Advertisements and Miracles

The phrase “too good to be true” suggests skepticism and cynicism, a reaction to alluring advertisements, incredible savings, attractive-sounding financial offers and bargains, and letters announcing that a person has won $1million. These promises raise doubts and suspicions about some undisclosed information, the fine print in a contract, or unexplained conditions or qualifications. The natural response to these great deals from the commercial world evokes disbelief and rejection. “Too good to be true” means someone is exaggerating, not divulging the whole truth, or using some form of chicanery to disarm and dupe the buyer.

However, “too good to be true” carries another meaning in the religious, supernatural, or Biblical sense. The miracles in both the Old Testament and New Testament are too good not to be true. The opening of the Red Sea, the manna in the wilderness, the revelation of God in the burning bush; the Incarnation, the Resurrection, and the Ascension; the feeding of the five thousand with the five loaves and two fish; the healing of the lepers, the deaf, and the crippled; and the raising of this-is-an-ad-we-can-get-behind-photo-u1Lazarus from the dead are historically documented events that surpass all human expectations, miracles that fulfill the deepest desires of the heart beyond the highest hopes and wishes. The proverbial saying “Where there is life, there is hope” and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity provide this vision of a world filled with the wonders of miracles and surprises of Divine Providence that transcend man’s predictions and speculations.

In George MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind, a skeptical, cynical mother worried about providing for her family because of her husband’s injury and unemployment looks at the future with foreboding and anxiety. She warns her son Diamond that financial disaster looms ahead: “How little you know about things! Mr. Coleman’s lost all his money, and your father has nothing to do, and we shall have nothing to eat by and by.” Diamond, however, reminds his mother that the birds somehow survive winter and find rosebushes and holly bushes that resemble the birds’ barns stored with berries. The mother corrects her son’s imaginary picture of reality by reminding him that no barns exist for destitute human beings, only to learn from Diamond that he has never starved: “But I haven’t even got a cupboard, and I’ve always had plenty to eat.” He imagines the larger world as a big barn or immense cupboard: “I think there must be a big cupboard somewhere, out of which the little cupboards are filled, you know, mother.” For Diamond’s mother the child’s words sound too good to be true, but for Diamond “too good to be true” distinguishes reality, not some fantasy.

Later in the story when Diamond tells Nan, an orphan, that she has been adopted and no longer has to sweep the streets or live with a drunken grandmother, the child responds, “That’s too good to be true”—a comment that Diamond feels obliged to correct. “Too good to be true, it can’t be. Isn’t true good. And ain’t good true? And how, then, can anything be too good to be true?” Diamond has acquired this vision of divine goodness from his travels with the North Wind who fills him with glimpses of the good, the true, and the beautiful as supernatural, heavenly realities full of splendor. Because of the North Wind’s special protection, loving kindness, tender affection, and special motherly love for him, Diamond cannot entertain the thought that the North Wind lives only in his imagination: “You ain’t a dream, are you, dear North Wind? Do say No, else I shall cry, and come awake, and you’ll be gone forever.” In other words, “too good to be true” means the North Wind abounds in goodness that knows no limit, always providing, caring, comforting, guiding, and thinking of Diamond’s happiness and never ceasing to bring him the surprises of joy and love. “Too good to be true” means that love is always new, marvelous, rich, overflowing, generous, and inexhaustible. Boundless goodness never ceases to evoke wonder and to hint of the miraculous.

This Christian theme recurs also in MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin in which young Princess Irene senses the reality of a mysterious great-great grandmother who lives hidden in the garret of the castle. Because the child visits the Grandmother at night but wakes up in her own bed in the morning, she too wonders whether this grandmother’s goodness is a dream. Every time Irene visits the Grandmother, she receives some new token of love or special sign of affection. The Grandmother welcomes Irene with warmhearted affection, heals her bleeding finger, bathes her in a beautiful bathtub, lets her sleep in the most comfortable bed, and gifts her with a ring with a magical thread that always guides the princess to the grandmother when lost or confused. The Grandmother explains, “I came here to take care of you” and “I have been here since you came yourself.” The Grandmother exists to love Irene always. Like Diamond, Irene hopes and wishes that this loving woman with her golden heart of goodness is a real person, not some character she is seeing in a fantasy. When Diamond and Irene think about the two possibilities of dream or reality, they receive a similar answer. The North Wind tells Curdie, “. . . if I were only a dream, you would not have been able to love me so.” An encounter with pure goodness lingers in the mind, makes a powerful impression, and does not disappear from memory like a passing dream. Only the full reality of absolute goodness can create such an effect of undeniable reality.

When Christ performs miracles that defy the laws of Nature and turns water into wine at Cana, cures the lepers, changes the bread and wine into His body and blood at the Last Supper, raises Jairus’s daughter and the widow of Naim’s son from the dead, these miracles surpass the limits of ordinary goodness and transcend all laws of probability. When goodness amazes and surprises in these extraordinary ways, it shows no end or limit to the superabundance of love’s giving. Wonder is the only normal response and dispels all doubt. A miracle cannot be a dream because it is all too real. A man was paralyzed who now can walk. A man was possessed who now is free from demons. These occurrences are not make-believe, nonsense, or superstition but the attributes of goodness incarnate. A Grandmother who thinks of all of Irene’s needs and lives to bring her joy, a motherly woman who takes Diamond into the back of the North Wind and introduces him to the playfulness of angels and the mirth of Heaven, a Divine Providence that communicates graces through human beings as agents of God, and miracles that dramatically transform a person’s life all fill the heart with love, gratitude, and wonder that knows beyond any doubt that “too good to be true” means the incontrovertible truth of good’s true nature and God’s divine love.

Christianity is not the business world. Every miracle in the Bible and those in human life prove that some things in life are an answer to a prayer, a dream come true, the hand of Divine Providence, and a miracle from Heaven. When Jesus cured the blind man (John 9), the Pharisees reacted with skepticism: “Then how were your eyes opened?” They then ask the parents of the blind man the same question with the same doubt: “Is this your son, who you say was born blind?” Again the Pharisees persist with their cynical questioning by interrogating the blind man one more time: “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” To the Pharisees these events are too good to be believable, but to the blind man as to Diamond and Princess Irene, these events are “too good not to be true” and inspire wonder at the nature of God’s absolute goodness and irrefutable reality. The truth, no matter how marvelous, is believable. The blind man can only say, “one thing I know, that though I was blind, now I see.” These words are not false advertising but simple eloquence that illuminates the nature of things.

Mitchell Kalpakgian, Ph.D. has completed fifty years of teaching beginning as a teaching assistant at the University of Kansas, continuing as a professor of English at Simpson College in Iowa for thirty-one years, and recently teaching part-time at various schools and college in New Hampshire. As well as contributing to a number of publications, he has published seven books: The Marvelous in Fielding’s Novels, The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature, The Lost Arts of Modern Civilization, An Armenian Family Reunion (a collection of short stories), Modern Manners: The Poetry of Conduct and The Virtue of Civility, and The Virtues We Need Again. He has designed homeschooling literature courses for Seton Home School, and he also teaches online courses for Queen of Heaven Academy and part-time for Northeast Catholic College.
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