Shawn Bolz: Exposing a Fraudulent Charismatic “Prophet”

Azusa-Street-Historical-Sign (1)

 

About a week ago, an acquaintance of mine on Facebook—himself formerly active in several prominent Charismatic Christian circles—made a post that presented some highly suggestive evidence that a popular Christian minister and “prophet” within the Charismatic community, Shawn Bolz, is, for lack of a better word, a fraud.

Now, to many of those in the skeptic community, the style of preaching and (supposed) prophecy that Shawn Bolz delivers will be familiar. He offers messages of encouragement to his audience, which he claims actually come from Jesus himself. Above all, they’re highly personalized, suggesting a deep personal knowledge of the individuals in question: he often starts by asking something like “Is there a [name] in the audience?”; and once they respond, he thrills them with little tidbits from their life—information about their family, and their current life situation—to give the appearance that these messages really are supernatural in origin.

My acquaintance went through several videos of Shawn’s, pointing out various instances in which it seems pretty clear that the information Shawn offered didn’t really come from any supernatural source, but can be better explained by having been found online, from Facebook and elsewhere. (This is known in skeptical circles as a type of “hot reading.”)

In any case, although I think writing on the wall was clear to him, my acquaintance, ever diplomatic, was cautious about explicitly accusing Shawn of fraud: he was judicious in suggesting that correlation doesn’t necessarily equate to causation, etc. He also conceded that, even if these particular instances of purported prophecy aren’t legitimate, this doesn’t mean that the entirety of Shawn’s ministry has been fraudulent.

Despite this, however, there was a near-immediate response and backlash from many of the people that my acquaintance knows—people who remain in the Charismatic community, and a few of which are quite close to Shawn himself. Although a number of people agreed that the evidence was compelling or even undeniable, several flatly denied that it could be true.

In my post, I want to go a bit deeper than my acquaintance did, looking at what almost certainly the exact process that Shawn went about finding the information that he mentioned in a particular “prophecy” delivered on April 9th, 2016, at the Azusa Now conference/revival at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. (The name “Azusa Now” is a reference to the famous Azusa Street Pentecostal revival at the beginning of the 20th century.)

So consider this somewhat like a detailed “anatomy of a hot reading.” A video of the prophecy/reading can be found immediately below.


Before really getting into things here, however, I want to say that from the very beginning of Shawn’s appearance in the video, I think there’s something immediately sketchy, if not just plainly inconsistent about the way the whole thing is set up.

Right before the first “prophecy” he delivers, Shawn prefaces it with a sort of invocation: “Please Jesus, come” (@ 1:07 in the video). I think this is pretty clearly intended as an invitation for the spirit of Jesus to participate in the supposed prophetic process here; and similar invocations are regularly used by mediums and others, in hopes that divine entities will lend their support and powers to the process: “Spirits, come!”

And yet, during the whole time that Shawn talks, he’s looking at his smartphone, and is clearly reading information out from it. But if all the information he’s relaying is actually coming from notes on his phone, where is the normal prophetic spontaneity here? What exactly does Jesus need to “come” to help with?

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that by continuing to preface all this by a sort of stock spirit-invocation, Shawn’s only really trying to create the illusion of spontaneity/inspiration—even though, as we’ll soon come to find, any supernatural help here was completely unnecessary.


Immediately following the invocation mentioned above, at 1:10, Shawn starts out by asking “Is there a Kenny or Kenneth Ray and a Patricia Lou, who came together?” A few seconds later, they’re spotted in the crowd; and the next couple of minutes are spent with Shawn talking—prophesying—about their lives.

Now, a previous blogger had originally identified this Kenneth/Kenny and Patricia from their having used a hashtag on Twitter associated with the Azusa Now event “for weeks publicly leading up the conference,” as well as their having registered on an official smartphone app for it. (The blogger was an actual attendee of the event, too.)

I’m not going to link to the blog in question, because it uses Kenny and Patricia’s last name, as well as pictures of them and most of their family; and despite the fact that I had to do some Facebook and Google stalking to find all this, I’m going to refrain from relaying these in my own post: no last names, no pictures. In any case though, suffice it to say, just as this information was available to the blogger who discovered it, so it would have been available to any of the speakers at the event, too.

Having identified Kenny and Patricia then, above all it’s crucial to note that both of their Facebook pages, and all their content, are fully public. If I had to guess, I think that the majority of information that Shawn mentioned was taken from these. Finally, as I’ll discuss further below, I think that Shawn—or whoever it was that gathered the background info that Shawn used—found one or two other details through basic Google searches, building on the information from Facebook.


Having located Kenny and Patricia in the crowd, Shawn continues at 1:28 in the video, addressing them: “Tell me if these names make sense to you; there’s four of them: it’s David, Ester, Jon, and Sara . . . these are your children? Are they your children? This is Jesus, he’s speak[ing]…”

The camera pans in on Kenny and Patricia, and they’re clearly awed and elated at the mention of their children’s names, waving their arms.

But, again, the availability of this information suggests much more mundane sources. That Kenny and Patricia have four children is easily discernible from Kenny’s Facebook page—which, by the way, is probably our best source for much of the information that Shawn relates. In fact, the very first thing we find, at the very top of Kenny’s profile, is the self-description

Child of my Heavenly Father; Hubby to Tricia; Dad to four amazing kids (and Ester); Saved by grace!

(Here we also learn that Patricia goes by “Tricia.”)

When we look at the Friends list on Kenny’s page, among the top names listed, we find every family member that Shawn mentioned, all sharing the same last name: Sara, Jon, David, Tricia, and Ester; and finally, someone who appears to be the actual fourth child of Kenny and Tricia. (More on this last point in a second.) The same goes for Tricia’s Friends list, too

And if we look, for example, toward Sara’s own Facebook page, we find further confirmation of all this: on the “Family and Relationships” section of her profile, David and Jon are explicitly listed as her brothers. Just from this alone, then, we already have clear confirmation that Sara, David, and Jon are all direct siblings.

What about the absence from Sara’s list of Ester, the fourth child of Kenny and Tricia that Shawn named? Actually, when we look at Kenny’s Facebook page from right around the time of Azusa Now (early 2016)—or if we look at David’s own Facebook page—we quickly learn that Ester is in fact David’s wife; and thus Ester is really the daughter-in-law of Kenny and Tricia.

With a little deeper digging here, it’s clear that the actual fourth child of Kenny and Tricia is named Rachel; though, again, this isn’t as obvious as the other relations.

So it’s interesting that Sara’s Facebook establishes that she, David and Jon are at least three of the four children of Kenny and Tricia, while Kenny had named Ester in conjunction with his unspecified “four amazing kids.” Out of all the children, then, Rachel is the clear outlier here: the only name listed neither by Kenny nor Sara. Is it coincidence, then, that Rachel is also the only name omitted by Shawn Bolz in his “prophecy,” too?

And yet Shawn doesn’t seem to be totally unaware of this issue. At 1:46 in the video, he makes a sort of tentative, off-hand comment that “There might be one more [child], I can’t tell.” It’s very tempting to say that Shawn knows that there may be another child, and might have a clue about which one it is, but isn’t willing to bet his reputation on it—just like we can’t immediately be certain, from what we can glean from Facebook, that Rachel is the fourth child, either. (We might note that on Kenny’s Friends list, he has nieces and nephews who also share the same last name; thus several of these potentially could have been mistaken as the fourth child.)

Lastly, it also might be argued that Shawn was sloppy in naming “David, Ester, Jon, and Sara” as if they were all the direct children of Kenny and Tricia. Again, Rachel is their fourth actual child, and Ester the in-law—again, precisely as Kenny himself understands them: “four amazing kids (and Ester).”


The background to what Shawn says after this appears to be that, leading up to the time of the Azusa Now event, Kenny and Patricia had been away doing missionary work for a large Christian outreach organization, in a district of one of the islands of Hawaii.

Conveniently, Kenny and Patricia actually have a shared “official” Facebook page for their work with this outreach organization. On January 6, 2016, on this page, they wrote “Back in [Hawaii] again. Ready for whatever the Lord has ahead in the coming season!” (Also, for what it’s worth, on March 31, they shared a link for Azusa Now on the page; and a few days later, on April 6, Kenny posted a status to his own Facebook saying “On our way to LA tomorrow for Azusa Now.”)

In any case, at 1:49 in the video, Shawn says “Patricia, God is healing [sic?] a list of things you need in your body from the mission field, where you’ve needed a list of healing.”

It’s hard to make sense of exactly what Shawn’s referring to here. The mention of healing “in your body,” combined with the fact that he’s addressing Tricia in particular, might seem to suggest physical ailments; but in talking about the “list of things you need” from (for?) the “mission field,” this could refer to the sort of things that outreach/missionary organizations and charities collect for this: food and water, hygiene products, etc. Perhaps both are intended, if he was talking about, say, medicine for missions.

In conjunction with this, it might be worth noting that on December 30, 2015, Kenny and Patricia posted a call for donations to the outreach organization on their Facebook page. Conversely, it might also be mentioned that several posts on the outreach page from October 2015 mention that Tricia had a fever and that “we have no real insurance.” (To be sure, though, October 2015 is quite a while back from April 2016.)

Most important, however, is the location that this call for donations on Facebook was tagged with: Sherwood, Oregon. This is highly relevant for what Shawn “prophesies” next: at 2:08, he suggests that “God is sending you guys back to Oregon—does this make sense?”

But we can see that the return to Oregon was no great mystery or prediction. It was a manifestly public event, mentioned multiple times in multiple places. For example, when we turn to Kenny’s own Facebook page, he posted a photo on on March 14, 2016 captioned “Final sunset on our beautiful adventure in Hawaii”—followed by numerous pictures tagged with or otherwise mentioning Oregon in the days following this, leading up to the Azusa event. Further, in a blog post from January 2015 outlining their itinerary for the year, Kenny and Patricia explicitly say that in June they’ll be going “Home to Oregon and Washington.”¹

And in fact, as I’ll mention a bit more later, elsewhere Kenny makes it clear that the return to Oregon had already happened in 2016, even before Azusa Now.


At 2:26, Shawn tells Kenny and Tricia that, in his revelation, “I saw something about California and Fair Oaks. I used to live near Fair Oaks. Is there a Fair Oaks connection?”

In terms of the amount of research it takes to uncover the Fair Oaks connection, this is practically lazy: the very “Intro” section at the top of Tricia’s Facebook page simply reads

Lives in Newberg, Oregon

From Fair Oaks, California

Speaking specifically to Tricia at 2:42, however, Shawn adds what seems to be a much more clever touch: he specifically mentions the name of a street that Tricia had lived on previously.

Although, comparatively speaking, this bit of information isn’t as easily found as simply looking at the top of Kenny or Tricia’s Facebook page, in truth it was still little more difficult than finding the name of Tricia’s parents. And there are in fact multiple places where I found their names, both on Facebook and elsewhere.

The profundity of this insight especially loses some of its luster when we notice that barely a week before Azusa itself, on March 26, Kenny posted a family picture to Facebook captioned

Love spending time with Tricia [last name]’s family (the [Tricia’s maiden name]’s). We are celebrating her parents 60th wedding anniversary…

Further, when you search Kenny’s Friends list for the maiden name in question here, there are only four results; and it couldn’t be any more obvious which of these is the one we’re looking for: a man whose profile picture is him next to what appears to be his wife, both of them about 40 years older than anyone else pictured in the results.

In any case, now that we have the name of the maternal father, not only can the street name in question be easily found, but in fact the exact address of Tricia’s apparent childhood home here, too. Simply by Googling the maternal father’s name in tandem with Fair Oaks, California, this address appears in the records on various sites; and one of these actually has a list of the father’s family and relatives, including Tricia herself.

Interestingly, the original blogger that I referred to at the beginning of my post also discovered that you can find a picture of this house on the Facebook page of the grandfather, too—which can be independently verified by searching for the aforementioned address on Google Street View. (For that matter, the Facebook picture is among what are basically the most recent photos that the grandfather posted, from what appears to be a trip that Kenny and Tricia took to Fair Oaks in March 2011; and so, in conjunction with the fact that Tricia lists Fair Oaks as her hometown, it can safely be assumed that her parents had lived at the same address there for as long as Tricia had been alive—or, again, at least long enough for Tricia to consider it her hometown.)

Finally, just so there’s no ambiguity as to who this information’s coming from—at least according to Shawn—he specifies “God’s showing me this,” at 2:47 in the video. 


At 3:01, Shawn tells Tricia “You and your husband are amazing disciplers.” Again, though, this is readily discernible for the repeated references to Kenny and Tricia’s missionary work, on Facebook and elsewhere.

What follows this, however, is probably the most disingenuous of all the things that Shawn does. At 3:04, he says “And I saw, uh, something about 2 Corinthians 1:2, and then I thought ‘maybe 1/2 is a significant date to you’…”

By mentioning that he “saw something about 2 Corinthians 1:2,” he grounds this revelation first and foremost in the Bible itself; he cloaks it with the aura of sanctity. In truth, though, there could hardly be anything more mundane than 2 Corinthians 1:2—part of a stock greeting from Paul to the Corinthian church.

I think it’s transparently clear that, in contrast to how Shawn seeks to portray it, some revelation pertaining to 2 Corinthians 1:2 wasn’t actually the basis for all this. Instead, Shawn learned from mundane sources that January 2nd was a significant date in Kenny and/or Tricia’s lives; and once he had this information, he simply tried to match 1/2 to some arbitrary Christian spiritual element, by transforming it into “1:2,” and pretending like this was the catalyst for the whole thing.

But of course, this wasn’t exactly an easy task. 1:2 will obviously always be the second verse in any Biblical book; and, really, there are very few second verses in the Bible that are of great substance. For most Biblical books, 1:2 is the part of mundane introductory material.

Of course, something like John 1:2 may represent part of an important theological truth. But it’s hard to find a 1:2 in the Bible that might be taken to have some relevance as a “message” from Jesus to anyone in Shawn’s audience. So I guess 2 Corinthians 1:2’s “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” was about the best that Shawn could hope for here; though it’s certainly less impressive when we realize that the full line here is actually “To the church of God that is in Corinth . . . grace to you and peace from God.”

In any case, Shawn continues, asking Kenny and Tricia “Is 1/2 anything—like January 2nd? Is that anything at all? Is this an anniversary maybe?” Here, as already mentioned, Shawn feigns “guessing” if (2 Corinthians) 1:2 might ultimately represent the calendrical date January 2. (And this despite the fact that Shawn had already suggested “maybe 1:2 is a significant date to you.”) 

Next, out of all the things that January 2 could possibly have meant to Kenny and Tricia, or to anyone else—any number of family birthdays, or deaths, or any significant event in someone’s life that happened on this date—Shawn just goes ahead and immediately jumps right toward it being an anniversary.

And Shawn is, of course, spot on here. But this is easily found on Kenny’s Facebook, where on January 2, 2016, he posted an anniversary status: “Tricia [last name], I’ll love you ’til the day I die! It’s been 28 years of marriage…” (Similar anniversary messages are found on Tricia’s page, too.)

So we can be reasonably certain that Shawn wasn’t just guessing about what “1:2” or 1/2 was to Kenny and Tricia, or receiving some vague supernatural clue about it. He knew from the very outset exactly what January 2 was to them; and again, he simply tries to make things look like he had received some sort of revelation about 2 Corinthians 1:2 and then, on the basis of that, “deduced” the connection with a calendrical date from it.

This is all simply spiritual theater; again, mundane information presented under the illusion of inspiration.


On April 15, 2016, Tricia posted a picture someone captured while Shawn was talking to her at Azusa Now to Facebook, commenting on it “Not sure who got the shot but I’m so grateful!!!” Further, the same picture, as well as other discussion about what happened to them at Azusa Now, appears all over Kenny’s Timeline around the same time.

This event, and especially the positive prophecy that Shawn delivered to them, clearly left a lasting impression on them. Interestingly, on his page, Kenny also posted a photo taken later with Shawn himself, captioned

Just met with Shawn, who called us out by name at the Azusa Now event at the LA Coliseum and prophecied over us from the stage – our names, our kids names, our wedding date, the fact we just moved to Oregon, Tricias address and city growing up!!

This might put Shawn’s prophetic “God is sending you guys back to Oregon” in a new light: here, Kenny interprets this not as a prediction of a future move, but of something that had already happened—because it indeed had already happened. But, as we saw, anyone even remotely motivated to learn about Kenny and Tricia’s lives could easily find “the fact we just moved to Oregon,” as well as the other information here.

What are we to say about all of this? To me, it’s unambiguous evidence of fraud. When my acquaintance originally posted about it on Facebook, he ended by noting

I can easily imagine that when you start doing this sort of thing, building a traveling ministry that draws thousands with the expectation that the heavens will open every time, there could be a huge internal pressure to keep it at a certain level, and there could even be temptation to justify looking stuff up online as “supplementing” or “kick-starting” God’s voice. The demands of full-time ministry and the expectations of charismatic culture together create a pressure to maintain an unrealistic level of showmanship.

I think this is an incredibly astute suggestion. But, as was discussed in some follow-up comments (and as my acquaintance clearly thinks, as well), one could easily see this as a sort of post facto justification or rationalization that Shawn or someone else might offer: not that they were engaged in outright fraud, but that they simply needed a little help to “get the prophetic juices flowing,” or that they just wanted to double-check that the information they were “receiving” from God/Jesus was accurate. 

But I don’t think Shawn or anyone else like him can be let off the hook here, even a little. Yes, maybe Shawn did feel pressure to perform. But other than what we might infer about his hypothetical motives for this, we’d never have any indication of this from his videos and public appearances. If the “spirit” indeed wasn’t coming to him, instead of doing the responsible thing and leaving his prophetic ministry alone until the spirit returned, Shawn continued on with business as usual. 

Again, multiple times throughout the video that I’ve discussed in this post, Shawn reiterated things like “This is Jesus, he’s speaking” and “God’s showing me this.” But as we’ve seen, this was in truth anything but the voice of Jesus or God. And this becomes dangerous when Shawn gives people nothing but hope about the future to come—a future that we now know Shawn couldn’t possibly have any genuine supernatural insight into.

This is merely one example of a family that Shawn has “targeted.” But if you look at other videos of Shawn’s public appearances, this is clearly his main MO; and further, the acquaintance of mine that I’ve made reference to has uncovered evidence of sketchiness in all of the examples of Shawn’s prophesying that he looked at it. More is sure to come on all this, for better or worse.  

⁂       ⁂       ⁂

Header image courtesy of WikiMedia Commons.


 

Notes

[1] This was talking about 2015, not 2016; but still, it clearly establishes that their home base is in Oregon, and that a “return” to this from abroad was standard operating procedure for them

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