“If we open such books as Grimm’s Fairy Tales or Ovid’s Metamorphoses or the Italian epics, we find ourselves in a world of miracles so diverse they can hardly be classified. [...] Some people cannot stand this kind of story, others find it fun. But the least suspicion that it was true would turn the fun into nightmare.” – C. S. Lewis, Miracles: How God Intervenes in Nature and Human Affairs.
The belief in miracles is so deeply embedded in our art, literature, and theology that it is somewhat surprising that our films don’t really know how to represent them.
Or maybe it isn’t. Film is a medium that developed in the 20th century, at a time when post-Enlightenment, naturalist philosophy had fundamentally changed broader cultural assumptions about what miracles are and whether they are real. In the film Miracles from Heaven, we are told that a miracle is something not explicable by natural and scientific laws. The film depicts the struggles of the Beam family, especially Christy (Jennifer Garner) to reconcile their faith with their daughter’s incurable and terminal medical condition.
The film’s coda may not include the word “currently” in between “not” and “explicable,” but I would argue its presence can be assumed. The British science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke popularized the notion that technology, sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from magic. As our understanding and manipulations of the physical universe have increased, even many Christians have come to wonder whether the miracles of the past were supernatural suspensions of natural laws or simply manipulations of them that human science could not yet emulate.
The creation of Gothic literature in the late 1700s also gave rise to what critic Leslie Fiedler called the “explained supernatural.” One of the conventions of the Gothic—indeed the primary convention—is the presence of some supernatural element that is later shown to have a rational explanation: a ghost that is really a sleep walker, a disembodied voice that is actually a ventriloquist, a talking raven that signals we have entered a dreamscape. Repeat this formula a couple thousand times and the audience eventually gets the message that the presences of the inexplicable supernatural signals first and foremost that we are in a fantasy world.
Miracles may not necessarily be explained in the actual narrative for a film to be considered realistic, but our genre expectations, built over hundreds of episodes of Scooby Doo, is that they will be. The one possible exception to this rule, oddly enough, is in horror. William Friedkin’s The Exorcist turned the culture’s rejection of the supernatural on its ear by portraying the supernatural so vividly that the psychological debunking of doctors and priests looked foolish and facile. Since then—in an irony that would be appreciated by Lewis’s Screwtape—we have come to accept the presence of the demonic as compatible with the world we observe daily while continuing to doubt the countervailing presence of a supernatural God or even a supernatural good.
In Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, I called the effect of these genre expectations the “problem” of Christian Realism: “The representation of orthodox Christian beliefs in the [apparently] supernatural causes [a] work to be marginalized (by situating it as a genre piece, inferior to realistic fiction) or rejected (as failing to conform to the expectations of the genre in which it is trying to participate).” This problem is not a new one. Carl Theodor Dreyer was so concerned over the question of how to film a miracle that he never made his long dreamed of passion project: a film biography of Jesus.