Saturday, January 31, 2015
Skeptical About Miracles
Saints were what drew me to the Catholic Church, not the miracles attributed to them. I am in greater awe of the single-mindedness of Joan of Arc than of some sword she allegedly found beneath an altar. I am more impressed by Brother André Bessette’s devotion to his faith and work than I am by all the crutches that hang where he once healed.
I suspect that the present fascination with miracles, including books about little boys going to heaven and doctors having near-death experiences, points not to God but to the tepidness of our own religious conviction. I wonder if we aren’t like children fascinated by the glitter on a lady’s crown, not realizing that the lady is the queen and the queen has power. Do we tune into the Super Bowl for the half-time extravaganza, with no real interest in football?
“Thunder is good, thunder is impressive, but it is lightning that does the work,” said Mark Twain. So it could be said of miracles and the saints who “perform” them.
Miracles is a piece of performance art, though I confess I listened to Fred Sanders’s reading of the book and did not read it myself. Sanders’s emotive delivery may have exaggerated Metaxas’s awe at the miracles he reports, and this may have piqued my skepticism.
I had been moved by Metaxas’s 600-page biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which has sold 700,000 copies and has been translated into 17 languages, as Metaxas’s web site notes. According to a blurb on his site, Metaxas is “one of the most interesting and original moral thinkers in the United States.” Read on and you will discover that Metaxas is something of a religious media darling, not unlike James Martin, SJ, the longtime Official Chaplain of “The Colbert Report.” Metaxas keynoted the National Prayer Breakfast in 2012, thus joining the ranks of Mother Teresa and Bono. ABC News called him “a photogenic, witty ambassador for faith in public life.” The résumé is impressive.
Unfortunately, Miracles struck me as a strategic career-builder for such a media personality, interesting and original, witty and photogenic as Metaxas may be. The book begins with some general thinking about miracles: what they are, why they are pooh-poohed by the science-minded intelligentsia, how life on earth and even the universe itself is a miracle.
Then comes the meat of Miracles. In the second half of the book, Metaxas reports journalistically on amazing things that happened to people he knows or has met in his impressive career. These events are classified by type of miracle, including conversion, healing, inner healing, angelic, and “other.”
Do miracles happen to anyone but the rich and successful? You couldn't prove it by Metaxas. His miracles happen only to Friends of Eric, and Eric moves only in the best social and economic circles, from Hollywood to Wall Street to New Canaan. They also happen to Eric Himself. A long-winded account of a “miraculous” dream Metaxas had seems to put a sort of divine imprimatur on his publishing career, as it somehow powered the success of his book Bonhoeffer.
Two women of color seem to balance the portfolio of those profiled, but one is a Latina who became a television producer and the other an African American Penn grad who was "amazingly successful" on Wall Street before becoming a Protestant church leader.
Metaxas's approach is ecumenical. Recounting miracles, he jumps from one Christian denomination to another without reference to differing attitudes and theologies. He repeatedly attributes miracles to "God," or "the voice of God." This eventually struck me as loose and imprecise, raising my skepticism. Reared in the Greek Orthodox Church, Metaxas apparently "came to faith" as a Protestant Evangelical in the late 1980s. So he has crossed lines at least once in his life, as I have (Episcopal to None to Catholic). So perhaps he has come to think that miracles are an equal-opportunity event for Christians of all stripes, which they may be. But I'm also pretty sure Metaxas wants to sell as many books as possible by being inclusive, by offending no one.
As a Catholic, I was left with a greater appreciation for my Church's more cautious approach to miracles, recognizing them only with adequate documentation. In Miracles all we have to convince us is Metaxas's breathless reportage. After a final narrative about a woman saved when she heard "the voice of God" atop one of the towers on the morning of 9/11, I was ready for these Miracles to end.