Reviewed by Scott Korb

It’s become fairly commonplace among Christians and writers concerned with Christian mysteries to maintain that God has quite a sense of humor. In fact, Stephen Prothero concludes his chronicle of cherished images of Jesus in the United States, American Jesus(2004), with a figure of Jesus that has been gaining currency in America since the middle of the twentieth century; his head tilted back, and roaring with laughter — we now have the Guffawing Jesus.

In Randall Sullivan’s The Miracle Detective: An Investigation of Holy Visions (2004), we learn that the joviality apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. When Jesus’ mother Mary appears on earth, she sometimes jokes with her young visionaries (although Sullivan reports one seer as saying, “I can’t remember Our Lady ever making a joke, but the Lord does it all the time.”); when God the Father shows up in at the summit of Medjugorje’s Cross Mountain in the middle of a tempest that threatens to obliterate the author, the two inexplicably share in what Sullivan describes as the most joyous laugh he’s ever experienced, a “sacred guffaw of liberation.” And later, Sullivan is again overwhelmed when he is rushed through an audience with the “cherubic” Pope John Paul II:

A chuckle percolated out of my innards and burst forth before I could stop it. I felt overcome by a glorious kind of reckless abandon; this was the same sacred guffaw of liberation I had discovered at the summit of Krizevac almost eight years earlier, my kind of communion with a God who was wild and free and totally unpredictable, a God who laughed at me if I made Him, but with me if I would only allow myself to join in.

Even the set-up for the book is laughable: A writer goes to the war-torn Balkans to investigate miraculous apparitions of Mary the mother of Jesus with a reporter’s credentials from Rolling Stone magazine. But much to his credit, Sullivan’s story from the outset takes very seriously the gravity of the place and the long history of territorial strife, despots, ethnic cleansing — no laughing matters. Sullivan’s investigation of the Marian visions at Medjugorje is placed within a context of official Catholic inquiries into miraculous incidents worldwide, and described alongside the famous sites of Fatima andLourdes. “Miracle Detective,” a title the author gives himself late in the book, is originally Sullivan’s shorthand for the Sacred Congregation of Causes for Saints, a Catholic body charged by the Vatican with these official inquiries. Real characters emerge throughout — each establishing himself on the spectrum of belief and incredulity: the young, sometimes reluctant visionary; an awed pilgrim; the astounded scientist; an oblivious hanger-on; the holy yuppie; the oppressive, politicking priest. Everyone has a stake in the visions, and Sullivan does well to include the human drama surrounding the divine one. So at first Sullivan seems to disappear to tell the story.

Yet gradually we learn that when God laughs, God laughs for Sullivan. One of the visionaries remarks to the author that she had never known an outsider to gain access to the community at Medjugorje as quickly as he. And by the time the devil actually walks past Sullivan perched on the back of a bench in Rome’s Piazza Navona, giving him “the most obscene leer” he had ever seen and then telling him he would catch him later, you start to suspect that Mary has been making all these appearances for a reason named Randall Sullivan. Which, it turns out, she more or less has been: “You need to seek Our Lady’s companionship,” Sullivan is told. “She’s there for you in a very unusual way. We’ve all recognized that since you first showed up three years ago, but for some reason you never have.” And so, at the suggestion that this book is some kind of actual investigation into holy visions, you sort of just have to toss your head back and laugh with Jesus, his parents, and Sullivan.

The Miracle Detective is, in a sense, a traditional, yet particularly Catholic, conversion narrative. Sullivan is mystified and shaken by doubt. He is visited by the devil. He sees God’s power in a thunderclap, and proclaims that God is wild and free and unpredictable. Yet, when he finally comes to understand and really believe in the world of miracles into which he’s gone headlong, God takes the most predictable shape imaginable: the faith of the Holy Roman Catholic Church. Miracles are not miracles unless the Church’s investigators make them so. Saints are not saints without bureaucratic debates and institutional politicking. And when Sullivan faces his conversion head-on, what have arisen in the book as larger and more interesting matters of regional war, international politics and peace-making, take a back seat to some very recognizable Catholic concerns. Abortion suddenly becomes the crux of the cosmic battle between God’s justice and Satan’s sinister plan. Characters tell long and sordid tales of “dark sex” and the perils of promiscuity and divorce. Whether or not to go immediately to confession in a moment of clarity at God’s call becomes a matter of life or death.

In the beginning it’s unclear what Sullivan is up to in The Miracle Detective. Is this real investigation? Then, after 120 pages, the author has his first personal encounter with God, which makes it very clear where he’ll be going from there on out. An apologist for the Church, he’s on a mission to convince us of the reality of these miracles. He could have been a little more upfront about that. Instead, he portrays himself as a detective trying to get to the bottom of this Marian apparition hoo-ha. But in the end, Sullivan is like a private eye who’s been hired to catch a cheating wife when it’s he who’s been sleeping with her all along. He loses all objectivity in his passion, then leans back in his pew and laughs with God.

Scott M. Korb’s last essays for The Revealer were “What God Gap?” and “Real Live Preacher.”He’s also an editor of Killing the Buddha; read his latest on holy basketball in Brooklyn.