The mentalist… disguised as a prophet.

by K.W. Leslie, 17 November

When “prophets” depend a great deal on their own intuition, it’s not really the Holy Spirit.

MENTALIST /'mɛn.(t)əl.əst/ adj. One who performs highly intuitive, mnemonic, telepathic, or hypnotic abilities. (Usually as a stage performance.)
[Mentalism /'mɛn.(t)əl.ɪz.əm/ n.]

“Is there anyone in this room who was born on April 6th?”

It’s the sort of question you oughta hear when a psychic or magician is standing in front of an audience. Thing is, Christians who are into supernatural gifts tend to avoid psychics like the plague. (We have been taught to stay away from them, y’know. God forbade ’em to the Hebrews, Dt 18.8-14 and we figure that applies to us too.) Likewise we’re not as familiar with magicians who claim to be mind-readers. Or mentalists, as they’re properly called. (Maybe you remember the TV show where one of ’em solved crimes.)

Requests for anyone who was born on a certain birthdate, or anyone who has a certain letter in their name, or anyone who recognizes a certain word, name, phrase, whatever: It’s called “fishing.” The person who does it, has no idea whether there’s any such person in the crowd. But statistically it’s likely. Chances are good there is a person with a J in their name, or whose father’s name was Stephen, or who recognizes the word “Bureau,” or who considers certain dates meaningful. The first person to stand and say, “That’s me!” is gonna get a brief demonstration of how mentalism works.

What they get next are often Barnum statements, “prophecies” which seem like they apply just to that individual, but it’s rare you’ll find someone whom they don’t apply to. They’re the sort of general, that-could-mean-anything stuff we read in horoscopes or fortune cookies.

  • “There’s a significant event which recently took place in your life, isn’t there?” Of course there is.
  • “You’ve been feeling uncertain lately. You have some doubts.” Who doesn’t?
  • “You’re having problems with a friend or relative.” Of course.
  • “Is the number 10 significant to you in some way?” It’s significant to everyone in some way. Me, I happen to have that many toes. Sometimes a $10 in my wallet.
  • “There’s somebody important in your life—I’m seeing a B, maybe a C…” Just about everyone knows someone with those letters as initials.

From there, the “prophet” will fish for more information. Meanwhile they’re looking these folks over, and trying to deduce other things about them. The goal is to keep rooting around till they find something really meaningful. Then cheer you up about it, give you hope, make you know everything’s okay. ’Cause prophecy’s all about encouragement, right? 1Co 14.3 Deduce your problem, small or large; then encourage you God already knows all about it, and has your back.

But let’s hit pause on this process and think a moment. These prophets claim to hear from God, right? Yet instead of calling out a name, they’ve gotta play guessing games? They can’t tell whether the issue’s with a friend or relative? They can’t tell whether God’s saying B or C? Those letters don’t look that similar. Nor sound similar.

If they can’t identify what God’s telling them on such basic things, how can we trust any of the prophecies which’re gonna come afterward?

Well, we can’t. Because the Holy Spirit isn’t talking to these traveling-circus-style “prophets.” With God there’s no guesswork about what he’s saying. Oh, there’s plenty of guesswork about what he means; Christians still debate over some of Jesus’s parables. But his messages are crystal clear. There’s no guesswork to it. God doesn’t do vague.

Prophecy versus cold reading.

Back in high school I discovered Sherlock Holmes. In Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, Holmes was the guy the London police called upon whenever they were stuck. His knack was deduction: Look a crime scene or suspect over, notice details, and jump to basic conclusions based on the details. People were stunned: “How could you possibly know that?” But once Holmes patiently explained the steps in his reasoning, they realized it wasn’t the product of wild guesses or sorcery. It was just disciplined thinking.

After I read the Holmes stories, I started to dabble in deduction. I’d look someone over, notice details, discern conclusions, and state ’em. Exactly like Holmes, people were stunned: “Who told you that?” And when I tell ’em how I figured it out, they likewise realize it’s not psychic nor prophetic ability. Mentalists call it cold reading: You know nothing about a particular person—so you’re “going in cold”—but read their body language, look their clothes over, make some educated guesses about things which tend to be true of most people, and watch ’em be amazed.

I still do it. Not as a parlor trick; I just pay attention. When I let my deductions slip out, people still react with surprise. Sometimes their response is, “You gotta be psychic.” Or, among Christians, “You must have the gift of prophecy.”

Okay yes, sometimes God tells me stuff. But this isn’t that. God told me nothing. I deduced it. I saw A, which led me to B, which led me to C, which led me to my conclusion. That’s all. It’s a chain of reasoning. Not only can anybody do it, they teach people to do it. Psychologists. Physicians. Criminologists. Cops.

Yet sometimes people will insist, “No, don’t give yourself credit for that. Being able to know stuff: That’s a gift. That’s a form of prophecy.”

Again, no it’s not. But I’ve heard this malarkey from more than one Christian. Somebody’s been slipping them the idea that deduction, that making educated guesses which turn out to be correct, is a form of prophecy. And I remind you, prophecy is hearing from God. If I were actually practicing prophecy, I wouldn’t need to deduce a thing. My brainpower wouldn’t enter into it. It’d all be God. And it’d be way more accurate than my guesses.

Why were these Christians so insistent God was the source of my deductive reasoning? It used to dumbfound me… till I attended a conference at another church in town, where some folks claimed they could teach us to “activate prophecy.” In other words, if you wanna give anyone a message from God, but the Holy Spirit isn’t telling you anything, you can tell them something anyway. Simply by “moving in the prophetic.”

The leaders instructed us to pair up, look our partner over, and make basic deductions about them. The deductions were so accurate, it stunned people. This, the organizers claimed, is “moving in the prophetic.” It was not. It was cold reading. The very same Sherlock-Holmes-style deductions I’d been making for decades.

Next we were instructed to “speak life into them”—to state generic Christian truths about the things we’d deduced. Again, none of this stuff came directly from the Holy Spirit. But as far as the people at the conference knew, this was prophecy! This is how it works! It’s just so simple! They were prophets now!

Yep. God alone knows how many of ’em are still running amok, thinking they’re prophets, but prophesying useless, uninspired things.

I run into mentalists from time to time. They’re really easy to detect, now that I recognize their thought processes. Fr’instance they’ll notice I have a lot of hair, and use a lot of conditioner on it… so it’ll get ’em to talk about anointing. Or they find out I write, so they’ll encourage me to keep writing, and reach people for Christ through my writing. When I wear a white shirt, I’ll wind up hearing about the fields white for harvest. Jn 4.35 KJV When I wear a red shirt, it’ll be something about the blood of Jesus.

And without fail, when they discover my middle name is Wallace, I hear a bunch of stuff about being a mighty warrior for God. Nope, they didn’t get it from God. They got it from Braveheart. They never prophesy the warrior stuff when they don’t know my middle name, but once they do: Every. Single. Time. It’s like my own little red tartan flag.

You see how it works? Once you realize how their minds wander from the things they see, to generic Christian encouragements which tie directly to the visual cues, you can immediately see they’re improvising. They think the Spirit is working through their improv. And whenever they stumble into something which causes a strong reaction, they think they struck prophecy.

They honestly don’t realize how absent God is from their whole process. Or—which is a thousand times worse—they do. But do it anyway.

Prophecy requires God’s power. Not ours.

In contrast lemme talk about real prophecy.

2 Peter 1.21 KWL
…for no human will ever brought forth a legitimate prophecy.
Instead people, by carrying the Holy Spirit, spoke from God…

I had a friend, a new Christian, who had his doubts God talks to people. “You hear from God, right?” he said. “Prove it. What’s he telling you right now?

Fair enough. I silently asked the Holy Spirit to tell me something.

“Just tell him I love him,” was the Spirit’s answer.

“That’s it?” I said back. “That’s nothing.”

The Spirit wasn’t giving up anything more; either I shared this message or nothing. So I obediently shrugged and said, “I thought he’d say something a little more impressive than this, but here y’go: He wants you to know he loves you.”

Hit my friend like a ton of bricks. Because that’s exactly what he asked God to tell me. He knew I’d be tempted to respond with something impressive—isn’t that so typical of humanity?—so he kept it simple. He got his answer; he was reduced to tears. Me, I initially had no idea why it made such an impact. But in my experience, when it’s really God, it regularly makes that kind of impact.

So. Had I done something as stupid as try to cold-read him, and base my “prophecy” on that, I’d have pooched the whole thing. Hurt my friend’s still-growing faith.

The very same thing is true with all these mentalists disguised as prophets. They have loads of nice-sounding sayings. Borrowed a bunch from the bible. Figure they’re really encouraging the church with ’em. But unless any of ’em is really listening to God, none of it is prophecy. I repeat: None of it.

The supernatural requires real power, real data, from the real Holy Spirit. Not cognitive synthesis (as psychologists call it when we put two and two together). Not educated guesses. Prophecy requires no deductive ability! We simply listen, repeat what we’ve heard, and maybe try to explain it. That’s all. Anything more is fraud.

I’ll give the mentalists the benefit of the doubt: I’ll assume they don’t really mean to defraud anyone. It’s just they were so eager to become prophets, they went to some very wrong teachers.

I’ll also say God sometimes actually works through them. Some of ’em do hear God. It’s just when they don’t, they fall back on mentalism. Since mentalism is nice and vague, people can hear dozens of mentalist “prophecies” and never realize it’s all rubbish.

Skeptics will, though. And all you have to do to convince a skeptic that Christianity is bogus and our prophets are phonies, is take ’em to a prophet, figuring they’ll be convicted like the scriptures said, 1Co 14.24-25 only to have ’em immediately recognize mentalism tricks and figure we Christians are all gullible idiots. So don’t be gullible!

Dealing with mentalists.

What are we to do with this class of false prophet?

Simple: Don’t just stand there and passively let prophets declare stuff over you. Engage them. Ask ’em questions. We’re supposed to test prophets, remember? 1Th 5.20-21 Every real prophet knows this, and can stand up to scrutiny. Fake ones can’t, and questions freak ’em out.

God doesn’t do vague. So ask for specifics. “Yes I know God wants me to reach people through my writing. But I’d like to know what he specifically wants me to write. Any particular message?” Push ’em to really prophesy, just like my friend did with me: Require ’em to really talk with God, and get something solid out of him.

A real prophet will take such questions straight to God, and come back with straight answers. A mentalist will sputter, “Well… he’s not shown me that right now.” Or guess at the answer, and give more useless vague responses. And an outright fraud will simply lie. Or say, “I’m sorry; my time is short and I can’t just spend it on one person,” and go “prophesy” over someone else. Or rebuke you for challenging them; for daring to doubt, as if doubt never comes from God.

If they’re in no position of authority—they’re just people who go to your church, who claim the gift of prophecy—find some time to sit down with ’em and suss out whether there’s any real prophecy in them. Simply ask their testimonies. A real prophet is gonna have a story about nearly every prophecy they ever gave, ’cause God’s words do stuff. Whereas a mentalist is gonna have only one or two: One time a cold reading got scary accurate, and freaked someone out really bad. Another time someone ran with their encouraging words, and a few nice things happened as a result. But mentalist testimonies will be few and far between. ’Cause it’s not God’s word, so it seldom does stuff—and often only by coincidence.

You’ll also notice some mentalist testimonies are years or decades old. And carefully embellished, as if they’ve been telling these stories a mighty long time. ’Cause they have. They’re short on testimonies ’cause they get way more misses than hits. Yet they never bother to ask themselves, “Is this how prophecy is supposed to work? If I really do hear from God, shouldn’t most or all of them be hits?” Since they never ask that question, maybe you—carefully and kindly—should.

If they are in a position of authority (’cause the other prophets in your church didn’t do their due diligence and screen ’em), share your concerns with your church’s leadership. Point out there’s a vast difference between cold reading and prophecy, and you’re worried your church is getting the counterfeit instead of the real thing.

And if your church refuses to recognize any difference between the counterfeit and the real thing… well, time to look for another church. Sorry. But if they’re embracing frauds instead of God, you should’ve already deduced that was coming.