Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Nine Hundred Foot Jesus and a Man on the Street

Nine Hundred Foot Jesus and
a Man on the Street

In 1977 I graduated high school. It was also a year in which I renounced religions of any kind and embraced science and began paying more attention to the claims made by con men and charlatans in the name of faith. As such it was during that year that a story caught my eye - a man announced publicly that he'd seen a vision of Jesus that stood, so he said, nine hundred feet tall. One would think this would be a rather frightening sight but not to this man. The nine hundred foot apparition – close in height to a hundred story building – had something to say, specifically to this man. It – I'm not quite certain we can say “He” in the usual usage of that capitalized pronoun - had a very special message for this man; to raise funds for and erect a special building.

That man was Oral Roberts and he told this story on his syndicated television program. His flock was so inspired and so eager to follow the plan as “instructed” to him by this gigantic apparition claiming to be “Jesus” that Roberts was indeed able to raise the considerable funds needed to erect the building of his (Jesus'?) vision (what would become, temporarily at least, the City of Faith Medical and Research Center (it closed 1989 eight years after its opening).

Many years later a man I'll call John had a similar vision, or at least he saw a vision of Jesus and just as with Roberts all those years earlier, this vision had a message and instructions for John, a message of peace for mankind and John was to deliver that message through the media. It (the vision) gave John specific instructions to follow which entailed him asking various media outlets to allow him radio time to deliver this message. John – just as Roberts was (or claimed to be) – was greatly moved by this and tried his most earnest level best to follow the instructions he was given. He was God's messenger – through Jesus – and as a devote believer he was determined to carry out those instructions. 

But this man was considered a "sick" schizophrenic. 

What's the difference between these two remarkably similar stories of religious visions?

If the comparison sounds facetious, it is not. And indeed I am not the only one who sees a comparison between symptoms we see in mental illnesses and behaviours we see in extreme religiosity such as having or claiming to have had the visions described above, renowned neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky has made similar observations and drawn similar conclusions as outlined in this lecture at Stanford University. What makes one story “believable” and the other a “symptom” of schizophrenia has less to do with the visions themselves and everything to do with the differing circumstances of the two men.

John, you see, was a homeless man who pushed a bicycle around the streets of Vancouver and who earnestly tried to get people to listen to his story of Jesus talking to him and giving him instructions to spread the word of Jesus. I met John in my capacity as a volunteer at a charity organization that helped the homeless and those battling mental health issues near Vancouver's notorious Downtown East Side.

I make this comparison to illustrate how arbitrarily we apply “mental illness” symptoms such as visions and hearing voices. One man sees a vision and hears commands and he's revered. Another man experiences the exact same thing and he's shit upon by society, reviled and ignored.

The pain in John's voice, along with a genuine bewilderment, as he related his story and that no one would listen to him was palatable. There was visible anguish on his face. I could well imagine that pain of rejection he experienced every day as he sincerely pursued carrying out the instructions given him by his visions and commands.

So why are essentially the same experiences treated so differently? And they are the same experience as far as pure brain functioning goes (if indeed Roberts' claim was genuine and not a deliberate creation in order to fleece his flock of funds).

So why don't we change perspectives? Let's imagine each Roberts and John in a different light.

What if we put John in different circumstances? Let's clean him up, feed him and put some meat on his bones and a “wealthy” look on his face. Let's put him in a position of respect where people trust him and what he has to say. Let's then see his confidence and self-assurance grow. Let's envision him telling his story to a congregation. Do you still think he'd be regarded as “schizophrenic”? I'd wager a year's wages that he would not.

Now let's take Roberts (before he expired, of course), strip him of his fortune and TV ministry flock and put him on the street until he was haggard looking. Then have him tell his story of his nine hundred foot Jesus and its instructions and asking for money. I don't think I need to spell out how his story would be received then.

There is a broader story here with a long history, one that I will not be able to get to today but it is a theme I'll be either poking away at – or hammering at – as we go along in this blog and explore the definitions and perceptions of both mental illness and those “diagnosed” with such.

If you think the lines are sharp, you are badly mistaken. 


  1. I grew up in Tulsa, the home of Oral Roberts University. This was a huge joke to everyone I knew. There was a sculpture of two hands clasped together in prayer in front of the school. The joke in Tulsa was that one of them was always falling down flat, as if to ask for money.
    My dad worked for the Post Office then, and often ORU would get retirement checks that had been wholly endorsed over to the ministry, while the Roberts family had multiple tennis courts on their estate.
    That was the beginning of my atheism.

  2. Thanks for that perspective, Shawn!