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Summer Books

Miracle stories reveal values of a religion

By Kenneth L. Woodward
Simon & Schuster, 431 pages, $28


Did Jesus really feed 5,000 people? Did Moses, with God’s help, really part the Red Sea? Did the Prophet Muhammad really restore sight to someone whose eye had been gouged out? And did the Buddha really fly through the air? In his book about miracles, veteran Newsweek religion journalist Kenneth L. Woodward would say that these are the wrong questions to ask. Miracles, he argues, are not really about supernatural events. They are, rather, the stories that religions tell about their founders and their great saints.

We come to know the great religions not so much by their official teachings or practices, but by the stories they continue to tell. I suspect that Woodward would agree with H. Richard Niebuhr’s comment that the Bible (like all great religious texts) is far too important to be taken literally.

The 400-plus pages of this book are filled with story after story of the miracles of the great religions. Almost the first half of the book is devoted to Judaism and Christianity. Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism follow, and there is a concluding chapter that focuses on four contemporary miracle “case histories”: miraculous cures attributed to candidates for sainthood in Catholicism, to Oral Roberts, to Rebbe Schneerson in the Lubavitcher Jewish community and to the Hindu figure Mata Amritanandamayi.

Within each religious tradition, Woodward offers helpful background material as well as a suggestion as to the function of the miracles within the tradition. For example, Woodward suggests that the miracles in the Hebrew Bible reveal God’s gradual withdrawal to the heavenly background, as miracles move from God’s hand to human hands and become successively more private.

The 40 pages devoted to the miracles of Jesus allow Woodward to give a primer in gospel criticism and to show how each evangelist shapes the material to his own audience. Woodward provides a readable and coherent life of the Prophet, and with Hinduism and Buddhism, he provides a concise summary of their history and of their major texts (quite a feat in itself). Each religious tradition’s foundational story, along with its first miracle workers, is followed by a chapter that recounts stories of later followers and saints and their miracles, usually as shadows of the miracles performed in that tradition’s “golden age.”

The dust jacket’s many prominent writers -- from Robert Bellah and William F. Buckley to Mary Higgins Clark and the Dalai Lama -- comment on the book as an invaluable resource on the subject of miracles, using miracle stories taken from some of the more widely respected resources. Indeed, most of the book is devoted to telling the miracle stories themselves, which after a while can nearly overwhelm the reader.

There is also a helpful bibliography. In sum, the book offers a considerable amount of material in a highly readable form.

I would have liked more analysis. True, it is a mistake to read these stories literally. And, yes, it is true that one can learn a great deal about a religion’s basic values by reading about the miracles that its founder is remembered for. It is good to be reminded of the great compassion of the Buddha, of the playfulness of Krishna, of the holistic healing that Jesus offered, of the power of God’s hand in parting the seas.

Yet only at the end of this work does Woodward venture to ask some provocative questions: “What happens to miracles, though, when traditions are no longer transmitted, the classic stories no longer acknowledged or poorly understood?” He comes to the brief but sobering conclusion that miracles no longer inspire fear and awe of the Almighty, but rather, at least in the West, “admiration of the divinity that is the self.”

Woodward’s narrative approach to miracles is a helpful corrective to the wrongheaded idea that miracles can be understood through a modern binary mindset of true/false. And for Westerners, the stories of the religions of the East will lay to rest any idea that, deep down, all religions are really the same.

Susan A. Ross, author of Extravagant Affections: A Feminist Sacramental Theology (Continuum), teaches theology at Loyola University Chicago.

National Catholic Reporter, May 17, 2002