God Works Mysteriously in Non-Mysterious Ways, Too
“Stop!” “Merge!” “Road work ahead!” Road signs point toward destinations, or warn against hazards. The ancients believed that almost anything could be a sign from the gods: dreams, comets, or the flights of birds. A “sign” need not be the sort of thing that breaks the laws of physics, it need only show us things like, “God is here.” “Walk this path.” “Rome will be victorious.” “No crossing, train coming.”
It could be a miracle, though, in fact the most common word for miracle in the New Testament is semeyon, or “sign.” Our word “semiotics,” the modern study of signs and signaling comes from the same root. This term is used 77 times in the New Testament. Another related word, used 16 times, is teras, a “wonder,” or “sight.” We usually find it in the phrase, “signs and wonders.”
Guidance in the Quest
In the third volume of C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan gives Jill four “signs” by which he says “I will guide you in your quest,” which was to find the lost prince of Narnia. Aslan tells Jill to repeat the signs aloud as she descends from his mountain into the murky lowlands. None of these signs involves suspension of natural law. He says she will meet an old friend, and should ask for his help. They are to travel north, and look for a ruined city, and then, “You shall find a writing on a stone in that ruined city, and you must do whatever the writing tells you.”
Jill and her classmate Eustace set out with a gloomy but good-hearted guide named Puddleglum. They must fight their way through a snowstorm to reach Harfang, the city of the Gentle Giants, before the doors close for the night. The travelers wade through snow as they cross a flat tableland. Strangely regular cliffs rise above them. They escape the storm by crawling through tunnels that shift directions at right angles. Eustace and Jill are thinking about warm baths, hot meals, and comfortable beds. They have forgotten to look for the promised writing.
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They reach Harfang safely, or so it seems, until they find its inhabitants wish to eat them. But the snow is washed away, and the travelers gaze out a window and see ruins of a giant city below them, upon which the words “UNDER ME” are clearly visible. They escape and make their way under the ruined city across a dark sea to an underworld palace. There they meet an effete young dandy, a stand-in for the miracle-denying skeptic David Hume, who informs them that what they had read as a “sign” was nothing of the sort. It was definitely no miracle:
Those words mean nothing to your purpose … Those words are all that is left of a longer script, which in ancient times, as [the queen of the underworld] remembers, expressed this verse:
‘Though under Earth and throneless now I be,
Yet, while I lived, all Earth was under me.’
‘Our Guide is Aslan’
Jill and Eustace heard this explanation of their “miraculous sign” and experienced a crisis of faith: “This was like cold water down the back to Scrubb and Jill, for it seemed to them that the words had nothing to do with their quest at all, and that they had been taken in by a mere accident.”
But Puddleglum remembered that miracles come by command of the One who sang the world into being, the Author of Nature and History: “There are no accidents. Our guide is Aslan; and he was there when the giant king caused the letters to be cut, and he knew already all things that would come of them, including this.”
God takes the initiative to speak, in other words. He can do so through any object: a donkey, the ruins of a giant king’s boast, or even a cheeseburger at McDonalds. But that’s a topic for my next column.
David Marshall, an educator and writer, has a doctoral degree in Christian thought and Chinese tradition. His most recent book is The Case for Aslan: Evidence for Jesus in the Land of Narnia.