The God of Union University

20080208 7 p020808cg 0330 515hRemember that little discussion of "theodicy" that we had last weekend? This is actual a topic that journalists, as a rule, do not mind digging into from time to time. They enjoy putting God in the dock whenever there is a great tragedy, especially natural disasters. Truth is, it's a valid story. I once wrote a mini-meditation on some of these questions early in the history of GetReligion, while living in South Florida, minutes before the power went out in a hurricane.

But to the point: I missed the following Los Angeles Times story the other day, after the wave of tornadoes in the Bible Belt. The headline is blunt and perfectly logical, seen through the eyes of people at Union University: "Seeing God in tornadoes' wake -- As students and faculty at a Southern Baptist university in Tennessee clean up, they also ponder what the event means, theologically speaking."

That's long, but gets to the point. This is a case where reporter Richard Fausset simply walks up to the victims and asks the Big Question.

So what does it say about the nature of God that the campus was shredded ... by a barrage of tornadoes? What does it say that no lives were lost, despite $40 million in damage?

Gregory A. Thornbury is relishing the opportunity to explore those questions when students return to the Southern Baptist campus, perhaps in the next few weeks. Thornbury, dean of Union's school of Christian studies, says he plans to make the disaster -- and the response to it -- a catalyst for student discussions about responding through faith, and the opaque and sometimes baffling motives of God.

"If we didn't, we'd have blown it," Thornbury said Thursday, standing on the squishy carpet of the religious studies library. "We're preparing people to become teachers of God's word, to be missionaries, to be the leaders of relief organizations."

You get to hear some answers, some at the level of faithful freshmen. Some at the level of a veteran teacher. As you would expect, the name Job came up in the discussions.

... Thornbury, a clean-cut, smiling presence in glasses and a wind-breaker, warned that guessing the mind of God was a tricky proposition for humans. To make his point, he quoted from Deuteronomy: "The secret things belong to the Lord our God."

God's motive for destroying the school, he said, "is probably in the realm of the things that belong to the Lord. ... But what we can say is: 'Look at the solidarity here. Why do we have people from the whole country rallying around this cause?' I think that says something about what God has revealed to us."

Though he expects the tornadoes will spark vigorous theological discussions in class, Thornbury said that the true lesson -- that people should respond to suffering with love and compassion -- was already manifesting itself.

There is not much to fault, but I would like to make one point: This is a question that people wrestle with again and again, because suffering is personal and unique. But Christianity begins with the story of martyrs and redemptive suffering. It never hurts to include at least one paragraph that lets the readers know that his is an old, old story. It literally IS the old, old story.

It is old news. Ancient news, even.

WHITE HOUSE PHOTO: President Bush flies over the wreckage in West Tennessee.

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