I had my doubts, from the moment I read the headline, “The evangelicals who believe they can raise the dead.” The thirty-one-year-old head of the Dead Raising Team claims to have raised thirteen people himself, though when questioned by the Daily Telegraph’s reporter proves very hazy on the details. “I’m so bad with dates,” he says. The story featured in their Kickstarter-funded movie Dead Raisers, of a man rescued from Hell by the prayers of a deadraiser dressed like Jesus and speaking in tongues, seems to have been made up. The man himself tells the reporter to note how the film is edited. >Almost all the serious Christians I know react like this to stories like this one. Our eyebrows go up and often our eyes roll. Catholics believe in miracles and to an extent that would seem nuts to the average American if he really knew what his Catholic friends believed.
Levitating saints, sure. Weeping icons and statues, yep. The Mother of God appearing to people at places like Fatima, cool. The crippled and sick healed after bathing in the waters at Lourdes, of course. Stigmatics, of course. The dying healed through the intercession of the saints, of course. The world is filled with miracles. And then there’s the Mass, the greatest miracle of all, and one you can experience any day of the week.
But with the Dead Raising Teram’s kind of miracle, eyebrows go up, as they do, and perhaps for the same reason, when we hear a prosperity gospel preacher, even though some of them are surely sincere. The reason, I think, has to do with our and their very different attitudes to the miraculous.
Catholics and other Christians feel miracles to be part of our experience of the natural world, what happens when God cares for his people. We’re supernaturalists, but most of us live by the normal (supernatural) means of grace. We go through life in the usual and sometimes God disrupts things with a special benefit. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks laconically of miracles, in one phrase in one paragraph (2003), while dedicating 634 to the sacraments, the normal and regularized miracles of the Catholic life.
The normal means of grace are miraculous enough, and though we may pray for the special and unusual miracle, especially healing, we don’t crave them. One kind of religious believer does seems to crave living in a magical and miraculous world. The hyper-supernaturalist seems to have no filters, no skepticism, if the story is of a certain sort and the teller speaks with conviction. The level of certainty and the quality of evidence he requires both drop sharply from those he demands in the normal course of life. They trust the man telling stories of the dead being raised and interrogate the salesman at the car lot.
A few years ago I knew some people, sophisticated people you wouldn’t think of as credulous, who promoted a man who told of miracles he had seen and performed in Africa. He told dramatic and often elaborate stories, like one of Christian villagers being thrown into bonfires and then after several minutes toddlers walking out of the flames unharmed. He claimed to have raised the dead.
The one time I happened to hear him speaking, his followers sat around him with faces I can only describe as radiant. A week or so later someone heard from an authority in Africa warning that he was a conman and he quickly left.
A professor of psychology quoted in the Telegraph’s story explains how people, especially in mutually-supporting groups, read reality to fit the story they want to believe, or to tell. “This happens in the world of paranormal investigators,” he says. “One charismatic leader has a few followers who all reinforce each other. Evidence that to an observer wouldn’t seem that impressive, they’ll see as overwhelmingly conclusive. They genuinely believe what they’re saying.”
I think it helped the people I knew that the stories were set in Africa. In un-modern Africa, American Christians tend to assume, religion lives and people see the spiritual world more easily. Anything can happen in Africa, especially in rural Africa. Someone telling stories of children walking out of bonfires in Dubuque, Iowa, would have a tougher time getting people to sit around him with radiant faces.
The professor, Chris French of the University of London, gives an example from the faith-healer Kathryn Kuhlman. A follower named Mrs. Sullivan suffered with cancer in her stomach, liver, and vertebrae. “It was announced that someone with cancer is being cured. This woman felt a burning sensation which she felt was the holy spirit. She got up on stage, took off her back brace and ran up and down. It was amazing. Then she woke up in the middle of the night in absolute agony because one of her vertebrae had collapsed. She died four months later. But all everyone at the rally will have seen is this person running up and down the stage.”
We all see what we want and expect to see, and I and the Christians I know may be more secular than we realize. But I don’t think so. At the risk of sounding like a liberal Protestant or Spirit of Vatican II let-the-sun-shine-in flower child, we find life itself miraculous, even though it can be so painful as well. We feel the kind of gratitude for the cosmos Chesterton expressed so well.
On top of that there’s the miracle of the life, death, and resurrection — for us men and our salvation, as the Nicene Creed puts it — of Christ. And then for Catholics on top of that we have the regular miracle of the Mass, which for transcendent miraculous power far surpasses raising the dead.
That’s more than enough of the miraculous to keep going on with. Anything else is a gift to be enjoyed when it comes, but not something to be pursued with the hyper-supernaturalist’s intensity and desire. The hyper-supernaturalist strikes me as wanting a giant bowl of crème brûlée after having been given an entire cheesecake. Bad things will happen, not least that they will grow bored with cheesecake.