Those who write stories for a living–and those who have studied storywriting–have long been steered away from the contrivance of deus ex machina, the “god from the machine,” that is described by the Oxford Dictionary as: “an unexpected power or event saving a seemingly hopeless situation, especially as a contrived plot device in a play or novel.”
The idea there is that too often, historically, an author would get his characters in a corner with no way out, and then suddenly decide that the easy way to solve the problem is to let God (or gods) show up and solve the problem. The contrivance goes all the way back to the Greeks and their plays. The reason, obviously, that we want to steer away from this contraption is that our characters should live with the results of their own actions and see what happens at the end of it. And so should the audience.
And therein lies the problem. Do Christians believe in divine intervention, or miracles, and are they the same thing? Some Christians don’t believe that God intervenes in our lives, which boggles my mind. But I believe that he does and these two things are the same, based on my own life experience. A lot of it really depends on your willingness to see everyday occurrences and coincidences as God’s interventions. If you have a flat tire and you pray and someone stops to help you, did God send that person, or did they just happen to come by? One could argue either point, but I would like to prefer the former. I like the idea that God cares what happens to me, and that he gets involved.
Which argues the point, why doesn’t he always answer prayers the way we want? If I am about to die, why doesn’t God always save me? Well, my argument there is, because he is God. He has his own reasons, often ones we can’t understand. If we trust him, we learn to accept his reasoning, even if it doesn’t fit our own.
Now on to the question at hand: how does one fit a “miracle”/divine intervention into a story so that it doesn’t look contrived? The solution is to make it look organic. In other words, don’t just throw a miracle in because it solves a problem. Use foreshadowing. Lead up to the problem. At the same time, as I mentioned earlier, make sure you allow the characters to see the natural progression of where they are going with their lives. Don’t interrupt that process. Let me give you an example from my own work.
In The Key of Solomon, my main character Ezra Huddleston learns tai chi chuan from a friend at the beginning of the book. He struggles with it, but starts dreaming of the katas, or sets, as he goes through the rest of the story. At the same time, he keeps getting a message from God in his dreams that asks, “Do you trust me?” When he says yes, the voice says, “Then get out of the way!”
This is set up early and repeated a couple of times in the story. At the climax of the book, when Ezra is trying to rescue some kidnapped college women, here’s what happens:
“What are you guys, clones?” Ezra said, stepping forward. He started to put his hands up to box, then saw that the guards were drawing pistols from their waistbands.
Automatically Ezra changed his stance. He swept his hand across the front of the first guard, knocking the gun across the floor. Then he withdrew his arms back and pushed with both palms against his chest, hard. The man went sailing across the floor. Without changing position, he wheeled his arms one at a time over his head, the first pinning the gun hand of the second man in a downward position, the second sweeping down and across his forearm, hard. Ezra heard a crack and the man screamed in pain.
The man stepped backward, holding his arm. The other man lay on the floor.
“Where did that come from?” Connie said, her mouth open. “I don’t know!” Ezra yelled. “Tai chi?” He said the words, more as a question than an answer.
Later, in that same scene, as things look bleak, he gets a familiar message from God:
Ezra’s arms and his legs were not his own. They swirled in the darkness, cutting, blocking, hitting. Hard, vicious things attacked him from all sides. They lunged out at him and it was all he could do to keep from being overwhelmed. They struck and he blocked. They attacked and he kicked. Panic was constantly threatening at the edge of his consciousness. And then Ezra heard a voice.
“Ezra, do you trust me?” The voice was deep, calm, peaceful. Ezra knew who it was.
“Yes, Lord. You know I do,” Ezra said, continuing to block the attacks.
“Then you know what to do.”
GET OUT OF THE WAY.
Ezra didn’t need the message twice. He leaped for the doorway that was the only way out. It featured a heavy metal bar that functioned as its door handle. He gripped it for all he was worth.
At the same instant, he heard a deep rumbling beneath him. It was something that couldn’t be man-made; only something natural could make that deep of a rumble. An instant later, the entire floor collapsed beneath his feet. Stones, altar, benches, and gargoyles all fell into the watery darkness below him. He found himself hanging above the void by his death grip on the door handle.
So, a couple of things could be learned here. First, none of this would have worked without foreshadowing. If I were to pop these two elements in here without prior notice–the tai chi, and the message from God–the suspension of disbelief would have been too hard to handle. But because I mentioned it earlier, the reader both accepted them as viable and as something that was definitely going to be part of the story.
Second, because this is a Christian story, and because I DO believe that God intervenes in our lives (not always as dramatically as I put here, but he does, nevertheless), I was able to include that important part in the story. If I didn’t include divine intervention, even if I had them talking about their belief or prayer, to me the story would be lacking.
What do you think? Are miracles and divine intervention the same thing? I’d like to hear from you.