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Gratitude can be easily forgotten in a world filled with terror, fear, and heightened concern for safety. It is not difficult to understand a pervasive mood of suspicion and guardedness given the regularly disruptive news of violence and tragedy. A hand-wringing anxiety replaces the open-heartedness that accompanies gratitude.
More than this, it can seem naïve or insensitive to articulate gratefulness in the midst of human suffering. How can I be thankful when so many around the world suffer in unspeakable ways? It feels more appropriate to maintain a somber outlook as a way of finding solidarity with those who are hurting. Being grateful for personal “blessing” seems to add salt to the wound.
Perhaps this is why it is always amazing to encounter those who find gratitude to be healing even in the midst of loss and tragedy. A powerful editorial by New York Times writer, David Brooks, introduced readers to Kennedy Odede, a Kenyan man who grew up in the infamous Kibera slums of Nairobi. Odede and his wife, Jessica, have created schools for girls and a community organization called Shining Hope for Communities. In their co-written memoir called Find Me Unafraid, Jessica and Kennedy recount the horrors of life growing up in this slum with all of its abundant evil. Kennedy was molested and abused by a priest, repeatedly beaten by his father, watched friends and family murdered before his eyes, saw others die from drug abuse, and had to survive through petty theft because of constant hunger and poverty. Yet, Brooks described Kennedy as the most joyful person he knows. How can this be, Brooks wondered, given all that he suffered? In an email to Brooks, Kennedy wrote:
“While I didn’t have food and couldn’t go to school or when I was the victim or witness of violence, I tried to appreciate things like the sunrise—something that everyone in the world shares and can find joy in no matter if you are rich or poor. Seeing the sunrise was always healing for me, it was a new day and it was a beauty to behold.”(1)
Thomas Grüter has always had trouble putting names with faces. But unlike most of us who might have trouble recollecting the name of the man who just said hello, Grüter’s trouble lies in recognizing the face of the man who just said hello—even if it is his own father’s. His condition is called prosopagnosia or “face blindness,” and until recently the disorder was thought to be exceedingly rare. But new research led by a team that included Grüter himself shows the disorder is surprisingly much more common.
Those affected with prosopagnosia are not forgetful or inattentive, nor are they the social snobs they are often accused of being. When it comes to faces—even their own—they see very little that distinguishes one from another. The part of the brain that signals face recognition simply does not respond. As a result, they may greet acquaintances as strangers, struggle to keep up with plots in movies, and have difficulty finding their own children at school pick-up time. “I see faces that are human,” notes one woman of her condition, “but they all look more or less the same. It’s like looking at a bunch of golden retrievers: some may seem a little older or smaller or bigger, but essentially they all look alike.”(1)
The more I think about what it would mean to live unable to recognize faces, the more I am amazed at our ability to do so at all. Human faces are so complex, differing in both great and minute details. Our faces change with expression or circumstance, angle or shift of light; they are transformed by emotions, altered by different situations, and slowly transformed with age. Given the intricacy of the task, it is phenomenal that we should be able to recognize so many faces so effortlessly in the first place.
There are a few great lines I know by memory simply because my boss is fond of repeating them. Ravi Zacharias often quotes a song titled The Lost Chord, which was penned by Adelaide Proctor and later set to music by Arthur Sullivan. It is a hymn that describes a moment of transcendence, a hint of wonder that appeared momentarily and left the narrator yearning for more. The song tells her story:
Seated one day at the organ
I was weary and ill at ease,
and my fingers wandered idly
over the noisy keys.
My husband and I had the relatively rare occurrence of a long weekend in which we had made no plans—except to stay at home and relax. We decided to revisit The Lord of the Rings film trilogy by watching one film each night of the weekend. As we watched, we were reminded of the powerful themes of good and evil, power and corruption, military conquest and its ecological impact and how hope is found in unexpected or unseen places. I continue to be amazed by the relevance and impact of these fantasy novels, adapted for film and written over sixty years ago.
In one of the climactic scenes of The Fellowship of the Ring, the young hobbit Frodo laments the world he sees around him with all of its tragedy and darkness. Looking at the difficulty in continuing on the path laid out before him, Frodo mourns, “I wish it need not have happened in my time.” His ever-wise counselor and friend, Gandalf the Grey, consoles him with these words: “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, in which case you were also meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.”(1)
All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. Watching this scene and hearing these words echoes within me as I look out onto the world. There are always crises of one sort or another that might make even the strongest among us pine for different times, crises that make us wish our journey would be a different and far more pleasant trip. The recent shootings in Las Vegas and Texas, the terrorist rampage in New York City, and the almost daily bombings all around the world give us all-too-familiar examples. The seeming randomness of violence upends any sense of security in a world that is far beyond our control. We long for peace and stability. But often such is not the time that is given to us.
Dr. Paul Brand was an orthopedic surgeon who chose his patients among the untouchable. With his wife, who was also a physician, he spent a lifetime working with the marred and useless limbs of leprosy victims. In fact, he transformed the way in which medicine approached the painful and often exiled world of the leper. Whereas the disfigurements of leprosy were once treated as irreversible consequences of the disease, Dr. Brand brought new hope to sufferers of leprosy by utilizing the body’s capacity to heal. “I have come to realize that every patient of mine, every newborn baby, in every cell of its body, has a basic knowledge of how to survive and how to heal that exceeds anything that I shall ever know,” wrote Brand. “That knowledge is the gift of God, who has made our bodies more perfectly than we could ever have devised.”(1)
Philip Yancey was a young journalist when he first met this dignified British surgeon in an interview. He recalls a teary-eyed Brand speaking of his patients, describing their disease as if first hand: their unremitting suffering, experimental surgeries, societal rejection. Many memorable conversations later, Yancey would recall the healing presence this physician was to his own crippled and weary belief in God. To Yancey, Brand represented faith and hope in body, amidst nothing less than suffering and death and loss. His belief in Christ caused him to outwardly live in a very particular way. He worked to restore the image of humanity and the image of God in lives marred by disease, and so helped restore the face of God in the doubt-ridden world of a young author. As Yancey later would write of their meeting, “You need only meet one saint to believe, to silence the noisy arguments of the world.”(2)
Brand was for Yancey a physical reminder that Christianity is no mere system or organization, preference or thought process, but a way of life with one concerned as much with broken bodies as marred souls. In a 1990 lecture titled The Wisdom of the Body, Dr. Paul Brand said, “I pray that when my time comes I may not grumble that my body has worn out too soon, but hold on to gratitude that I have been so long at the helm of the most wonderful creation the world has ever known, and look forward to meeting its designer face to face.”(3) In a body like ours, God silences the arguments of a noisy world. Jesus approaches humanity as one of us, coming to make us well entirely—in body, mind, soul, senses.
I have shared that my mother once brought an astrologer to our house to read our palms and tell us our future. Examining my hands, the soothsayer confidently pronounced that I would not travel far or much in my life. “That’s what the lines on your hand tell me. There is no future for you abroad.”
I was deeply disappointed to hear this, but oh, how mistaken he was! After 45 years of spanning the globe and speaking in countless countries, I am persuaded that God alone, the Grand Weaver, knows our future and knits our lives. He has brought lasting change not only in my own life but in my family as well. Sometimes this has happened seemingly instantaneously; hearing Jesus’s words in John 14:19, “Because I live, you also will live,” literally brought me from the brink of death in a hospital room to new life. Other times, such as in the remarkable conversion of my father years later, many seeds were planted prior, but the change was no less profound.
I recall, too, that I was never much of a reader growing up, preferring to watch movies or discuss issues with people. I very rarely picked up a book out of interest. But then one evening in my late teens, and a few months since coming to Christ on a bed of suicide, I walked out the back door of our house and saw something lying on top of the garbage heap in the alley. As I looked closer, I saw it was a book with no cover—an old, tattered copy of a volume I realized my dad must have thrown out.
Curious, I picked it up and read the title page: The Epistle to the Romans: A Commentary by a man named W. H. Griffith Thomas. I had no idea who this author was, but my hunger was so fierce that I immediately opened it and began to read. Over the next few days, I devoured that book—of all things, a Bible commentary! It became a treasure, and I still have the tattered copy of that commentary in my possession.
Just like that, I was plunged into a world I’d never known—the world of reading. One of the first volumes I was presented with was The Cross and the Switchblade, an amazing story of the conversion of Nicky Cruz the gang leader and of the work God was doing in the lives of such young people through the ministry of David Wilkerson. I loved the book so much that I began seeking out biographies. I lapped up the stories of William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army; David Brainerd, the missionary to American Indians; and, most intriguing of all to me, C. T. Studd, the English cricketer who gave up everything to become a missionary. Studd had been the captain of Cambridge’s cricket team, had turned down an opportunity to play for his country, and even refused his family inheritance—all to help take the gospel into China and India.
Ballet lost some of its wonder when it was explained. It was a class that was supposed to lift my mind, lighten my spirit, and boost my grade point average. Instead it became a one-credit nightmare—a class dedicated to dissecting moves I could not duplicate, within a semester that seemed to slowly dismember my romantic fascination with dance.
Explanations sometimes have a way of leaving their questioners with a sense of loss. Students note this phenomenon regularly. Expounded principles of light refraction and water particles explain away the rainbow, or at least some of its mystique. Air pressure, gravity, and the laws of physics deconstruct the optical mystery of the curve ball. Knowledge and experience can poignantly leave us with a sense of disappointment or disenchantment.
I recently read an article that scientifically explained the glow of a firefly. The author noted the nerves and chemical compounds that make the “fire” possible, pointing out that it is merely a signal used for mating and is, in fact, far from the many romantic myths that have long surrounded it. As one who delights in the gifts of science but also the gift a sky ignited with bugs, I put the article down with a sigh. And then a thought occurred to me in a manner not unlike the description of the firefly’s glow itself: The light shines in the darkness but the darkness has not mastered it.(1) Where nerves and photocytes explain the glow of the firefly, have we come any closer to erasing the miracle of light?
However accurate or inaccurate our explanations might be, they sometimes have a way of leading us to short-sighted conclusions. They have also led us to outright incongruity. Brilliant minds can articulate exquisitely complex aspects of the human person and simultaneously describe it as an accident, an impersonal, adult germ in a vast cosmic machine. We have brusquely described life as a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing, only to claim that this should not lead us to despair. We have declared our appetites and our reason the gods of a better religion, while insisting both God and religion to be an invention of the human psyche. We scoff at the notion of a vicariously human savior who frees captive humanity and revives the creator’s image, while maintaining we live with every qualification for human dignity, distinction, and freedom. Are these even realistic applications of our own philosophies? Do the explanations warrant the conclusions?
Someone told me recently that he wondered if humans only truly ever pray when we are in the midst of despair. Despite creed or confession, is it only when we have no other excuses to offer, no other comfort to hide behind, no more façades to uphold, that we are most likely to bow in exhaustion and be real with God and ourselves? “For most of us,” writes C.S. Lewis, “the prayer in Gethsemane is the only model.” In our distress, we stand before God as we truly are—creatures in need hope and mercy.
The words within the ancient Hebrew story of Jonah that are of most interest to me are words that in some ways seem not to fit in the story at all.(1) Interrupting a narrative that quickly draws in its hearers, a narrative about Jonah, the text very fleetingly pauses to bring us the voice of Jonah himself before returning again to the narrative. The eight lines come in the form of a distraught and despairing, though poetic prayer. And while it is true that the poem could be omitted without affecting the coherence of the story, the deliberate jaunt in the narrative text seems to provide a moment of significant commentary to the whole. The eight verses of poetry not only mark an abrupt shift in the tone of the text, but also in the attitude of its main character. The poetic words of the prophet, spoken as a cry of deliverance, arise from the belly of the great fish—a stirring image reminiscent of another despairing soul’s question: Where can I flee from your presence? If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me.
Jonah’s eloquent prayer for deliverance stands out in a book that is detailed with his egotistic mantras and glaring self-deceptions. By his own actions, Jonah finds himself in darkness, and yet it is in the dark that he speaks most honestly to God. The story is vaguely familiar to many hearers, and yet memory often seems to minimize the distress that broke Jonah’s silence with God. The popular notion that Jonah went straight from the side of the ship into the mouth of the fish is not supported by either the narrative as a whole or Jonah’s prayer. As one suggests, “[Jonah] was half drowned before he was swallowed. If he was still conscious, sheer dread would have caused him to faint—notice that there is no mention of the fish in his prayer. He can hardly have known what caused the change from wet darkness to an even greater dry darkness. When he did regain consciousness, it would have taken some time to realize that the all-enveloping darkness was not that of Sheol but of a mysterious safety.”(2)
I struggled as a teenager growing up in Delhi. Failure was writ large on my life. My dad basically looked at me and said, “You know, you’re going to be a huge embarrassment to the family—one failure after another.” And he was right given the way I was headed. I wanted to get out of everything I was setting my hand to, and I lacked discipline.
During this time, India was at war and the defense academy was looking for general duties pilots to be trained. So I applied and I went to be interviewed, which involved an overnight train journey from the city of Delhi. It was wintertime and we were outside freezing for about five days as we went through physical endurance and other tests. There were three hundred applicants; they were going to select ten. On the last day they put their selection of names out on the board, and I was positioned number three.
I phoned my family and said, “You aren’t going to believe this. I’m going to make it. I’m number three. The only thing that’s left is the interview. The psychological testing is tomorrow, and I’ll be home.”
The next morning I began my interview with the chief commanding officer, who looked to me like Churchill sitting across the table. He asked me question after question. Then he said, “Son, I’m going to break your heart today.” He continued, “I’m going to reject you. I’m not going to pass you in this test.”
“May I ask you why, sir?” I replied.
“Yes. Psychologically, you’re not wired to kill. And this job is about killing.”
You may have heard it said that religion only survives because people desperately want it to be true, because they can’t come to terms with their own mortality (or that of loved ones). It was Sigmund Freud who helped to popularize this idea, as he suggested that the concept of a loving Creator was simply a psychological projection of a person’s innermost wishes:
“We tell ourselves that it would be very nice if there was a God who created the world and was a benevolent Providence and if there were a moral order in the universe and an after-life; but it is the very striking fact that all this is exactly as we are bound to wish it to be.”(1)
This kind of argument would seem to ring true, at least on a superficial level. You would expect it to be more likely for people to believe in something that they like than something that they don’t, and it is clear that Christianity is powerfully compelling. In fact, the argument itself is an admission of this, as it acknowledges the innate desire in us all that is fulfilled by God. Who wouldn’t want to be in a relationship with a loving deity who not only wants the best for those he has created, but who is offering eternity in a place that is more wonderful than can be imagined? Yet the Bible also contains some very hard-hitting passages, which would seem to contradict the notion that religious belief is simply a projection of our wishes. C. S. Lewis pointed out that scripture also teaches that believers should fear the Lord, but you would not then suggest that this meant faith was some kind of “fear fulfillment”!(2)
The problem with the argument is that it cuts both ways. If you suggest that people only believe because they want it to be true, then the counter-claim is that atheists are only non-believers because they don’t want it to be true. Some people have expressly stated this, such as Aldous Huxley who wrote:
“For myself, as, no doubt, for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation. The liberation we desired was simultaneously liberation from a certain political and economic system and liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom; we objected to the political and economic system because it was unjust.”(3)
They both trod along the dusty streets of ancient Palestine: one as an outcast and traitor and the other as a would-be hero. One used his position to cheat and extort his own people. The other carried a dagger under his cloak to swiftly exact vengeance on agents of government extortion. Neither man would have hoped to meet the other. Yet, a stranger from a backwater town would bring the two of them together. In fact, this most unlikely pair would not only meet, but live alongside each other for three years as they followed this stranger. All that had previously defined them would give way to an entirely new path of life.
On that most unexpected day, Matthew was collecting taxes from the people. He made sure to extract more than what was necessary to fill his coffers with unlawful profits. The stranger who came by the tax office that day looked like any other man, so it likely came as quite a shock to Matthew when the stranger called out to him, “Follow me.” No one from among the people of Israel would even desire to speak with Matthew—yet this stranger called after him and invited him to follow. To where, he did not know, but his invitation was irresistible. That very night, Matthew invited the stranger to his home for dinner and they reclined at the same table. Even to Matthew, it would have been a radical sight. Seated among the most despised members of society, didn’t the stranger know how deeply this company was hated? How was it that he had come to Matthew’s house, a man hated in all Israel for being a sellout to the Roman government? Yet, here was this intriguing stranger eating and drinking with outsiders and sellouts.(1)
The day that Simon the Zealot was approached would be no less surprising. The Zealots sought any and all means to overthrow their Roman oppressors. As revolutionaries, Simon’s political affiliates hated all that Matthew’s kind represented. For Simon, Matthew was nothing but a colluder with those who sought to oppress the people of Israel. Yet this stranger from Nazareth called both of these men to his side. “Follow me,” he instructed. So along with a group of fisherman—Simon Peter, the sons of Zebedee, James and John—and this wretched tax collector, Simon the Zealot was invited to follow this stranger who gathered a most unexpected group of followers.(2)
“Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing.”(1) So begins Nicholas Carr’s well-circulated 2008 essay, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” His Atlantic article describes the shifting of his own thought patterns; how he once could delve easily into long bouts of prose, but now finds his mind trailing off after skimming only a few pages. As a writer he is the first to applaud the instant wonders of Google searches, information-trails, and hyperlinks ad infinitum. He just wonders aloud about the cost.
University of Virginia English professor Mark Edmundson is another voice attempting to articulate the current cultural ecosystem, and the minds, souls, and relationships it cultivates. In an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education he attempts to describe the turbo-charged orientation of his students to life around them. “They want to study, travel, make friends, make more friends, read everything (superfast), take in all the movies, listen to every hot band, keep up with everyone they’ve ever known… They live to multiply possibilities. They’re enemies of closure… [They] want to take eight classes a term, major promiscuously, have a semester abroad at three different colleges, [and] connect with every likely person who has a page on Facebook.”(2) Edmundson argues that for all the virtues of a generation that lives the possibilities of life so fully, there are detriments to the mind that perpetually seeks more and other options. For many, the moment of maximum pleasure is no longer “the moment of closure, where you sealed the deal,” but rather, “the moment when the choices had been multiplied to the highest sum…the moment of maximum promise.”
There is a phrase in Latin that summarizes the idea that the shape of our deepest affections is the shape of our lives. Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi is an axiom of ancient Christianity, meaning: the rule of worship is the rule of belief is the rule of life. That is, our deepest affections (whatever it might be that we focus on most devotedly) shapes the way we believe and, in turn, the way we live. In a cultural ecosystem where we seem to worship possibilities, where freedom is understood as the absence of limitation upon our choices, and where the virtue of good multitasking has replaced the virtue of singleness of heart, it is understandable that we are both truly and metaphorically “all over the place”—mentally, spiritually, even bodily, in a state of perpetual possibility-seeking.
Even modern English Bible versions often end up retaining the rather un-modern term “behold” in their translations of the Hebrew word hinneh and the Greek word idou. This is because there is no other equivalent English word that quite does the job that behold does. All the three terms—Hebrew, Greek, and English—have a certain gravitas, and, whenever used, command us to pay careful attention to what follows.
In John’s narrative of the trial and the crucifixion of Jesus, there are five occurrences of the term—three coming from the mouth of the unwitting prophet, Pilate, and twice from the mouth of our Lord Jesus. Each occurrence summons us to a facet of the person and work of Christ.
In John 19:4, “Pilate came out again and said to them, ‘Behold, I am bringing Him out to you so that you may know that I find no guilt in Him.’” We may render Pilate’s words as: “Behold, the Guiltless One!” Christians have always claimed, and will always claim, that Jesus, the Innocent, bore the sins of a guilty world. When his executioners twisted together a crown of thorns and thrust it upon his head, little did they know that they were enacting a prophetic truth! For in that single image—the crown of thorns on his head—is encapsulated the central Christian claim: that this guiltless-but-crucified one bore upon himself the guilt and curse of the whole of creation. Remember: “Cursed is the ground because of you…. Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you.”(1)
The following verse is the second time the word occurs: “Jesus then came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, ‘Behold, the Man!’” (v.5). Jesus is the window to God; He is also the mirror to man. In him, we see what is wrong with us, and what we are meant to be. The poetic poignancy of the occurrence is also found in the allusion that, just as the first human being, Adam, takes stage on the sixth day of creation, Christ, the New Human Being, takes center stage on the sixth day—Good Friday—of new creation.(2) And we are summoned to pay close attention to him, the man.
In my mother’s antique shop were a variety of treasures for a curious child. My personal favorite was the Victrola that sat stately in the corner, a large internal phonograph that begged to be heard. The sounds it made were bold and cavernous, like an opera in a wooden box. This one was an early model, I heard adults say, and it was in mint condition. So it seemed peculiar to me that our frequent requests to put it into action were, from time to time, resisted. To me it was a perfect treasure, a magnificent and flawless toy. To the motherly owner of the store, it was a treasure that was capable of breaking before it sold. “As is” was not a phrase she wanted to add to the price tag.
A label that was seen occasionally within the shop, “as is” conveyed an item with damage or brokenness of some sort. “As is” marked the clock that had stopped ticking, or the rocking horse that had a crack in one of its legs. Because I knew my mother as one who could fix almost anything, the label also conveyed to me a certain sense of defeat. Whatever the item, it was a lost cause—a treasure bearing some distinguishable, irreparable flaw.
In different ways and in varying degrees throughout our lives, many of us feel something like the object marked “as is,” or the treasure with only a matter of time before something goes awry. With a sense of defeat, we view our lives through the lens of what is broken or has been broken, what is irreparable or what might break. Looking ahead, we see the broken down trailer behind us, which seems to declare emphatically our status “as is.”
Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. This well-known quote from the 1st Baron Acton, or Lord Acton, was not a new insight when he penned those words in a letter to a colleague in the late 19th Century. In fact, other figures throughout history have identified the corrupting influence of power. The French republican poet and politician, Alphonse Marie Louis de Prat de Lamartine who witnessed the uprising of the French people against the ruling monarchy wrote:
“It is not only the slave or serf who is ameliorated in becoming free… the master himself did not gain less in every point of view… for absolute power corrupts the best natures.”(1)
Perhaps he had in mind the ironic result of the French Revolution which replaced the Monarchy with an Emperor named Napoleon Bonaparte.
Sadly, it does seem that power and corruption walk hand in hand. The news media around the world document scandal and abuse by the powerful with the oppression of the weak and the vulnerable a daily reality. Perhaps more tragic is the reality that there are those who hold sacred power, religious leaders of all faiths, who use the authority entrusted to them for malicious and evil purposes. While clergy sexual abuse scandals continue to emerge, stories of “spiritual abuse” and “authoritarian” leadership abound in houses of worship of every denomination and creed.
How do you know that God exists? How do you know that God loves you? How do you know God is present versus absent? These questions, upon the hearts of so many, have answers as real as the formative moments in your life.
As I have aged I seem to grow more and more prone to nostalgia. Many of us do this instinctively, clinging to memories past, perhaps looking backwards with the hope of seeing a purpose for our lives. When I travel to India, I make it a point to revisit time and again those significant marking points of my own life. As I recall these moments past but not forgotten, I hear the gentle voice of the God very much in the present. And God says: I was there. When on you were on your bike contemplating suicide, I was there. When you were but nine years old and your grandmother died, I arranged for her gravestone to hold in time the very verse that would lead you to conversion. I was there.
It is often in these harrowing moments—your parents’ divorce, your child’s birth, the death of a loved one—where God leaves a defining mark. There is reason you remember such moments so vividly. We have a choice to hear or to ignore, but regardless his voice cries out in our memories, I was there. God has been in our past. God is here today. God will be there in our future. We have this promise in the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ.
He seemed to brace himself for what had become the typical barrage of questioning after stating his occupation. The once unrecognized field of “forensic science” now comes attached with visions of beautiful men and women swabbing for DNA, replicating gunfire trajectories, decoding cyber movement, and piecing together the truth with hair, bugs, and CODIS. The tremendous popularity of forensic dramas has made crime scene investigating a household subject. So with a real forensic scientist standing in front of me, I admit it was hard to repress my enthusiasm. Predictably, I asked if he watched any of the shows. Humoring my line of questioning for the moment, he admitted that he did not.
The vast public intrigue with forensic science has been increasing as feverously as the viewerships of crime scene television. In Great Britain alone, the increase in students applying for forensic programs is up nearly 33 percent, attributed entirely to the influence of CSI, NCIS, Bones, and many similar programs.(1) They come into their programs believing they already know a great deal about the job because they have seen it all performed. In a more damaging vein, criminologists note the pervasive misinformation that is powerfully influencing criminal justice systems in various ways, particularly and significantly in the minds and expectations of jurors.(2)
Analysts refer to this global phenomenon of forensic pop culture and its consequences as the “CSI Effect,” though speculation on the reasons for our feverish embrace of the motif is wider ranging. In my own right, I find something compellingly clean in the uncomplicated movement from mystery and crisis through clues and evidence to truth. In less than an hour, viewers are taken from dark riddle to conclusive resolution. Truth and justice emerge plainly, even where deception, obscurity, and injustice once reigned. In the rare instance when the suspect does not personally own up to the crime after the facts have emerged, the science and its expert witnesses are so definitive that it hardly matters. The truth is clear.
I wrote one of the last sections of the book Why Suffering? on a plane flight from London to New York.(1) As I came through security at Heathrow Airport, I had about an hour until my departure, and I had it in mind to find a quiet spot and make a start on the writing I had planned.
As I began to walk toward the departure gates, a small sign for the “Multi-Faith Prayer Room” caught my eye, and instantaneously—though I have never before had an urge to visit an airport prayer room—I felt this conviction that there was someone in that room whom I was supposed to talk with. It was as if someone had just told me, “There is someone waiting to speak with you there,” even though I had not audibly heard those words.
I did an about-face and walked a good distance away from my departure gate to the arrivals terminal where the prayer room was located. When I walked in, there was one man in the room, sitting in a corner on the floor. He appeared to be about my age. When he saw me looking around the prayer room, he asked, “Are you religious?” We began speaking about what it means to be religious, and he soon shared with me that he was going through the worst suffering of his life.
The 1748 essay “Of Miracles” by David Hume was influential in leading the charge against the miraculous, thoughts that were later sharpened (though also later recanted) by Antony Flew. Insisting the laws of a natural world incompatible with the supernatural, the new atheists continue to weigh in on the subject today. With them, many Christian philosophers and scientists, who are less willing to define miracle as something that must break the laws of nature, join the conversation with an opposing gusto. Physicist and Anglican priest John Polkinghorne, for instance, suggests that miracles are not violations of the laws of nature but rather “exploration of a new regime of physical experience.”(1)
The possibility or impossibility of the miraculous fills books, debates, and lectures. What it does not fill is that moment when a person finds herself—rationally or otherwise—crying out for intervention, for help and assurance, indeed, for the miraculous. “For most of us” writes C.S. Lewis, “the prayer in Gethsemane is the only model. Removing mountains can wait.”(2) To this I would simply add that often prayer is both: both the anguished cry of Gethsemane—”please, take this from me”—prayed at the foot of an impossible mountain.
Whether this moment comes beside a hospital bed, a dying marriage, a grave injustice, or debilitating national struggle, we seem almost naturally inclined in some way to cry out for an intervening factor, something or someone beyond the known laws of A + B that sit defiantly in front of us. For my own family, like many others, our moment came with cancer. But it was complicated by well-intentioned commands to believe without doubt that God was going to take it away. When death took it away instead, like many others in our situation, our faith in miracles—and the God who gives them—were equally defeated.
For many Jewish people living after the Holocaust, God’s absence is an ever-present reality. It is as tangible as the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Dachau, and as haunting as the empty chair at a table once occupied with a loved one long-silenced by the gas chambers. In his tragic account of the horror and loss in the camps at Auschwitz, Elie Wiesel intones the cries of many who likewise experienced God’s absence: “It is the end. God is no longer with us….I know that Man is too small, too humble, and inconsiderable to seek to understand the mysterious ways of God. But what can I do? Where is the divine Mercy? Where is God? How can I believe? How can anyone believe in this merciful God?”(1)
This experience of absence, dramatic in its implications for the victims of the Holocaust, has repeated itself over and over again in the ravaged stories of those who struggle to hold on to faith, or those who have lost faith altogether in the face of personal holocaust. In a world where tragedy and suffering are daily realities seemingly unchecked by divine government, the absence of God seems a cruel abdication.
The words of Job, ancient in origin, speak of this same kind of experience:
Behold, I go forward, but He is not there,
And backward, but I cannot perceive Him;
When He acts on the left, I cannot behold Him;
He turns on the right, I cannot see Him.(2)