Category Archives: Natural Disasters

Sky Mercies

While in a used bookstore recently, I was going over the science titles. I like to read accessible science since I often find it approaches religious ideas in secular terms. Once in a while even the terms of these disparate disciplines coalesce. I spied a volume on the top shelf titled The Mercy of the Sky. The spine showed a purplish cloud-bank, and the very concept set me wondering. We’d just been through a bomb cyclone the day before with wind bellowing through our apartment. Many trees were down and power was out for several people I’d overheard talking that day. I stared at the spine, thinking perhaps this would be a good follow-up to Weathering the Psalms, but as I already had books in my hands, and since I’m not the tallest guy around, it seemed beyond my reach. Of course, after I left I thought more about it.

The previous day’s nor’easter had revived that sense of a storm as divine anger. Strong winds, my wife commented, are generally disturbing. They make it difficult to sleep. It’s hard to feel secure when the heavens are anything but merciful. Although the wind is easily forgotten, it’s among the most easily anthropomorphized of natural phenomena. And it’s ubiquitous. Everything on the surface of the earth is subject to it. Indeed, the atmosphere is larger than the planet itself. Is it any wonder that God has always been conceptualized as in the sky? The quality of the mercy of the sky, we might say, is strained.

Danger comes from the earth below us, the world around us, and the realm above. Like our ancient ancestors staring wonderingly into the sky, it is the last of these that’s most to be feared. The wind can’t been seen, but it can be felt. It cuts us with icy chills, drenches us with dismal rain, even flings us violently about when its anger compresses it into a tight whirl. We can’t control it. Unlike other predators it requires neither sleep to refresh nor light to see. Its rage is blind and it takes no human goodness or evil into account. After a great windstorm, the calm indeed feels like a mercy. Elijah on Mount Sinai stood before a mighty wind, tearing the land apart. It was the still, small voice, however, that captures his imagination. There’s a calm before the storm, but it is the stillness in its wake that most feels like the mercy of the sky.

Of Our Being

It happens every year. What with my commute schedule and personal disposition, I read a lot. This blog and Goodreads are my accounting system for keeping track of the thoughts that arise during all of this. Every year I get stopped by my first really important book that I’ve read since December’s roundup of last year’s titles. Paul Bogard’s The Ground beneath Us is this year’s first such book. Subtitled From the Oldest Cities to the Last Wilderness, What Dirt Tells Us about Who We Are, this tour of several fascinating locations is a wake-up call. Divided into three sections—Paved and Hallowed, Farmed and Wild, Hell and Sacred—Bogard’s book offers a kind of travelogue with the additional reminder that how we’re treating the land is the most terrifying example of what lack of foresight imaginable (why, Prometheus?) looks like. In a world with a rapidly growing population, we’re paving and building at unprecedented rates. World harvests, experts say, will last only another sixty years. Then we starve.

A dilemma I’ve struggle with here before is the fact that nobody owns this world. Nobody but those driven by money. There’s little that can stop them. This is exemplified by his chapter on fracking in my native Appalachia. Companies protected by loopholes—nooses, actually—devised by Dick Cheney can take over a town and destroy its environment. And this was even before Trump. And this is only but one example. Those who look soberly at where we’re going—and the melting permafrost in the northern hemisphere is about to make the globe nearly uninhabitable for our species—are ignored because they stand in the way of profits. Everybody loses. As a species we have neither the will nor the power to prevent it. Epimetheus reigns.

Not just doom and gloom, The Ground beneath Us is a thoughtful reflection on the human spirit. The titles of the subsections reveal that sacred ground—one of my recurring themes on this blog—is very real. Bogard isn’t a religionist, so you can’t accuse him of special pleading. His moving accounts of visiting sites hallowed by any number of factors, whether violence or simple belonging, reveal what home really means. What a dangerous, maybe even sinful, concept ownership can be. With chapters covering areas as diverse as Mexico City sinking under its own weight, to Ames, Iowa where what we’re doing to the soil is studied, to parts of Alaska accessible only by air, Heaven and Hell are daily and plainly played out before us. This is a very important book. We can only hope enough people will read it before it’s too late.

Peter and the Red Giant

Now that my book has been sent off to the publisher, I’m working on the next project. This one has me delving back into the Greek of the New Testament. It may be, some would say, that I’m no longer an expert in such things. Coming to Koiné Greek, however, after lingering among languages like Ugaritic and Akkadian, feels like coming home. It’s Indo-European, after all. One of the books I’ve come back to is 2 Peter. This is a curiosity among the canonical books. All but the most conservatively predisposed of scholars note that this little letter didn’t actually come from the Peter. The idea of using someone famous as a literary pseudonym was a well known and widely accepted practice in ancient times. In fact, the prefix “Pseudo-“ on classical writers is so common that I feel just a little self-conscious. Nevertheless, 2 Peter contains fascinating ideas.

The Bible was influenced, of course, by many outside sources. One of those sources was Zoroastrianism, the religion of ancient Persia. This came to mind because 2 Peter is the only book in the Bible that describes the end of the world as burning and melting. These ideas are tied to the purifying fire of Zoroastrianism. In that religion an evil deity, Angra Mainyu, corrupted this world. Fire, in Zoroastrian thought, is holy. At the end of time, when the blessed ascend to a heavenly mountain, a river of fire will pour down, burning and purifying the polluted earth left behind. The idea is powerful and evocative, and obviously some early Christian writers cottoned onto it. Including 2 Peter.

The idea, in the Bible, stands isolated in this one single book. The real concern of the epistle is false prophets, though. Still, the worldly should take note. The universe in biblical times consisted only of this relatively flat planet—which wasn’t even a planet then—with a starry dome overhead and a fiery Hell beneath. Ironically, 2 Peter’s end is similar to that predicted by modern astronomers. A star the size our sun will likely bloom out into a red giant, parboiling the earth in its death throes. Seems the Zoroastrians, and Peter, may have been correct after all. The thing is they both had an escape hatch that will only come with interplanetary migration, according to science. But then, all of this assumes there will be a world left after the Trump administration. And speaking of false prophets, I wonder what 2 Peter would’ve had to say about that?

To Fear Itself

Fear, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt knew, would paralyze a nation more quickly than anything else. In recent years politicians have rather cynically used that information to sway voters. Fear-mongers, such as Trump, tend to have the upper hand because, ignoring FDR, we’ve given in to our fears. The shootings in Las Vegas on Sunday night are only one more example. The NRA, which has doggedly insists that the only way to combat guns is with more guns, defends its rhetoric yet again as 59 people have needlessly died just for attending a concert where a madman checked 23 guns into a hotel room with him far above. Conceal and carry is no solution to fear. Guns have no place in the hands of a fearful public.

A profound sadness accompanies such insane violence, supported almost unequivocally by the GOP. It’s not a matter of someone armed in the crowd shooting back; the shooters take the initiative of taking their own life when some hidden trigger tells them they’ve murdered enough. We see the pattern over, and over, and over. We are a violent people. A violent people have no business having easy access to weapons. As long as money has politicians in its wallet this will never change. We’re all afraid of those who have the guns. And Washington has a perverse love of money. Those of us who don’t have guns are easy to push around. That’s what America is all about anyway.

As this past election showed, and continues to show, a candidate without a mandate may easily buy the White House. The causes held so dear by the Republican Party—guns, no healthcare, tax plans that favor the wealthiest—all of this plays to our fears and gives them power. If we weren’t afraid, what need would we have of guns? After many decades of helping the poorest be an active part of this country, Washington is now intent on dismantling the aging safety nets we’ve put in place. Retirement is a reality for a very few. Medical costs are, even with Obamacare, still a constant worry for many. Natural disasters come and we can’t mobilize even to help our own. But we’ve got guns. Fear itself has come to define the home of the brave. It is said that Sarah Winchester, the widow of William Wirt Winchester, never let the mansion built on blood money be finished for fear of haunting. That is one fear we apparently no longer have, even though guns have no effect on ghosts.

Healthy Hurricanes

Three major hurricanes into the season and our Republican government has nothing better to do than try to think up new ways to take away our healthcare. In an effort—no victory is too insignificant—to show that the swamp is being drained, the Grand Old Party wants its own constituents to sicken and die off just to prove a point. Meanwhile Thurston Howell can’t find a charted island even after being marooned on it. Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States. Perhaps the White House should use some of its tax money to purchase a map and a history book. Houston is still recovering from Harvey and 45 spends his time campaigning for the loser in Alabama. Not even Shakespeare could have come up with tragedies like this.

Morality, at least in the post-Reagan elephant wing, used to be in line with evangelical Christianity. When I grew up in that tradition I was taught it meant fair treatment for all, regardless of race or social location. Since my childhood that brand of Christianity has become more exclusive, it seems. God now, contrary to the Gospels, rewards the wealthy. He tends to favor gentiles, but only those of caucasian stripe. Those who are poor and suffering should learn to speak English and stay out of the sun. Act like proper suburbanites and hurricanes will never strike you. Oh yes, and you need not fear being stuck by the sun by day either. You don’t even need to read your Bible. In fact, you can ignore it as long as you know enough to proclaim to others you alone know what it means.

So far 2017 has been a year of natural disasters. Earthquakes, hurricanes, and further from home, multiple landslides and monsoons. And even volcanoes. It’s tempting to see some biblical correlations here, but that’s playing fast and easy with the great torment from which our fellow human beings are suffering. Far more important is to show that we can repeal healthcare in a nation that has been spared, to a great extent, the worst the world has had in store so far this year. Oh, except for Puerto Rico. Does anybody have a map app on their phone? And while you’re at it, check to see if maybe some developer has come up with software to help govern an affluent nation. Preferably one linked somehow with Twitter. We mustn’t forget our priorities.

Biblical Hurricanes

Say what you will about western Pennsylvania, but it was a location fairly safe from natural disasters. My hometown was too far inland for hurricanes to cause much damage. A little too far east for Midwest tornadoes to touch down (mostly). Adequate-to-too-much rain, so wildfires didn’t occur. Not on any fault-lines that invited earthquakes, and volcanoes only thousands of miles away. We did get floods along the rivers during spring, but if you lived up the hill they weren’t much of a personal threat. It felt safe from the big news items of today. Leaving home for the sake of finding work moved me into Tornado Alley for many years, and currently, in New Jersey, in the range of hurricanes now and again. Still reeling from Hurricane Harvey and lack of effective national leadership, Irma is devastating lives, and Jose is in her wake. Then a massive earthquake rocks Mexico. It feels like the apocalypse.

Image credit: NASA, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Ironically, many people read the Bible as a linear story from the creation of the world in Genesis to the end of the world in Revelation. They make an obvious set of bookends. Unlike western Pennsylvania, Israel lies on a fault-line that means earthquakes are not uncommon. Droughts occur. And being right on the path between major empires, it was frequently subject to human disasters such as invasions. It was not the most secure place to write a book that would change worldviews for millennia thereafter. What is so fascinating about this is that the message (or more properly, messages) of the Bible gets lost in the conceit that this is somehow a story of the history of the world with lots and lots of pages of preachy stuff between the exciting bits at the beginning and the end.

In times of natural disasters, people turn to the Bible for comfort. There are verses, often pulled from context, that do a fine job of that. Nevertheless, the Bible is an enormously complex text. Of its many books, Genesis and Revelation have had disproportionate influence on society. Any natural disaster big enough can be called “biblical.” Since the time of William Miller and John Nelson Darby, such disasters have been interpreted as heralding the end of the world. It is scary to see the devastation a single hurricane can cause. When it is followed closely by a second, one can’t help feeling a bit like Job. The apocalypse, however, is a misreading of Revelation. The book ends with Heaven on Earth. And if you can find a quiet place to read, you’ll find plenty of unexpected stuff tucked away in the middle. Just don’t take it too literally since that too leads to disasters.

By Numbers

Numbers 12.3 always struck me as one of the oddest verses of the Pentateuch. This was back in the days when I’d been taught that Moses wrote Genesis through Deuteronomy, in toto. When I read “Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth,” I had to wonder about the literalness of Scripture. How can someone who is humble boast of being the humblest person on the planet? Humility is a commodity sorely lacking in contemporary times. This shortage, in an era of fake news and border walls, finds expression in some very odd places. The White House, for example.

Kellyanne Conway, who’s apparently still around, recently told televangelist Pat Robertson, on the air, that Trump’s most characteristic trait is his humility. It seems that good old Moses got one wrong. The most humble man on the face of the earth is Donald J. Trump. You can tell that by the way he took a horrific hurricane and managed to make every media appearance concerning it about himself. It is quite a burden, being so humble. Especially when your race is the best one on the planet and there’s bad behavior on all sides when a white supremacist murders an innocent person for disagreeing. What would Moses do? Pat Robertson—you’re a literalist—help us out here! Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the humblest of them all? I surely hope the Bible isn’t participating in fake news.

It used to be called the good news. The message was one of love for all people and acceptance of the poor, the outcast, the widow, and yes, even the tax collector. I forget which chapter in Matthew it is where Jesus suggests building a wall to keep the gentiles out. It must be in there somewhere next to the chapter where Moses builds a tower up to heaven and then names it after himself. He was, after all, the humblest man in the world. He could afford to throw away entire calves made of gold, right? Humility will do that for you. Since we’ve just undergone a major natural disaster, we might as well start pushing our own self-image again. If Moses promised to build a wall, even if thousands and thousands are suffering and could better use the money, he must push through with his plan to erect a wall. And when he’s done he’ll put his name on it for all to see. That’s the price of humility.