Miracles and X-Files: Tim Stafford and Dana Scully

This month, the Patheos Book Club is looking at Tim Stafford’s Miracles.

I might have better been able to enjoy this book if it hadn’t come with a misleading subtitle that created a set of false expectations.

That subtitle is “A Journalist Looks at Modern-Day Experiences of God’s Power,” but that has very little to do with this book. Stafford is, in fact, an accomplished journalist, but this book is not an act of journalism. Miracles is a personal testimony, it is an often thoughtful meditation on faith and the nature of God, and it is a winsome, if not ultimately persuasive, argument for belief in miracles. But it’s not journalism.

Stafford isn’t writing here as a journalist, but as an advocate for a belief. He often makes a strong case for that belief, but that is always what he is about in this book — making a case. He’s set aside the role of the journalist to take on the role of a defense attorney. In that role he calls on eyewitnesses and presents their testimony as evidence. Stafford assures us, repeatedly, that they are credible, but that is not how credibility accrues. Witness testimony is made credible by withstanding cross-examination, but these witnesses are never cross-examined. Miracles lacks a prosecuting attorney to test — and to demonstrate — the strength of Stafford’s case for the defense.

For me that had the effect of generating more skepticism than I might have otherwise had in evaluating the stories Stafford relates. Reading this book I found myself sliding into the vacant role of the prosecutor, partly just out of a sense of forensic fairness.

The story at the heart of this book involves a healing. Jeff was in a wheelchair, unable to walk due to unbearable pain in his feet. A series of doctors were unable to determine the cause of this pain, or to provide any remedy. Then one day Jeff was taken to a healing service in a Pentecostal church. They prayed over Jeff and, just at that moment, the pain was gone. For good, it seems. Jeff couldn’t walk. Now he can. That happened.

Something extraordinary occurred. But what, exactly? Stafford says it was a miracle of healing by the triune Christian God. I’m prepared to agree. I’m even inclined to agree. But a host of questions remain not only unanswered, but unacknowledged.

For a sense of the problem here, let me cite one of the 20 “affirmations” from Stafford’s penultimate chapter:

Miracles happen. Reliable people testify to miracles. As with all historical events, trustworthy witness is the only real test.

But we can’t say both that something is miraculous and that it can be regarded just like “all historical events.” As Stafford says in his eighth affirmation: “Miracles are rare.” And they are wondrous — to be wondered at.

Miracles, in other words, are extraordinary. The claim that a miracle has occurred is an extraordinary claim, and such extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The “trustworthy witness” of a few people (setting aside the question of how to establish “trustworthiness”) may be a sufficient test for an ordinary historical event, but we’re going to need more than that to confirm an extraordinary event.

That’s what’s frustrating about the subtitle’s broken promise of a journalist’s perspective. Jeff’s story is news, but no editor would agree to run such a story unless it was confirmed by several other sources beyond Jeff and his family. Jeff’s mom tells Stafford that before his healing, the family had sought “a consultation with a famous doctor at Stanford.” Stafford quotes her account of that consultation:

“‘You need to stop,’ he told us. ‘No more surgeries. You have to get used to it. Jeff is going to be in a wheelchair. It’s possible the pain will go away by itself, but we don’t know what causes it, and we can’t predict what will help it.’”

A journalist’s editor would have demanded the name of that doctor, and that his account of that consultation also be included in the story. The lack of any comment from that doctor after Jeff’s healing also raises flags.

Reading Miracles, I kept feeling like AD Walter Skinner on The X-Files, listening to another astonishing report from Agent Fox Mulder. I kept wanting to ask the question Skinner always asked, “What does Agent Scully think about this?”

That X-Files analogy also highlights another underlying problem with Miracles. If you’re not familiar with Chris Carter’s wonderful 1990s TV show, it follows the adventures of two FBI agents who are tasked with investigating unexplained phenomena. Agent Scully, played by Gillian Anderson, is the one who believes in UFOs.

Many people get that backwards. Since Scully is the skeptical scientist and Mulder the idealistic true believer, they mistakenly think Mulder believes in UFOs. He doesn’t. Mulder can’t abide allowing flying objects to remain unidentified. He doesn’t believe in UFOs, he believes in alien spacecraft.

This is true of most of the alleged experts on UFOs or on the “mysteries of the unexplained.” You’ll find many such experts in supermarket tabloids or on the wide array of tabloid TV shows now boosting the ratings and destroying the credibility of purportedly educational cable channels. The experts are brought on to discuss some “unexplained phenomena” and within seconds they explain it. Eyewitnesses attest to strange lights in the sky and the alleged “ufologist” quickly declares, with utmost confidence, that these flying objects can be identified. He proceeds to identify them with great precision, expressing certainty as to what they are, what they mean, and even the planet of origin of their supposed pilots.

Like these “experts,” Agent Mulder allows no room for the possibility of unidentified flying objects or for unexplained phenomena. His partner, Scully, might often be at a loss for an explanation, but Mulder never is.

Mulder is a crusader. He is, like Tim Stafford, an advocate for a particular point of view. Mulder isn’t a journalist or a scientist disinterestedly collecting data and following wherever it leads. He is, instead, a theorist seeking data that might prove his theory.

Now, both the fictional Mulder and the real-world Stafford seem to appreciate one danger of this approach. They both seem to recognize — and to guard against — the temptation to cherry-pick favorable data, sifting the evidence to select only that which supports their view.

But neither of them is able to escape the way their approach inevitably shapes one’s perception of the world. It condenses a universe of possibilities into a binary, yes-or-no question, precluding any consideration of other possibilities. That’s why Mulder needs Scully — to remind him of those other possibilities, including the indispensable category of “We do not know and we cannot say.”

Mulder needs Scully — and Tim Stafford needs Scully — to remind him that his theory isn’t the only possibility. Something extraordinary occurred. Jeff could not walk. Now Jeff can walk. Stafford’s theory-bound approach is only able to consider this through the binary framework of asking “Is this a miracle or not?” And for Stafford that word “miracle” refers to a very specific sort of divine intervention by a very specific deity.

But if “trustworthy witness is the only real test” for verifying miraculous acts, then we’re going to be stuck accepting the validity of many miracles that have little to do with the particular form of religion that Stafford and I subscribe to. Stafford writes:

Miracles have happened in front of all kinds of people who have testified to them and in some cases have tested them. A thousand witnesses will tell you that they have seen a miracle with their own eyes.

That’s true. But not all of those thousand witnesses are Christians and not all of those miracles are Christian miracles. It’s hard to know from this book what Stafford would make of the multitude of miracle stories from Islam, Hinduism, Vodou and various Pagan traditions. Would he accept the trustworthy witness of the Latter-day Saints in 1848 Utah who testify to the “miracle of the gulls“?

Or consider the dissonant note in his chapter on “Global Pentecostalism.” He profiles a group of Pentecostal missionaries in rural Mozambique. “Don’t go back to the witch doctor,” one missionary cautions a local woman.

This same missionary, Stafford tells us, conducts regular healing services and the missionaries’ church is overflowing with tales of miraculous healing. “It’s hard to remain skeptical when you hear so many such testimonies,” Stafford writes.

Yet just as many testimonies from just as many earnest people could be collected to attest to the miraculous works of “the witch doctor.” If such testimonies are sufficient evidence for the Christian miracles, why are they insufficient for the miracles of the shaman?

I don’t think Stafford dismisses the miracles of the witch doctors just because they’re the product of a rival religion. I think he’s simply unable to consider them because they lie outside the binary framework of his theory. They don’t fit into, or speak to, the sectarian Christian vs. rational atheist either/or that shapes the book’s discussion.

And but so, what do I think happened to Jeff?

To Stafford’s credit, it is impossible to engage this book without engaging that question. Something happened — something unusual and extraordinary and wonderful. If it had not happened, Stafford would not have written this book. But because it did happen, he had to write this book.

And for all the blindspots and shortcomings I’ve complained about above, that makes this book compelling. Here is a man, Tim Stafford, who has witnessed something that doesn’t fit — something that knocked him back on his heels and sent him on a fitful search for answers to account for it.

Some of Stafford’s most insightful writing in Miracles anticipates my own reaction to this story of Jeff’s healing. He notes that such stories never seem quite as compelling when heard second-hand. And he guesses — correctly — that many of us will not be as awestruck as he was witnessing the healing of his friend up close.

Jeff couldn’t walk before and now he can. That happened. I don’t share Stafford’s confidence that we can know how or why it happened, or what, precisely, it means. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and, in the absence of that, I would classify this story as a UFO, as an unexplained phenomenon.

I suppose that response will disappoint Stafford or cause him to classify me among the “semi-believing doubters.” But I would remind him of a phrase he uses dozens of times throughout Miracles — “signs and wonders.” That last word — wonder — can convey both awe and curiosity. Where Stafford leans more toward the former, I’m inclined more toward the latter. If this story of healing has not left me in a state of wonder, it does have me wondering.

 

  • Mrs Grimble

     That’s very true.  I once read a column by an ex-nurse who said that patients very often heard only what they wanted to hear; she cited the case of a young woman who had had her ovaries removed because she kept getting tumours that were stimulated by oestrogen.  Afterwards she tried to sue her doctors because they refused to give her HRT, having evidently not listened to the several explanations she would have been given as to why she couldn’t have artifical hormones

  • http://www.nicolejleboeuf.com/index.php Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    You know, it’s interesting that real-life evidence of deep-seated and well-known conspiracies to hide truth from people is all around us, yet when it comes to people like 9/11 truthers or Birthers, the put-down against them is often “Lolololol No conspiracy could ever be so thoroughly worked without it leaking somehow”

    Fixed that for you.

    (It can be hard to see the logical argument when there’s a big fog of contempt and presumption of bad motives obscuring it.)

    Also, most times I hear arguments against birther or 9/11 conspiracies, it’s actually the argument you tear this one down to make: “No conspiracy that required such an extensive team of disparate people working together for so long could stay sufficiently organized and keep from leaking.”

    So I think you’re working on a bit of a straw-man too, as well as casting your opposition in an unearned bad light.

  • http://www.nicolejleboeuf.com/index.php Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    I wish we could scientifically test faith healings, Wiccan-style spells and energy workings, and the like. We’d end up developing new weapons against disease, new tools for helping people live fuller, richer lives. If we could figure out how to use prayer-like actions to heal everyone who suffered from debilitating pain and currently incurable illness, that would be awesome.

    (At least until some jerks figured out how to monopolize it and monetize it a la current U.S. health insurance companies. Probably whoever discovered the fool-proof technique would patent it, and that would keep it a money-making secret for at least the lifetime of the patent. And then the lawsuits over reverse-engineering…)

    But I don’t know how we could. I mean, I believe in this stuff, but I think it’s impossible to structure rigorous testing for it. Prayer and faith and metaphysical workings largely go on in one’s head. How do you ensure that everyone praying in the laboratory tests was praying the same way with the same piousness or sincerity? How do you ensure some participant doesn’t take against the patient for any reason and thus deliberately not pray or visualize as they should? How do you eliminate “Patient didn’t believe” or “Participant didn’t concentrate hard enough” as convenient excuses for test scenarios that did not give the desired results?

    And then on top of that, you have the “God’s will be done” standpoint — with some notable exceptions, most praying theists (at least of the big mainstream monotheisms; I don’t presume to speak for all theists here) do not see prayer as a way of compelling a Deity to act. You couldn’t ever set up repeatable laboratory tests; you could only, at best — if you somehow made it possible to observe and catalog exactly how prayer is prayed, and of course if you accepted or proved the existence of God — set up a sort of Behavioral Science of God series of observations, which would probably end up yielding the sort of conclusion Christians already know: “God does what God wants to do.”

    Like I said, I believe in mysterious healings, but my personal theory is that it’s yet another ability (albeit one that we don’t really understand) that some people have more of a facility for than others. So I’m not struggling with “why does God heal some but not others,” although sometimes I wonder “why can’t we all just be good at everything?” To which I’m sure some would reply, “It wouldn’t be an accomplishment if it was easy” to which I’d say, “Save that crap for stuff like musical ability and artistic potential. Somethings not being universally easy kill people.

    Yeah, I’m not too fond of the whole “If there were no evil we wouldn’t appreciate goodness!” thing either.

  • Freak

    Wasn’t there one about “Champ”, which Mulder & Scully concluded was a crocodile?  (Though the ending did suggest Champ was real.)

  • Caravelle

    Excellent post, I really appreciate everything you say in it.
    I just want to highlight this quote :

    Miracles happen. Reliable people testify to miracles. As with all historical events, trustworthy witness is the only real test.

    I don’t know about Stafford but I have noticed in Creationists (an example of a group with terrible epistemology if there ever was one) a tendency to put a LOT of stock in eyewitness testimony. They often justify the Bible’s historical veracity using that argument, and they make analogies to courtroom cases that completely ignore how unreliable we know eyewitness testimony to be in that context.
    And it is also very relevant to history, where IANAH but I’m pretty sure the “real test” is a combination of textual sources (i.e. witnesses), physical plausibility, archeological evidence and corroboration from several independent sources. Nor is there a binary property of things historians think are true and things they think they aren’t; there is a range of how likely they think it is that various historical events happened. Which depends on how strong the aforementioned evidence is.

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    As with all historical events, trustworthy witness is the only real test.

    *flails*

    This is what we get for not valuing history. ARGH.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Fair point. However, in my recollection I often see people sliding past with the unstated assumption that they’re already discussing disparate groups who can’t coordinate their stories to the lockstep degree demanded by an effective conspiracy, and so what comes out is just “No conspiracy could EVER work like that!”

  • http://outshine-the-sun.blogspot.com/ Andrew G.

    There have been good-quality double-blind studies of the medical effects of praying for sick people – it turns out not to work at all. Funny, that.

  • Dan Audy

    That makes me think of the time I nearly derailed a D&D campaign because my wizard refused to earthquake a Goblin warren because there were children and non-combatants in there.  The rest of the group just stared at me like I had grown a third head by bringing up issues of collateral damage, innateness of evil (something I’ve always loathed about D&D), and morality of terror tactics.  After that I learned just to pretend these weren’t things that I found interesting or compelling while playing D&D and just play it as violence is a reasonable solution to any and every problem.  Luckily, I’ve found story games like Sorcerer and Trollbabe which explicitly embrace these sorts of issues and tons of others that are good for exploring emotional and complex issues to satisfy those needs.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I thought it had some effect if the recipient knew about it and thought it would help?

    …yes, placebo, I know.

  • PJ Evans

     And there were situations like the regiment my grandfather was in, which trained for trench warfare and was sent instead to the Ardennes. (And the other thing was that they called up a lot of National Guard units, like his, and replaced their familiar officers with Regular Army officers, who looked down on the Guard. I’m surprised how many of the soldiers came home alive.)

  • http://outshine-the-sun.blogspot.com/ Andrew G.

    Actually in one study the group that knew they were being prayed for did worse – but not by very much (iirc it was only barely significant). Placebo effect probably didn’t apply there because the prayer was being done remotely, so to speak.

    Things like prayer conducted in-person, healing services, etc., all fall under the heading of “ritual placebos” (acupuncture and reiki and so on are also in this category) – these are generally more effective than placebo drugs. The study of placebo effects is fascinating and leads to all sorts of ethical conundrums – for example a more expensive placebo is more effective than a less expensive one.

  • Caravelle

    Also, this is the kind of post that makes me wonder when the f*ck Tim Minchin will put “Thank You God” on Youtube already. (shhhhh, don’t tell anyone but the audio is on Youtube right now; it’s 10mn of which the first 4:35mn is the intro, and among other things it comprehensively lists the alternate possibilities for Jeff’s recovery)

  • Caravelle

    The thing is, all of your problem are similar with “just physical” medical issues. How do we know somebody doesn’t have a particular physiology ? Or another condition that affects the treatment in an unpredictable way ?
    The answer, aside from controlling for everything you can, is numbers. If the drug given to a hundred people gets them better on average than a placebo then the drug probably does have an effect, even if individual responses vary. And if prayer has an effect, then even though one person’s psychology or relationship with God or whatever might mess things up, you’d expect there to be an average effect showing up when you look at a hundred people. If there isn’t that itself is interesting because it suggests that the effects of prayer are either so small or so rare that they can’t be captured in a study of that size… and that itself is a statement about the power of prayer.

    As for compelling God to act, praying for something to happen requires that prayer to affect God’s actions somehow – maybe you’re not compelling God to act, you’re just drawing their attention to this issue and hoping they help, or something else. Whatever the mechanism, if prayer affects outcomes in any way then a large-enough statistical study can show that. And if you’re not praying to affect outcomes in any way then you’re not doing the kind of prayer we’re talking about.

  • Caravelle

    Yeah. Once I hurt my leg at the beach, and didn’t notice until I felt the blood running down my leg in the car.
    Pain is incredibly situational though. Not just in the extent to which you actually feel it, but in how tolerable it is when you do.

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    Before I threw my back out, I thought I understood that mind and body are connected. When you’re stressed you’re more likely to get sick. Happiness is protective of health. Etc.

    I hadn’t really understood it down to my bones the way I do now. When I’m stressed, my back hurts more. The more stress, the more hurt. It’s a direct one-to-one correlation, and it kind of freaks me out. There are other things that make my back hurt more that I don’t understand; sometimes I wake up and it’s worse or better. However, since I’ve settled to a more-or-less consistent level of pain, the only thing that hurts as much as stress is tripping over something, and that pain usually does not last as long as stress pain. 

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    Third edition D&D, at least, has more of a “plurality of this race tend to be this alignment” thing. I know plenty of D&D players ignore that, because they’re attached to the idea of innately evil races whom a player can slaughter for XP and loot, but I also know plenty of players who don’t do that. I don’t think it’s a problem innate to D&D.

  • Lunch Meat

    I watched the first few episodes of X-Files on Netflix, expecting to enjoy it, but I couldn’t suspend my disbelief quite enough. There were too many instances of:

    Mulder: Aliens!
    Scully: There has to be another explanation!
    Mulder: What other explanation could there possibly be?
    Scully: I don’t know, but there has to be one!
    Me: I can think of four, right off the top of my head.

    Scully didn’t seem like a good skeptic. She seemed like someone who wanted to be a skeptic but didn’t understand the critical thinking part of it.

  • arcseconds

    I’m reminded of a D&D campaign I was in as a kid, where I played a
    Sherlock-Holmes type who observed that whenever our powerful party
    traveled outdoors we were inevitably randomly attacked by monsters that
    could trivially wipe out any normal trading caravan. Since trade
    demonstrably happened between towns, clearly these attacks were not random… there was some kind of conspiracy afoot!

    Or else you’re a bunch of noobs, and the caravans are protected by people far more mighty than you — that would even fit canonically in D&D.

    That was my tongue-in-cheek explanation as to how trade and other civilian activities work in Star Trek, because there’s a huge incidence of giant swirly things in space, godlike beings and strange spacecraft with unusual capabilities.   The best captains in the Federation aren’t Picard and co; they’re the freighter captains who have to deal with all that without the resources of a Galaxy class starship (maybe Picard is even practising so he too can captain a freighter).

    (It’s not quite so much of a problem with Classic Trek, because it seems Kirk’s mission takes place quite a bit in the ‘Here Be Dragons’ region of the map, where you might expect things to get a bit hairy at times)

  • Samantha C

    hehe, if it makes you feel better, my Pathfinder group mildly irritated our DM (and one of the players for that matter) by failing to realize that slavery and indentured servitude were a perfectly normal and respectable part of our setting and we kept spending time decrying how awful it was. Not to the point of derailing the adventure, but to the point of wasting a lot of time we could have spent on the adventure.

    Of course, that player was having his own flashbacks to a LARP which specifically took place in a feudalistic setting, with Kings and Dukes and Monarchy and no historical precedent for democracy, so people can focus on the classic plots and such please. And the astronomic number of players who decided their characters hated the idea of monarchy and had each individually come up with the idea of representative government.

    So in any game and setting, groups latching onto different ethical issues is tried-and-true ;) 

  • CarolineDye MemorialChapel

    I have absolutely nothing to add to your post, but it’s a pleasure to meet another Buckaroo Banzai fan.

  • AnonymousSam

    Scully couldn’t believe in aliens, psychic powers or the paranormal, despite having directly witnessed all of them many many many many many times, but she believed in Christianity.

    I know the writers thought they were being clever with that, but I call shenanigans. Either she’s a StrawVulcan or not.

  • Mary Kaye

    It’s tricky with roleplaying.  For a lot of people there are parts of their moral code that their PCs can defy and the game will still be fun–perhaps even more fun–and other parts that they just can’t.

    I’m playing a Machiavellian politician in _Council of Thieves_ and I struggle with slavery.  As far as I can tell, Lily thinks slavery is a bit counter-productive because you don’t get the degree of loyalty from slaves that you do from carefully manipulated subordinates.  And she thinks that killing slaves is wasteful.  But that’s it–there’s no moral compunction.  This is perfectly natural for an aristocrat from her setting, but I find it offputting.  She just discovered that she could really use another imp, and that the least expensive way to get one  involves human sacrifice.  And her reaction was, “So that the more squeamish in my inner council won’t be bothered by it, I’ll wait till we have prisoners of war rather than buying slaves directly, and then I’ll quietly have the prisoners disappeared and no one will need to fuss over it.”

    Sometimes I do not like Lily very much.  But culturally speaking it would make no sense for her to be squeamish about this.  Heck, *personally* speaking it would make no sense.  In her effect on her city she is, in fact, a good guy–that’s how she’s gained her power, by doing things the masses like.  Personally?  Not so much.  She has been very successful lately in pacifying the city’s monsters and underworld, so successful that she is seriously considering importing some new ones, because she needs a steady supply of targets in order to keep the populace on her side.

    I can be totally gleeful about most of Lily’s manipulations, but if she really does go out and round up some ghouls in order to keep the populace riled up, and the ghouls go ahead and do what ghouls do….I as a player won’t enjoy it much.  She’s about as evil a person as I’m personally going to enjoy depicting, and even then, there are some bad moments. Each player will draw that line in their own place, and often in pretty strange places–myself, I’m surprised by “I’m not bothered by torture and murder, but *poison* is too evil.”  But wherever you personally draw it, it’s hard to go far over it without losing enthusiasm for the game.

    Of course, conversely, for a lot of players staying in character is critically important to enjoying the game too–it is for me–and then you have dilemmas.  I can’t do too much of telling Lily “Ugh, don’t do that” before I lose my grasp on her.  The best solution I have at the moment, given that I chose to play a Machiavellian politician in the first place, is to say “Um, can we keep this scene offstage please?” and indulge in exactly the same denialism or deliberate blindness as Lily’s “nicer” compatriots.

    (Lily was the one who taught me, incidentally, that the first stirrings of relative goodness in a pretty evil heart can take the form of “I don’t want to offend my nicer compatriots” *as an excuse* for not doing something that is beginning to bother her own conscience.  I hadn’t known that.  It was cool.)

  • AndrewSshi

    I think that the problem was your DM and other players.  In my All Time Favorite Game, the characters had to deal with very real issues about civilian casualties, international law, people who weren’t necessarily evil but still impeding good, conflicts between two well-meaning sides of a religious schism, etc.  The game was a bazillion times better than any D&D game I’d played in before or since because it wasn’t just “I kill it and take its treasure.”  You can make D&D be a story dealing with complex ethical issues, but it takes a DM and players that are both mature and reasonably intelligent.

  • Lori

     

    Among other things, like ending the series several seasons before they did.  

    So much word. So much.

  • Lori

     

    Psychosomatic doesn’t mean fake, it means that the symptoms are caused by the brain’s assumptions, misinterpretations and responses to stimuli.  

    This. I think a lot of people don’t really get this. The fact that “it’s all in your head” doesn’t mean that you’re faking or consciously willing it to happen or that you can simply make it stop. The brain and its “wiring” to the body are very complex and a lot can go very wonky in ways that are painful and traumatic for the sufferer. Some of those things will sort themselves out without requiring anything like what Stafford would call a miracle. I see no reason to assume that Jeff’s condition wasn’t of that sort.

  • arcseconds

    That’s exactly my point. Stafford isn’t stating that he believes that
    his god is present in all healing. He’s trying to make a case for why we
    should accept this as accurate, even though the idea of a supernatural
    cause behind the natural is unverifiable by default. What about the
    possibility that his god is another natural process?

    I’m not sure I follow.   According to McGrath, Stafford does state that he believes God is present in all healing.  

    And apparently he thinks that even in a miraculous case, if you look at it closely enough, you’ll only see natural processes at work.

    Implicit in this is that God’s actions aren’t distinct from natural processes.   One might go further and say that maybe God isn’t distinct from natural processes, which is what McGrath does —  he immediately follows the passage I quoted  with a suggestion that this leads to pantheism or panentheism.

  • Lori

     

    John Paul II abolished the office.   

    That certainly seems to be working out well of him. I strongly suspect that a responsible Devil’s Advocate would have slowed JP II’s road to sainthood quite a bit.

  • arcseconds

    I remember there being a couple of these. There was one episode
    involving a cult of vampires — who turned out to be people wearing fake
    vampire teeth — who turned out to be real vampires.

    I’m a bit nonplussed that you think that vampire cults being unmasked as ordinary people dressed up, and then being further unmasked as actual vampires is an example of a standard explanation.

    Does this sort of thing happen a lot where you live?

  • AnonymousSam

    Yes, but only when the gothic lolita girls are in town.

    No, I just mean that at least at first it seemed to have a perfectly rational explanation (just a couple of lunatics who think they’re vampires). The fact that they really were vampires, well…

    Thinking back, I recall the idea was that the ones who were “revealed” to be normal people pretending to be vampires were the ones doing stereotypical vampire things — compulsions to count grains of rice, unable to cross running water, shying away from crosses…

    Meanwhile, the actual vampires couldn’t care less about any of those. “That’s fairy tale make-believe. Real vampires don’t have any of that insane hocus-pocus.” So kind of a double-subversion?

  • fraser

     I remember there was an episode of Thundarr the Barbarian where the evil wizard of the week turns out to be using a mix of advanced technology and stage magic. I loved the idea.
    In DC Comics, the supernatural works, but ghostbreaker Dr. Thirteen has also exposed multiple phonies.

  • Trixie_Belden

    If his case was more persuasive that that of the Promoter of the Cause, who gave all the evidence in favor of actual miracles, the candidate was not recognized as a saint. John Paul II abolished the office.

    Huh!  He did did he?  I didn’t know that.  As a skeptic, I think the process doesn’t have much credibility anyway, but having an office like Promoter of the Faith made it at least appear like they were trying to establish the truth.  I swear, that man seems to have been a big heap o’ nasty hiding behind an avuncular smile. 

  • Mau de Katt

    That one (the vampire cult) was hilarious, too.  It didn’t have the “multiple unreliable witnesses” technique of “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’,” but it did tell the same story from both Mulder’s and Scully’s viewpoints (which, of course, exaggerated both their own good qualities and the other’s bad qualities).  Those two episodes were The X-Files poking fun at itself.

    And I’ve never been able to look at an RV park, or a delivery pizza, the same way again….

  • fraser

     I read a book on Lourdes some years back that stated the Catholic church set out to vet every healing credited to the shrine. It found two (in the opinion of the analysts) that couldn’t have an alternative natural explanation.

  • fraser

    And some studies on both sides that have too many gaps to make any claims. For example having people pray for Patient X but not Patient Y doesn’t eliminate the possibility that other people are praying for them outside the study.

  • Mau de Katt

     

    Shell shock victims were frequently accused of malingering in order to get out of the war.

    Not only that, but in the British armies at least, they were also frequently executed for cowardice.

  • Lori

    We still have a long way to go on treatment of and attitudes toward PTSD, but having personally known a couple people who suffered with it I am endlessly thankful for how far we’ve come.

  • Mau de Katt

     

    … where in the end it turned out the
    mysterious disappearances around a small town was caused by a perfectly
    normal and ordinary cannibal cult.

    That episode was “Our Town”. “Home” was the one with the really creepy inbred family that Fox only aired once.

    Was the “cannibal cult” episode the one where Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease has infected people at the local chicken processing plant where all the cult members work?  (“Chaco’s Chicken!”?)  I couldn’t eat chicken for a long time after that episode….

  • Mau de Katt

     Holee cow, if my DM had decided our characters were playing against alignment, especially the Lawful Good ones, he would’ve had “disastrous deity-caused consequences” befall them….

  • Ursula L

    This is why “birther” and “9/11 truther” arguments lack validity – they require a conspiracy of so many disparate actors that it lacks feasibility that they c0uld all be working in concert to achieve a single objective while disguising that objective from the world at large. 

    Another thing about real conspiracies?  The big ones that get covered up and the victims called liars or mad, not things like criminal conspiracies to things like robbery?

    There is often a significant power imbalance, that both allows the conspirators power over and control over the victims, and which makes society at large less likely to believe the victims when/if they discover what is happening and complain.

    Doctors running this or that study, at this or that hospital.  Bureaucrats who assign grants for medical research, who interact with the doctors but have no contact with the study participants.  Prison officials and officers.  And the scale is generally small –  a bureaucrat who doesn’t think to review the policies for notifying and getting consent of study participants, a handful of researchers, who have worked together for years and are sure they know what they’re doing and it is for the best.  A corporation just abandoning and ignoring waste, not even noticing that they’re poisoning people or caring.

    And the victims? The ill.  Minorities.  Prisoners.  People who are already disenfranchised and disbelieved. 

    And the conspiracy “lasts” for years not because of years of ongoing activity, but because the study is finished, and the results are published, and the victims wind up forgotten, and often not even knowing what happened to them. 

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

     

    That certainly seems to be working out well for him.

    …to the extent that being posthumously sanctified does him any good.

  • Mau de Katt

     Not only that, but it was Scully who believed in the Christian-oriented  miracles, and Mulder who was skeptical of them.

  • Mau de Katt

     

    That certainly seems to be working out well for [John Paul I].

    …to the extent that being posthumously sanctified does him any good

    Well, some people are inordinately concerned about their ongoing reputations, even after they die….  After all, people pray to saints.  And maybe he thought he’d get a better place in Heaven if he was eventually canonized himself?  What’s better than a Pope but a sainted Pope?

  • LoneWolf343

     I would counter that with “If Jesus, Than Aliens.”

  • thatotherjean

     I think two verified miracles used to be the minimum standard for declaring a person a saint;  not so much any more.  The Church may have stopped looking after they got the requisite two.

  • thatotherjean

     John Paul II would have lots of company as a Pope who is also a saint:  there are dozens of them.

  • Dan Audy

    Absolutely, you can make D&D (or any game really) more complex and deal with interesting issues even if the mechanics or core engagement of the system and setting don’t push towards that.  That being said, I consider it a problem primarily on my part to not recognize that this particular game, with this particular group was not an appropriate situation to raise those issues because it was violating that game’s social contract.  That particular game was primarily a tactical combat and kill things and take its treasure midweek get together and hang out with friends game.  I later played and GMed other games (Mage and 7th Sea mostly) with the same group on the weekends when we had longer time frames and more energy which delved into more complex territory. In those games raising that sort of issue was not just ok but encouraged because that was the engagement we were all seeking to get out of it.

    It is important to understand the reason one is playing a game and avoid ruining it by introducing disruptive elements.  Playing monopoly isn’t an appropriate time to start a discussion about the ethics of deliberately driving up prices on necessary commodities that threaten to put people into bankruptcy nor is a Soccer match the place to talk about how ‘othering’ different teams dehumanizes them and perpetuates racism because it is based on jersey colour.  It is about choosing the right place and right time so that everyone can enjoy doing so.

  • JonathanPelikan

    I like that idea, as well; it immediately made me think of how, in Law and Order, sometimes the bad guys get off at the end. That’s it. The evidence isn’t good enough, or the police mess something up, or a piece of evidence is thrown out, or the defense is just too good, or the jury gets deadlocked, or the jury just decides the other way. And that’s it. Episode end. Sorry, guys. Free society. Sometimes people who the police want to get aren’t got.

    I’m pretty sure it didn’t happen too often but it lent so much more credibility and suspense to the ‘waiting for the verdict’ moment of an episode when there was a real threat that the bad guy would win.

  • arcseconds

    …to the extent that being posthumously sanctified does him any good.

    Well, you know it was considered a conundrum in ancient Greece as to whether you could call a man happy or not before they were dead.   IIRC, there was even some concern that after someone’s death was still premature, as their children still have an opportunity to turn out to be feckless bums or otherwise persons of low character. 

  • JonathanPelikan

    Whenever conspiracies come up, my first thought 

    (aside from ‘oh, I wonder what the real reason most of the Birthers are questioning Obama’s right to be an American for? Can’t possibly figure that one out. It’s like attempting to figure out the Tea Party’s stand on Brown People.’) 

    is something along the lines of ‘well, all the examples cited to disprove the assertion that ‘such a thing couldn’t be hidden forever’… well, if we -know- about it… doesn’t every confirmed example of a real conspiracy throughout history support the idea that, you know, it’ll come out in the end, more than likely?” Just one of those passing thoughts I have that gave me a chuckle, and yeah, it wouldn’t disprove the idea of such a conspiracy ‘-existing in the first place-, but eh.


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