Image credit: NOAA, public domain via Wikimedia Commons
My heart goes out to those suffering from Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana. Natural disasters like this are often tied to the “wrath of God” model, and outdated though it is, it still captures how it feels. The sheer amount of rain dumped by this one storm is literally inconceivable. Trillions of gallons. Coupled with a completely ineffectual president, the disaster is even greater. Like many others, I’ve been watching since the weekend as the numbers and statistics of woe rise. Lives lost. Property washed away. Once more it reminds us just how small we are in the face of the weather. Some of this same awe was in my mind as I wrote Weathering the Psalms. Ancient Israel did not experience hurricanes—the bodies of water nearby aren’t large enough to generate them. A single thunderstorm, however, is enough to put the fear of God into a person. In ancient times, with an under-developed meteorology, all of this was the provenance of providence. How else could you begin to explain such tragedy?
One of the books that got me started on my meteorotheological quest was Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm, about the Galveston hurricane of 1900. Thousands died in that storm, and it remains the most deadly natural disaster in US history. Although Hurricane Harvey developed quickly, there was warning. The death toll is remarkably small (at least at the moment) compared to the fury of the storm. The natural tendency of human psychology is to look to supernatural explanations for such devastation. What have I done to deserve this? How could God do this? Are we being punished? Questions such as these come to mind, although we know that hurricanes are entirely normal features of this planet. Somewhere in the back of our minds, though, we probably are aware that global warming causes more radical weather.
Even as Trump continues to surround himself with climate change deniers, we see what global warming looks like. The weather is an intricate mechanism. Small things effect it. Large-scale changes throw it into chaos. Those who see climate change as a pain in the pocketbook will do anything they can to deny its reality. More powerful than a freight train or battleship, the weather can’t slam on the brakes and suddenly resume a more milder form. No, we’ve already started the process, no matter how many billionaires disagree. My heart goes out to those who continue to suffer from the hurricane. We need strong leadership and clear thinking at such times as this. We will need more of that in years to come. But we must also keep in mind this isn’t the anger of God. Unfortunately the wrath of human greed can be just as devastating as the wrath of the Almighty.
Among the academic detritus cluttering my desktop is a book I wrote while employed at Nashotah House. Not being a native Midwesterner and finding myself where severe thunderstorms are a blasé fact of life for much of the year, I was captivated by and terrified of the weather. At the same time, daily recitation of the Psalms was a major part of our required, twice daily worship. With the thunder louder than I could ever imagine it outside, we’d calmly read the Psalms, at our stately pace, confident that he who rides upon the clouds could protect us, his humble servants. After many years of recitatio continua I noticed the plenitudinous mentions of the weather in the Psalms. After a painstaking five years of reading and rereading the entire Psalter, I had translated every verse with a weather reference and had written commentary on them.
Publishers showed no interest, this despite the enormous success of Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm, and Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm (both of which I eagerly read) and the recent release of Twister. One publisher deigned to make comments as to the great problems of my thesis, so I sat down to revise this behemoth of a book. The very day I was called into the Dean’s office and fired was the last time I looked at the material. I had been revising the book that very morning. The one sad aspect of this entire episode is that every colleague to whom I mentioned the book was excited to read it when it came out. There was a real interest, but no publisher willing to take on the project, this side of vanity publishing.
Some days I think I may go back to that dead beast of a project and try to resurrect it. My academic publishing has slowed to a tortoisene pace without full-time institution support or interest (independent scholars are not worth investing in, I have learned), especially under the weight of teaching nearly a dozen classes a year. Nevertheless, the idea seems sound to me. I keep a weather-eye on the academic horizon and I have yet to spot a book like mine anywhere within the publication catalogues. Considering the importance of storm gods in the ancient world, perhaps we’ve simply moved beyond this interest, tucked away in our interior settings. Nevertheless, when a rare thunderstorm comes to New Jersey, I still remember the majesty of the weather and a forgotten book on the Psalms.