In 1956, the now-deceased Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion seriously perplexed a CBS news reporter when he said: “In Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.” Had the poet T. S. Eliot been interviewed along with Ben Gurion–albeit, an improbable event–Eliot might well have responded, “But, Mr. Ben Gurion, humankind cannot stand very much reality.” Generally, when we think of “miracles,” we think of divinely orchestrated events that intercept our humankind reality with a sacred power that exceeds all of our natural law–hardly a standard criteria for down-to-earth “realism.” Those who have given “witness” to miracles rarely have gone down in history as “hard-nosed” realists–saints, maybe; visionaries, maybe; pietists, perhaps. And, as all of us know, some resolute “realists” might suggest: A report of a miracle is the report of someone who requires immediate psychiatric help.
Ever since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, modern science–regrettably from a largely inaccurate perspective on the part of popular culture–has been busy stamping out the “miraculous”; lugubriously whittling down the causal probabilities of miraculous acts of God. Somehow, many of us came to understand (or, better said, ‘misunderstand’) rationalism as antithetical to faith. By the nineteenth century, the Oxford Dictionary suggests that the term “miracle” came to be treated as a cover for human ignorance. So, in spite of David Ben Gurion’s fascinating and pragmatic connection between reality and the miraculous, most of the world has been heading in the opposite direction. We do not consider “miracles” as part of our reality and those who claim to have witnessed them are not participating in the “real” world. In fact, as we currently are want to say, “they” need to get a grip.
As the definitions of “miracles” and “reality” have become further and further polarized in our common parlance, our collective yearning for a “power” much greater than “humankind” seems to have grown and grown. We have a hunger for the revelation and excitement that the miraculous provides; a longing for some kind of “sign” from a loving God–a loving God who claims us, knows our name, who even counts the hairs of our heads and who will intervene on our behalf.
As a culture, we always have loved stories about “miracles”–biblical and otherwise–stories about angels, apparitions and other wonders–even if, as adults, we sometimes have been loath to admit it–especially when we are conversing in the “heat” of our secular communities. But over the past several years, our collective spiritual desire and search for the miraculous seems to irresistibly and obviously surfaced in an increasing number of television shows, movies, novels about various forms of “divine” and saving intervention from a “spirit world” beyond our own. Several prime-time TV shows have repeatedly survived tough viewer ratings for a number of years now, indicating that our spiritual interest often overrides our seemingly insatiable diet for “sitcoms.”
The story lines vary considerably but frequently at their core, wonderfully compassionate and infinitely capable divine “agents” are “sent” by a much “Higher Power” to intervene–unsolicited–into the ordinary life-crises of ordinary people at least once a week. Some well-developed characters predictably start to luminously “glow” when a divine intervention is about to take place. Reasonably enough, when the show is over, just about everybody feels better: a life has been saved, or a loving reconciliation has been made, an injustice has been rectified. Further, some element of “faith” has been restored, not just in the main character of the plot, but in the viewing audience as well. If watching a TV show is where some of us can anonymously regain faith in an all-powerful God without facing the possible embarrassment of such a confession in our secular public, then we also might be able to go back into the world on a Monday morning with the secretly held hope that, indeed, we are not stuck here on earth alone–stuck only with others of our own human finite, vulnerable and more-than-occasionally sinful selves.
Apparently, more than a few TV shows, movies and books that seek to fulfill our spiritual needs, do make a difference in the “faith life” of our society. A poll conducted for the Seattle Times by Pew Research several years ago showed that over 70 percent of Americans say they never doubt the existence of God and over 60 percent of Americans both believe in miracles and believe that miracles come from the power of God. The poll results appear to dovetail with popular culture, the Seattle paper suggested, “Touched by an Angel” is one of TV’s highest-rated shows. Books on angels, miracles and spirituality are increasingly popular. If there is a theological “litmus” test to be applied here, we might use David Ben Gurion’s criteria for a realist and ask, Are our various popular expressions of our yearning for God dealing with the reality of what God intends for the people of God? Or, as one sociologist of religion, put it, Are we looking for a quick fix; the kind of quick fix that has nothing to do with our reality, let alone the reality of God’s design?
Having watched and enjoyed any number of these TV shows and movies, I am not here to critique them. Nor, certainly, am I here to critique the viewing audience. But, I am here to ask, How far away might popular culture’s emerging definition of “miracle” be from what Scripture tells us or from what an alert and faithful “read” of God’s revelation might tell us today?
Interestingly, both the Old and the New Testaments use the word “miracle” sparsely, perhaps no more than forty times altogether. But, throughout Scripture miracles are inextricably tied to a necessary and what should be sufficient revelation from God. Indeed they may be called a “wonder”–but a “wonder” meant as a “sign” or even a judgment from God–always meant to be interpreted, read by witnesses as instruction, direction from God–instruction meant to be converted into the doing of God’s will. So, in the worlds of the Old and New Testaments where God was inarguably the center of it all, a miracle was not at all separate from reality but, rather, a fully integrated and expected part of it. This is so much the case in the Old Testament that one biblical scholar suggests that the study of miracles in the Hebrew Bible may be, in fact, an “illegitimate pursuit”–simply because Hebrew has no equivalent term for the English concept of “miracle.” The Hebrew words translate more meaningfully as victory, sign, wonder, portent.
In the New Testament, however, there are a number of Greek words equivalent to “miracle,” but here again, the translation is closer to our understanding of “wonder,” “power,” “sign,” sometimes given in a “supernatural” way, always by God, as direction, statement, sign to be understood by the people of God. Our English word “dynamo” comes from the same Greek root meaning miracle. So Jesus, as the Son of God, as the Word made flesh, was indeed a dynamo who spoke in miracles for God by his very being.
So inextricably linked to reality as God defines it, Jesus rebukes and insults the Pharisees and Sadducees when they try to test his connection to God the Father by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. He turns to them and says, “’When it is evening,’ you say, ‘it will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And, in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times!” Perhaps this is what Ben Gurion meant when he said in Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.
When Jesus brings Peter, John and James with him to a mountain to pray, he is aware of the growing public tension regarding his ministry and that his time with the disciples will be short. These three, understood to be the “favored disciples,” were fighting sleep but suddenly were awakened by the appearance of Jesus’ face, which had become radiant like that of Moses when he descended from Mount Sinai; his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightening.
Peter, John and James see Moses on one side of Jesus and Elijah on the other. But when a cloud enveloped them, Jesus is left standing alone and a voice came from the cloud saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him!” This is, by all means, a miracle from God meant to link Jesus, as one and the same as God and as the living voice of God–listen to him! In one miraculous gesture, God reveals to the disciples all that will become the Gospel: “Jesus is the Son of God, his death will not be the end, but he will be raised and enter into the glory of the Kingdom of God with the Father.” And, God’s specific and emphatic “message” to the disciples: Here is the big picture. This is what it is all about and this is what you must do: “While he is with you, listen to him!”
But the disciples appear ill equipped to watch, to pray and to understand this message from God. Just as they will be overcome by sleep in Gethsemane and unable to understand the imminent threat to Jesus’ life, so they fight sleep on the mountaintop as well. Like the Pharisees and Sadducees, the disciples cannot read the signs of the time. Their eyes are not fully open to the reality of what is happening. Their interpretation to build festival booths for each prophet is pathetic given the urgency of God.
The Transfiguration, in a way, was not a successful miracle nor did it contain a miraculous meaning that the disciples wanted to hear. Just as the people of Israel could not bear to look at the brilliance of the face of Moses, neither could the disciples truly see and meet the reality of God in Jesus. The disciples would not refer to this experience again. Peter would still deny Jesus and the others would look for an earthly Kingdom, the restoration of the Kingdom of Israel.
It seems T.S. Eliot might have been right when he said that humankind cannot stand very much reality. Would it be fair to say that the disciples did not believe in miracles? No, not at all. But, it easily could have been said that if they continually failed to understand the miraculous signs from God that they were given, they would not, as Ben Gurion said, “survive in Israel.”
What are we to think of this? Learn from this? That miracles as signs and wonders and portends from God are not at all separate from “our” reality. That, by keeping our eyes wide open and through prayer, we might not only see and participate in a miracle from God, but we might understand it and act upon it as a salvific lesson from God.
The miraculous lessons from God that await us may not be ones we love to hear. Might one be the increased warming of the ocean floor and its hazardous implications to our environment? Or another, the early warning of the development of a new and especially lethal strand of e-coli? The question is, Will we observe these realities and act upon them with urgency doing the will of God?
Other “miraculous lessons” have and will reveal good news about miraculous scientific discoveries of cures to diseases we have yet to hear about; already discovered ways of reducing the ozone layer; hostile nations, at last, making peace at international tables of negotiation. If we can stay awake, take in the reality of our God-sent miracles and act according to God’s will, then, perhaps, “humankind will love and cherish its reality.” And most certainly we all will survive as the people of God. And then as another famous poet wrote, “Every hour of light and dark is a miracle. Every cubic inch of space is a miracle.” Amen.