Critiquing the Film Critic’s View on Miracles


Roger Ebert Blvd.

Image by rexb via Flickr


Hello.  Most of you know me from my baseball writing at Fangraphs, Beyond the Boxscore, Play a Hard Nine, or other geeky baseball corners on the interwebs.

What some of you might not know about me is that I’m a Bible College grad and a theology nut.  (In case you are wondering, I was not raised a Christian. In fact, for several years of my life I claimed to be an atheist.) I guess truth-seeking leads one to nerdy endeavors, but of course not all my fellow baseball nerds have come to the same conclusions when shaping their worldview.  Rob Neyer, a hero of mine, (if I ever met him, I might just act like an 11 year-old girl meeting Justin Bieber)  is an atheist judging by the articles he “re-tweets”. Most recently he shared one of Roger Ebert’s latest blog posts. Roger Ebert is a great film critic and probably a righteous dude in his own right, and I have respect for the hardships he’s endured in life.

So forgive me for giving Ebert the Fire Joe Morgan treatment in addressing in his views. (Really, I’ll be nice. This is not meant as a “take down”).

I’m not a miracle. And neither are the Chilean miners. We are all alive today for perfectly rational reasons.

Call me crazy, but when I understand that the probability that the chance formation of a hypothetical functional ‘simple’ cell, given all the ingredients, is acknowledged to be worse than 1 in 10 with 57800 zeros at the end of it, I would be inclined to believe that it is probably a miracle. When I see the fine tuning of  the universe, I see a miracle. Call it an accident if you want, but I don’t see how such a happy accident can explain so much complexity that we see in the world around us and in us.

Hubert Yockey, a physicist and information scientist (and non-creationist) said “The origin of life by chance in a primeval soup is impossible in probability in the same way that a perpetual machine is in probability. The extremely small probabilities calculated in this chapter are not discouraging to true believers … [however] A practical person must conclude that life didn’t happen by chance.”

Yet there is a common compulsion to describe unlikely outcomes as miraculous — if they are happy, of course. If sad, they are simply reported on, or among the believing described as “the will of God.” Some disasters are so horrible they don’t qualify as the will of God, but as the work of Satan playing for the other team.

I’m afraid the church has made a lot of atheists in this way. My “cut to the quick” answer to that is that the disciple Phillip asked Christ to show him the Father according to the Gospel of John, and Jesus said that if we had seen him, we’ve already seen the Father. The Gospels describe Jesus’ miracles as calming storms, healing the sick, raising the dead, feeding the multitudes, etc. In no place in the Bible do we read that Christ caused disasters to prove his deity, but rather we see him as a compassionate healer; fixing broken humans and restoring order in their lives.  I wonder what Jesus would say to his church who, like part of the unbelieving world, blame God for the evils in society? (Only worse, they say God is doing it for our good!) The church should be a continuation of Jesus’ healing ministry.  The Apostle Paul taught that “we are his body”.

(Skeptics may doubt the Gospel’s claims of the miraculous, but even some of the ultra-liberal theologians of the Jesus Seminar admit that “despite the difficulty which miracles pose for the modern mind, on historical grounds it is virtually indisputable that Jesus was a healer and exorcist.”)

Like so many of us, I watched with joy as the miners emerged from their tomb, one after another. In a year of sadness, it was a blessed moment. One can sympathize with those who called it a miracle, but actually it was the result of perfectly understandable engineering techniques. The construction of the mine itself, so deep in the earth, was a much more impressive feat, but no one thought to describe that as a miracle.

I actually agree here. An answer to prayer, sure.  Calling this event a miracle is a stretch, but it does carry the fingerprints of God.

How much better to describe the rescue as the result of the fortitude of the miners and the skill of the good-willed people on the surface who reached them in what was, after all, a very short time. How much better to say the outcome in Chile was the result of intelligence and good will. But there seems to be a narrative in these matters that requires the citing of divinity.

Popular atheist thinkers say that we can ignore our “selfish genes” and work against nature and be altruistic. But my question is this: If so-called altruistic acts actually have a selfish explanation for how they evolved, then they really aren’t very sacrificial or altruistic, are they?  I would posit that some crafty atheists have changed the definition because naturalism can’t explain morality. An ultimate promotion of selfishness isn’t really morality at all. A moral law giver creating us in His image is a better explanation, even if it is mocked as overly simplistic.

In my case, I was perilously close to death after my carotid artery ruptured. I have written before about how my surgery was completed, the reconstruction was a success, and I was all packed and ready to go home. Some of my doctors and nurses had gathered in the room to wish me well. I had my iPod, and played them a song I loved to play to Chaz: “I’m your Man,” by Leonard Cohen. It’s a long song, and a good thing it was, because while it was playing my artery ruptured, and right there in the room were the very people needed to fight for my survival. If I’d forgotten the Leonard Cohen song, Chaz sometimes reflects, we would have already been on Lake Shore Drive, and I would surely have bled to death.

So, was that a miracle? Or do I owe thanks to Leonard Cohen? Or should I thank myself for being such a goofy romantic that I wanted to crank up the volume on the iPod speakers and play the song? Or should I thank Chaz for inspiring “I’m Your Man” feelings in my heart? If I was saved through a miracle, how should I describe the vascular accident that nearly killed me?

It’s almost like Solomon knew what he was saying when he said “a merry heart doeth well like a medicine”. And the things that gave him joy in Ebert’s affliction, as silly as they might seem, were of things of an aesthetic nature, of which I know of no good naturalistic explanation. The atheistic philosopher Anthony O’Hear was baffled by the aesthetic, saying “Aesthetic experience seems to produce the harmony between us and the world that would have to point to a religious resolution were it not to be an illusion. But such a resolution is intellectually unsustainable, so aesthetic experience, however powerful, remains subjective and, in its full articulation, illusory. This is a dilemma I cannot solve or tackle head on.”

Meaningless illusions? Or is he unprepared to follow where they lead? These things may not be out in the open miracles that Ebert can see, but they are nonetheless clues of a Designer’s existence. The mystery of aesthetics was a major theme in the life of C. S. Lewis. This is a quote from his allegory, A Pilgrim’s Regress

If a man diligently followed this desire, pursuing the false objects until their falsity appeared and then resolutely abandoning them, he must come at last to the clear knowledge that the human soul was made to enjoy some object that is never fully given. . . in our present mode of. . . experience. This desire was. . . as the seige Perilous in Arthur’s castle – the chair in which only one could sit. And if nature makes nothing in vain, the One who can sit in this chair must exist.

Roger, your job is to critique the arts, and you have seen some of the most beautiful films of our times. Are these just illusions, or are they clues that we are out of place? Do all of our depictions of our fallen condition in films, and our desires to find in ourselves something brave, something noble, something compassionate, something beautiful and meaningful, something other, that somewhere there is a place where these longings are fully met? “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you” – Augustine

Although miracles are recognized by most faiths, the term itself comes down to us through the Roman Catholic line of descent, which is largely responsible for most of the content of all Christian denominations. A miracle, in the Catholic notion, is not just any old unlikely and happy event. It must be “inexplicable by natural or scientific laws,” and therefore can be assumed to be the work of the divine. The footnote here is that we are learning more about natural and scientific laws all the time.

So we should put our faith in the natural and scientific laws then? Talk about a leap of faith! But as William Lane Craig pointed out in his debate with atheistic chemist and thinker Peter Atkins, science cannot explain everything, including:

  1. Mathematics and logic. (Science can’t prove them because science presupposes them.)
  2. Metaphysical truths. (Such as, there are minds that exist other than my own.)
  3. Ethical judgments (You can’t prove by science that the Nazi’s were evil, because morality is not subject to the scientific method.)
  4. The aforementioned aesthetic judgments (The beautiful, like the good, cannot be scientifically proven), and, ironically…
  5. Science itself: The belief that the scientific method discovers truth can’t be proven by the scientific method itself.

This is blind faith in the highest order to say that science will one day explain it all. Science cannot.

Ebert then gets into criticisms of Catholic theology, which I really can’t answer to, and to keep this post from getting too long, let’s just jump to Ebert’s conclusion:

Do I believe in miracles? No. I believe any event we observe can be explained by natural or scientific laws. Seemingly miraculous events in history might have been explained at the time, if there had been better knowledge. And at this moment, our knowledge is very far from complete, but I believe it is growing.

Arthur C. Clarke famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” It is also true that an apparent miracle can be explained because our knowledge of its natural cause is inadequate. For the Church to declare anyone a saint, I presume, is possible because the Devil’s Advocate (that is, mankind) does not yet possess sufficient knowledge.

What is the real problem? The naturalist simply cannot allow himself to let to divine foot in the door.  God in all his glory may not have come in the flesh and rescued the miners in Chile, but Ebert misses the forest for the trees. But I’m afraid even if God translated the miners to the office lobby of the Chicago Tribune, his presuppositions would cause Ebert to somehow explain such a miracle as something that had natural reasons. “Uniformity of nature” is a belief, not a consequence of scientific investigation.

I close with another quote from C.S. Lewis:

If all that exists in Nature, the great mindless interlocking event, if our own deepest convictions are merely the by-products of an irrational process, then clearly there is not the slightest ground for supposing that our sense of fitness and our consequent faith in uniformity tell us anything about a reality external to ourselves. Our convictions are simply a fact about us – like the colour of our hair. If Naturalism is true we have no reason to trust our conviction that Nature is uniform. It can be trusted only if quite a different metaphysic is true. If the deepest thing in reality, the Fact which is the source of all other facthood, is a thing in some degree like ourselves – if it is a Rational Spirit and we derive our rational spirituality from It – then indeed our conviction can be trusted. Our repugnance to disorder is derived from Nature’s Creator and ours

(Miracles, p.109).


3 thoughts on “Critiquing the Film Critic’s View on Miracles

  1. Thanks Matt. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Unlike with baseball, I don’t think I could ever run out of ideas on topics for this blog. I hope to have content at least on a weekly basis.

  2. Pingback: New Christian Blogs in 2010 - Thinking Christian

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