Yesterday I had the opportunity to chat with Elijah Stephens who is a documentary film maker from America, California. Stephens is underway in his own professional project focusing on medical miracles that have solid evidence. However, after him having read one of my own articles on this subject he decided to contact me so that we could “compare research notes.” At the moment Stephens is “an online Biola grad student in apologetics” and he is “making a documentary about miracles and medical evidence.” He has also “raised $130,000 on Kickstarter this time last year, and have been featured on fox news.” I highly recommend that readers have a glance at the brief Fox News preview, as well as Stephens’ own website for the documentary.
We roughly chatted for about 45 to 50 minutes over Skype (with a 10 hour time zone difference). However, prior to our actual dialogue I had a look at what he has done thus far. I found that he had interviewed many individuals that I dream to meet ranging from Craig Keener, to Heidi Baker, to Candy Brown and others; many of whom I have reviewed at this blog. I initially worried a bit that I would not be able to add any value to his research efforts, and thus probably waste his time, since he was already familiar with the people I’ve looked into myself. However, the dialogue did end up being mutually beneficial though we will return to this in a minute.
Stephens’ motive behind the film is to bridge a gap, as I understood it. Basically, he wants to challenge the bias of modern western anti-supernaturalism within the academy, specifically medical science, by presenting solid evidence of medical miracles. At this moment he said that he has “seen a lot, too much stuff” to deny that miracles really do occur and that he felt it was his intent to show the evidence because if God really heals “there should be a trail of medical evidence.” Much of his effort for this film stems from his own questioning of his Christian beliefs, as he explained to me. Much like myself, he takes supernatural healing to be a good evidence for God, or at least the intervention in the natural order on the behalf of a deity. So, naturally, he wanted to go out and see if such things really happen and as far as I can tell he is pretty convinced based on the research he, and his team, has done. Moreover, Stephens claimed that he saw a lot of dramatic things take place within “Charismatic churches” but that he found that these churches often tended to be “unintellectual.” This is the gap he wants to bridge, namely that one can be fully rational in his holding to a supernatural worldview which, he explained, is often rejected based on naturalistic presuppositions. He wants to demonstrate that believing in the supernatural does not somehow divorce oneself from reality and reason.
However, I felt inclined to inform Stephens that no matter how persuasive the evidence he presents will be, many, if not most, anti-supernatural skeptics will not be convinced of it. After all, he informed me that there is one remarkable case where a man, Chris Gunderson, had his intestines literally grow back after a prayer. However, prior to this Gunderson could only feed himself through injecting substances into tubes that were lodged into his stomach; but now Gunderson has no problem eating normally whatsoever. Upon my request this was Stephens’ most compelling case for him personally due to the available evidence and testimony. However, I informed him, though I suspected he would have already known, that he shouldn’t expect such a remarkable supernatural event to sway the most ardent skeptic because such a skeptic has no intention of really following the evidence, especially if it confronts his naturalism. Such a skeptic comes committed to the naturalism and he will also leave committed to his naturalism. I felt inclined to inform him that even though he intends to capture the minds of skeptics he shouldn’t feel as if he has failed if he doesn’t manage to do so to the extent that he may wish.
Although Stephens has already looked at much of the evidence himself that I’ve presented at my site over time, I still felt I added in a few details here and there that might help with the research phase to his documentary. In fact, I was quite surprised that he had recently been in my home country South Africa (he was up the coast in the city of Durban). The reason being was because he was on his way to interview Heidi Baker in Pemba (Mozambique) but, as I assume, the only international route there is via South Africa.
Nonetheless, I informed Stephens about a remarkable, and well documented, healing miracle of a well-known rugby player in South Africa, Jaco. Stephens had not heard about this and as soon as I mentioned that it was caught on tape, and documented by reputable newspapers as well as by doctors, he became very interested. It is also the case that Stephens hadn’t known about the Nigerian pastor T.B. Joshua, the pastor who had prayed and healed Jaco’s leg. Joshua is undoubtedly a controversial pastor but I have no doubt that remarkable supernatural feats occur at his church, and Jaco is just one such testimony albeit a more widely known one since he was, and is, a relatively well known person. I thus recommended that Stephens look into this case and he asked me to link him to my article. However, Stephens, as he explained to me, was looking for miracles closer to home which, I take, he means in being more American based and thus more accessible and personal to his American audience. Although that might be the scope he wants to work within, I feel that he might be letting a number of remarkable supernatural cases slip away.
I also found that Stephens is focusing specially on healing in Jesus’ name. This, which I believe might come to the detriment to the documentary, disqualifies Lourdes since the 69 empirically verified miracles there involve, or are at least associated with, a shrine. As far as I know Stephens doesn’t question the miracles at Lourdes but rather he’s looking for them done specifically in Jesus’ name. But, theology aside, my contention is that evidence for the supernatural is evidence for supernatural and ignoring Lourdes will not bring down Stephens’ overall project, but it will definitely leave an evidential hole. Personally, I’d say it would definitely warrant some attestation in the documentary whether that be within the intro, the credits, or a brief mentioning by one of the academics he interviews (I know Craig Keener has looked briefly at Lourdes in his two volume tome). I also found Stephens’ scope to disqualify the testimony of the former atheist anthropologist Bruce Grindal who had witnessed a man being raised from the dead. I did mention to Stephens that Grindal makes no reference to what “force” was behind the man’s raising although I suspect it to be related to the demonic in some way. This also interested him.
I further urged Stephens to deal with two common anti-supernatural critiques. Firstly, why doesn’t God heal amputees? And why don’t people with healing gifts from God, like Heidi Baker, go to hospitals and empty them? However, though these warrant deliberation, both of us do agree on the limitation to this challenge. For example, that Baker might not go to hospitals says nothing about her remarkable healing of 24 people with visual and hearing impairments as medically verified by Candy Brown in the Southern Medical Journal. Secondly, the assumption that God does not heal amputees says nothing about the stacks of medical evidence that shows God did, in fact, heal someone from a terminal illness, broken bones, spinal disks, diseases and so on. In fact, personally speaking, one pastor I had the opportunity to dialogue with affirmed that he, and his ministry team, witnessed the stump of a homeless man grow in response to prayer. But that remains anecdotal at best although I do think that there is an unwarranted assumption skeptics make concerning God’s apparent inability to heal someone’s leg or arm. For all we know, especially in retrospection of other healing evidence, God probably does do it. In response to the former challenge Stephens informed me that he “should have asked Heidi” this question, but that he hadn’t thought to at the time he was there. However, it remains my strong urging that he gets this challenge answered.
But why do I emphasize this so much? Simply because one doesn’t want to leave any wiggle room for the skeptic. And, as often is the case in my experience, even if one leaves no such wiggle room many skeptics would somehow invent it; but the less one leaves for him the better. At the end of the day one wants the skeptic to see for himself that the anti-supernatural worldview he espouses cannot be true in the face of persuasive counter evidence. And as seen as he realizes this he might very well start to question his beliefs and consider change. Lastly, in hindsight of the former challenge, I found Stephens’ remark to be quite informative. His response was that the full healing of one’s limbs would be the “golden standard” of miracle healing. However, he challenges the assumption that the skeptic makes since God does, in fact, “grow” back organs. After all, the case of Gunderson isn’t exactly his limb growing back, but it is God regrowing his intestines. Why doesn’t that somehow count? Why does the skeptic have to see a limb regrow? In this way I think Stephens makes a good point in challenging the presuppositions of the skeptic.
Finally, just a brief side note in ending, I found it to be quite surprising that I, for some time, have wanted to shoot my own miracle documentary. Two friends and I have planned to do so this holiday and we’ve begun the research phase. This only made my dialogue with Stephens all the more interesting as he was also willing to throw in a couple of tips for an amateur team wishing to do a documentary on the very same subject. All in all, I think Stephens is doing a great thing for God’s kingdom.