Book Review: The Miracles of Jesus, by Eric D. Huntsman

A Book Review by Michael Austin*.

Miracles of Jesus, complete, 5-27-14.pdfThe Miracles of Jesus
Eric D. Huntsman**
Deseret Books, 2014
$25.99
Hardcover
164 pages
ISBN: 9781609079161
(Click on each spread to enlarge.)

OK, I’m just going to admit it: I was a little bit skeptical when I first got Eric D. Huntsman’s newest book, The Miracles of Jesus, and saw that it was a glossy, gorgeously illustrated book fit as much for framing as for reading. High production values in books make me nervous, as I always wonder what they are hiding. And then there is the fact that it is published by Deseret Book — the official publishing arm of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Official publishing arms make me even more nervous, as I usually have a pretty good idea what they are hiding. All I needed was a third strike to set it aside and move on to the next book in my pile.

But strike three never came. It only took about five minutes with the book to convince me that my skepticism had been unfair. The first thing I noticed, just flipping through the book, was that most of the paintings and artifacts lavishly reproduced on its pages were actually good art: Renaissance masters, Byzantine murals, Medieval frescoes, French genre painting, and that sort of thing. It’s the kind of stuff you would find hanging in a respectable museum rather than the sort of devotional kitsch found in church foyers and missionary discussions. And if you look really carefully at the Boucher painting on p. 24, you can even see that some of the angels have wings.

Miracles of Jesus, complete, 5-27-14.pdfAs it turns out, the good art in the book correlates closely with its good scholarship. Huntsman knows his way around the library when it comes to the New Testament. He speaks authoritatively about Greek and Latin roots, he has a clear grasp of both textual and historical criticism, and he convincingly sets his own work within the broader scholarly tradition — carefully pointing out and documenting the other scholars who support, and who oppose, the positions that he takes on the text.

The result is a compelling book that is equal parts devotional and scholarly. Nothing in The Miracles of Jesus (Boucher’s winged angels aside) will offend even the most orthodox Latter-day Saints. But there is much that will challenge us intellectually and invite us to read deeply what we are used to reading otherwise. Rather than seeing Christ’s miracles as demonstrations of power, as most of us have been taught to do, Huntsman frames them as extensions of the Savior’s earthly calling as a teacher. And it is as forms of pedagogy, rather than prestidigitation, that he assembles them for our analysis.

Huntsman groups the recorded miracles of Jesus into five general categories — each of which replicates symbolically what Christ himself taught verbally. The first category, miracles that display power over the elements (changing water to wine, walking on water, feeding the 5,000, etc.) teach us who Jesus was. They show us what it means to be the Son of God incarnate. It means that the winds and the waves will obey one’s will, of course. But it also implies a responsibility to nourish and sustain one’s creations. And it means having compassion. Christ’s various demonstrations of his great power, then, also prove that he accepted his great responsibilities and exercised great compassion — for that is what it means to be God.

Miracles of Jesus, spread 5And it is Christ’s compassion, more than his awesome power, that lies at the core of the four other classes of miracles: Healing the Sick, Casting out Devils, Restoring Hearing and Sight, and Raising the Dead. And in the process of demonstrating his willingness to make us whole, Christ uses the miracles to teach other important things. By healing people’s bodies, he teaches the importance of submitting one’s spirit to be healed, which only the Atonement can do. By restoring people’s sight and hearing, he reinforces his invitation for us all to stop willingly ignoring his voice. And by raising the dead on a few occasions, Christ shows us that death is not the final state that we fear it to be, but a temporary state that can be overcome. All of the miracles point directly to the greatest miracle of all: Christ’s Atonement, with its victory over both spiritual and physical decay.

The chapter that I enjoyed the most (and the one that I thought I would enjoy the least) was Chapter 3, “Casting out Devils.” This is Huntsman at his most compassionate. While acknowledging that devils do exist and can be cast out, he focuses on the attitudes and experiences that are most likely to fulfill Satan’s main goal, which is to make us miserable. He talks about addiction and abuse, depression and grief, illness and suffering. These are (and have always been) the things that rob us of peace and happiness, and one of the things that a religious community is supposed to do is help people overcome them and cast them away.

The Miracles of Jesus is bookended by two personal experiences that frame what I see as the main message of the book. In the first of these, Huntsman recalls a class he taught on the New Testament where he bore his testimony that miracles still happen “I noticed that a few students seemed downcast,” he recalls, “sharing neither our smiles nor, apparently, our hope.” He recognizes that discussions of miracles “can have a much different effect on those for whom such miracles do not seem to come when or how they pray they will” (8). Huntsman takes great care throughout the book to acknowledge the feelings of those who desperately need, but never experience, the kinds of restorative miracles he describes.

This is compassion.

Miracles of Jesus, complete, 5-27-14.pdfThe second thing that he shares — a deeply personal story that makes the book something truly marvelous and powerful — is in the second and final appendix, “Our Galilee Miracle.” Here, Huntsman tells of his own autistic son Samuel, who has great difficulty asking the questions and engaging those around him. But when his family was in Jerusalem, Huntsman reports, he spent fifteen minutes answering questions about Jesus while crossing the Sea of Galilee on a boat. That’s the story, just a fifteen-minute conversation between a father and his inquisitive son. But it had never happened before, and it served as confirmation to his parents that “inside my little boy was an inquisitive mind and a sensitive spirit. That God was aware of him and of me. And that he could bring us together for that moment” (142).

This is gratitude.

The most important lesson that Eric Huntsman taught me in this book is that compassion and gratitude are the keys to the miracles of Jesus. When we speak of miracles today, we should speak of the ways that the Church and the Gospel can make whole the many human beings in the world who are suffering. And we should point to the quiet moments of grace that we will notice every day if we learn how to pay attention to them. These miracles do not require magic powers, but they do require both compassion and gratitude, which are a kind of magic all their own.

——————
* Michael Austin is Provost, Vice President for Academic Affairs, and Professor of English at Newman University in Wichita, Kansas, and a member of the Dialogue Board of Directors. He is the author or editor of seven books, including New Testaments, a study of biblical typology in the 17th and 18th centuries and, most recently, Re-reading Job: Understanding the Ancient World’s Greatest Poem (Greg Kofford, 2014).

** Eric Huntsman received his BA from BYU in Classical Greek and Latin in 1990 and then went on to receive an MA and PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in Ancient History in 1992 and 1997. In 1994 he began teaching full-time at BYU in Classics. In 2003 he transferred to Ancient Scripture, where he is currently an associate professor specializing in New Testament. After a year teaching at the BYU-Jerusalem Center from 2011-2012, he returned to BYU and began serving as the coordinator for the Ancient Near Eastern Studies (ANES) program in the Kennedy Center for International Relations. The ANES major has two tracks, one in Hebrew Bible and one in Greek New Testament. A co-author of Jesus Christ and the World of the New Testament with Richard Holzapfel and Thomas Wayment, Huntsman is the author of God So Loved the World, a study of and devotional reflection on the Passion Narratives, and Good Tidings of Great Joy, a similar treatment of the Infancy Narratives.

Comments

  1. Excellent! I’m glad to see Db and their authors (though I expect nothing less from Eric Huntsman) to be challenging readers a bit, even while edifying. It’s about time we collectively learn that edification and spirituality are not synonyms for fluff and rhyming poems.

  2. Sounds absolutely lovely. Although I also expected nothing less.

  3. I was once lucky enough to have Eric Hunstman as my bishop. He’s a mensch.

  4. Love this book. Great review!

  5. Excellent review. I look forward to checking this out.

  6. This sounds like a great book. Thanks for the review. I think I will get me a copy.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    Eric is da man. Thanks for the great review.

  8. What a lovely review. I think I would have had your same reservations, and I’m so pleased that they would be unfounded. Thank you for the review.

  9. C’mon Michael. Put Re-Reading Job in your resume (unless there are two Michael Austins). That will show us you know of what you speak. I had exactly the same feelings about this book except I’ve read his two previous ones and they’re far above the typical DB fare. This is likely the best DB publication we’ll see between now and the end of the year. In addition, Huntsman is doing one of the BYU Commentary volumes (John?).

  10. Terry, I’m flattered that you perceive me as somebody with enough power in this world to produce his own bio at BCC. But, alas, such is not the case. I just turn in my manuscript and the gods and monsters that I don’t understand take care of the rest.

  11. Appreciate the review. Eric always does a great job in helping us understand the teachings our of Beloved Savior, Jesus Christ. Thank you Michael for the review and thank you Eric for another GREAT book.

  12. @maustin66. If you don’t have that much “power” you deserve it. Re-Reading Job is excellent, as I’ve said elsewhere on line. (ldsmag.com). Seriously, though. I hope you review other works, your comments and insights are always appreciated.

  13. Michael Austin says:

    Terry, thank you for the kind words about Re-Reading Job, both here and at Meridian. I am very grateful that you have taken the time to read my modest contribution alongside C.L. Seow’s amazing opus and that you still found things to think well of in my effort. But, alas, all of my deep thinking about Job have not translated into the right or ability to write my own bio at By Common Consent.

    [admin: bio updated, feel free to submit your own bio when you submit the book review]

  14. Ha!