want to discuss that, but they can’t find a forum to discuss it.

There have been efforts to develop secular versions of Alpha or church – secular sermons, philosophy clubs and so on.

I’m sure you could have a happy evening talking about those things with friends. But it would miss that ingredient which is God – it’s something beyond, outside. Alcoholics Anonymous are feeling after that, with the ‘higher power’. There’s such an interest now in spirituality, in prayer, in community. There’s a depth of community in the church that comes from the fact that you’re actually related, you’re brothers and sisters in Christ, not just a random bunch of people trying to have a community. There’s a different level of trust and intimacy. Of course that can be abused, but rightly used it can be an amazing thing.

To what extent do you think the things people might deem as ‘Holy Spirit encounters’ could be accounted for by psychological things like, say, trance states, or hypnosis, or social contagion? It’s striking that similar sorts of ecstatic experiences happen in other religious traditions.

There are three possibilities in the kind of experiences you’re describing. Either it’s demonic, or it’s psychological, or it’s God. Or it could be a combination, particularly of the last two. What matters is the fruit. You don’t know at the time. If it leads to a ministry for Alpha in the prisons, you say I think that was definitely God. If it leads to people coming off heroin and finding peace in their life, you say that looks like it was God. And if it was just psychological, maybe we need more of the psychological. I remember when John Wimber came here, and I and a lot of other people had a very powerful experience of the Holy Spirit, a psychologist friend of mine said ‘what he’s doing is a well-known form of mass hypnosis’.  I said this to Sandy Millar [the head of HTB in the 1980s], to which Sandy replied ‘not well-enough known’. If the fruit is that people are healed, set free, their lives changed, their family lives restored, if they love their neighbours more, if they transform their communities, if it leads to the abolition of the slave trade, that sounds like God.

John Wimber, one of the founders of the Vineyard church movement, popular with ‘Jesus freaks’ of the late 60s and 70s including Bob Dylan

But still, there’s a risk in charismatic Christianity, going back through the Pentecostalists, the Methodists, all the way to mystics like St Theresa, of taking physical sensations as evidence for ‘God’s favour’. But physical sensations are very easy to manipulate through hypnosis and suggestion or auto-suggestion. I’ve been to services where the preacher says ‘you might be feeling dizzy, or you might be feeling warm’ or whatever. It’s not reliable evidence so there’s a risk in putting too much weight on it.

Yes, absolutely. On the Alpha weekend, when we pray for the Holy Spirit, I once said ‘these are the kind of things you might be experiencing, and if you are, that’s OK’. And someone said to me ‘that’s suggestion – people are feeling those things because you said so’. So the next weekend I didn’t say anything about what people might feel, and there were very powerful manifestations, and someone came up to me afterwards and said ‘why didn’t you warn us?’ So what I try to say now is ‘these things don’t need to happen, but if they do, that’s OK, it’s not wrong or weird’. The point I try to emphasise is, that’s not what matters. I use the analogy of falling in love – you might get tingling in your spine, but that’s not what’s important, it’s your relationship. The physical manifestations are not important, but nor are they bad. They’re beautiful in a way, because it’s part of the relationship with God. But pursuing the physical sensations is not what you should be doing.

A 19th century Methodist camp-meeting, where singing, emotional preaching, group dynamics and - perhaps - the Holy Spirit combined to create mass conversions
A 19th century Methodist camp-meeting, where singing, emotional preaching, group dynamics and – perhaps – the Holy Spirit combined to create mass conversions

Back in 2013, after I’d done the Alpha course with you, I went to a Christian retreat in Wales, which was highly charismatic. And in the midst of a very emotional service, the preacher asked if anyone wanted to commit their life to Jesus. This was right after I’d had a powerful ecstatic experience. So I put my hand up. Charismatic churches often do that – the preacher asks, in the midst of very emotional services, if people want to commit their life to Jesus. But I wonder, amid all that emotion, are people really in their right minds to make such a long-term decision? It’s a bit like getting married in Vegas – can people really make deep life-long decisions in the heat of collective passion?

If it’s not real then it won’t continue. If it’s only an emotional reaction, it won’t last.

But why do churches do that – ask people to publicly commit their life to Jesus right in the middle of a very emotional service?

Well, not everyone commits to Jesus in a service. I did it when I was on my own. I don’t think it matters where you do it. On Alpha, we don’t ask people to come up to the front or whatever, we say they can commit their lives to Jesus by saying a prayer in their heart. The reason we do that is because of that verse of St Paul – ‘if you believe in your heart, and confess with your lips’. There’s something very important about confessing with your lips. The confessing with your lips doesn’t have to be a big public declaration – often on Alpha it happens in the small groups, and people tell others that they prayed the prayer. That moment is often the moment that something really happens in their life. Paul says that’s when people are saved.

The first time I came to HTB, what struck me was how well done everything was – the music, the videos, the welcoming, the talk. But that’s precisely what freaks out some skeptics or high Anglicans – they feel they’re being emotionally manipulated. Now, you could say religions have always tried to manipulate emotions. What do you think – should churches try to reach people’s emotions?

We should try and remove barriers. And things done really badly is a barrier. If you give people a plastic cup with rather disgusting tea and a stale biscuit, it might put people off. When they go to anything in the secular world, they get great food. Why not give them what they would get in the secular world? If you go to Glastonbury, they don’t put on ropey music. They make it as good as they can. We also should make the music as good as we can. If you go to a TED or Intelligence Squared talk, it’s very well done. Why would you want to listen to something that wasn’t well done? We’re trying to honour the Lord in what we’re doing. If Christianity means you have to have badly cooked food, rotten music and boring sermons with wonky slides, it’s not a very good representation of how things should be.

Here’s a video of highlights of HTB’s big summer festival, Focus.

One thing I’m a bit wary of in charismatic Christianity is the confirmation bias. Any prayer that’s answered, or prophetic word that comes true, is seized on and publicly celebrated, without necessarily being investigated. All the prayers not answered, or healings that don’t happen, aren’t mentioned.

Yes, it’s a very interesting point. We used to have a newspaper called Alpha News. People used to say ‘this is just full of good news stories, every story is about someone being healed or a church growing – what about the bad news stories?’ Sandy’s answer was to joke ‘we don’t have enough newspaper to fit all the bad news!’. He’d also say ‘let the Devil publish the bad news, we’re going to publish the good news’. There’s plenty of places to hear bad news. Who’s telling you the good news? But still, we have to be very careful with stories. I make a distinction on Alpha – you can tell stories which are illustrations of something, where it doesn’t really matter if the story is true or not. It’s like Jesus telling the story about the Good Samaritan. Did it happen? Maybe, maybe not. Does it matter? It’s a story. On the other hand, if you tell a story about someone that was healed, you’d better get it right, and you better not exaggerate, because you’re telling a story about what God actually did. It’s the difference between the poetry of the Psalms and the history of the gospels.

On the Alpha course we’re not just taught that God loves us, but also that there’s an Enemy – Satan – who is trying to get us. I think that Abrahamic religions’ belief in devils and demons is often quite harmful, particularly if you assume that anyone who opposes you or thinks differently to you is ‘demonic’, or if you assume people with mental illness are demonically possessed (as has often been the case in the past).  I’ve known Christians who think that Hindus are demonic, for example, or that ‘the gay lobby’ is demonic. You can get this paranoid world-view where every place you look you see little pointy horns.

The opposite of wrong use is not disuse but right use. Yes, there are huge dangers with believing in the demonic. The two you highlighted are real dangers and are extremely harmful. Mental illness is like physical illness. You could be healed miraculously but most people would get medical treatment and get healed. And yes there’s always a danger of demonising anyone who disagrees with you. You need a healthy appreciation of our own sinfulness, and the fact we don’t have the truth. No one has the truth except Jesus, who is the truth. The main issue though is, how do you explain evil in the world? Look at what’s going on in the world – the beheadings, the crucifixions, people throwing bombs into hospitals. It’s so evil. There’s a lot of evil in the world. I don’t want to think there’s demons or devils or evil in the world. But there is bad stuff out there. Part of it is free will – we choose not to love. But Jesus seemed to believe that there were demonic forces around. Paul also talks about how our battle is not against flesh and blood but spiritual forces. Occasionally, when I was working as a lawyer, I came across people who were sheer evil. Only twice. When you come across real evil, it suggests something more than you see here. We’re very protected in this part of the world, you don’t see much of it.

When I wrote about going on Alpha, some of my readers unsubscribed because they thought HTB was homophobic. Let’s say I have a gay friend who wants to find God but also wants to celebrate their sexuality, would they be welcome at Alpha?

We welcome everyone at Alpha, no matter what their lifestyle or sexuality. There’s no one that’s ever been turned away. We want everyone to feel loved, welcome and accepted here. That’s our philosophy.

But you still think homosexuality is a sin?

We are an Anglican church, but we’re also part of a global church. If you look at the teaching of the Orthodox church, the Catholic church, the Pentecostal church, the Anglican church, it’s pretty much on a par. HTB’s view on all these things is no different from the global church. You can not like it or disagree with it. But what you can’t say is ‘HTB has this view’ – it’s not HTB’s view, its the majority view of the global church.

Your work has touched a lot of people’s lives, and when that happens, they can sometimes idolise you, or demonise you, or both! They can project a lot of emotional neediness onto you. How do you handle that?

Anyone who’s married has a fairly healthy view of their own weaknesses and shortcomings. I try and tell stories that show my own vulnerability and weakness. If they didn’t know it already they soon discover it. Anyone who works at HTB knows we’re very far from perfect. At the same time you have to try and live an authentic Christian life. Paul was always trying to be a model, while also being aware of his own sinfulness and weakness. I’ve never been conscious of anyone idolising me, there’s a bit of demonizing. There probably are some who get idolised – the big figures like Billy Graham. On the other hand, they are amazing, they made a big difference in the world.

What do you think is the biggest barrier for modern people to God?

That’s an interesting question. What do you think?

Firstly, that we’re a very rational empiricist culture now, and only believe in things we can touch and measure – matter, in other words. And secondly, we don’t like kneeling. We don’t want any authority higher than us.

I think you’re right. I think the rationalist barrier is shifting. There used to be a lot of Dawkins followers coming along to Alpha quite a lot, but it’s totally gone now. I think the Dawkins thing is too depressing and too dark. But I think the second barrier is the one that’s beginning to dominate. We don’t want anyone telling us what to do, or any authority outside of ourself. That’s why we’ve changed the order of the Alpha talk. It used to be the Bible first, then prayer. Now, people love prayer, but they’re deeply suspicious of the Bible because it’s an authority outside of ourselves.

Feel free to leave thoughts and responses in the comments section below, and please don’t be rude if you disagree with someone’s position.

For another piece on ritual and spiritual healing, check out this interview I did with Paul Dieppe, medical professor at Exeter University.

ISIS and the recurrent virus of apocalyptic beliefs

Probably the worst idea in the history of religion is the End Times. It’s caused more bloodshed than any other religious belief. It’s still around, costing lives – the ideology of ISIS is soaked in apocalyptic expectation, as a new book by William McCants explores. It’s amazing that the big religions have survived so long, considering how often their followers’ totally certain prediction of the End Times turned out to be totally wrong. The Apocalypse has been announced many thousands of times over the last five millennia. And here we still are. Yet still the faithful declare the End.

What makes us keep falling for it? Perhaps it’s some inherent human frailty – in times of stress, psychologists suggest, humans are more likely to leap to strange or deluded interpretations and predictions, and we cling to them harder when faced with death. When the world is uncertain, when our position in it is threatened, we are more likely to believe someone who says they know exactly how this will play out. I remember when I had PTSD getting obsessed with palmistry and then astrology for precisely this reason.

Apocalyptic thinking goes deep into our psychology. Think of the mythical books and films we love in the 20th century, and their idea of the One who it is predicted will come to save us via a Final Showdown with Evil (in Dune, the Matrix, Harry Potter, Narnia, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones).  How satisfying those stories are to us – a clear narrative, with a beginning, middle and end, and clearly-divided Good Guys and Bad Guys.  Candy for the soul.

But when played out in real life, such stories are a killer. They make the deluded of ISIS think that, because we’re in the End Times, anything goes – sexual slavery, mass executions, the beheading of elderly museum curators. Normal rules are suspended. All enemies must be wiped out.

The idea of the End Times goes back at least as far as 500 BC, when Zoroastrians started to talk of an environmental collapse and a final confrontation between Light and Darkness before a perfect age for the righteous. Judaism also came to expect the coming of a Messiah, a new King, who will utterly smite Israel’s enemies, liberate Jerusalem, and then rule in a perfect age where ‘the wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them’.

Jesus was certain the End Times were just around the corner: ‘these things will come upon this generation’, he is quoted as saying in the Gospel of Matthew. ‘There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.’ St Paul was also certain the End Times were nigh. The general Christian expectation of the End of Days led to a proliferation of apocalyptic texts in the first and second centuries, with one particularly florid vision – Revelation – eventually being accepted into the Canon, despite the misgivings of some Church Fathers.

But the End Times didn’t happen. Instead, much to everyone’s surprise, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Nobody predicted that! Then the Roman Empire got sacked by Goths, leading to another bout of apocalyptic fever. But life went on. Then Mohammad saw an angel, who told him of a coming apocalypse when the Al-Mahdi would descend from heaven, riding a white horse and accompanied by Jesus, to utterly smite Islam’s enemies (particularly the Jews) and liberate Jerusalem . This Messianic expectation fired up Islam for one of the most extraordinary military expansions in human history. But they didn’t conquer the world, and the Mahdi didn’t come. Life went on.

Follow me!
Follow me!

All through the Middle Ages, societies would be suddenly convulsed by apocalyptic expectations. A monk, knight, shepherd or vagrant would announce they had received a vision from God – often they claimed to have found an ancient prophetic text or to have received a personal letter from Jesus – and they were destined to liberate Jerusalem, convert the Jews, and usher in the thousand-year reign of the saints (hence such movments were often called ‘millenarian’). Again and again, from the 11th to the 14th century, such people persuaded thousands to follow them to Jerusalem or somewhere nearer, often massacring Jews along the way. Usually they and their followers were executed, starved, or died in battle. And still the End Times didn’t happen. Life went on.

Throughout the tectonic shifts of the Reformation, many people believed they were living through the End Times, and the leading figures of the day – Martin Luther, the Pope, the Emperor, Henry VIII, whoever – were either the Saviour of Christendom, or the Anti-Christ. This being the End Times, normal rules were suspended – the enemies of the True Faith must be purged from the Body Politic, and the poor old Jews converted or massacred. This 150-year religious fever culminated in the Thirty Years War, a long orgy of violence that killed roughly a third of the German population. And still the End Times didn’t happen. Life went on.

Finally, by the end of the 17th century, people in western culture were fed up with apocalyptic predictions. After 2000 years of false alarms, after thirty years of apocalyptic warfare ended in stalemate, people started to doubt that the End Times were actually upon us. As life became more stable and prosperous, people’s focus shifted from the End of Days to making life slightly more pleasant here on Earth. The ecstatic predictions of prophecy gave way to the cautious predictions of science.

3pi-dab-0047-02Where before an apocalyptic prophet could be guaranteed a listening, now they became objects of ridicule. When French Huguenot prophets arrived in London in 1706, and started to go into apocalyptic spasms in the streets, they were laughed at, and even inspired a puppet show at Bartholomew Fair. This sort of ‘public raillery’ was the best antidote for such enthusiasm, declared the Earl of Shaftesbury. It worked much better than suppression, which only further agitated their melancholic self-importance.  From that point on, apocalyptic prophets became figures of fun, pity, and medical interest – they evolved into the comic stereotype of the lonely nutter wearing a sandwich-board, announcing the End is Nigh.

There were still many apocalyptic movements during and after the Enlightenment, like the Jansenist convulsionnaries of 1727, a group of End Time ecstatics who went into spasms until a violent beating calmed them down (see the illustration below); or the Seventh Day Adventists in the US, led by William Miller, who announced the End of Days would arrive on 1843. It didn’t (this is known as The Great Disappointment), but that didn’t stop the movement – every day I walk past one of their churches on the Holloway Road. But such apocalyptic Christian cults tended to be marginal and relatively harmless.

The strange sado-masochistic rituals of the Jansenists in 18th century Paris

Whenever Christianity becomes ecstatic, it involves an expectation of the End Times. The Pentecostalists of the early 20th century, for example, thought they were granted miraculous powers like speaking in tongues as a sign of the Second Coming. As the Church of England becomes more charismatic, some church leaders also nurse apocalyptic hopes. Pete Greig was the youthful leader of a 1990s charismatic revival, which he wrote about in Red Moon Rising. The title comes from a verse in the Book of Joel predicting the End of Days – Greig apparently thought his revival was a Sign of the End Times. But it wasn’t. Life went on.

My next book argues that we need to find a place for ecstasy and altered states of consciousness in modern rational society. But apocalyptic expectations are the most troubling aspect of ecstasy. So often, what has really fired up ecstasy is the belief: ‘the old order has passed, here comes a New Jerusalem!’ And that belief is not confined to theists, by the way. In different forms, it inspired the ecstasy of the French Revolution, or the worship of Hitler, or even the bubble (in which the New Jerusalem became the New Paradigm). ‘Atheism is not exempt from it’, remarked Shaftesbury. ‘For, as some have well remark’d, there have been enthusiastical atheists.’

I suppose the ecstatic belief that things can be radically better can be a good thing, and can help to drive change. What is dangerous is the totally certain expectation that a final apocalypse is at hand and that the human population can be neatly divided into sheep and goats. That’s a horrible idea, one that has been proven wrong over and over and over again, as the unhappy survivors of ISIS will soon discover.