Sunday, February 15, 2009

On Miracles: Reading the Bible in One Year

QuakerRanter Martin Kelly has fallen a couple of days behind on his one-year Bible read, which brings to mind that two years ago, I embarked on the same journey, and I too fell behind. It took me 20 months to complete a 12-month Bible devotional.

All the same, reading the Bible straight through, as one big sequential story, illuminated it for me in surprising ways. It was a remarkable undertaking. Here are a few things I discovered, which I will cover over the course of several days:

On Miracles

1. We tend to overrepresent the miracles in the Bible. Yes, there are miracles -- but more often than not, we read long, dismal stretches of history when we long for a miracle. Anything to lighten the bleakness. But no miracles occur, just a slow spiral into darkness.

2. The miracles tend to cluster around short, special periods, most notably the period of exodus from Egypt and the period around Jesus’ life. These are also, incidentally, periods that changed world history. Hhhmmm.

3. Even in the periods of miracle, the miracles aren’t as plentiful or magnificent as they could be. Frankly, they're fairly spare and austere. God parts the Red Sea and gives the Israelites their daily manna from heaven, but he doesn’t flood them with feasts or build them jeweled cities. Likewise, Jesus feeds the five thousand bread and fish, but not a sumptuous feast. God seems to give his people just enough miracle to get by and no more. Plain miracles. Almost dull miracles. I thought about this when I toured a mosque with a Quaker group. One of our tour guides, trying to stress the similarities between Christianity and Islam, told us the story from the Koran of the baby Jesus speaking at a few days old to rebuke people who were accusing his mother Mary of being a woman of ill-repute. It struck me that the Bible contains no similar fantastic stories of a talking infant Jesus. In fact, according to the biblical account, the only remarkable thing Jesus does as a child is to display wisdom in the temple at age 11 or 12. Notable, but hardly miraculous.

4. To me, the long stretches without miracles and the austerity of those that occur lend credibility to the miracles in the Bible. In the context of the whole Bible, they stand out like beautiful gems. You appreciate them more because they are rare. And although some people say the Bible is a fairytale, if you read it straight through, it’s much more a story of suffering, punctuated on occasion by the sparing but sparkling presence of God. While there are a few trickster tales and fables in the Bible, it’s mostly a depressing story of people who most of the time can’t get right with God and couldn't grab on to a miracle if it hit them over the head. If the "Bible" writers were going to “make it up,” you think they’d come up with something a little more entertaining.

So what do you think? Why do you think so many people are so "down" on Biblical miracles?


Bill Samuel said...

There could be several reasons:
1. People in this culture are very reluctant to accept anything they can't rationally explain.
2. Many people find it much easier to accept Jesus as just a good teacher, not as someone who actually carries divine power and authority.
3. People don't recognize "miracles" as taking place around them, and consequently have trouble accepting them in historical contexts, either. (Many do see miracles happening, and they don't have a problem with the miracles in the Bible.)

We should note that in the Gospels, Jesus' miracles, in addition to being what they are in themselves, are always signs of something more. They are one of the major ways by which Jesus taught.

Hystery said...

I'm neither thrilled nor offended by biblical accounts of miracles. Instead, they make me curious. What interests me most is the opportunity to ask about the cultural and spiritual context of the author(s) of the text. What was their intent? What are they trying to tell me through the story of the miracle? In what historical context is the story written? How does it relate to other miracle accounts written in the same culture but by persons of different religious beliefs? How, for instance, does the account of the virgin birth in Luke compare and contrast to other accounts of royal virgin births common among other Hellenistic people? What political and religious messages are implied by these similarities? by the differences? Beyond fact, what Truth is being proclaimed? How are miracle stories used effectively as literary tools?

I've always felt that the miracle itself was not the point of the story. I take it as the author's way of telling me, "I need to get your full attention here. I need to tell you something important."

Ted M. Gossard said...

Good points on miracles (and good comments). One of the evidences of the Bible being more than only a human book is the way the story is told. I never brought miracles into that thought, but I think you're right on, in that.

I do have to wonder if the Lord would not do more if we as the church were more open. So many just pray that God's will be done, and little expect anything except grace for the worst. If we take 1 Corinthians 12 seriously, there are gifts of healings. If so (and I believe this is for today), then people would have to be open to that possibility that they may well be gifted. And I believe that like any gift, it takes time to develop through faith, into a mature expression of it. Something I tend to want to shy away from since much out there is difficult to swallow for me, Scripturally. But even though it's messy, I do believe it's part of the whole counsel of God.

Just my little take on one angle.