Spring is approaching in the Sunbelt, which means one thing to people in places like North Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas and Western Tennessee.
Here come the tornadoes.
As someone who was a child in Wichita Falls on April 3, 1964 (and several other relevant dates), I know quite a bit about the astonishing, random, mysterious power of twisters. If you were looking for a natural phenomenon that can jump start a debate about "theodicy" -- the technical term for "God in the dock" arguments about good and evil -- a tornado will do the trick.
What does it mean when a twister destroys a neighborhood and leaves a church standing? What does it mean when the church is destroyed, as well? No, I don't think this is a denominational thing.
To cut to the chase, I was glad when The Dallas Morning News did something interesting the other day, offering a question-and-answer piece that ran with this headline: "Texas Faith: How a loving God can permit killer tornadoes." It's well worth the time and raises some interesting questions and hints at ONE TAKE on some answers. Hold that thought.
The person providing the answers, in this case, is identified as "Theological expert John Holbert." I have spent quite a bit of time at seminaries, and even taught at one, but I have never seen anyone there billed as a "theological expert." Truth be told, Holbert is not a theologian, but is "professor emeritus of homiletics" at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. That means he is an expert on delivering homilies, which is fancy talk for preaching.
Here is how the dialogue begins:
How do you reconcile a loving and caring God with terrible events such as onslaught of killer tornadoes that hit Garland and Rowlett?
The reconciliation of a God of love and caring and concern for all people is finally impossible with these monstrous events that occur, whether they are humanly produced or naturally produced. So that means you have to think again about God’s power. One of the ways to address the question is to say that the God of infinite power really doesn’t exist. The God that we think about is a God of certain kinds of limits. For traditional Christians and traditional Jews, that’s a pretty appalling way of talking. They want to have a God of infinite power, infinite justice and infinite love. But in the face of horrors that Dallas and others have experienced, that doesn’t seem to fit as well.
Where does this idea come from?
There have been theological people thinking along these lines from the very beginning. Even our Book of Job in the Old Testament, describes a God rather like that: A God who is not fully or infinitely powerful, but a God who engages with people, who changes in the face of people’s struggle and weeps in the face of people’s pain.
That’s always been attractive to me. I must admit that I’m not fully satisfied with it. The lifelong struggle to understand who God is has led me to want to question that particular traditional view of God – a God who can do everything. If you have that kind of belief of a God who can do everything, then you really have a problem. And that is, if God can really do everything, then why aren’t we safe?
You may have heard that really quite appalling story of the woman who talked about how she prayed and was able to divert the tornado away from her house -- and then it killed some other people. And that’s what you’re stuck with. If you imagine that you have power or God has power, you’re always going to fall into the trap that somebody gets it.
Maybe it doesn’t hurt you, but it might hurt the person next to you.
Yes, you hear people saying God saved me from the tornado or other disaster, but there are always people who don’t get saved and the question then is “Well, what does that all mean?”
By all means, read on. This is the sort of subject that solid newsrooms should be taking on more often, in my opinion.
So do I have a problem with this editorial, as opposed to hard-news, feature?
My only concern is with the single-voice nature of this debate. You see, when it comes to theological education (at the college, university and seminary levels) Dallas-Fort Worth is a very, very interesting place. What we have here is a missed opportunity for an interesting, perhaps even newsworthy, debate.
So how did the editors at the News end up handing this subject to someone from Perkins -- a progressive, oldline Protestant institution -- and Perkins alone? Perkins is an important campus in Dallas (with 380 or so students at one recent count), but it by no means, standing alone, captures the worldview of Dallas, Texas. This feature is rather like handling a bombshell topic of this kind in, oh, Salt Lake City and only talking to a Catholic priest. Or maybe it's like discussing theodicy in New York City and interviewing one Southern Baptist.
Maybe this think piece should have been expanded into a series of features?
I mean, what would a conservative Baptist from Dallas Theological Seminary (about 2,000 students at its various campuses and associated programs) have to say? Or over in Fort Worth there is Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, which is one of the world's largest seminaries (with about 3,000 students these days). Then you have Dallas Baptist University and the theology department at the University of Dallas, which is a Catholic school. Who did I leave out?
So my question is not, "Why Perkins?" My question is, "How did the News team end up with Perkins, alone?" Dallas is, arguably, the most important city in America in terms of evangelical Protestant clout. Why focus on someone from a liberal Protestant campus, alone, when talking to the public about this kind of complex, emotional, hot-button topic?
Just asking. Maybe the editors and their readers live in different zip codes?