Miracles and Wonder, Faith and Diaspora: On Tope Folarin's "Miracle"

This is week one of the "Blogging the Caine," in which I and a group of other writers write about the shortlist for this year's Caine Prize. Feel free to join the conversation, here, on twitter (#caineprize), or anywhere else. Send me an email (aaron AT thenewinquiry DOT com) if you'd like to mix it up with us, and see links to other participants in the right margin of this post.

The first story, in alphabetical order, is Tope Folarin's "Miracle," which you can read in its entirety here.

That “miracles” are not real is, I think, a secular assumption that many of Tope Folarin’s readers will share. Some of us might say that we believe in miracles, and we might enjoy indulging in the fantasy of divine intervention, or biblical stories that describe Jesus’ ability to turn water into wine, or a few loaves and fishes into many loaves and fishes. But to turn one thing into another thing is the provenance of medieval alchemy, and we are moderns. We might say we believe in angels, but we tend to put the lives of our loved ones in the hands of doctors, instead of prayer. We believe in science.

“Miracle” is just a word, of course. But we don’t usually use the word “miracle” to describe the way an airplane carries someone across an ocean, across the world, in a matter of hours. It’s not a miracle, because it’s normal, and the word “science” tells us what the normal can be expected to be. Science tells us that a plane without fuel will not fly very far, and only when it does—when a plane without fuel is still able to fly—will we call it a “miracle.” We don’t call it that very often, because that isn’t a thing that happens. Otherwise, the flight of an airplane is just the sort of thing that can be expected to happen, reliably, and through a process that we all could convince ourselves that we understand (if we spent the appropriate time studying the science of flight). And so we get on a plane, and get off, and no miracles are seen or named.

That is not the end of it, of course; that’s only the beginning. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a miracle, as Arthur C. Clarke almost said, and a common modern jeremiad is the demand that we notice how miraculous the modern world is. If the world has been disenchanted by science, the death of wonder and belief is apparently a reversible process. Louis CK’s riff on how amazing technology is, for example, begins with the premise that we are all bored by our ipods and cell phones, and he berates us for being unhappy with the material splendor with which we are blessed. “Everything is Amazing and Nobody is Happy” could be the title of a sermon, and it probably is; you have everything you need to be happy, if you’ll just let yourself believe it. The good news is that you’re already saved. And we laugh because we believe it.

On the other hand, when Paul Simon sings that “these are the days of miracles and wonder” (the song is “Boy in the Bubble,” from Graceland) there is real urgency in his voice, when he urges us not to cry. Technology has not fixed everything; everything might be amazing, but people aren’t happy because modernity also bring destruction. Especially against the backdrop of Simon’s chipper use of South African township sounds, the figure of “lasers in the jungle” or the “baby with the baboon heart,” remind us of guerrilla warfare and the heart of darkness, that the miracle of a long distance call might also be the remote-detonated bomb in a baby carriage. There are soldiers on the road that takes us on our pilgrimage to Graceland.

* * *

Tope Folarin’s “Miracle” seems like an easy story, but I don’t think it is. It’s a diaspora story, written by a diasporic Nigerian who was born and raised in the United States—in Utah, Texas, Georgia, Maine—who has spent time in South Africa but even more time in Great Britain, and whose connection to Nigeria is at least an interesting question. Which is maybe what a diaspora is, an interesting question; the question mark might be the most important part of Countee Cullen’s “What is Africa to me?” and while Cullen gives lots of answers to that question, none of them are as interesting as the question itself, a question the poem never stops asking.

At the Caine Prize website, there’s an interesting dissonance between the two ways Folarin is identified; on the front page, he is contextualized as “Tope Folarin (Nigeria),” which is simple and unambiguous, his name and his country. On the biography page, however, he is the only Nigerian writer (of the four) whose biography does not include the word “Nigeria”: his life consists, apparently, of being educated in the USA and Great Britain, living in Washington DC, and associations with Callaloo, the Institute for Policy Studies, and the Hurston/Wright foundation, all more or less DC based. Is he American? Is he African? What is Africa to him? These are good questions, I think, but only as long as they are unanswered. Diaspora unsettles and mobilizes; it does not put down roots, but tears them up to be seen.

In the story itself, the diaspora is a North Texas Pentecostal revival service. It is a scene in which miracles can happen, or are expected to. And a miracle does happen, the same way diaspora does: it’s there when it’s looked for and named, but if you try to touch it, prove it, or test it, you may find that it’s not what you thought it was. You may find nothing more than the presence of its absence, the way we look for the word Nigeria in Folarin’s bio page, and don’t find it. He was born a Nigerian, and he is a Nigerian, but if we look for the content of that fact, if we try to substantiate it, we will come up empty. That’s not what it means.

* * *

“Miracle” begins with an inherited “we” narration. It will eventually become clear that the protagonist is a young boy, but at the beginning of the story, we only know that he is part of an “us” which is being composed by a pentecostal revival service. “Our heads move simultaneously, and we smile at the tall, svelte man who strides purposefully down the aisle to the pulpit,” he writes; “Once there, he raises both of his hands then lowers them slightly. He raises his chin and says let us pray…” And they do.

This kind of religion is easy, inherited. To be a part of that “we” is simply to melt into the crowd, and for the first six pages of the story—until almost precisely the half-way point—the protagonist is part of the crowd, no different from everyone around him. Then, suddenly, he is. It begins with the Preacher’s discussion of miracles:

“I do not perform these miracles because I wish to be celebrated. I perform these miracles because God works through me, and he has given me the grace to show all of you what is possible in your physical and spiritual lives. And now God is telling me; you, come up here.

We remain standing because we don’t know to whom he is referring.

“YOU! You! You! YOU! Come up here!”

We begin to walk forward, shyly, slowly. I turn around suddenly, and I realize I’m no longer a part of the whole. I notice, then, that the lights are too bright, and the muggy air in the room settles, fog-like, on my face. Now I am in the aisle, and I see the blind old man pointing at me.

“You, young man. Come here. Come up here for your miracle!”

I just stand there, and I feel something red and frightening bubbling within me. I stand there as the prophet points at me, and I feel hands pushing me, forcing me to the front. I don’t have enough time to wrap up my unbelief and tuck it away...

This passage is the first hint we have received that the main character has any unbelief. It is also the moment when his “I” is distinguished from the crowd, when he is suddenly face-to-face with the question of what he is to do, as opposed to what “we” are doing. He becomes aware of his own body, in fact, in the same moment that his reader becomes aware of him: “we begin to walk forward, shyly, slowly. I turn around suddenly, and I realize I’m no longer a part of the whole.” A “we” takes the first step forward, but an “I” finishes it.

Why does the boy walk forward? The miracle which the preacher promises will turn out to be a laying on hands that is to cure his asthma and his poor vision. It does not. The preacher—who is apparently blind—gives the impression that he can see into the boy’s soul, but this impression, too, can be taken apart with a little skepticism.

Something is ailing you. There is some disease, some disorder that has colonized your body, and it is threatening to colonize your soul. Tell me, are you having problems breathing?”

I ?nd myself surprised at his indirect reference to my asthma. But now the doubts are bombarding me from every direction. Maybe he can hear my wheezing? It’s always harder for me to breathe when I’m nervous, and I’m certainly nervous now.

“Yes sir,” I reply.

“Ah, you do not need to con?rm. I now have a ?x on your soul, and the Holy Spirit is telling me about the healings you need.” He brushes his ?ngers down my face, and my glasses fall to the ground. Everything becomes dim.

“How long have you been wearing glasses my son?”

“Since I was ?ve, sir.”

How skeptical should we be? The preacher is meant to be physically blind and spiritually far-sighted, but of course, it could easily be the reverse; having picked this boy out of a crowd, he could have heard his wheezing and deduced his bronchial disorder, whatever it is; he could have seen the thick lenses of the boy’s glasses, or (if he really is blind), he could have felt them when he touched the boy’s face. The scene is written to allow both readings, to suggest that the preacher could be a fraud, while also allowing for the possibility that he is not. But perhaps that’s not the interesting question. Perhaps the interesting question is this: when the preacher pointed, why did the boy feel singled out? When he was called, why did he respond?

* * *

If we are secular readers, if we expect the most demonstrative and miraculous forms of Christianity to be exposed as a frauds, then the title of this story leads us to expect to see the miracle debunked. When he sets the story in a Pentecostal church service—and names it a specifically “Nigerian” brand of charismatic Christianity—Folarin sets up the secular reader to expect that this 419 scam will be exposed for what it is, a set of desirable lies. There is a whole genre of this kind of writing, in fact; in Nigeria, the classic examples might be Wole Soyinka’s The Trials of Brother Jero and Jero’s Metamorphosis, a pair of plays in which a charismatic preacher is both shown to be a predatory fraud—confiding his artifice to the audience—and uses his fraudulent power to gain political power. In the first play, he is merely a charlatan lusting after women; in the second play, written and set after Nigeria’s first military coup, Jero has becomes something much more dangerous, something much less comedic: he’s become an explanation for Nigeria’s failures of democracy, which, along with a deep and secular contempt for religion, has been the great theme of Soyinka’s career.

Soyinka wrote the Jero plays because he knows that miracles are not real. But along with the confident atheists (and latent unbelievers), some of Tope Folarin’s readers will actively believe that miracles are real. For those readers, as Kola Tubosun puts it, this story may come across as a slap in the face:

“If you are a devout pentecostal church-goer, you would probably force your laptop close as soon as it is all over, and head to church for a confession of sins, or a needed exorcism for the sin of indulgence. Tope Folarin has just eased you into empathizing with a churchgoer whose faith wasn’t strong enough to set him free, who laughed at the pastor’s theatrics even as he wished that they would yield fruitful results, and who in the end relapses into the ways of the flesh to deal with carnal troubles. If you are reading the story on a sheaf of papers, and as soon as you read the last sentence you crumple the sheets and throw them as hard as you can against the nearest object, you might be a Nigerian Christian.”

Wole Soyinka really dislikes these kinds of Christians. He dislikes Muslims more, of course; like the rest of the New Atheists, he seems to believe that all religions are equally bad, but Islam the most of all. But you can’t read Soyinka writing about religion and not get the deep and basic antipathy he has for “religion” as a category, and especially for its politicized variants. When he asks “can religion peacefully cohabit with humanism in the 21st century?” he mainly means political Islams like Al Quaeda or Boko Haram—as you have to read very little between the lines to observe—but his secularism is also, itself, political, in the way that it expels religious belief from politics and subordinates it to its functional use value.

For a secularist like Soyinka, then, a de-politicized religion is not necessarily a bad thing. At best, religion can be a comfort or an aid, a useful fiction and a literary commodity. It can help bring people together, help them live at peace with each other, and it can even teach us useful ways of living in the world. For Soyinka, in other words, religion is just “culture.” And when it exceeds the bounds of the cultural—and begins to pry into the political—it is a bad thing, to be mocked, opposed, and destroyed.

* * *

Is Tope Folarin this kind of secularist? Kola Tubosun suggested that devout Christians will view the story as an assault on their faith, but if they do, the grounds on which they do so are much less certain than if they hurl a Soyinka book across the room. For all his brilliance as a writer, Soyinka has an intense faith in his own ability to ascertain the truth, and it’s this faith that empowers him to write off the religious as credulous fools or crooks. If you are one of the people he’s talking about, and if you feel anger towards him for dividing the world into sheep and goats, then you are not wrong to feel attacked. He has judged you and found you wanting.

Folarin’s address to religious faith is much more complicated. As he explained in an interview from 2007—when he was a Rhodes scholar—Folarin’s faith was (at least then) something he could no more disown than he could fully identify with. As he wrote:

It’s something I struggle with a lot. My parents are Evangelical Pentecostals, so they are very vocal in their beliefs. There’s nothing like being in a church while the music is pumping and everyone is believing at the same time. It’s this amazing, transcendent experience that really can’t be replicated anywhere. I appreciate that aspect of it.

Obviously, there’s always this internal debate between the stuff that you’re learning and the beliefs that you’ve had for a very long, long time. Like anyone else, I really struggled with that in college. I read a few books when I started college like Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. I was really angry after reading that book for a number of things. Religion was one of those things. I saw my parents as accepting a framework that had been foisted onto them centuries ago, not really questioning that at all, so I did.

By the end of my college experience, I had come full circle. I had a financially difficult time in college. Although it ended well (getting the scholarship), I had actually been kicked out of school for financial reasons when I got the scholarship. I entered my senior year and I wasn’t even sure if I’d graduate. The only thing that really got me through was faith and the belief that it was not going to end that way. There was a reason I was going through the trouble. There was a reason it wasn’t going well. I just had to persevere. There’s no way I could have done that on my own, just believing in my own ability or faculties to get through it. It was a help to believe in something external and higher and more powerful than I.

I’ve quoted this response at some length because Folarin’s accommodation of uncertainty is something you’d never find in a political jeremiad for or against religion. People like Soyinka and Brother Jero sell the simplicity of certainty in an uncertain and complicated world, because it is a great comfort to be told that the world is divided between the knowledgeable and the ignorant, or that your political enemies are either credulous fools or foolish infidels. It is also a great comfort to believe that the things you believe are based in reality, in facts, in empirical truth. We know that God is real because look around you. Or, we know that there is no God because, again, look around you.

In that passage about his struggles with faith, Folarin lives in doubt. This is a hard thing to do, and much more uncomfortable than Soyinka’s glib and often very sloppy generalizations. To have faith and to struggle to know whether to have faith in that faith, this is truly difficult: to come to terms with one’s doubting belief, or the extent to which one’s faith in unbelief is itself a kind of faithful blindness. The hard way to believe is to start with the grounds of your unbelief. And the hard way to un-believe is to start with your own credulousness.

* * *

True faith does not need miracles; Doubting Thomas believed when he could put his fingers in Christ’s wounds, but it’s the point of the story that this miraculous proof was only necessary because Thomas lacked faith. Doubt needs a miracle, but faith—belief without reason—does not. In the story, the protagonist marks his progress from “we” to “I” by the passage from unbelief to faith:

I begin to believe in miracles. I realize that many miracles have already happened; the old prophet can see me even though he’s blind, and my eyes feel different somehow, huddled beneath their thin lids. I think about the miracle of my family, the fact that we’ve remained together despite the terror of my mother’s abrupt departure, and I even think about the miracle of my presence in America. My father reminds my brother and me almost every day how lucky we are to be living in poverty in America, he claims that all of our cousins in Nigeria would die for the chance, but his words were meaningless before. Compared to what I have already experienced in life, compared to the tribulations that my family has already weathered, the matter of my eyesight seems almost insigni?cant. Of course I can be healed! This is nothing. God has already done more for me than I can imagine. This healing isn’t even for me. It is to show others, who believe less, whose belief requires new fuel, that God is still working in our lives.

What kind of healing does the boy need? His eyes have glasses, and his asthma is not life-threatening. And the fact that his eyes remain unhealed, that his breath remains labored, this is as unimportant to him as the question of whether or not the preacher was truly blind. “The prophet performed many more miracles that day,” he writes, but he’s not referring to the miracle of healing or knowing. That’s not what religion is for, and it provides no certainty. Instead, the miracle occurs after wards: “My father beamed all the way home, and I felt that I had been healed, in a way, even if my eyes were the same as before”:

That evening, after tucking my brother and me in, my father dropped my glasses into a brown paper bag, and he placed the bag on the nightstand by my bed. “You should keep this as evidence, so that you always remember the power of God,” he whispered in my ear.

The next morning, when I woke up, I opened my eyes, and I couldn’t see a thing. I reached into the bag and put on my glasses without thinking. My sight miraculously returned.

The miracle is not the fact that these lenses restore his sight. The miracle is what the glasses become a reminder of, the "we" that his brief experience of isolation brought into focus. Only as an "I" could the meaning of that "we" truly become apparent, just as only the total lack of proof could prove the existence of faith. To believe, even knowing that you lack a reason to believe, that  is faith. To call glasses miraculous, exactly when science provides an all-too-satisfying explanation, that is faith. And to be Nigerian, even when you've barely lived in Nigeria, when your passport and diplomas and associations all say something else, well, that is a kind of faith, too.