Youth Pastor Nathan Sandford sounds like he's been on a really mind-blowing acid trip. It's all about God and dentistry.
"I was freaking out," he said, recollecting what it was like to witness the divine miracle of a gold filling spontaneously appearing in someone's teeth. Reported Sandford excitedly, "We were all praying in a circle and this lady was like, 'My mouth feels funny.' I think the filling appeared in a black cavity. There was a big black hole there and when she opened her mouth I could see a spark and it started swirling around and around and then it turned gold. Me and my assistant were staring at it and going, 'This is really weird.'"
Like thousands of people all over the world, members of Sandford's Denver congregation at the New Song Fellowship believe that they have been blessed with gold fillings from Jesus. While miracles have been a staple of Christianity since its earliest days, the idea that God might offer divine dental intervention is thoroughly post-modern. God's gold teeth began receiving notoriety during the 1970s, particularly in Argentina and Brazil.
But reports of gold teeth have escalated by leaps and bounds in the North American Pentecostal community over the past year, partly inspired by the fifth anniversary of the so-called Toronto Blessing, a divine "manifestation" in which worshippers at Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship (TACF) began laughing, barking like dogs, and weeping uncontrollably. Now Pentecostal churches as far away as South Africa, England, and Australia are claiming to be affected by the Toronto Blessing too, and fillings from on high are the latest craze among these believers.
According to Spread the Fire, the TACF's official newsletter, heaven-sent gold teeth began appearing in Canada during March of this year, after Pastor John Arnott invited two women from South Africa to tell his congregation how their father had received a gold filling while watching a video of one of Arnott's sermons. Pearlies packed with gold subsequently started taking U.S. churches by storm.
Contrary to popular stereotype, these miracle-mouthed charismatics are hardly ignorant hillbillies. Gold teeth don't manifest during rural tent revival meetings, but often start appearing after members of a given congregation download pictures of fillings from other churches online. Many Toronto-blessed churches have elaborate Web sites, and the church-goers themselves are media-savvy.
Pastor Bobby Conner even leaves room for a little scientific skepticism about gold teeth on his Web site, despite the fact that he believes his wife and many others have received the dental miracle. He cautions that people who discover gold teeth in their mouths should contact their dentists for independent verification that the miracle is real and isn't just the result of secular cavity prevention.
His concern is justified. Earlier this year, Canadian TV evangelists Dick Dewert and William Thiessen had to issue a public apology when their dentists went public with the news that they, and not Jesus, had filled the evangelists' teeth with gold.
With all the fuss over whether the gold teeth are a true miracle or not, it's easy to overlook an obvious question: why would the Holy Spirit want to impart dental hygiene to all the mouths of Earth? Doesn't the Big Celestial Guy have lost flocks to protect, wars to stop, and other sorts of God-sized activities to keep him busy?
Sandford has a theory. He thinks God wants to save dentists' tormented souls. "The highest occupational suicide rate is in dentistry," he explained. "Perhaps God wants to give out gold fillings to keep dentists from killing themselves."
Greg Makeham, Webmaster of the Toronto Blessing Web site in Australia, thinks it's about alchemy. "To put it simply," he said, "you can't produce gold from other substances by chemical reactions... That is a known scientific fact. Therefore, the instances of mercury amalgam fillings turning to gold must be a genuine miracle."
Critics of the phenomenon take a decidedly different perspective. Joel Schalit, a Ph.D. candidate studying religious politics at York University in Toronto, says the current frenzy over a divine tooth fairy is nothing more than an outlet for people's unrest over the decline of the welfare state.
"It makes sense that this began in Canada," he commented. "Nothing better symbolizes the Canadian welfare state than its internationally acclaimed public health care system. Because this system is being threatened, it should come as no surprise that Canadians will start imagining that their health care needs are being fulfilled by gold fillings coming from God."
But what about the rest of North America, which never had a socialized health care system? Elaborated Schalit, "People have illusions that they are being provided for by God when the state won't provide for them. Miracles compensate for political impotence."
An email I received from Connie Dickey, who says she witnessed the gold miracle in a Florida church, substantiates Schalit's claims. Dickey longs for a divine respite from her dental bills. Although she hasn't received any gold teeth yet, Dickey wrote hopefully, "God is good all the time. I really need any gold crowns God would give me. This year to date my dentist has cost me $7,000."
Maybe, however, the whole thing is just a big joke. One of the tooth testimonials on TACF's Web site is from Liz, who writes that her new filling is "a wonderful introduction to God's power," but adds with mysterious irony, "I love God's sense of humor."
Annalee Newitz is a freelance writer in San Francisco, and is the author of a forthcoming book on movies about monsters, psychopaths, and the American economy.