The View from Bolton Street

One time in college I visited a faith healer.

Not for me, mind you, at least not consciously. I was active in a Bible study, and one of the leaders said there was a faith healer in town and we might want to go and see what it was all about. 

I was skeptical, but once I was assured we could leave whenever we wanted, I decided to go.  It was an interesting experience. People were friendlier and more normal than I would have thought, and there were snacks, which is always important. And lots of big blown-up pictures of gold teeth (more on that later).

And then the healer came out -- I can’t remember his name – and he did have a certain appeal, acknowledging that most people don’t trust these kinds of things but saying that he was different and that the truth would reveal itself. In truth, not much happened; he identified a few “illnesses” in the crowd, people came forward, he prayed over them, some said they felt healed but none of them (in the three hours we were there anyway) exhibited the “sign” of healing he was known for: teeth with gold crosses on them. I hadn’t thought too much about that moment until this past week when news broke of “Cambridge Analytica” using stolen Facebook data to shift elections. 

The strategy this “faith healer” used and that “Cambridge Analytica” used are remarkably similar. You may think that all of the data stolen was used to change people’s minds and trick them into believing things that aren’t true, but it isn’t quite that simple.  No matter how much any company or individual knows about you, they can’t make you believe anything you don’t want to.  

What some faith healers, or some psychics do is essentially a low-tech phishing exercise. In a room of 300 people, all of whom are predisposed to be healed for something — the healer can say “Someone in this room is in pain!” And a lot of people will say, “Yes, me.” “Someone here has been in pain for a long time!” And a few less.“Someone has a pain in their knee, and pain that won’t let them walk, a pain that makes them feel LESS THAN,” and suddenly a few people are thinking “YES. THAT IS ME. GOD IS TELLING HIM ABOUT ME.”

Cambridge Analytica, or any big data-mining company, succeeds by identifying particular subsets of people and delivering messages specifically to them to which they will be receptive. Essentially they are very good at “building the room” for the faith healer or snake oil salesman to work.  

And boy did it work. 

But this is not all Facebook’s fault. At some level we as human beings have to be responsible for the information that we consume and our willingness to hear and digest voices we might naturally disagree with. The success of this particular effort was not only in “building a room” of people predisposed to anti-immigrant, pro-racist, anti-government, anti-intellectual attacks — but also to block out any opposing voices by convincing people that “only they” had the truth. “Only I can fix it” was, and is, an oft-repeated line. 

The Church is not always innocent in this regard.  While there was no Facebook 2000 years ago, many of the gnostic cults succeeded with very similar messaging – “we have a secret truth you need to hear” -- and at some level the structure of many churches puts one figure at the top who “alone can speak to God.” And faith healers and snake oil salesmen have successfully peddled their wares without the use of social media for generations.  

What does this mean for us? Quit? Pull back? 

How about Speak the Truth in love? 

One of my favorite reflections from the vestry retreat was the acknowledgment that we as a community need to be more open to opposing viewpoints. We are too “monochromatic” in race, color, political ideology and economic status. The danger is that we are in effect building our own room and blocking ourselves from differing perspectives and ways of seeing the world, and the Church. 

I left that “faith healer” in 2003 feeling very strongly that I never wanted to do that again, and I never wanted to be guilty of the kind of manipulation I had just seen. Now after digesting much of what I’ve read about Cambridge Analytica, I am equally concerned about making sure that we don’t create communities where that kind of abuse andradicalization can take place. I hope you will join me and the vestry as we consider what kind of culture we have here at Memorial, how we make people feel welcome, and how willing we are to hear outside viewpoints and outside voices, to ensure that the only radicalizing force in our life is Jesus.