NRA: Counting on a miracle (2)

Nicolae: The Rise of Antichrist; Chapters 11-13

On the other hand, it’s not always a bad thing to have the protagonist take a wild leap of faith — rushing headlong into the unknown, without a map or a plan or a credible hope, miracle or bust.

There’s a recurring joke in Tom Stoppard’s screenplay for Shakespeare in Love that many theater people love because it captures something that seems true about the attempt to produce any play. Geoffrey Rush’s character, Philip Henslowe, is talking to his creditor, Fennyman:

HENSLOWE: Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.

FENNYMAN: So what do we do?

HENSLOWE: Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.


HENSLOWE: I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

Henslowe hasn’t got a plan. He’s facing “insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster,” but he cheerfully carries on, hoping — expecting — that somehow it will all turn out well.

That’s often the basic outline of a Doctor Who episode. The Doctor is a resourceful, ingenius fellow, but the real fun often comes when he’s out of resources and out of ideas and he just starts running and talking as fast as he can, strangely confident that somehow some unforeseen something will arise that will allow things to turn out well. And that confidence is usually rewarded with a Moffat ex machina ending wherein that’s exactly what happens.

So the miracle-or-bust approach of reckless heroes with no plans doesn’t necessarily make for a bad story.

And thus the little Tsion’s Escape From Zion subplot in these chapters of Nicolae didn’t necessarily have to be so awful.

Here’s a broad description of what’s about to happen in the coming pages. Buck Williams and his friend Tsion Ben-Judah have been unable to come up with any plan for how to sneak the ex-rabbi across the border, out of Israel and into the safety (?) of the Antichrist’s totalitarian regime. So they have another multi-page prayer meeting. During this time of ecstatic worship, each of them comes to believe that God is telling them that if they rely on faith, God will somehow get them across the border. They decide this was a message from God, and so they give up on coming up with any plan beyond having Tsion crouch down behind the seats in the back of the bus while Buck drives to the border. It’s a leap of faith and, of course, faith gets rewarded in these books. Their bus is stopped at the border but then — “miraculously” — they’re allowed to pass.

Deus ex machina

This blind trust-fall isn’t the best strategy, but again this doesn’t necessarily have to make for a bad plot or a bad story.

Think of the biblical story of Gideon in the book of Judges, for example. Or think of the story of Joan of Arc. In both of those stories, the heroes are, like Buck and Tsion, acting in response to what they believe is a direct message from God. God has instructed them to face “insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster” but also assured them that, strangely enough, it will all turn out well.

Those stories have endured because — like the adventures of the Doctor or of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men — they’re good stories. So before we get into the details of Buck and Tsion’s flight aboard the magic school bus, I want to think a bit about what it is that can make this leap-of-faith story — this basic plot outline — work.

One ingredient, I think, is a measure of doubt. The hero is about to do something that’s bound to fail unless some miracle occurs. “Imminent disaster” and “insurmountable obstacles” are not hyperbole. Sure, the heroes may have been told that unseen, inexplicable success is assured, but how do they know that this assurance is trustworthy? Hearing the voice of God speaking to you is reassuring on one level, but on another level it means you’re hearing voices. And now you’re pondering taking some irrational action on the basis of something those voices told you.

I like the way the story of Gideon handles this. An angel gives Gideon a message from God and his response, basically, is to say, “Yeah, so you’re an angel who speaks for God, huh? Let’s see some ID.” The angel has told him he’s supposed to march forth to what would be certain death, trusting that a miracle will save the day. But before he’s willing to gamble his life on the expectation of a miracle, Gideon asks to see some miracles first.

I’ve heard sermons criticizing Gideon for his lack of immediate faith, but the guy was just being prudent. (I sometimes wonder if this is the same angel from the story of Abraham and Isaac — the one who had to hold back Abraham’s hand to keep him from killing his son. If so, I’d guess the angel was pleased by Gideon’s skepticism because if I were that angel, I’d be relieved to finally meet a human who was willing to step back a bit instead of just being all “Well, OK then, angel says …” at the suggestion of human sacrifice.)

For these stories to work, the hero needs to have doubts. Yes, the hero will overcome those doubts, but you can’t overcome them if you never have them. And there are a lot of things that need to be doubted here: Am I really doing what God wants me to do? Will God come through?

If the hero doesn’t entertain such doubts, then the reader should. That’s kind of how the story of Joan of Arc works. She was eerily certain that she was obeying a divine command and that she was assured of divine aid to ensure her success. In many of the best re-tellings of her story, though, the reader or the audience is invited to question that certainty (particularly since, unlike Joan herself, we know how her story ultimately ends).

The one thing that can’t be in doubt, though, is that the doom really is imminent and the obstacles really are insurmountable. If they were surmountable, after all, then we couldn’t respect the heroes for not figuring out some smarter, more responsible approach than their blind leap of faith. So let’s call that our second necessary ingredient for stories like this: It must be clear that there wasn’t anything else the heroes could have tried. They have to be completely out of options. They’re making this leap of faith because there’s no other way.

A third thing I think such stories need is a satisfying resolution, meaning, in this case, that the deus ex machina “miracle” needs to be surprising, yet plausible. If it looks like the storyteller is cheating, then the reader/audience is going to feel cheated. And thus the “miracle” can’t be unambiguously miraculous. “O God, thy arm was here,” Henry V says after realizing the scope of his miraculous victory at Agincourt. And you can certainly see why he’d see things that way, but you don’t need to.

As Jules Winnfield said, whether or not the story involves an According to Hoyle miracle is insignificant. What matters is that it’s unexpected, yet convincingly effective. In the story of Gideon, we’re set up to expect some spectacular act of direct divine intervention, but instead, at the last second, Gideon comes up with a clever trick, sending his enemies into a fatal panic and causing them to flee and fight one another in their confusion. The writer(s) of that part of Judges certainly want us to see that as a miracle directly from the hand of God, but it could also be read as a lucky long-shot gamble by a guy who was otherwise out of options.

Such ambiguity is needed in these stories because such ambiguity is always present in real life. We aren’t afforded stark, definitive proof of the transcendent — it’s something we sometimes think we maybe might have almost half-glimpsed. Or maybe not. We can’t be certain.

It’s also necessary because of something that’s been true of deus ex machina endings ever since the idea was invented in ancient Greek theater (see the above diagram, from Citizendium). When you use such a device to introduce one of the gods into your story, it’s almost impossible to show the audience the god without also showing the audience the machine. And once they see the machine, well, the god suddenly looks less impressive. “Miraculous” endings that show the hand of God unambiguously at work tend to do that — to show the machine at work, and thereby to reduce or diminish God into a plot contrivance.

“It’s a mystery,” Philip Henslowe said. That’s a theological term. That’s also good storytelling.

Finally, if all of the above ingredients are present in our leap-of-faith story, they’ll add up to what we might call the fourth ingredient: Don’t try this at home. The heroes’ blind leap of faith can’t seem like a matter of business as usual. This has to be a story about an extreme situation in which extreme measures are called for because that’s all that is left.

Given that, the heroes’ reckless charging-ahead without a plan shouldn’t be offered as something the reader or the audience is encouraged to emulate. Taking on an army of Daleks with nothing but a screwdriver and a bit of awkward patter shouldn’t be presented as good advice. Long-shot gambles, by definition, don’t usually pay off. Miracles are, by definition, unusual. It’s always good to have your readers/audience thinking, “What would I do if I were in a situation like that?” but with stories like this you also want them to be thinking, “I never want to be in a situation like that.”

I’m grateful to Jerry Jenkins for demonstrating the importance of this last ingredient. It was only because he did the opposite that I ever realized how vital it is to one’s story not to do what he did.

As you’ve probably guessed, or as you already know if you’ve read Nicolae, the same is true for all the other ingredients I’ve listed above for a successful leap-of-faith story. That’s the point of this week’s little tangent. We’ve discussed how stories similar to this can work, and we’ve discussed a bit of what makes them work.

And now we can plow ahead into the coming chapters, better prepared, perhaps, to understand why such a potentially rewarding story fails so utterly.