“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.
Dreyer did commit to film one of the more convincing, realistically styled miracles in his film adaptation of Kaj Munk’s play Ordet. It’s worth noting that part of what makes the climactic act of the mad son (who thinks himself divinely powered) is that Dreyer strips the film of many of the Gothic hints embedded in the play—items that leave the skeptic room for doubt about the original diagnosis and, hence, the miraculous outcome.
Less obvious, but equally as important to Dreyer’s success is the lack of (obvious) editing manipulations when depicting the miracle. Just as the supernatural is implicitly associated with Gothic, montage editing (or cutting to continuity for that matter) is associated with the cinematic. However realistic the content of a film might claim to be, the reminder that the images have been manipulated is a reminder that we are in a film world. This is one of the reasons why the current film Risen actually becomes less effective when it pivots from Clavius as investigator (looking at frayed ropes) to Clavius as eye witness. The techniques used to suggest the supernatural are ones we’ve witnessed (in movies) before. An object or body crosses between the camera and the object being watched, and in a blink of an eye, that object is gone. We may know rationally that there is nowhere for Jesus’s body to have disappeared to in so brief an instant, but it is hard for the cinematic eye to receive it as a miracle when so many (Jason Bourne, Ethan Hunt, Batman) without supernatural powers have disappeared in the exact same way. The one miracle in Risen that really can’t be filmed both literally and ambiguously is Jesus’s ascension, and the film’s handling of that is markedly jarring in its tonal difference from the rest of the more realistically stylized film.
Miracles from Heaven largely sidesteps the formal problem of filming a miracle by allowing it to happen both internally (even the family doesn’t realize the miracle has occurred until after the fact) and off-screen. Thus we get what must have happened described rather than depicted.
There is nothing socially or theologically troubling about the film’s method. It more or less treats the film as a visual representation of the written testimony rather than a reenactment of it, and that’s how most people encounter miracles ... second hand. The dependence on testimony does allow the skeptic with a natural explanation that can never be entirely dismissed: fraud. In fact, the more indisputable the miracle is, the more likely it is to elicit suspicions of chicanery.
What is particularly odd about Miracles from Heaven is that the suspicions of fraud are almost all intimated or argued for by other Christians. When the atheist father of a fellow patient becomes the eye witness, his testimony is seen as more credible than the Christian’s because he is testifying against his own biases. In its role-reversal of churched skeptics and atheist testimonials, Miracles (like Heaven is for Real) reveals that it is ultimately intended as a reassurance to Christian doubters, not as a persuasion to scoffers and mockers.
Receiving cinematic confirmation that one’s core theological assumptions are correct will make some audiences feel good, but it must be pointed out that the film largely sidesteps any deeper, more complex questions about theodicy. Why does God heal some and not others? Why are some stricken and others saved? The film explicitly says that that the young girl wants to remain in heaven but God wills her to return. This hints that there is some evangelistic purpose in the healing, but the film almost immediately follows that claim with the assertion that “not everyone’s going to believe and that’s okay.” We’ll all see the truth when we “get there.” In a climactic speech, Christy says, “I don’t know the answer, but after everything I’ve been through, I’ve realized I’m not alone.”
That’s a great message, but it’s not one with obvious applications to anyone who is not Christy. Maybe miracles, to truly be accepted as such, to impact our lives, must be received directly. Until we do, their presence in film will simply tell us that others have found the hidden God, not how we can find him ourselves.
Kenneth R. Morefield (@kenmorefield) is an Associate Professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I, II, & III, and the founder of 1More Film Blog.