Miracles and X-Files: Tim Stafford and Dana Scully

Miracles and X-Files: Tim Stafford and Dana Scully July 29, 2012

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.


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  • MaryKaye

    It’s very hard to study the success rate of conspiracies, because a successful conspiracy is unlikely to be in your sample!

    This is a pretty common problem.  I am fascinated by cases in which book authors post reviews of their own work under false identities.  Every time I have seen this happen, the person has been  incredibly bad at it, and quickly discovered.  In fact I’m perpetually amazed *how* bad people are at faking praise of their own work.  But…if it were done really well, would we ever find out?  Only by accident, probably–tracing the history of the posting back to the author for some reason.

    Similarly, we are all familiar with bad sockpuppets, but how common are good sockpuppets?  I have no idea.  I’ve only seen one, and that one was revealed because the underlying person had a change of heart about what he was doing, not because anyone guessed.

    That said, there are a fair number of conspiracies that accomplished their goals for quite a while.  My husband notes a case in which FBI crime labs had been falsifying lab results to increase their conviction rate.  Recently there have been accusations that drug companies are publishing faked papers in the scientific literature.  Tobacco companies were successful in downplaying the dangers of tobacco for a longish time.  And there have been several cases of bank conspiracies which were pretty big and long-lived.  One could make a stab at a study from cases like these:  how many people can a conspiracy involve?  How do they have to be connected?

    In looking up facts for this post I re-encounted Piltdown Man, a story I’d read when I was quite young.  I don’t think it’s a conspiracy as Dawson may have acted alone (if it was Dawson, and I think it was, who falsified the fossil) but it took on the trappings of one as other scientists were pulled in on Dawson’s side, either out of nationalism, because the fossil fit their theories, or just because they initially endorsed it and didn’t want to be seen to have been wrong.  Maybe you can make a conspiracy work with a tiny core of people who really know, and a much larger fringe of those who have some kind of vested interest but don’t know the full truth.

  • Ursula L

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

    Scully believed in Christian, particularly Catholic, miracles.  

    But she was also aware of when she was shifting from scientific thinking to an understanding based on the faith she was raised with, which includes not only her personal religious faith, but also things like whether or not you trust your parents and others who raised you to have taught you the truth.  

    It’s the difference between “I believe” and “I know.”  

    Mulder didn’t really distinguish between “believe” and “know.”  

    Mostly we see the show from Scully’s POV, and her frustration with Mulder not distinguishing between “I believe,” “I know” and “This person whom I’ve chosen to trust believes, and therefore I believe, and therefore I say ‘I know.'”

    But, when Scully’s faith is examined, we see it from Mulder’s POV.  Scully distinguishes, for herself, between “I believe” and “I know.”  But Mulder, who does not make that distinction, doesn’t see how Scully treats these things as different, and so he, and the show, treats her as a bit of a hypocrite, because she says “I believe” while objecting to Mulder’s lack of distinction between “I believe” and “I know” in his own interpretation of cases.  


    Saying “I believe” involves a leap of faith.  Faith being the evidence of things not seen, and belief being an acceptance the evidence of things not seen.  

    Is that an appropriate and correct leap to make?  Does making that leap make you a better or worse person? 

    Everyone makes that leap, and frequently.  There simply isn’t enough time in the day to have every decision and choice you make be based on an absolutely completely informed set of data and perfect logical and moral reasoning.  


    Consider a person, begging on the street.

    Is this person genuinely needy, or doing fine but looking for easy money?  You can ask them, but since they have free will and might lie, you can’t know.  You can only choose to believe them or not believe them. And that decision will be based on a lot of things that have nothing to do with the truth of their need.  

    Such as whether they are a good liar.  Or whether they’ve been raised to be ashamed of being genuinely in desperate need, and so doubt their own starvation, and that doubt shows and makes them look a liar when they’re actually in genuinely desperate circumstances.  

    If they are genuinely needy, starving, what do you do?

    Do you take them to the nearest place to obtain food, even if it is a five-star restaurant with prices where a basic lunch costs more than you make in day, and tell them to choose whatever best meets their need?  

    Do you take them to the nearest hospital emergency room, for treatment for severe malnutrition and starvation, and sign your name to pay for the treatment to save this human life?  Because, with genuine starvation, a person doesn’t merely need food, they need intense medical treatment, to gradually re-introduce their body to food, without causing severe complications that can come from a starving person over-eating when they can finally get food.  

    Do you offer them any food you are carrying (say, your packed lunch) knowing that it might be quite inappropriate for their well-being, or even dangerous, such as if you packed a peanut-butter sandwich and the person you’re giving it to might have a severe allergy to peanuts so that just unwrapping the sandwich might kill them?  

    Do you give them one of several grocery-store gift-cards that you carry for this purpose, with the possibility that even though it is for a “local” store or chain, if they’re poor enough to beg, they may well be too poor to get to the nearest location of that chain, because it is too far to walk when you’re starving, and they have no money for the bus?

    Or do you give them some money, to use to meet their needs as they understand their needs?  Knowing that their understanding of their needs and how those needs are best met may be quite different from what you think their needs are and how you think those needs should be met?  Such as knowing that drug use is a common thing among the desperately needy, because while it doesn’t work as a substitute for good nutrition and safe and comfortable living conditions, a dose of a powerful drug may be more effective for temporary comfort than the amount of high-quality nutritious food they might buy for the same money.  


    This sort of decision is a matter of faith, for everyone.

    I see someone begging.  I am not in a position where I could ever fully understand their need and how best to help them.  I can never, objectively, say “I know” about the full nature of their need.  

    Do I believe that the apparent need that I see is real?

    Do I believe that I should meet the short term need in the way that most quickly provides relief, such as the nearest source of ready-to-eat food, even if it is a three-star place where lunch for one is in the triple-digits in US dollars?

    Do I believe that I should choose a form of relief that I approve of, such as nutritious food?  And then choose a course such as buying a large bunch of bananas, every day, and offering some to each beggar I see?  Not knowing if they like bananas, or if it is the best form of help for their need.  Or even if they might be deadly allergic so that a banana might kill them, but that they’re starving enough to eat any food they can reach, anyway?  

    Do I believe that their information about their needs is more complete than my information about their needs, and give them help of the most fungible sort, money?  Even if they might use it in a way that I don’t care for, or even something illegal such as a powerful drug that can completely alleviate their pain, at least for a while?  


    The key, I think, is not to insist on knowing rather than believing.  Nor is it to treat believing as the same thing as knowing.

    Rather, it is knowing what you do and don’t know.

    And knowing what you do and don’t consider important.

    And knowing what principles you consider important when deciding on how to act when you don’t know all the appropriate information to reach the point of “I know” but when you do know that some action would likely be a good thing in the world.  

    Then, when those things come together, you say “I believe.”  

    And you consider the certainty of that belief.

    And you think about possible consequences.  

    And after thinking, you act on your decision, based on knowing, on believing, and on thinking about the combination of knowing and believing that you have, to do what you think is right. 


    I know I’m at a bus stop in the middle of a Buffalo blizzard, and this person is begging.  I know that the clothes I see them wearing are rags, inadequate to a Buffalo blizzard.  I know that the Buffalo economy has been rough for quite a while, so that many people are genuinely struggling with a wide variety of needs.

    I choose to believe that it is unlikely that anyone who isn’t genuinely in need will choose to be outdoors in a blizzard in order con people waiting for public transportation out of a few cents spare change.

    So I believe this person is genuinely needy.  With significant but not absolutely conclusive evidence.  

    I know my bus will arrive in five minutes.  I know I don’t know enough about this person to be able to make any sort of reliable decision about what they need, based on whatever information I can convince them to share in those five minutes I’ll be waiting.

    I know that I have $10 in my wallet, plus a transit day-pass that will get me home, and enough money in the bank and as cash at home to make it through to my next paycheck even if I give away that $10.  

    I choose to believe that this person will know their needs better than I can know their needs from five minutes acquaintance.  

    I choose to believe that, even if they don’t spend that $10 in the way that I imagine I’d spend $10 if I had their problems, that they will be better off if I share that $10 with them, rather than holding it back.  for myself.  

    I choose to believe that, even if it is, by my standards, abused, the freedom and autonomy that comes from having a little bit of cash is important for every human being.  


    And I know that in real life, I don’t have the time or mental capacity to give every choice I make that level of analysis.  I’d spend eternity thinking through imagined potential consequences, and never actually do any good.  

  • Gotchaye

    Perhaps I’m just being too much like Mulder, but I’m still not sure what “believe” means to you after that.  I’m going to say what I’m getting from that; please correct where I get you wrong, if you wouldn’t mind.

    In most places in your example, ignoring “I choose…” language, you seem to me to have used it in the typical sense of “think X is true”, as in “So I believe this person is genuinely needy.  With significant but not absolutely conclusive evidence.”  Just the dictionary sense of “believe” that has nothing to do with faith, and which in non-weird cases would count as knowledge if correct.

    But then there’s this “I choose to believe” language and this:

    And knowing what principles you consider important when deciding on how to act when you don’t know all the appropriate information to reach the point of “I know” but when you do know that some action would likely be a good thing in the world. 

    This is doing two things, it seems to me.  First, it’s offering the option of using “believe” to signal uncertainty.  Maybe you think of yourself as knowing something if you’re 99% sure, but you use “believe” when you’re only, say, 60% sure in order to communicate that uncertainty.  This is also pretty standard usage where I’m from, signaled by the seemingly superfluous use of “I believe”, as in: “I believe the tickets cost $10”  That means that I think it’s pretty likely that the tickets cost $10, but it wouldn’t shock me to be wrong, and you shouldn’t get very mad at me if you find out they actually cost more.  Likewise “I know” is often used for emphasis, to assert even more confidence than a plain “the tickets cost $10” would, even though anyone who hears me say simply that “the tickets cost $10” would have no problem saying that I both “believe” and “know” that the tickets cost $10 (provided they actually do), and in many situations someone who hears me say “I believe the tickets cost $10” wouldn’t later say that I believed the tickets were $10.

    But you also say that the consequences of what we might do on the basis of some belief ought to matter in determining whether we “choose to believe”.   So considering that, I want to say that “choose to believe” means “choose to act as if I think possibility X is instantiated in situation Y, even though there’s a fair to good chance it isn’t”, perhaps because it’s more important to act correctly when X than it is to do something different when ~X.  But all of your examples seem to me to be pretty likely to be true, so I’m not sure that you intended that reading.  Can you “choose to believe” something while also thinking that it is probably false (or at least that it does not reach whatever threshold is required to reasonably think that something is true)?  If so, I’m having a hard time seeing how you’re talking about epistemology at all; belief reduces to behavior, and “choosing to believe” X coexists with not believing X, for the usual sense of “believe”.  If not, then I’m not clear on how this turns out differently than the very first definition I mentioned, and I don’t see what work the consequences are doing.

  • Yeah, that’s the one. I believe that’s the episode which got the Season 2 boxset an 18 rating in the UK…

  • Why doesn’t your god heal amputees?

  • Mrsgrimble

     That’s *always* the problem with these prayer studies.  There’s simply no way you can make sure  that nobody in the ‘no prayers’ control group is being prayed for. How would anybody know, for instance, that a hospital worker isn’t praying for the patients on her round, or that a patient’s relative hasn’t organised a prayer request chain?

  • Mrsgrimble

     “Why doesn’t your god heal amputees?”
    Well, for a start, He’s not MY God.

    Jerome, I’m guessing you’re a newbie to this community and unaware of the diversity of beliefs (and non-belief)  amongst the commenters here.  So I won’t rip you a new one.
    But in future, read all the comments first – the ‘amputees’ bit has already been aired.

  • Ross Thompson


    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….

    Wow, that’s about the worst way to use alignments. Not that I’ve found a good way yet, but there are several that are less bad.

    The last panel here is about the best explanation of what D&D alignments mean (or should mean): http://www.giantitp.com/comics/oots0282.html


    How would anybody know, for instance, that a hospital worker isn’t
    praying for the patients on her round, or that a patient’s relative
    hasn’t organised a prayer request chain?

    Or, for that matter, that there isn’t a group of nuns somewhere fervently praying for the health of everyone who doesn’t currently have anyone praying for them?

    After all, if I’m going to take seriously the efficacy of intercessory prayer at all, there’s no reason I can see that I should disregard the potential efficacy of intercessory prayer for an unspecified (and unknown) target.

  •  FWIW, I’m perfectly OK with someone having a conception of happiness such that their happiness depends on the eventual resolution of events that won’t resolve until after their death.

    That said, it”s radically different from my conception of happiness, and I will have a very hard time talking about “happiness” with them until we’ve worked out the differences between our conceptions, and we might do better just not to use the word at all in such a conversation.

    There’s glory for you.

  • I wrote notes towards a D&D 3rd edition campaign that never happened, but one of the big story arcs was going to involve Duke Alverac, a royal appointee who was overseeing a county and doing pretty much whatever he wanted with it. I was going to have the PCs be the Magnificent Seven (“Alverac” is an anagram of “Calvera”, the villain from that movie) and make the paladins and knights choose their masters. Are you Lawful (helping Alverac oppress the peasants, because he’s the overseer of that territory) or are you Good (committing treason to help the helpless)?

    Nothing ever came of it, unfortunately. But I was looking forward to that one.

  • Isabel C.

    I would absolutely play that, and it would be awesome. 

    Although I can see PCs going in several ways there: outright fighting against Alverac, trying to gather proof of what he’s doing and take it to the king, helping get peasants to safety elsewhere, etc.  Seems like fun!

  •  If there was room for a courtier-type character in the party, I’d be taking a very hard look at the Duke’s commission from the king and the laws of the kingdom, as well as the duties and privileges of knights and paladins. In particular, I’d see if any of what he does happens to interfere with royal prerogatives since that’d be the easiest to draw official action. Of course, a great deal of how that approach works out depends on the character of the king.

    It may look less heroic, but a Lawful Good lawyer can be a great asset in the right setting. From what I’ve heard, the Legend of the Five Rings setting is a good one to try it, but I mostly know it from the card game several years ago.

  • Also, all the folks who talk up the “pray for health” thing never seem to stop and ask, “what if someone who hates the patient is praying for them to get sicker?”

    I mean, it’d be an asshole thing to do, but if it’s never been done ever in the history of the human race, I’d be very surprised.

    If one wants to presuppose the existence of a Being or Deity or Force that responds to prayer, maybe the reason they’re so maddeningly impossible to reliably convince to intervene is precisely because they’re already very aware of the dangers of validating the human desire to inflict harm, instead of good – so best not to respond at all than respond in one form and not in another.

  • I wanted it to be more open and “sandbox” than just doing another damned dungeon crawl. If they committed treason I planned to do an end-of-arc story where they got captured and put on trial, and the king secretly attending in disguise to see why they rebelled. They would have received a royal pardon for serving good rather than the law, and part of the party’s reward was going to be getting the baron’s old position–whoever the party paladin or knight was would be the new Shire Reeve of the region.

  • Dan Audy

    Legend of the Five Rings is a great setting for good vs lawful issues and exploring what ‘honour’ means to different people.  The unfortunate side is that it does so through orientalism (or cultural appropriation depending on your preferred verbiage).

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    “what if someone who hates the patient is praying for them to get sicker?”

    I mean, it’d be an asshole thing to do, but if it’s never been done
    ever in the history of the human race, I’d be very surprised.

    It’s called “Imprecatory Prayer”, and it’s still practiced.  A while back, a Rev. Wiley Drake got called out by Our Host for it.

  • Well, there is a line in the Bible about not cursing others, no?

  • Bianca Leichnitz

    The episode you’re referring to is Clyde Bruckman’s Finale Repose. I’m working my way through the X-files a the moment, so it’s all very fresh in my mind. What a fantastic episode, definitely one of my favorites so far.