I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Hurricane Irma and Christian Faith in the Face of Disasters
Today we’ll consider what the unpredictability of a hurricane says about human vulnerability; we’ll consider our dependence on technology revealed as millions are now in the dark; and we’re going to see the New York Times in two successive front-page stories ask big questions about God, faith, and Christian belief in the wake of the storms.
WHAT THE UNPREDICTABILITY OF A HURRICANE SAYS ABOUT HUMAN VULNERABILITY
As of early this morning, Hurricane Irma continues to churn through the state of Florida; that after hitting the state twice: the first in the keys and the second landing about Marco Island or Naples. It turns out that Hurricane Irma is just as large a storm as had been predicted, but perhaps not as deadly, and for that we should be very thankful. But this is still an unfolding story, and as is almost always the case with this kind of massive storm, the stories unpredictable; it has turned out not to be what we expected. In the first case, the storm has not gone catastrophically up Florida’s East Coast, but rather up the West Coast of the state. And furthermore, in terms of shifts in the storm’s trajectory, it continued to shift west for some time, which was good news for most of the population of the state, but not for those that turn out to be in the storm’s immediate path.
When you look at the storm and you look at the danger, it is clear that Florida and federal authorities, as well as authorities in other states likely to be affected, including Georgia and South Carolina, were absolutely right in ordering the evacuations and in issuing the warnings. But we are talking about a massive storm, and this is where the Christian worldview reminds us that when we are talking about something like this in terms of the power of nature — even human wisdom and human intelligence, even our ability to put satellites in space and to see these storms and to track them and to issue predictions and to warn persons likely to be in their path — in reality, the millions, indeed the countless factors behind the existence of a storm like this, the absolute behavior of a storm like this, all of this turns out to be matters beyond any human intelligence. They are, to use a biblical term, passed our finding out, but that’s not to say that there is not a lot of human wisdom for which we should be thankful in terms of the warnings about this storm. Frankly, even as of early this morning, the fact that the death toll has not been more significant thus far has to be at least partly attributed to the fact that there was so much knowledge about the storm. But there have been several issues that have been clearly revealed even as of early this morning.
DEPENDENCE ON TECHNOLOGY REVEALED AS MANY ARE IN THE DARK AFTER HURRICANE IRMA
First of all we see our dependence upon technology, and the fact that one of the most important dangers coming out this storm turns out to be that as of this morning about 3 million Floridians are without power. And in an even more serious sense, we are told that they may be without power for some time, at least some authorities are warning it could be a matter of weeks. This humbles us, recognizing just how dependent we are upon these technologies, and most importantly electricity. Electricity is not just, for most Americans, a matter of mere convenience, we can find our way around without electricity for a matter of minutes or hours or perhaps even a day, but if you get far beyond that, the infrastructure of our lives turns out to be significantly affected — in some cases even talking about life and death — with persons who are dependent upon machines for oxygen and even for other kinds of necessary services, not to mention the fact that our entire food chain in terms of how food actually gets fed to people requires an enormous amount of organized energy including refrigeration, transportation — all of this very dependent upon electricity, right down to how the food is cooked.
Once the storm leaves the Tampa Bay area whatever danger comes from the tidal surge should be apparent and largely over. The storm is then going to be dangerous in many other ways; it will continue, it is expected, through the hours of the day to be a hurricane in one form and in one force or another.
NEW YORK TIMES AMAZED THAT HURRICANE STRENGTHENS, RATHER THAN WEAKENS CHRISTIANS’ FAITH
Again, we’ll be tracking that, but there are some big issues that have arisen, not only in terms of Hurricane Irma, but also Hurricane Harvey. These big issues are theological issues, and, interestingly, at least two front-page articles in the New York Times over the weekend dealt directly with the theological questions raised by these two hurricanes.
Now, for instance in Sunday’s edition of the New York Times, a headline story,
“Hobbled and Humbled, Texans Assembled to Pray, Then Rebuild.”
The story’s by Kevin Sack, and the most interesting thing about it is that it appears to be written with a sense of puzzlement as to why persons in Texas in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey would respond in such an explicitly Christian way, but that’s exactly what is reported in the story. Sack reports from Wharton County, Texas; He tells about Jeff Klimple,
“head bowed and eyes clinched, [who] had locked his meaty mechanic’s hand into the trembly, creased fingers of his 80-year-old mother, Angie. She, in turn,” we are told, “held the right hand of her 24-year-old granddaughter, Natalie.”
Natalie is holding hands with someone else, and they are engaged in prayer. Why? Because Mrs. Klimple was amongst those whose homes had suffered a great deal of damage in the floods associated with Hurricane Harvey. And those with whom she was praying are those who, in the name of Christ, had gathered together to help this woman not only because they were members of her family or members of her community, but because just in the name of Christ they cared. As Sack tells us,
“In all, there were 17 Texans linked in a ring on Angie Klimple’s front yard last Saturday afternoon, a circle of prayer broken only by the hay wagon that would soon carry away the putrid, sodden remnants of 50 years of her life.”
Her son prayed,
“Father, we come to you and thank you for all of these people you sent us.”
Kevin Sack writes about an army of Christian volunteers, not only from Texas, but from elsewhere in the United States, who’d gone to the aid of those in Texas who have suffered from Hurricane Harvey, and that same army — not necessarily the same people, but driven by the same urgency — will be soon streaming into Florida as well.
Kevin Sack writes,
“Across the flood zone, the water’s victims have endured the first two weeks of dislocation with the help of Samaritans of all cloths — family members, friends, co-workers, volunteers from near and far, and an array of faith-based groups. With homeowners racing,” he writes, “against time to limit the advance of rot and mold, the availability of free manual labor can make all the difference.”
Sack goes back to Mr. Klimple’s prayer as he prayed,
“I thank you, Lord, for the things that you’ve given us, the grace and mercy that [we’ve taken] for granted.”
Then Sack writes,
“Since the days of the Bible, all manner of natural disasters — floods and earthquakes, pestilence and famine — have tested the devotion of the faithful and provoked the most fundamental theological questions. Is God benevolent or retributive or both? Why is there so much human suffering and why does it afflict the righteous as well as the unrighteous? Does everything,” he writes, “in fact happen for a reason, and if so what divine purpose could there possibly be in leaving an old widow like Mrs. Klimple homeless?”
Speaking to those who were helping her in the wake of the disaster, Mrs. Klimple said,
“We’ll be all right with the help of the Lord.”
Mrs. Klimple’s own Christian worldview was evident when she also said,
“When I first saw it all, it upset me,”
speaking of the destruction of her home. She said
“But then I thought, you know, I needed to clean the house anyway. Too bad I just dusted everything.”
According to Sack,
“She nodded at a new set of volunteers who were prying out drywall and disinfecting the house with bleach. They were what mattered. ‘When I saw the crew that came in, all those wonderful people and friends, I was just so thankful. … ‘I feel like the Lord’s trying to bring people together. He wants us to be nicer to each other.’”
Clearly, the 80-year-old widow at the center of this story situates her own story within the Christian story, and in this Mrs. Klimple was not alone. As a matter of fact, the story in the New York Times expresses quite genuine amazement at so many people in Texas who had indicated that their faith was not only not shaken by the hurricane, but was actually deepened.
As Sack writes,
“Many of those in the prayer circle allowed themselves to wonder, but not for long. There was too much to do. And nothing that had happened, not the deaths or destruction of homes or loss of crops and livestock, had shaken their faith. In fact,” he writes to a person, they said the flood and its aftermath had strengthened it.”
In terms of some of the serious theological questions raised in this article, it never actually gets to an answer. But in terms of reporting, this is actually an excellent example of a major secular newspaper trying to understand the very people it is covering in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. And to the credit of the New York Times, they recognize this is a big story and it has big theological meaning attached to it.
Some of the questions raised by this article are the historic Christian concerns about theodicy, that is answering the ways of God. But also here is the very biggest question of all, does everything happen for a meaning? That is a question explicitly asked in the article, and one of the most helpful things is the fact that the article demonstrates not only the words of a couple of pastors, but mainly in the words of many faithful Christians who are just, in this case, praying with and helping out a neighbor, that they really do have confidence that everything does happen for a reason, even if they are not able to understand exactly what that reason may be.
The biblical worldview helps us to understand the balance in this, that everything does indeed happen for a reason, but we are to be very humble in assuming that we can identify the reason. Jesus himself made that abundantly clear, as he also made clear that indeed storms and rain come upon both the just and the unjust. Being a Christian is no protection against this kind of natural disaster, but what this story indicates, in such a helpful way, is that the response to the disaster on the part of Christians is absolutely different than those who believe that there is no meaning in such an occurrence. There is a deep sweetness and authenticity to the words of the Christians who are quoted in this article. Going back to this elderly widow’s son, whose prayer is mentioned at several points in the article, he prayed,
“Lord, I want to thank you that we’re not in worse shape than we are, because we know that others have suffered even more.”
Again, a deeply Christian sentiment deeply grounded in the biblical worldview.
IN THE FACE OF NATURE’S CHAOS, NEW YORK TIMES ASKS, “WHY CAN’T WE STOP ASKING ‘WHY?’”
But just one day previous the New York Times had yet another article also dealing with big theological issues, and this one pointed out: We’re not just talking about two deadly hurricanes in the United States. Henry Fountain writes this,
“Vicious hurricanes all in a row, one having swamped Houston and another about to buzz through Florida after ripping up the Caribbean.
Wildfires bursting out all over the West after a season of scorching hot temperatures and years of dryness.
And late Thursday night, off the coast of Mexico, a monster of an earthquake.
You could be forgiven,”
“for thinking apocalyptic thoughts …”
He cites the science fiction writer John Scalzi; we’re told that he
“[surveyed] the charred and flooded and shaken landscape [in recent days, and then] declared [on Twitter] that this ‘sure … feels like the End Times are getting in a few dress rehearsals right about now.’”
Helpfully, Fountain mentions that these disasters come over and over again: storms earthquakes, fires. In terms of earthquakes he writes,
“[The big ones] happen all the time, and the numbers of quakes, from weak to powerful, is unwavering when averaged over time.” He says, “There is roughly one ‘great’ quake, of magnitude 8 or higher, [every single year].”
This article in the New York Times points to the fact that faced with this kind of huge, ominous disaster, storm, earthquake, fire — whatever the form may be — causes human beings to ask basic questions including: Why? And this is where the story gets really interesting because at this point Fountain cites Christiana Peppard, an associate professor of theology, science and ethics at Fordham University who says,
“With unexpected cataclysmic weather events, people across time and space have always looked for explanations.”
It gets more interesting right here,
“The fact is it is attractive to certain segments of the population to look at unforeseen apocalyptic-style events as fitting into a particular kind of narrative.”
Now let’s look at that little more closely. Here she says that a certain segment of the population tends to see these kinds of events in apocalyptic form because it fits into their
“particular kind of narrative.”
That’s a very intelligent statement — I think she’s actually right; I just think she’s right about many more people than she understands. Because no doubt she’s looking here at those including some who might be defined as in a spectrum from science fiction fans to evangelical Christians, who see the world in apocalyptic terms — that is they see the world an eschatological terms, they believe there’s going to be an end of the world, and, in terms of the Christian biblical worldview, there’s going to be a day of judgment, and, of course, it is very easy to read the Scripture come to understand that there are signs of the times pointing to just that kind of apocalyptic event.
“In deeply religious communities, the recent sequence of catastrophic events and threats — [terrorism] and nuclear weapon tests, as well as natural disasters — can be understood more easily through prophecy than logic.”
Fountain cited George Loewenstein, another academic, he’s professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University. He said,
“We are all much more superstitious than we recognize, and it takes a lot of logical thinking not to believe that this part of the world is not being somehow persecuted.”
Now the reason I pointed to those two quotes and those two academics is because Lowenstein is exactly right when he says,
“We are all much more superstitious than we recognize.”
Now what he means by superstitious I will simply explain in these terms: Everyone is asking these theological questions and everyone actually cannot help but to think in terms of theology and big questions when it comes to the response to this kind of tragedy or natural occurrence. But then when you look at the other academic who said there’s a part of the segment of the population that reads these issues in apocalyptic terms, well here’s the bottom line: Everyone does in his or her own way. Not only due to the fact that we are made in God’s image is every one of us a religious creature who can’t stop asking these questions, in reality, every single one of us has to fit the world and our understanding of it, well to quote that professor again at Fordham University,
“into a particular kind of narrative.”
For some people, that narrative is climate change and the apocalyptic warning that these storms are evidence of the fact that climate change is not only more real, but much further along in terms of danger than had been previously recognized. Others are pointing to a more explicitly theological issue. But the point is, every single one of us, every intelligent person has to look at these massive events and fit them into a particular kind of narrative. The question is: What kind of narratives is it?
That more secular apocalyptic perspective is actually represented in the article by Terry Tempest Williams, identified as an author and naturalist who is a writer in residence at Harvard Divinity School. He said,
“For so many years, talking about the weather was talking about nothing. … Now,” he said, “it really is our survival.”
The story also quotes Richard Hecht, a professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He said,
“that many believers could indeed see this chaotic summer as a sign of the end of times.”
In his words,
“End of times fantasies have been a central part of American religiosity since the beginning, so it shouldn’t be any surprise [that such thoughts are coming now].”
And, again, I simply have to say, that end of times fantasies are not merely a part of American religiosity; they are equally and emphatically part of American secularism as well. Every single one of us interprets these events in terms of our worldview, and one of the things to watch is how these events do indeed reveal our worldview. And isn’t it revealing that in two successive days, front-page articles in the New York Times reporting to deal with purely natural events can’t help asking questions about God.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing. For more information, go to my website AlbertMohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to @albertmohler.For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College just go to boycecollege.com.
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