Review of Cristina Rocha, John of God: The Globalization of Brazilian Faith Healing

Cristina Rocha, John of God: The Globalization of Brazilian Faith Healing. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017, pp. xiii + 269, ISBN: 978-0-19-046671-8 (Pbk).

In John of God: The Globalization of Brazilian Faith Healing, Cristina Rocha draws on more than a decade of fieldwork to provide the first enthnographic account of the global John of God movement. Based in Abadiânia, a small town in rural Brazil, John of God (born João Teixeira de Faria in 1942) has become an “international faith healer superstar” (3). He has been interviewed by Oprah Winfrey, visited by many celebrities, and has a large global network of loyal followers. John of God is not a trained medical doctor, rather he allegedly incorporates “entities” or spirits in order to heal his patients. What makes his healings particularly sensational is that he often performs physical surgeries without using any anaesthesia or sterilisation. In a time where modern biomedicine has made such astonishing progress, why do people from the developed world still turn to faith healers such as John of God? Rocha attempts to answer this question, and many others, in this fascinating book.

John of God consists of an introduction, seven chapters and a conclusion. In Chapter 1 Meeting John of God: An Uneasy Beginning, Rocha describes the process of establishing rapport with John of God and demonstrates her continually shifting status as both an insider and outsider in the field. This chapter gives an insight into the “two faces” of the healer – João Teixeira de Faria ‘the man’ and John of God ‘the Entity’ and healer (38). Chapter 2 “How Does He Get His Magic?” expands on the personal biography of de Faria, including his numerous run-ins with local medical doctors, the Church and the law. De Faria has been pursued both for practicing medicine without a medical degree, and for his unconventional healing practices (which are regarded as witchcraft or charlatanism and prohibited in Brazil) (53). This chapter also explores John of God’s charismatic authority and the origin of his healing practices and beliefs, which derive from an eclectic hybrid of Catholicism, Kardecist Spiritism and Umbanda traditions.

Chapter 3 Re-enchanting Healing offers five stories of people seeking healing, including the author. In analysing these cases Rocha demonstrates that healing, as defined by the John of God movement, is “much broader than curing disease” – it is a physical, emotional and spiritual process (12). This chapter explores how connection with spirituality gives meaning to illness (even in situations where a physical cure does not eventuate), and how surrendering to a higher power (such as God, or John of God’s “entities”) can paradoxically restore a sense of control to what can be an otherwise chaotic experience of chronic illness. While Rocha’s analysis is technically excellent, readers who are seeking stories of spontaneous remissions and miracle cures may be disappointed by this chapter, which tends to focus more on narratives of self-transformation than the actual eradication of disease. Indeed, underlying John of God’s dramatic surgeries and mysterious healing practices, we find many of the usual themes associated with alternative healing and the New Age – disenchantment with biomedicine, the use of spiritual cosmologies to make meaning from seemingly chaotic experiences with chronic and terminal illnesses, and the importance of hope and community.

The second half of the book focuses on issues relevant to the global nature of the John of God movement. Chapter 4 Abadiânia as a “Touristic Borderzone” examines the relationship between foreigners and locals in Abadiânia, and discusses how this small rural village has been transformed by the arrival of international spiritual tourists. The following chapter (Chapter 5 Spiritual Tourism, Cultural Translation, and Friction) looks at flows outwards – specifically, how a global network of foreign translators has managed to “glocalise” John of God’s cosmologies and practices overseas by emphasising their similarities with recognisable Western world views (such as the New Age and alternative medicine) and minimising aspects that may be more difficult for foreign audiences to integrate (for example, concepts such as spirit “obsession”). Chapter 6 Flows into the Global North: Building a Transnational Spiritual Community considers how the John of God movement has successfully expanded overseas via international healing events and the creation of transnational communities that have a nostalgic connection to Abadiânia. Finally, Chapter 7 Localizing Flows: Healing the Land of Its Suffering focuses specifically on the John of God communities in Australia and New Zealand, and considers how personal healing may also be equated with a “healing of the land” and help to facilitate reconciliation with a country’s traumatic and violent indigenous history.

Throughout the book Rocha draws on a comprehensive body of theory related to religion, spirituality and healing in late modernity, which makes John of God an excellent resource for scholars who are interested in these areas. General non-academic audiences will also enjoy the engaging content and clear explanatory style. Finally, what makes John of God even more intriguing and timely is the recent arrest of de Faria in December 2018, after being accused of sexually abusing hundreds of Brazilian and foreign women and young girls. Rocha mentions that throughout her research she did hear several rumours of sexual harassment of young women, but never found any concrete evidence to support the claims. While this is sadly not surprising, given that countless spiritual leaders and religious institutions have been involved in sexual abuse scandals, it certainly adds another layer of complexity to Joao the man, and poses an additional challenge to the survival of the John of God movement, which has already been threatened by de Faria’s recent poor health. Hopefully Rocha will shed more light on these issues in her future work.

Anna Lutkajtis

University of Sydney

An edited version of this review has been published in the Journal for the Academic Study of Religion 31.3 (2018).