Although three-fourths of Americans believe prayer can cure the terminally ill, the subject is still treated in the popular press as a kind of curiosity, a good cover story on slow news weeks. These stories - you've seen them in Time, Reader's Digest, Newsweek, and any number of women's magazines - suffer from redundancy that would test the patience of Job. They always begin with an anecdote of some remarkable recovery that stumped the doctors. Then we get a few quotations from mind-body specialists at the Harvard Medical School and references to studies which have shown that religious people have shorter and more successful hospital stays than nonbelievers. Toward the end of every article, some soured-toned skeptic is wheeled out to raise objections about the methodology of these studies, and finally the reporter concludes by noting, "The debate rages on."
But that "is it real, isn't it real?" framework invariably fails to explore the profound social, financial, and political challenges that this radical spiritual practice is already posing. If your prayers for a more incisive and varied examination of the subject in the popular press have gone unanswered, there are, fortunately, other places to look.
One of the most surprising is a Hungarian bestseller called "To Err Is Divine," originally published as "Tranzit Glória," for those of you speaking in (other) tongues. The novel, by Ágota Bozai, isn't interested in the validity of spiritual healing per se. But this distinctly East European satire raises provocative questions about the way modern culture attempts to thwart or appropriate nontraditional methods of healing.
When the story opens, Anna Lévay is a 62-year-old high-school teacher of Hungarian literature. She is exceptionally reserved, conscientious, and, by necessity, penny-pinching. Her days, like her well-respected classes, follow regular, unalterable patterns. She knows exactly how long to run hot water into her bath. She knows just how to arrest a tear in her pantyhose. What she doesn't know is how to explain the halo that has suddenly appeared over her head.
As an atheist and an academic, she turns to the library and the laboratory, researching the appearance of halos in classic literature (varied) and measuring its temperature (moderate). Her primary concern - besides the thought that she might be mad - is how to comb her hair and sleep under the halo's glow. "One should act as if nothing has happened," she thinks primly before donning a pair of sunglasses and drifting off.
Not coincidentally, Anna has been studying Kafka with her students, and readers familiar with "The Metamorphosis" will find their antennae twitching at the absurdist quality of "To Err is Divine." Bozai understands the comic persistence of our daily routines even under the most extraordinary circumstances. The appropriately stilted English translation by David Kramer, under close consultation with the author, maintains its ultradry wit as the circumstances grow increasingly bizarre.
Anna quickly discovers that no one can see her halo except animals, who follow her adoringly, and babies, who point at her with delight. At school, she maintains her signature decorum, deeply anxious that she might be discovered and humiliated. But nothing unusual occurs until she's walking home by the river one evening and thousands of fish jump onto the shore as she passes. Her stroll is unaffected even when she's hit by a car.
Another morning she wakes up to find her houseplants have exploded into a lush Garden of Eden. Her speech is sometimes littered with quotations from the Bible.
All this might have passed unnoticed if not for the doctor, a neurologist, whom Anna consults early on. Stunned by the spontaneous healing of his arthritic knee after a brief conversation with her, he quickly surmises that Anna is the link between a rash of strange events in town. After a series of surreptitious (and ridiculous) tests, he confirms his suspicions and begins plotting with the mayor to harness her power.
Much of Bozai's acerbic satire here is directed at East European politicians who have made the transition from venal communism to exploitative capitalism with impressive ease. Desperate to increase the town's tourism industry, the mayor constructs an international healing center - a massive shell game of nested corporations funded with public money and owned by his friends and cronies.
The doctor keeps Anna involved with the new center just enough to effect healings, but not enough to let anyone know she's the real engine behind this immensely profitable empire. While she remains just as modest and punctilious as ever, a vast structure of marketing campaigns, New Age theories, legal rules, insurance regulations, and financing scams springs up to exploit her simple gift.
Perhaps most provocative is Bozai's portrayal of a medical establishment determined to dismiss the possibility of spiritual healing even while working tirelessly to harness these wonderful recoveries in an apparatus of medical routines and billing procedures. The whole enterprise depends on keeping grateful patients ignorant, intimidated, and obedient.
Unfortunately, the deliberate pacing of this book - particularly in the first half - will be a significant deterrent for American readers. Despite their potential sympathy for this critique of a healthcare system that's chronically infected with bureaucracy, marketing, and conflicts of interest, it's difficult to imagine such a cerebral satire climbing the bestseller list in the United States, as it did in Germany and Hungary.
But that's no reason not to hope for its success; sometimes, what sounds miraculous is entirely natural.
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments about the book section to Ron Charles.