It’s not often I ask my husband, who is an avowed atheist, for his perspective when writing this blog. But this week I was interested in his take on the difference between miracles and superstitions. ‘There isn’t one’ he said.  The OED was hardly more helpful. ‘Miracle: (noun)’ it gives as ‘an extraordinary and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore attributed to a divine agency’, while Superstition is defined as ‘an excessively credulous belief in and reverence for the supernatural.’

Without better guidance I’ve thought long and hard about the business of rising from graves and parting seas, about weeping statues and living to the age of 969, and I’ve also thought about lucky rabbits’ feet, the power of voodoo, magic potions, witchy incantations, and whether or not ghosts are real. The most sensible thing I’ve been able to come up with is the idea that miracles are a special subset of superstition in that those who invoke them have a pretty good sense of the agency they ought to be attributed to.

I doubt, for example, that any of the Israelites awed before the divided deeps of the Red Sea thought it was just as well they’d brought along their lucky gourd for their journey into exile. Or that they’d spotted an auspicious four-pronged palm frond that very morn.

My researches (I use the phrase lightly) were prompted by reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Miracle this week, a short story that opens the window onto middle class aspirations and frustrations in a Lagos riddled with competing systems of social control: vying churches, the hidden economies of patronage and corruption, the influence of magic and superstition and, beyond all these, the social grading by skin tone.

Adichie’s writing is rich with contextual references that add depth and interest to her story of a girl’s coming of age. Ifemelu is looking to thread her way through life, avoiding the Christian enthusiasms of her superstitious mother, the luckless fate of her unemployed but dignified father, and the instrumental machinations of her attractive Aunty Ugu – a qualified doctor who rather than face the uncertainties of the working world becomes the mistress of a powerful general.

Ifemelu’s is the voice of reason, but also cynicism, her perspective, the clear-sighted vision of those who have nothing to lose. Everyone else in the story is in thrall to fantasy and either busy re-writing the past, embroidering the truth until it corresponds to something more comfortable to live with, or taking refuge from reality in something else entirely. For Ifemelu’s mother that refuge is religion.

Ifemelu’s mother goes through churches with the nagging dissatisfaction of a retail hound perpetually on the lookout for something new. When we meet her she has just been born again. Accepting Christ into her life, she cuts of all her hair, burns her Catholic effects, her rosaries and crucifixes and missals, and takes to fasting until she’s bone thin.

When she wearies of the Revival Saints, whose God is ‘exacting and humourless’, she’s conveniently granted a blazing vision of an angel, appearing in her kitchen to denounce the pastor as a wizard who attends nightly demonic meetings under the sea. Within days she defects to Miracle Spring and starts moulding herself to the new pastor’s vision of womanly virtue, re-growing her hair, but refusing to wear jewellery. Yet only months later – puzzled perhaps that these changes about her body (a vessel seemingly containing so much religious meaning) have so little to do with the bigger changes galvanizing society (there’s been a coup) – she is visited by another angel, who tells her to quit Miracle Spring and join the Guiding Assembly.

Here the mother’s spirit finally finds its home. Her God is now genial – happy to be commanded to fill a day with blessings, as also to let her resume drinking her favourite Guinness stout. Better still, this God likes to perform miracles. As soon as Pastor Gideon starts praying coughs disappear, catarrh’s clear, exams are passed with flying colours and malarias suddenly cured.

These are miracles cut to the domestic scale. Miracles that make a difference to everyday life. That fit with the occurrence of angelic visitations in the kitchen. These are miracles in which the women of Lagos can believe. With a little bit of magic in your daily life, after all, the difficulties of having an unemployed husband or a relative subject to the whims of a capricious and powerful general, not to mention a worryingly clever daughter, grow easier to bear.

When Autny Uju is given a job in a local hospital, Ifemelu’s mother announces ‘This is a miracle’. Now that they are in her life, the miracles just proliflerate! A Television arrives. Money in paper bags arrives. Miracles abound. Adichie has introduced a new category of miracle to her tale: the miracle that operates as denial. Or, to put it another way, the miracle that does service when the truth cannot be faced.

I mentioned earlier that other characters in the story have methods for giving reality the slip. They play with alternate versions of the past, embroider what happened, indulge in dissimulation and myth-making. However, while Ifemelu is ready to forgive these fabrications she has no truck with her mother’s need to ‘place the crown of religion on her own petty desires’.

She’ll allow for one kind of story telling but not another. Why?

I get the sense that Ifemelu would pass with equal lightness over the superstitions of her relatives from the village, who palm the walls of their house with greasy hands, and scream when they encounter strangers. Superstitions are a comfort for those who know no better, she implies. Whereas as miracles, which ought to be sacred, have become instrumental fodder for those who should know better, whether they’re pastors busy accumulating fleets of flash new cars, or middle-aged women willing to turn a blind eye on corruption — or worse still, to dignify it with God’s grace and favour.

Adichie, one feels, is trying to tell us that there’s more behind a miracle than the supernatural can account for.

 

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