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Miracles, Media, Magic, and Misunderstanding

Location: [Home] [Eric S. Anderson] Miracles Essay

My family and I recently experienced our fifteen minutes of fame. Our baby daughter, Rebekah, developed cancer of the retina last fall, which doctors discovered after the loss of her sight woke us to the problem. Twenty-two radiation treatments later, the reduction of the tumors allowed her retinas to reattach, and she slowly began to recover her vision.

The recovery was so slow that it was often difficult for us to discern the improvement. We had noticed that she stopped bumping into walls before the radiation treatments even ended; somewhat later we noticed that she could walk around furniture. Three weeks before Christmas I held a cup on my palm in front of her and was delighted to see her reach for it and take it. And on the morning of Christmas Eve, my mother-in-law watched her pick up a small piece of cereal without feeling around for it, and eat it.

Just after Christmas, a reporter that had written a story on Rebekah during her therapy called to ask how she was. She was so thrilled at the recovery that she wrote a follow-up story, which centered on my mother-in-law's Christmas Eve experience. While fairly accurate, it was possible to read the piece as an overnight wonder: and suddenly everyone did. The first one was the headline writer, who was also the first to use the word "miracle." Headline, story, and a very cute photo appeared on the front page of the Sunday edition, and then went out to the nation over the Associated Press wire, and within hours, the phone was ringing.

That Sunday afternoon brought a parade of three television news crews through our living room, plus phone calls from other reporters. Each of the TV pieces emphasized the "overnight" healing, despite our explicit, on-camera statements to the contrary. Print media in several cities ran the story on Monday, and often their editors sensationalized more than the TV crews did. Friends and family began calling to congratulate us on the sudden recovery, asking "Why didn't you tell us?" We had, of course, told them the truth: Rebekah was seeing better every week, but we didn't know how well yet. And we hadn't called it a miracle.

I could have used that word, of course. To me a miracle is an act of God, of which there are a countless number every day. Most of them look quite commonplace. Rebekah's recovery, the simple fact of her life, was and is a powerful witness to the grace and love of God to me and to Evelyn, her mother, my wife. But we refrained, on my part because the word "miracle" so frequently implies "magic," and does not acknowledge the work God does through ordinary things and ordinary people. The mechanism by which God works simply is not important. What is important, to paraphrase Jesus and John Newton, is that once my daughter was dead, and now she is alive again, once she was blind, and now she can see--at least well enough to find a Cheerio.

What impressed the reporters, however, was not miracle, but magic. The drama of sudden healing overwhelmed them--and make no mistake, it is more dramatic--so that they simply didn't hear that it was not sudden. Rebekah's beauty overwhelmed them--and make no mistake, she is beautiful--so that they didn't see the signs that her vision is still poor. And our status as clergy overwhelmed them--and make no mistake, Christian faith is our life--so that I fear they heard it as a special gift to "God's faithful ones" from God, a gift which is not available to others.

But we are not magicians, Rebekah's healing is not magic, and God's grace and love are free to all, not just to those who can say the magic spell. I am grateful that God's work in this has received so much attention, and that God has received the credit, even the glory. But what happens when someone finds out that the magic was illusory, however innocent the deception? What damage does it do to faith to be built on brittle stones? And how much do we lose if we so focus on the magical that we do not see the miraculous in life?

I'm not being fair, of course. Much as the reporters overstated, so have I. It is a habit of rhetoric, a facet of the human condition, and so in honesty I acknowledge that each story described our credit of radiation therapy and prayer for Rebekah's recovery. And they related the continued danger of the cancer's recurrence. And I must say that I firmly believe each one told the truth as they understood it: which does make me wonder at how blithely we accept what is related to us as truth.

And I wonder as I read the Scriptures how many earnest reporters, in all honesty, changed the facts to accomodate the truth they believed. How many miracles have been transformed to magic? How many of God's slow and patient acts of love and grace have been transformed to those towering stories of immanent power? I wonder how much these magical stories have frustrated the faithful over the centuries. "If God would do that for him/her/them, then why not for me?"

That is the worst danger of misunderstanding miracles as magic. Miracles are accessible; magic is not. Miracles are obtainable, magic is not. Miracles are ours, but magic is not. Magic is the realm of the entertainer, the teacher, or the charlatan. Miracles belong to those beloved of God: they belong to us all.

In our house, our miracles run on two legs (or four), laugh and cry, and prefer junk food to what's good for them. We wouldn't have it any other way.

http://www.computerseraph.com/ESAessay.htm -- Revised: November 17, 1997
Copyright © 1997 Eric S. Anderson

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