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PopAnth — Hot Buttered Humanity
Popular anthropology for everyone.

Researching John of God, a Brazilian healer with a global following

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What is an anthropologist to do when faced with a Brazilian healer who uses kitchen knives, surgical scissors, and scalpels to operate on people without anaesthetics and asepsis?

How should she deal with the condemnations of medical doctors and the media who cry 'charlatan' because the healer's understanding of healing and illness and consequent practices do not correspond to those of biomedicine, and because of his alleged ever-increasing wealth?

What should she do when many of his followers are not so much 'the Other,' but Westerners, mostly tertiary-educated like herself, and even celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and performance artist Marina Abramovic? [1]

With these questions in mind, I trod the difficult path of deeply engaging with everyone and taking them seriously–the healer, his followers, the media and the medical doctors, as well as the spirits/entities and their healing powers–while leaving it to readers to decide where they stand in this complex cacophony of voices. The result of these reflections is my new book John of God: The Globalization of Brazilian Faith Healing (OUP 2017).

Casa de Dom Inacio. Photo by Cristina Rocha.Casa de Dom Inacio. Photo by Cristina Rocha.

During this decade-long research project, I sat in meditation for long hours and underwent healing treatments together with other seekers. I witnessed John of God perform countless surgeries in the Casa de Dom Inácio, John of God's healing centre in central Brazil.

Once John of God invited me to stand next to him and carry a tray of surgical tools while he was scraping a man's eyes with a kitchen knife. I saw the man's eye turning red but he never flinched or screamed. He just sat there while the healer showed me some black droplets on the knife's edge explaining that that was the reason for his bad eyesight.

At that time, to most of my compatriots, John of God was still João de Deus, an illiterate, mostly unknown, faith healer in a little town in the middle of nowhere. João de Deus follows a long lineage of Brazilian Spiritist healers who allegedly take on "entities" (spirits) in a trance and don't remember the operations when he becomes conscious again. Most people claim they do not feel pain or develop infections.

Today, John of God is an international faith healer superstar—visited not only by Oprah, but also Brazilian celebrities and politicians, by thousands of the desperately ill, the wealthy, and an increasing array of media.

Books about him have been translated into several languages, from Russian to Ukrainian to Japanese. American ABC, Discovery Channel, and the BBC have made documentaries on what goes on in the healing centre (many of these films have been uploaded on YouTube and social network sites). Tour guides advertise package trips on the Internet, and John of God himself travels to conduct healing events in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, and Switzerland, among other countries.

But theoretically and ethically, how does an anthropologist work with this material?

John of God performing surgery. Image courtesy of Cristina Rocha.John of God performing surgery. Image courtesy of Cristina Rocha.

Following the approaches of experiential anthropology, anthropology of humanism and of consciousness, if people tell me that they have been healed by religious practices—be they prayer, rituals, or spiritual surgeries—I accept it.

There has been a growing body of anthropological literature that endeavours to decolonize anthropology by taking seriously other peoples' beliefs, religious practices, and cosmology (see further reading list). Many researchers have documented the efficacy of rituals, sacred words, and incantations they encountered (and sometimes learned) in the field.

Particularly where anthropologists have researched religious rituals, magic, sorcery, and shamanism and have experienced things they cannot explain, they have faced two difficult quandaries.

First, how can we make sense of them without explaining them away as simply a product of the mind or a metaphor for something else?

Second, should we report these extraordinary experiences? If so, how to write about them?

The fear of being perceived as "going native," and therefore not being taken seriously because one has not produced "scientific" knowledge in accordance with modernist notions of objectivity, is still alive in academia.

This, of course, is because our own discipline is a child of the Enlightenment, whose main task was to separate science from religion. Worse yet, since anthropology is perceived as a "soft" science, it has had to prove its scientific credentials again and again.

However, for some time now, researchers have found that, paradoxically, objectivist, detached, and intellectual approaches did not yield sound knowledge when dealing with "alternate ways of knowing-being in the world" (Glass-Coffin 2010).

Undoubtedly, we have to make sense of what we have experienced in the field and make it intelligible to our readers. But we cannot do so by repressing or wishing away what we have experienced because it falls outside our logic and epistemology. We must avoid the ethnocentrism of explaining their world through Western biological scientific models of reality.

This doesn't mean that need to choose one side or the other—science or alternative healing. Rather, by accepting what our research participants claim, we fulfil one of the main goals of anthropology: endeavouring to see the world from their point of view, and not overriding their explanations with our own.

Thus in this book I didn't wave these anomalous experiences away as the healer's cunning sleight of hand. I have seen him cutting people's flesh and scraping their eyes with a kitchen knife. They have not bled too much or screamed at all. I have not seen infections in the days after these surgeries.

While I engaged with people's experiences of healing/lack of healing, I also gave an account of my own attempts to heal from illness. By making myself vulnerable to the people I was researching, and taking people's narratives seriously, I hoped to engage in a more symmetric dialogue with them, and contribute to the process of decolonising anthropology.

John of God with followers in Brazil. Image by Cristina Rocha.John of God with followers in Brazil. Image by Cristina Rocha.

If people tell me that they have been healed by religious practices—be they prayer, rituals, or spiritual surgeries—I accept it.

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John of God performing eye surgery in Brazil. Photo courtesy of Cristina Rocha.
John of God performing eye surgery in Brazil. Photo courtesy of Cristina Rocha.