On Mulberry Street

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In the first place, I think there must have been an editorial mishap in the assigned title of Hitchens’ next chapter. It was “The Tawdriness of the Miraculous and the Decline of Hell.” The chapter is about the former, and not about the latter at all. I can only conjecture that it was at one time going to be a longer chapter, but events intervened, as they so often do. This being the case, I will not undertake to answer Hitchens on the question of Hell here since the decline of Hell has apparently had a corresponding decline in comments made about it by Hitchens in this chapter.

But Hitchens does object to tawdry miracles, again on the basis of Ockham’s razor. The particular application of that razor is this time brought to us courtesy of David Hume. If you think you have witnessed a miracle, there are two possibilities.

“The first is that the laws of nature have been suspended (in your favor). The second is that you are under a misapprehension, or suffering from a delusion. Thus the likelihood of the second must be weighed against the likelihood of the first . . . And if you are separated from the ‘sighting’ by many generations, and have no independent corroboration, the odds must be adjusted still more drastically” (p. 141).

I actually think the winnowing process here, as stated, is quite reasonable. But there is a hidden worldview assumption tucked away here, one that needs to be brought out into the open. If you are the kind of person who believes that the likelihood of miracles is precisely zero (because of a previous commitment to materialism), then you will automatically assume that you were mistaken or deluded. You never even have to go check. “Can’t happen.” But if you are the kind of person who finds pictures of the Blessed Virgin in your bathroom mold, or (for gullible Protestants) an image of Billy Graham on the tortilla, then your problem is easily resolved the other way. “It’s a sign!” But if you believe that miracles are possible but rare, then you will proceed with caution — disbelieving most accounts of miracles, but not all.

One of the miracles that all genuine Christians affirm is the miracle of the resurrection, and I am grateful that Hitchens spends some time on this — and not just on the kind of miracles that could be easily reproduced by a half competent stage magician. But in his discussion of the resurrection, he says something astonishing.

“For now, and on a review even of the claims made by the faithful, one can say that resurrection would not prove the truth of the dead man’s doctrine, nor his paternity, nor the probability of still another return in fleshly or recognizable form” (p. 143).

In other words, Christopher Hitchens does not believe that Jesus came back from the dead but, just to be sure, he wants to make it clear that even if Jesus did conquer death, he, Hitchens, wants to reserve the right to continue in his unbelief. This is deep-rooted unbelief. No, it is more than unbelief — it is defiance. And it is the same kind of unbelief that we see in the resurrection accounts in the gospels. The first group to know of the resurrection were the guards posted at the tomb, and the second group were the men who had had Christ killed in the first place. They then bribed the guards to lie about what had happened. In other words, they knew Christ had risen, just as He had declared that He would and they were still opposed to Him. The third group to know of the resurrection were Christ’s women disciples, and the fourth group, bringing up the rear, were the male disciples. Hitchens is quite right here. Knowledge of the resurrection does not amount to faith in the one who rose. That kind of faith is a gift from heaven, and it is a gift that only God can give.

“Having no reliable or consistent witnesses, in anything like the time period needed to certify such extraordinary claims, we are finally entitled to say that we have a right, if not an obligation, to respect ourselves enough to disbelieve the whole thing” (p. 143).

There is another hidden assumption here. Hitchens wants “reliable or consistent witnesses.” But if there were witnesses to Christ’s resurrection who did not then follow Him, in what sense can they be called reliable? And if they did follow Him, and added the voice of their witness to the five hundred who saw the risen Lord, this would give Hitchens a basis for dismissing them — they are obvious partisans now. In other words, he wants an objective witness, the kind who would testify that Jesus rose from the dead, while refusing at the same time to worship Him. But that kind of “objectivity” is not available when we come to the resurrection. Those who knew of the resurrection without corresponding faith in Christ had every motive to lie about it. And those who submitted to Him as the Son of God (Rom. 1:4) would not be considered “objective” as far as Hitchens is concerned.

With that, Hitchens then launches into a discussion of various “tawdry” miracles and, just as with the chapter on Islam, I found myself largely agreeing with him here. Talking about the kind of miracle popular in Roman Catholic circles, Hitchens says, “Extend this to the present day, where the statues of virgins or saints are sometimes said to weep or bleed” (p. 144). I was reminded of the time, years ago, when I was reading through Augustine’s City of God, and had the enjoyable sensation of seeing that august church father mocking the faux-miracles of paganism. If I remember correctly, his example was a statue of Apollo that wept. There is a certain kind of miracle that is just the kind of thing that a carnal heart would think up, and this kind of weeping, bleeding miracle fits that description.

But one of the most striking things about the gospel accounts (when compared to other ancient writings about Jesus) is the strict economy of miracles. Many religious writers, once they warm to their subject, appear to subscribe to the view that if “one’s good, two’s better.” Now the miraculous cannot be removed from orthodox Christianity and, as Hitchens appears to acknowledge, the central event of the resurrection is a non-negotiable item for all faithful Christians. But at the same time, it is striking how the other miracles that Christ performed are held, as it were, close to the chest. They are not soft-pedaled, or denied, but they are definitely held in their appropriate place. “A wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign.” Carnal stories of the miraculous are the religious equivalent of And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street by Dr. Seuss. Hitchens is perfectly within his rights to object to these, and I share his objection. But he is wrong to confound the “wonder a minute” crowd with the judicious confirmation of claims to divine authority found in Scripture. I wouldn’t want to listen to anybody speak to me in the name of God without “seeing his papers.” Doing in the name of God what only God can do (and not what a stage magician could do) is the signature at the bottom of those papers (2 Cor. 12:12).

Just as an aside, Hitchens throws into this discussion of the miraculous a different matter altogether, which is the ministerial interpretation of providential circumstances. If a calamity or disaster is said to be the result of a particular sin, this does not involve the miraculous at all. A man reaps what he sows, and the same thing goes for nations. It is the role of the Church to call the nation to repentance, and for preachers to interpret certain disasters as judgments (Katrina, 9-11, etc.) is not a bogus use of their authority, and it is not an appeal to the miraculous. Such connections could be silly (Katrina was a judgment on our nation because God was angry about the sloppy referees in the Super Bowl), or they could be judicious observations (Katrina was a judgment on a city built well below sea level in hurricane country, which city thought it a good idea to try to govern their affairs through corruption, drunkenness, perversion, and vice). But even if such a connection were made erroneously, it would not be an example of an appeal to the miraculous.

I was grateful for a couple things in this chapter, and so let me finish with some comments on those. One was minor and the other more significant. The first is that, in a passing illustration, Hitchens allows that the 17th Earl of Oxford was the true author of the plays attributed to Shakespeare. The more of that kind of thing the better. Joe Sobran convinced me years ago.

“It does not matter to me whether Homer was one person or many, or whether Shakespeare was a secret Catholic or a closet agnostic. I should not feel my own world destroyed if the greatest writer about love and tragedy and comedy and morals was finally revealed to have been the Earl of Oxford all along . . .” (p. 150).

Now I won’t go into all the reasons for thinking this now, but let me test the limits of Hitchens on this one. There is also good reason for believing that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, was the secret author of the Martin Marprelate tracts. And if you take these two data together, this means that the “greatest writer about love and tragedy and comedy and morals” was actually, at least in the late 1580’s, one of the rowdiest Puritans ever. Now there’s a fun thought experiment, one that I am currently pursuing in the form of an article that I am sure no one will ever publish.

The more significant acknowledgment from Hitchens follows just after this.

“But there is a great deal to be learned and appreciated from the scrutiny of religion, and one often finds oneself standing atop the shoulders of distinguished writers and thinkers who were certainly one’s intellectual and sometimes even one’s moral superiors. Many of them, in their own time, had ripped away the disguise of idolatry and paganism, and even risked martyrdom for the sake of disputes with their own co-religionists” (p. 151).

This is a tone that would have been far more fitting in a book challenging religion like this, had that tone prevailed throughout the book. But Hitchens actually can’t afford even this much because it is a tone (even in this short section) that contradicts the thesis of the book, which is that religion poisons everything. But not only would the tone of the book be improved, so would the accuracy. Hitchens points here to the kind of gullibility that makes hucksterism in religious affairs so easy, and he is right to do so. In the high middle ages there were enough pieces of the Virgin Mary’s veil on display in the holy places of Europe to make a tent for Barnum and Baily. And anybody who is too pious to find this funny has the kind of piety that always gives the Christian faith a bad name. A certain kind of piety gives the Gentiles occasion to blaspheme. The mind-numbing credulity that afflicts a certain kind of Christian reminds me of the justice in Oscar Wilde’s comment that anybody who could read about the death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop without laughing had a heart of stone. There are plenty of miracle-mongers who are doing their thing in the name of Jesus, and they deserve everything that Hitchens can deliver to them, and they deserve it good and hard. But as Hitchens acknowledges here briefly, and should do so far more extensively, this is the same kind of critique of gullibility that is found in John Calvin’s Inventory of Relics. When Hitchens comes to attack this kind of credulity and hypocrisy, he finds that many Christians have preceded him.

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