The Catholic Thing
Paper Keys IV: No Miracles Here Print E-mail
By Anthony Esolen   
Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Here’s Anne Roche Muggeridge, slashing with an ironical saber worthy of her father-in-law Malcolm:

For what, in actual practice, should the critical, mature modernist Christian do when, for instance, he gathers his children around him to celebrate Christmas? . . .Ought he to gather his little ones about the Crib, light the candles, and read [historical/critical Biblical scholar] Raymond Brown instead of St. Luke on the virginal conception of Jesus: “My judgment in conclusion is that the totality of the scientifically controllable evidence leaves an unresolved problem.” How their eyes will shine, how their little hearts will burn within them as they hear these holy words!  How touched they will all be as the littlest child reverently places a shining question mark in the empty manger.
When we encounter a miracle, what is “scientifically controllable” does not, by definition, enter into the picture.  Raymond Brown is intelligent enough to know that, but plays both sides, showing up for Christmas, but also offering a wink to the illuminati.  Or are we to believe that the God who created a universe from nothing cannot fructify the ovum in a woman’s womb?

This is another example of the mythologizing of the self-styled demythologizers, the bunko artistry of the debunkers.  It’s coherent to believe in both the divine creation of the world and the virgin birth of Jesus.  It’s coherent to believe neither.  But it’s incoherent to believe the first and that the second is impossible. 

That would turn God into a figment of the imagination: a God potent enough to make a universe, but not to work a wonder within that universe.  Such a god would be a deistic fancy dressed in Christian garb, bound by an already-accomplished creation; a Mr. Apollo, not really beyond the world, nor wholly present in every part of the world; a god attested neither by Scripture, the teachings of the Church, or the conclusions of metaphysical reasoning.  It is an academician’s daydream.

When I was young, I spent a summer at a Catholic Worker house, where I met a Jesuit novice who had been sent to work there as part of his pastoral formation.  From him I first heard the Myth of the Hidden Lunch Pails.  (I’ve since learned that the myth was known to the writers of the television show The Incredible Hulk, where it best belongs.)

The Myth of the Hidden Lunch Pails is a good example of modernist mythologizing.  Most of my readers will have heard of it.  When Jesus and his apostles were with the crowds in the desert, and evening fell and the people had nothing to eat, He instructed His disciples to pass out a few loaves and fishes, and shazzam!  All at once those people, abashed, took out their Hidden Lunch Pails, and ate in the open, and even shared their food with their neighbors, and the scraps filled twelve wicker baskets, and a good time was had by all.

          Sgt. Bilko: a Hidden Lunch Pail theologian if ever there was one

     “Now then,” says the modernist, his arm about your shoulder, his voice hushed with sincerity, like a wheedling Sergeant Bilko introducing his idea as if it were originally yours, “isn’t that the real miracle in this scene, that people would open their hearts?  How about it?  You’re intelligent, you’re subtle, you don’t buy what these rubes buy, you know where the goods are!”
All right, let’s examine what the Myth of the Hidden Lunch Pails asks us to believe:
  • We’re to believe that it would never occur to the disciples of Jesus, who had spent many months traveling with Him over arduous roads in the wilderness, that people might bring food with them if they were planning to be away from their homes for a day or more. 
  • We’re to believe that people who had to think every day about what they were going to eat would not have thought about it in this instance, when the testimony is that the apostles were thinking about it, because the crowds had followed Jesus in the heat of enthusiasm, as it were, and the disciples knew there wasn’t anything for them to eat. 
  • We’re supposed to believe that the disciples would not have done the obvious, and made inquiries among the crowds. 
  • We’re supposed to believe that hungry people would not, on their own, have taken out what food they had, if they had any. 
  • We’re supposed to believe, in a society whose prime virtue was hospitality, that they’d all have been hugging loaves and scaly fishes to the insides of their cloaks, like Scrooge clutching his coins; something not even we in all our selfishness would do. 
  • We’re supposed to believe that the apostles, apparently so subtle as to portray with consummate artistry the unique character of Jesus Christ, were utterly stupid in the very matters wherein they, as men who sweated for their bread, were most knowledgeable, the daily habits and necessities of their countrymen.
  • We’re supposed to believe they would have been thunderstruck when the Hidden Lunch Pails came out. 
  • We’re supposed to believe that the miracle, attested by all four evangelists, is therefore accidental.

Since it did not occur by the will of the Lord, but by the will of the people, it can have nothing to do with the wonder of the Eucharist, or with the feeding of the Israelites with manna, or with the wedding feast of the Lamb.  It is not akin to the Word becoming incarnate in Nazareth, and present in all the tabernacles of the world.  It is a myth of self-celebration.  “See what fine people we are!  We share our baloney sandwiches and our cookies!”

I asked the Jesuit novice whether God could have wrought the miracle as described in the Gospels.  “I’ll have to think about that,” he replied.  A few days later he told me that God could have done it.

I hope He was duly grateful for the concession.

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Reflections on the Christian Life: How Our Story Is God’s Story and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He teaches at Providence College. 
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Comments (8)Add Comment
written by Sue, August 14, 2013
This myth might bear itself out in today's society by the plutocrats finally recognizing their complicity in their chokedown of the world's population and handing back control of the means of reproduction to the family.
written by Stanley Anderson, August 14, 2013
All I can say is that the modern myth pales in comparison to the Gospel account.

(running for cover)
written by Rich in MN, August 14, 2013
Zeitgeist has a powerful effect on thought and scholarship. When Enlightenment materialism and skepticism became the paradigm and, in a sense, hermeneutic key for some very creative early 20th century German form critics (Bultmann, Dibelius, et al), they found an explanation by which the Gospels could be understood in terms reasonable and palatable to their Enlightenment sensibilities. Instead of asking how the stories of Jesus formed the nascent Christian community, they asked how the nascent Christian communities formed the stories. And their Enlightenment scalpel threw out the virgin-birthed baby with the bath water (and all of the miracles, for that matter) when they were considering the "historical Jesus."
VCII document, Dei Verbum, does recognize an interplay between the Life-of-Jesus stories that eventually comprised the Gospels and the communities that transmitted these stories and the Evangelists who composed the Gospels. However, the Church approaches that understanding with a much greater caution and "agnosticism" than did Bultmann and his progeny in the Jesus Seminar.
I know I have mentioned this before, but I think a very interesting study has been produced by Richard Bauckham entitled, "Jesus and the Eyewitnesses" that is definitely worth your time -- especially since it has been established on other posts that there are actually many "Anthony Esolens" at work in the world today.

(Oh, and for you "multi-Esolen" theorists out there, I was thinking of another Catholic writer -- from the last century -- who wrote far too much about far too many topics at far too great a depth to be just one person: GK Chesterton. Now just think about it phonetically: Gil'-bert Keith Chest'-er-ton and An'-tho-ny E'-so-len. Is this phonetic similarity just a coincidence?? Well, I for one do not believe in coincidences... except, of course, when they are merely coincidental.... But, as far as I can tell, other theories pail -- I mean pale in comparison.)
written by Howard Kainz, August 14, 2013
I have no problem with the multiplication of the loaves, but where did the 12 wicker baskets come from out there in the wilderness?
written by Stanley Anderson, August 14, 2013
(I see in my comment above that my intentional pun of "pails" was "corrected" before appearing in this comments section to read "pales". Perhaps the pun still came though, I hope?)
written by Deacon Ed Peitler, August 15, 2013
#1 Was the Jesuit novice preparing himself for the miracle of the sacrifice of the Mass? If so, how?
#2 One hundred years from now few will have ever heard of Raymond Brown. Many will recognize the name "St. Luke."
#3 Raymond Brown might have weighed in on the virgin birth narratives, but he needed further study on those scriptures that make reference to children, as in "unless you become as one of these, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven." Why? Because children believe in miracles; they're not as 'progressed' as Raymond Brown.
written by Randall, August 20, 2013
I'm a week late reading this - but never mind.

I heard the "Hidden Lunch Pails" idea from the RCIA director when I was preparing to enter the Catholic Church. She was a former nun. Sound familiar?
written by Romy1, September 01, 2013
I never heard the Lunch Pails Myth. Scary and weird and random. Instead of making up myths, people like the novice should admit they don't like Sacred Scripture as it's written.

If they make up stuff about the Bible, who can believe them about anything else?

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