Martyr’s Fire by Sigmund Brouwer – CSFF Blog Tour, Day 2

The Truth About Miracles

Martyr's Fire coverOne of the interesting things about Sigmund Brouwer’s Merlin’s Immortals series, of which Martyr’s Fire is book 3, is that there are no speculative elements in this speculative novel.

Don’t misunderstand. Merlin’s Immortals is correctly identified as part of the speculative genre since it falls into the category of legend. But where other iterations of the King Arthur legend embrace a thread of the supernatural or the miraculous, Merlin’s Immortals explains away what every day people assume to be miraculous.

In book two, for example, the hero of the story capitalizes on a well-known prophecy (which later the reader learns was actually intentionally planted among the people) by creating through “technology” the “miraculous” thing the commoners were looking for.

In Martyr’s Fire, the Priests of the Holy Grail make use of a bit of chemistry not widely known in that day to produce what they called miracles. In other words, both sides (and there is a “third side” about which the same is true) appear to have power beyond the natural, but in fact are simply making use of the natural to exploit the beliefs of the populace.

I find this to be interesting and suspect the idea of no magic or miraculous power falls comfortably inside the theology of some Christians. A segment of evangelicals believes that certain miraculous spiritual gifts have ceased (so that no one today prophesies or can heal, for instance), and it could be that this idea has expanded so that some do not believe miracles happen any longer.

In addition, some are uncomfortable with the idea that Satan and his demonic forces have power. Consequently, they would rather read stories in which evil forces have only conjuring abilities not supernatural might.

I myself am comfortable with either. I don’t need magic or miracles in the stories I read, but if they are there, I enjoy them.

This different approach to magic/miracles makes me wonder. What are miracles?

C. S. Lewis wrote a small book on the subject and he says this in his opening chapter.

Every event which might claim to be a miracle is, in the last resort, something presented to our senses, something seen, heard, touched, smelled, or tasted. And our senses are not infallible. If anything extraordinary seems to have happened, we can always say that we have been the victims of an illusion. If we hold a philosophy which excludes the supernatural, this is what we always shall say. What we learn from experience depends on the kind of philosophy we bring to experience. (Lewis, Miracles, p. 3)

He proceeds to demonstrate that experience is useless when trying to prove the existence of miracles. In the same way, history can’t be relied upon because the same “they were fooled” argument can be made.

In fact, this is the very approach Sigmund Brouwer uses in his Merlin’s Immortals novels.

Lewis claims that a belief in miracles relies upon a philosophical understanding of God. He defines miracle as “an interference with Nature by supernatural power,” so first a person must believe “there exists, in addition to Nature, something else which we may call the supernatural” (Miracles, p. 5).

I’m with Lewis on this, and identify with those he calls Supernaturalists. Some religious people, pantheists, he explains, do not fall into this category:

Speak about beauty, truth and goodness, or about a God who is simply the indwelling principle of these three, speak about a great spiritual force pervading all things, a common mind of which we are all parts, a pool of generalized spirituality to which we can all flow, and you will command friendly interest. But the temperature drops as soon as you mention a God who has purposes and performs particular actions, who does one thing and not another, a concrete, choosing, commanding, prohibiting God with a determinate character. . . .The popular “religion” excludes miracles because it excludes the “living God” of Christianity and believes instead in a kind of God who obviously would not do miracles, or indeed anything else. (Miracles, p. 81, emphasis mine)

In short, miracles are nothing more than God intervening “to produce within Nature events which the regular ‘going on’ of the whole natural system would never have produced” (Miracles, p. 55).

Does God intervene with frequency? Some say yes and others no. My thought is, He can intervene as frequently as He wishes, in small ways or in large. He can intervene by altering time or matter or space–meaning He can cause “coincidences” because people arrive simultaneously with no such intention, water can become wine, and a resurrected body can pass from one place to another in the blink of an eye.

In fiction, I’m happy to read about supernatural power, even if it’s called magic or good magic, because I believe it reflects reality. God is all powerful. What can’t He do!

On the other hand, I don’t need to read stories that show supernatural power. I’m also aware that God works within Nature just as surely as He intervenes to alter it.

Brouwer has chosen to write a speculative series sans supernatural power (at least to this point). He’s done a credible job, and it’s an interesting concept. Perhaps readers who object to fantasy because of the magic will find this series to be right up their alley.

Signs And Wonders

God is powerful and does amazing things, never more clearly demonstrated than when He sent Jesus, God incarnate, to live on Earth with those He created. God’s greatest feat, yet this is the one that a great many people deny. Here is the line of demarcation that divides humanity.

The thing is, Jesus came with proof.

Recently as I read the book of John, I noted how many times that gospel referred to the signs Jesus did. And yet, you know what the Pharisees asked for as proof He was the Messiah? Yep, signs.

As I look at it, Satan seems to be most concerned with calling into question Jesus’s identity. I’ve studied and analyzed the record we have of those three temptations of Jesus in the wilderness, comparing them to the classifications of sin mentioned in 1 John (“the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life,” – 2:16), and to the specific doubts Satan stirred in Eve (“When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise” – Gen. 3:6, emphasis mine).

But more recently I began to see these temptations as a direct challenge by Satan demanding that Jesus prove His deity–(“If you are the Son of God…,” “If you are the Son of God …,” and then turning it on its head, “If you worship me…”) This “prove it” demand was the same one the Pharisees hounded Him for, all the way to the end. Even as He hung on the cross, they were saying, If you’re the Christ, get yourself down from there.

The real issue with Jesus throughout history is whether He is who He said He is.

Toward the end of his gospel, John gave a clear statement of his purpose for writing–an explanation for his preoccupation with signs:

Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name. (John 20:30-31)

John also recorded Jesus’s own statement about the witnesses He had. In the Jewish context no fact was established without two or three witnesses. Jesus came in with three several times.

The point is this. The signs and wonders in Jesus’s day had a specific purpose. They established His identity.

They also served a definite purpose in the early Church–they established the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers. First in the disciples, then in the other Jewish converts, and later in the Gentile believers.

So what about signs and wonders today?

I have no doubt God can do signs and wonders today. He can multiply bread, move mountains, heal the blind, raise the dead. He is still God, after all.

But what’s the point?

Part of me thinks, Well, need, for one thing. There are people who need food and who can’t see and who have died. But just like the fact that Jesus didn’t come to establish an earthly kingdom, He didn’t come to set up a utopia either. All the people Jesus healed eventually died of some other cause. They didn’t stay cured. Not physically, anyway.

The signs and wonders, though, point to the real reason Jesus came. He conquered death. He defeated sin. He triumphed over Satan. His signs and wonders were the precursor to the ultimate victory He enjoyed, breaking the bonds of sin and establishing the Way to reconciliation with the Father.

Signs and wonders are not the gift. A magician named Simon discovered that. He of all people, who presumably had trafficked in the dark arts, was amazed at the power of the Holy Spirit, released when the apostles laid hands on people. Simon wanted that power.

But it wasn’t for sale. The power was nothing more than the evidence of that which Simon could have–the indwelling Holy Spirit who would seal him for salvation.

Signs and wonders? They aren’t the big thing. They are merely the evidence of He who is Bigger, Grander, Mightier than we can imagine, the Maker of heaven and earth.

He’s given us all the signs we could ever want to believe that He is who He says He is.

Published in: on June 22, 2012 at 6:45 pm  Comments (3)  
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Christmas In Five

Some times I take for granted the miracles I read about in the Bible. Elijah raising a child who had died? Sure, I believe that. Absolutely! The Bible is true, so when it describes an historical event, I have no problem believing it. After all, Scripture also says God can do the impossible. I believe that too.

So I read in Scripture about a crowd, most likely approaching seven to ten thousand people, out in an isolated place away from markets and inns, and it’s getting late. They’ve been listening to Jesus and some had waited their turns for Him to heal them. It had all been very impromptu, and they didn’t have anything to eat. Mostly.

There was that one lad the book of John mentions who had five loaves of bread and two fish. From that offering — I don’t think the disciples took it from him, though they’d apparently gone through the crowd looking to see how much food was available — Jesus fed the whole lot of them, with enough leftovers to take care of what the disciples would need for days to come.

It’s a great story, a dramatic story, one all four gospel writers recorded. And well they should, because a few days later, Jesus chided His disciples for their little faith, asking them if they’d already forgotten about Him feeding that crowd. Apparently they didn’t forget again.

But back to my taking Biblical miracles for granted. For much of my life, I’ve thought God did those amazing things in a time when The Saints walked on earth. There were prophets and apostles and people who rubbed shoulders with Jesus day after day. Why wouldn’t they experience God’s miracles? But today … Mostly the people who claim to do miracles seem like con artists. And many who say they believe seem like they’re really stretching to find something they can call a miracle, like the image of Jesus in a window smudge.

I don’t see the Bible recording anything trivial and passing those along as miraculous. Instead, God’s acts were dramatic and life changing. You think that lad ever forgot what Jesus did with his five loaves of barley bread?

But here’s the point. The book of James reminds people of a particular miracle that occurred in Elijah’s day. He prayed, at God’s direction, that it would not rain, and it didn’t rain for three and a half years. Then he prayed again and the sky poured forth rain. Drought and famine over. As a prelude to recording these events, however, James gives us one other important bit of information: Elijah was a man with a nature like ours (James 5:17). He was not a super saint. In fact, the people in the Bible didn’t perform any miracles — God did.

It is God who is mighty to save. It is God who redeems His people. It is God who stretches out His hand in compassion, who draws us to Himself, who heals, restores, forgives, renews.

Why don’t we see miracles of Biblical proportion today? I think we might if we knew where to look.

Think back to the early church. Was God any less at work on Paul’s behalf when He prompted the church in Philippi to send him money when he was in need? I mean, this was Paul, the man who healed the sick, yet he was in need. God raised up His church to share with him in his affliction. Is that less a miracle than when Peter pulled the gold coin out of the fish’s mouth?

Paul wasn’t taking a collection or telling the Philippians about a donor who would match their gifts or offering them a special edition of his latest sermon for a contribution of any amount. He trusted God to meet his needs, and God worked in the hearts of the believers in Philippi.

I’ve seen God work that same miracle in my life and it makes me want to shout, What can’t God do!!

Of course, I can quickly get tangled up with what I believe. I don’t want to presume on God or fall under the false ideas of “name it and claim it” theology. I don’t want to ask, as James warns in chapter four, with wrong motives “to spend it on my own pleasures.” But all that, true as it is, should not drowned out the shout: God my Savior is mighty to save.

Published in: on December 20, 2011 at 2:20 pm  Comments (4)  
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God Causes

I’m posting on Saturday! That’s to make up for not posting yesterday. I’ve been tinkering with my work schedule in order to be more efficient with my time, but obviously what I did yesterday didn’t work! So that leaves me with a Saturday post.

No problem really. I wasn’t sure what to say yesterday, but today as I read in the book of Habakkuk, something clicked.

I’d already noted when I read through Jonah all the things that God directly caused in order to get Jonah where He wanted Him. First He sent His prophet a message. An order, really—Go to Nineveh and give them My message.

Jonah boarded a ship and high-tailed it in the opposite direction. So God “hurled a great wind on the sea” bringing up a great storm.

To stop the storm from crashing the ship and taking the lives of all on board, Jonah told the sailors to throw him overboard. Eventually they did. Then God appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah.

After three days Jonah thanked God for saving Him and remembered his commitment. Then God commanded the fish to vomit Jonah onto dry land.

Jonah went to Nineveh and preached, warning of God’s judgment on them because of their wickedness. Who wouldn’t believe the message of someone bleached albino-white by fish stomach acid and smelling of fish throw-up? OK, that’s all conjecture on my part, but the truth is, the people of Nineveh repented because they believed in God. They mourned and fasted and called on God earnestly that he might relent of the judgment Jonah had declared.

God heard them and did just that.

Which made Jonah mad—maybe because he hated the Assyrians, maybe because he knew that a prophet’s words were supposed to come true, so some might now question his role. At any rate, he decided to wait out the time (forty days) to see if by any chance God would still judge Nineveh.

God appointed a plant to grow to shade him, but the next day He appointed a worm to destroy the plant. Jonah grieved the death of the plant, and God used the object lesson to teach him something about compassion.

What struck me in the story was all the things in nature God caused—or appointed, as the NASB says. The wind/storm, the fish to swallow Jonah, the fish to throw him up, the plant, the worm.

How can we read a story like Jonah’s and not understand that God rules nature? He didn’t wind it up and let it go. Instead He holds it together. The “laws of nature” are no laws but observations of how God works. The “natural” things are the way they are because that is how God ordained them to be and how He maintains them to be.

At any moment He can check those “natural laws,” reverse them just as He reversed the sun and made shadows retreat instead of advance as a sign to Hezekiah, just as He “relented” and staid His hand against the Assyrians.

But I mentioned Habakkuk. God told the prophet He was doing something he would have a hard time believing: God was raising up the Babylonians “to march throughout the earth/To seize dwelling places which are not theirs” (Habakkuk 1:6b). Interestingly He says a verse later “their justice and authority originate with themselves” (Habakkuk 1:7b).

Here’s the point. What Man can observe is incomplete at best. We don’t know what God does behind the scenes unless He tells us, as He did in Jonah. How many other “great winds” were anomalous events God caused for a particular moment, a particular reason. Storms arise in the natural course of things—the God sustained natural course of things. But He also sends storms or prophets or cruel nations.

To observe weather patterns or political trends or human nature and believe we can figure out how to manipulate our environment is shortsighted at best and idolatrous at worst. We are not God. We ought to stop trying to take on His role.

Published in: on May 22, 2010 at 10:09 am  Comments (3)  
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. . . And Bring Forth a Son

More from Miracles by C. S. Lewis:

Christianity does not involve the belief that all things were made for man. It does involve the belief that God loves man and for his sake became man and died. … The sceptic asks how we can believe that God so “came down” to this one tiny planet. The question would be embarrassing if we knew (1) that there are rational creatures on any of the other bodies that float in space; (2) that they have, like us, fallen and need redemption; (3) that their redemption must be in the same mode as ours; (4) that redemption in this mode has been withheld from them. But we know none of them. … If it is maintained that anything so small as the Earth must, in any event, be too unimportant to merit the love of the Creator, we reply that no Christian ever supposed we did merit it. Christ did not die for men because they were intrinsically worth dying for, but because He is intrinsically love, and therefore loves infinitely. (emphasis mine, excerpted from chapter 7, p. 53)

It is therefore inaccurate to definite a miracle as something that breaks the laws of Nature. It doesn’t. … If God annihilates or creates or deflects a unit of matter He has created a new situation at that point. Immediately all Nature domiciles this new situation, makes it at home in her realm, adapts all other events to it. It finds itself conforming to all the laws. If God creates a miraculous spermatozoon in the body of a virgin, it does not proceed to break any laws. The laws at once take it over. Nature is ready. Pregnancy follows, according to all the normal laws, and nine months later a child is born. … The moment it [the miraculous] enters her [Nature’s] realm it obeys all her laws. Miraculous wine will intoxicate, miraculous conception will lead to pregnancy, inspired books will suffer all the ordinary process of textual corruption [unless the Holy Spirit also provides miraculous preservation], miraculous bread will be digested. … A miracle is emphatically not an event without cause or without results. Its cause is the activity of God: its results follow according to Natural law. (excerpts from chapter 8, pp. 60-61)

As Scripture indicates, God’s infinite love prompted Him to miraculous activity: sending His Son to earth as a baby. And so, Christmas. 😀

A Virgin Shall Conceive

Nativity Scene, Photographer: Ian BrittonI suppose it’s natural around Christmas time to think more about God, especially God with us, God Incarnate, God taking the form of a baby. And certainly my recent discussions regarding the existence of God have propelled my thoughts in that direction as well.

Now I am reading C. S. Lewis’s book Miracles which is much more of an apologetic for God and His work in the world than I had realized. Interestingly, I can see more clearly why Philip Pullman, author of His Dark Materials, calls himself the anti-Lewis. The thing is, because Lewis had himself been an atheist, he could anticipate the arguments an atheist would make against the Supernatural.

Unsurprisingly, the miracle Lewis refers to with some frequency is the virgin birth. Here are some of his thoughts in answer to the argument that people of old believed in miracles because they didn’t have the scientific knowledge we have now.

You will hear people say, “The early Christians believed that Christ was the son of a virgin, but we know that this is a scientific impossibility.” Such people seem to have an idea that belief in miracles arose at a period when men were so ignorant of the course of nature that they did not perceive a miracle to be contrary to it. A moment’s thought shows this to be nonsense: and the story of the Virgin Birth is a particularly striking example. When St. Joseph discovered that his fiancé was going to have a baby, he not unnaturally decided to repudiate her. Why? Because he knew just as well as any modern gynecologist that in the ordinary course of nature women do not have babies unless they have lain with men. … When St. Joseph finally accepted the view that his fiancé’s pregnancy was due not to unchastity but to a miracle, he accepted the miracle as something contrary to the known order of nature. All records of miracles teach the same thing. In such stories the miracles excite fear and wonder (that is what the very word miracle implies) among spectators, and are taken as evidence of supernatural power. If they were not known to be contrary to the laws of nature how could they suggest the presence of the supernatural? How could they be surprising unless they were seen to be exceptions to the rules? And how can anything be seen to be an exception till the rules are known? … If St. Joseph had lacked faith to trust God or humility to perceive the holiness of his spouse, he could have disbelieved in the miraculous origin of her Son as easily as any modern man; and any modern man who believes in God can accept the miracle as easily as St. Joseph did.

There’s more. Good stuff, important to recall when we are approaching the celebration of that which is impossible except for the God with whom all things are possible.

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