The Book of Miracles: The Meaning of the Miracle Stories in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam
By Kenneth L. Woodward
Simon & Schuster, 400 pp.

Voltaire, everyone's favorite skeptic, once wrote in his "Philosophical Dictionary," "It is impossible that the infinitely wise Being has made laws in order to violate them." What would the great philosophe make of the current upsurge of interest in angels and miracles that has somehow seized an allegedly secular society? Kenneth L. Woodward, who wrote a finely informative book called "Making Saints" a few years ago, has taken a deep breath and divided the maelstrom of perplexing issues and has surfaced with a richly readable and plausible book.

But Woodward does not just focus on the present. He rightly believes that in order to understand miracles today, we need to know what miracles have meant within the major religious traditions in the past. So he treats the reader to an engagingly crafted survey of five traditions, retelling a judiciously selected sample of the miracle stories found in both their classical and their more recent expressions. Happily, he does not offer mere descriptions of these signs and wonders but retells the actual stories in which they appear. He concludes with a short chapter (a bit too short for this reviewer) on modern miracles and a brief epilogue on "Miracles of Meaning."

This scope and the accuracy of this volume make it a welcome corrective not only to the many more superficial tracts that have recently appeared in miracles but to the rash of books summarizing the "teachings" of this prophet and that sage. Woodward believes that religion is not just about ethics and wisdom. It is also about mystery and transcendence. Miracles, in whatever tradition, and whether ancient or contemporary, remind us of this dimension of mystery, without which religion would be reduced to wise counsel and a schema of values.

But Woodward also has a nice touch. Instead of viewing from without, he manages to take the reader inside a tradition. In addition, since he begins each of his sections with an introduction to that religion, "A Book of Miracles" could serve well as an introductory text in comparative religion.

I was especially drawn to Woodward's engrossing account of post-Biblical Judaism. Like most Christians, I was never taught much about the history of Judaism after the time of Christ. Woodward artfully brings part of that delightful history to life in his description of eastern Europe in the 18th century, when there appeared the tzaddik, the rabbi of extraordinary holiness, "a vessel of divine grace...and a channel through which his followers themselves can draw closer to God." This means, of course, that the tzaddik can work miracles, especially of healing. The most famous of tzaddiks was the fascinating Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the mystical Jewish movement called Hasidism, who was famous for his healing powers and also for the way he pestered the more conventional rabbis of his time.

The other sections of the book, on miracles in medieval Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, continue to sparkle, again because Woodward tells the stories themselves, often quoting them at length. We take a fascinating journey among Sufis, saints, and sages. We hear about the emergence of relics as conveyors of miraculous power. We watch Krishna disport himself with miracles that are thought by his followers to be a form of lila, or divine play. But Krishna's sportiveness serves a serious purpose. When the old deity, Indra, threatens the livelihood of Krishna's followers with a torrential rainstorm, Krishna responds as follows:

"Krishna lifted up Mt. Govardhana with one hand and playfully held it aloft! Then [Krishna], holding the uprooted mountain, said to the cowherds with a smile, "Now quickly hide under here where I have stopped the rain."

Such "nature miracles," as Woodward points out, are often told to demonstrate the divine prowess of holy figures. And to prove their superiority over rivals. Remember the story of Elijah's contest with the priests of Baal on Mt. Carmel.

Woodward is not particularly concerned with arguing for or against the reality of miracles, which would have been a futile undertaking in any case. Rather, he leads the reader though a careful exploration of what they have meant, and what they now mean, which is not always the same thing.

He also avoids entering what could have been an enticing, if fascinating, labyrinth--the question of whether new advances in medicine make some of the ancient, and modern, healing stories considerably more plausible. Jesus healed people by touching them, talking to them, and ending their social isolation. It is now becoming increasingly clear, for example, that confidences in the power of the healer (the "placebo effect"), reducing stress, and helping sick people maintain their normal family and community ties has a measurable positive effect on healing. But to explore this would have required a different book.

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