In Charismatic terms, it's the Holy Grail in every sense. A miraculous event, not just reported, but apparently captured on film. Christian film-maker Darren Wilson, who has been shooting video at and around Bethel church in Redding, California, since 2006, released footage of a supernatural phenomenon: what appears to be golden dust falling from the sky during a worship service.
Eye witnesses have reported seeing a so-called 'Glory Cloud' at various times during services at Bill Johnson's Bethel church, but this is the first time images of the phenomenon have been shared online. Having taken footage in 2011 during the production of his Bethel-centred film Father of Lights, Wilson decided not to release the video publicly, partly because Pastor Johnson was 'hesitant at the time to bring too much attention to it, fearing that people might chase more after the gift given than the giver of the gift'. Now, however Wilson has decided to as he puts it on the introduction to the video, 'open up the vault'.
Like any film showing an apparent supernatural event, the images are of course open to scrutiny. The video has been watched almost 100,000 times and opinion among viewers about what is actually happening differs sharply. For some, this is truly a manifestation of the glory of God, as flecks of some sort of heavenly substance descend, before disappearing like non-settling snowflakes on the crowd of worshippers below. For others, this is somewhere between an optical illusion and a scientific phenomenon, with explanations ranging from falling dust particles to sweat rising and hitting the high-powered lighting above the auditorium.
So what's really going on? I've watched the video several times, and I still don't feel able to give a categorical answer. The cynic in me sides with the nay-sayers, while the more child-like side of my faith wonders if this just might be real. But here are the more important questions: could God choose to reveal himself in this way? And if so, why might he do it?
Some of the criticism of the video has suggested that a cloud of shimmering glitter is a bit tame for an outpouring of the glory of God. It's true that in the Bible, God warns that you can't possibly see his glory in full, and live to tell the tale, let alone film it (see what happens when Moses asks to see God's glory in Exodus 33: 18-23). Yet that doesn't mean God could allow a small or even tiny element of his full glory to become visible, and it seems to me that he does that plenty of times in the Bible, not least in the incarnation of Jesus. In fact, you could argue it's much more sensible that he'd offer a very small manifestation of his glory, rather than an earthshakingly dangerous one.
Could God choose to reveal himself in a shimmering shower of golden sprinkles? Of course he could; he's God. The question is: why would he do so? Perhaps there's no better answer than, because he's God and he can. Yet as the title given to this phenomenon suggests, perhaps he's simply wanting to reveal a little more of his glory and power, to encourage his followers to draw closer to him, and to inspire others to investigate him. Perhaps, in some way we can't possibly explain, this is simply heaven joining in with the worship of earth?
Some of my most sceptical Christian friends have visited Bethel church and returned with surprising reports and utterly changed perceptions. Healing really does seem to happen there, but of course, not always. The power of the Holy Spirit seems to manifest itself in new and surprising ways. Is some of it faked, or rather, brought on by enthusiasm? Of course! That doesn't mean Bethel isn't a place where, for whatever reason, the power of God is often seen very tangibly. Some have described it as a kind of 'thin place', where God is no more present, but where the boundaries between heaven and earth are somehow slightly more blurred. Make of that what you will.
Whatever your opinion of Bethel, or this footage, let's not be too hasty to dismiss either. If we truly believe in a God of infinite power, then why couldn't he create a strange glittery cloud during worship? I certainly believe in a God who could do that; he does plenty of far stranger things in the Bible. So then, let's make sure if we're ultimately unconvinced, our doubt is rooted in wise discernment, not small-mindedness or cynicism.