In part one of my review of Lee Strobel’s The Case for Miracles I covered chapters 1-3, a section featuring Strobel’s interview of the skeptic Michael Shermer. In part two I covered chapters 4-6 featuring his interview with Craig Keener. Today we will briefly cover chapter 7 which features an interview with professor of religious studies Candy Gunther Brown of Indiana University.
To view all posts in this review series, please go to its index.
INTERVIEW #3 – CANDY GUNTHER BROWN
Chapter seven is entitled “The Science of Miracles” which sounds almost a contradiction in terms. If a miracle is “an event (1) brought about by the power of God that is (2) a temporary (3) exception (4) to the ordinary course of nature (5) for the purpose of showing that God has acted in history” (27) then it is necessarily not repeatable and therefore not testable. There can be no science about it.
The chapter opens with a review of the study on prayer referenced in Strobel’s interview with Michael Shermer (see part 1 for a discussion). The STEP study showed that intercessory prayer did not yield positive results for the patients who were the recipients of it. But Brown, a Harvard educated scholar, cries foul. Other prayer studies had demonstrated prayer’s effectiveness, particularly Christian prayer. But the STEP study failed because those praying were not orthodox Christians.
“So why do we see different results in STEP?” she asked. “Well, you’ve got different inclusion criteria. Look who’s doing the prayer and how they’re doing it. It’s apples and oranges compared to the [other prayer] studies” (131).
Strobel goes on to ask Brown if anything helpful can be gleaned from the STEP study. “Well, it is instructive on how not to conduct a study of Christian prayer” (131).
But was STEP a study on Christian prayer? So far as I can see, it was not though it does not seem that the study’s designers asked non-Christian groups (i.e. Muslims or Jews) to participate in the praying. Furthermore, it seems to me this is an attempt to make a theological statement on a scientific study. The study was designed to see if intercessory prayer worked generally, not whether a specific set of creedal beliefs were required to make them work.
What can be said is that STEP was not the first and it will not be the last of studies inquiring about the effectiveness of prayer. And we can be certain that even if good evidence appeared that prayer wasn’t effective, evangelicals would never accept it.
Brown’s Study in Africa
Brown’s work took her to Mozambique wherein many reports of healings were coming out. Strobel, drawing upon Tim Stafford, a Christian author, writes that Mozambique has four characteristics that are usually shared by places experiencing supernatural “outbreaks.”
- The prevalence of illiteracy: “Miracles show God’s power without language.”
- A lack of a framework for understanding sin and salvation.
- Limited medical care.
- People have a real belief in the spirit world. (134)
There is a lot that could be said, particularly with regards to numbers 1 and 4, but we will set those aside for now. Brown notes that in her research they met with a missionary couple who reported a variety of healings. Brown’s work focused on healings of blindness or deafness. Among twenty-four subjects who received prayer, many saw significant improvement in hearing and eyesight. But what we don’t read is whether Brown’s team also administered healthcare in conjunction with the prayer. It also doesn’t address why prayer worked in those instances but so often does not work in others, particularly in Western nations with abundant healthcare. Why is prayer effective in the third-world but so seemingly ineffective in the West?
What is more is that Brown’s work on prayer seems to emphasize Pentecostal and charismatic types of prayer. But what of those Christian denominations who see those movements as borderline heresy? Or what about those Christians who are cessationists and do not believe miraculous gifts described in the Bible are for today?
Some of my ignorance here is that I’ve not had an opportunity to read Black’s work in detail, particularly her books on the subject. But Strobel is at fault to a degree in this, especially if he’s interested in reaching skeptics like me. For example, Strobel writes of Brown’s work,
To me, Brown’s methodology seemed uncannily simple but intuitively valid. The only thing that changed between the pre-prayer and post-prayer tests was the fact that someone prayed to Jesus for the person to get better. And virtually everyone did improve to one degree or another, often astoundingly so (136).
There are many variables when dealing with people and this kind of naivety is not befitting someone with the journalistic credentials Strobel claims to have. Perhaps he did ask them and just didn’t include them in the book. I am not sure. But this chapter left a lot to be desired.
What Brown undoubtedly gets right in her interview with Strobel is her call for further research. “Something is going on,” he tells Strobel, “and it surely warrants further investigation” (137).
With that I agree.