In many ways, religion is about the supernatural. About miracles. About unseen powers. That is both a strength and a weakness.
It can lead to a sustainable faith that can get people through challenging times and can guide them toward a moral life.
But it also can lead to fraud, to delusion, to kleptocracy.
This Slate story seems to be about both kinds of results. It describes what might well be an example of someone pulling the wool over the eyes of gullible people who imagined they were experiencing some kind of miracle. At the same time, it appears that though people may have been misled, they weren't injured either physically or financially.
The story describes how one day in the small town of Dalton, Ga., a man's Bible began to ooze a translucent oil that seemed to have curative powers.
Soon after Jerry Pierce found a spot of oil on a page in his Bible, "more oil appeared almost every time Jerry picked up the Bible, a leather-bound copy of the New King James translation. The oil moved to the back of the book, saturated the endpapers — a heart-shaped splotch appeared over a map of Israel—and then started at the beginning, in Genesis 1. Eventually Jerry had to put the book in a Ziploc bag, and then in a large plastic bin he bought at Tractor Supply."
Well, it may not surprise you that when people learned about this, they began to collect around that Bible and its oil like fruit flies to a ripe banana.
As the Slate story reports, "weekly prayer group started meeting in a larger room at the gift shop, then moved to a small performance space, and finally landed at a renovated movie theater downtown. Within three years, hundreds of people were gathering each week. . .to pray, socialize, and be healed."
And there were tales of healing, too.
Was Jerry Pierce making a financial killing off of all this? Apparently not. As the story notes, Jerry "never asked for money in exchange for the oil. Anyone who came to Dalton for the prayer service received a free vial."
But the reporter who wrote the story found some evidence that Jerry was just buying oil from a farm supply store, raising questions about whether the allegedly oozing Bible was really the source of the oil.
Well, you can read the rest of the story. What I think is worth noting, however, is that religion in some ways requires adherents to balance between the inexplicable and the obvious. Can a Bible really ooze healing oil? Is love really all we need? Does God play favorites? Is honesty really the best policy in all cases? Did someone's cancer disappear because of prayer? And on and on.
Some people, of course, simply walk away from religion because it seems to require some kind of suspension of disbelief at some point. Others find that such suspensions help them understand their purpose in life.
Through it all, of course, it's pretty clear that you can be deceived and get into other kinds of trouble if you don't ask questions and if you don't believe your lying eyes. Faith need not be irrational. And yet there comes a point at which people of faith simply have to decide to trust or leave. I am a person of faith, but in this Georgia case -- assuming I didn't have a journalistic reason to stick around -- I'd probably have left at the first word of a Bible that oozed healing oil. What about you?
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MASS FOR HIGH-ROLLERS?
I don't yet know whether to put this in the "duped" possibility category, but RNS reports that if you own a Rolls-Royce and are willing to pony up $155,000, you can participate in a private Mass led by Pope Francis. Uh, maybe. Turns out the Vatican says it's unaware of this deal. If I were to list everything that's wrong with this offer, this blog post might be infinite in length.