Edging Toward Enchantment: Miracle Stories

During the winter the adult Bible class I help teach on Sunday mornings was doing a study of the Elijah and Elisha narratives in 1 and 2 Kings.

One Sunday my assignment was to teach through 2 Kings 6. The story that opens Chapter Six is another miracle story in a string of miracle stores from the preceding chapters. In 2 Kings 4 we see Elisha doing a series of miracles: Expanding a widow's store of oil (2 Kings 4.1-7), raising the son of the Shunammite woman from the dead (2 Kings 4.8-37), neutralizing some poisoned stew (2 Kings 4.38-41) and multiplying food to feed a hundred prophets (2 Kings 4.42-44). In 2 Kings 5 we have the healing of Naaman the leper. And then in 2 Kings 6 we get to this story:
2 Kings 6.1-7
The company of the prophets said to Elisha, “Look, the place where we meet with you is too small for us. Let us go to the Jordan, where each of us can get a pole; and let us build a place there for us to meet.” And he said, “Go.” Then one of them said, “Won’t you please come with your servants?” “I will,” Elisha replied. And he went with them.

They went to the Jordan and began to cut down trees. As one of them was cutting down a tree, the iron axhead fell into the water. “Oh no, my lord!” he cried out. “It was borrowed!” The man of God asked, “Where did it fall?” When he showed him the place, Elisha cut a stick and threw it there, and made the iron float. “Lift it out,” he said. Then the man reached out his hand and took it.
What do you do with a story like this in a Bible class full of educated, modern, Western Christians? Of course, from a narrative and literary perspective we can discuss how the miracle functions within the story. But what is the lesson in this story for us?

Do we think that axeheads can float in our own lives?

Do we expect miracles?

I asked this question of my Bible class because one of the things I've noticed over the years is the difference between my Sunday morning experience and my Monday and Wednesday night experiences.

On Sunday mornings I worship at the Highland Church of Christ. Highland is a mixed bag, demographically, but we are a pretty educated bunch, with lots of college professors in attendance. And by and large, the conversation about God at Highland tends toward the moral and therapeutic rather than the miraculous. God wants us to be good, moral people. Compassionate and concerned about injustice and suffering. And during times of struggle, stress, loss or tragedy we call upon God to give us peace, comfort, wisdom and strength. But we don't, by and large, expect miracles.We're much more likely to pray for comfort over the loss of an axehead than to pray for the axehead to float.

My experience on Monday and Wednesday nights is very different. As regular readers know, I teach a Bible class on Monday nights out at a prison. And on Wednesday nights I worship at Freedom Fellowship, a Highland church plant in a poor part of our town.

Out at the prison and at Freedom we expect miracles. There isn't any intellectual embarrassment about praying for axeheads to float. Shoot, people have experienced axeheads floating. Miracle stories are very common at the prison and at Freedom.

In short, my experience on Sunday mornings tends to be disenchanted while my experience on Monday and Wednesday nights tends to be enchanted.

For example, when I read the story of the axehead in Sunday morning Bible class we're all a bit embarrassed and puzzled by the story, more likely to think about the story in a literary sort of way than expecting anything like that to happen in our own lives. By contrast, if you read the story of the axehead out at the prison or at Freedom people there would say, "Totally have seen something like that happen."

This division between enchantment/disenchantment across socioeconomic and educational lines isn't anything new. Vatican elites are embarrassed by the magical and superstitious beliefs among poor Catholics worldwide. Religion is on the decline in the rich, secular West but charismatic and pentecostal spirituality is exploding in Third World contexts. And in my own town I step across the threshold when I move from worshiping with college-educated people to worshiping at Freedom or at the prison.

All this is to bring us to the point I made to my Bible class about the floating axehead story.

"Basically," I said, "our church tends toward disenchantment. Because of our education and wealth. Beyond a literary analysis, we don't know what to do with a miracle story like this. But my experience out at the prison and with Freedom is very different, much more enchanted. I don't know what to do with that disjoint. I just want to make the observation that the disjoint exists. It's my opinion that this is one of the least discussed fractures in the church, the fracture between the enchanted church and the disenchanted church, which is often correlated with education and socioeconomic status. Is it possible to overcome this divide?"

We didn't get much past me making these observations and putting this question to the class. But afterwards a few in the class encouraged me, at some point, to return to this subject. They expressed struggling with disenchantment. And they had also bumped up against the enchantment/disenchantment divide in their own lives--within a marriage, within a friendship, within the church. One person living with an enchanted Christianity where axeheads float clashing with another person whose disenchanted Christianity is discomfited by stories of floating axeheads. Did I, these class members asked, have any suggestions about how to overcome this divide? Or any thoughts about how disenchanted Christians might recover or edge toward a more enchanted Christianity?

I'd like to devote some posts to pondering these questions. While I'll be gathering these posts under the title "Edging Toward Enchantment" I won't be using "Part 1" or "Part 2" as we go. I'm not going to be building toward anything with these posts. Just collecting thoughts, ideas and impressions I have.

I want to ramble through some ideas and insights in a desultory way. Thinking out loud about enchantment and how we might recover it.

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