Weather Gods

It’s funny how old fascinations have the power to reemerge with the slightest provocation.  I guess writing a book will do that to you.  I just finished Peter J. Thuesen’s Tornado God: American Religion and Violent Weather.  There’s a certain kinship among those of us enamored of this relationship.  Thuesen finds himself in Indiana, and I was in Wisconsin during my research and writing of Weathering the Psalms.  I still haven’t reconciled myself with tornadoes, which were far too likely during my years in the Midwest.  As Thuesen explains, there’s just something about them.  Neither scientist nor theologian can fully explain them and the feeling of awe spans both disciplines.  The book covers a wide range that includes early Protestant settlers and their ideas of providence as well as modern understandings of atmospheric dynamics.  Still, the tornadoes…

Randomness also lies behind both tornadoes and science.  The eerie function of quantum mechanics makes it seem if there’s a kind of willfulness to even particle physics.  Too quick to join in are those among the evangelical camp that want to raise the flag of intelligent design.  Thuesen interrogates their theology as he asks questions about both theodicy and global warming.  Tornadoes are notorious for killing one person and leaving another right next door completely unscathed.  Literally tearing families apart.  Some of those we meet in these pages have turned to black-and-white religion for answers.  Others tend to see things more in shades of gray.  Does God send storms or merely allow them?  Are victims singled out or simply unfortunate to be in the wrong place at the right time?  America’s armchair theologians have their ready answers, but the weather remains unpredictable.

Readers will find interesting connections throughout.  The celestial orientation of religion is pretty obvious as well.  Even though modern believers don’t accept a heaven directly overhead, the orientation is still there.  Their maddening obtuseness when it comes to global warming is more than just a little naive.  Either that or they’re secretly gunning for armageddon.  Whichever it is, Thuesen treats all comers with respect.  Storms are awe-inspiring events.  I recall standing on the edge of a farm field in Illinois and staring up at a lightning display in clouds towering thousands of feet above me.  Looking out the south window one night as a cloud continuously lit by lightning made its slow way from west to east just south of where I stood.  It was a religious experience.  How could it not be?  If any of this resonates with you, this is a book you ought to read.

The Wind and Trees

Being invisible, the wind is easily forgotten.  Until it begins to really blow.  I don’t know about where you are, but this past week was a very windy one around here.  Thursday especially.  My office has a couple of windows and each view shows different kinds of trees.  The south window reveals only a stolid oak or maple in a neighboring back yard a few doors down.  I don’t know this neighbor and I’ve never been close enough to get a good look at his deciduous tree.  Its leaves are down, of course, and although its branches moved in Thursday’s gusts there was never really a question of it coming down.  Trunk stout and sturdy, it has stood through many windstorms and will likely see many more.

My west window opens to some lofty pines across the street.  At least sixty feet tall, their trunks, like many coniferous species, stand fairly straight.  The way these trees bent in the wind worried me as a home owner.  And as a human being.  You see, I have done some woodwork.  A guy with as many books as we have either runs himself broke on buying bookshelves or learns to make his own.  I’ve spent plenty of my money on one-inch pine boards—the standard shelving material.  The 1 x 10, which is really 3/4 of an inch by 9 and 3/4, is the usual bookshelf board.  Not even an inch thick, it isn’t easily bent.  Incorporated into the trunk of a tree, it’s absolutely immobile if I press against it.  I’ve tried to move a mature tree trunk.  Even a good-size branch.  Mere humans can’t.  And yet I see these very same trunks swaying like they’re waltzing with the wind.

No wonder the weather has always been associated with the gods.  I mean, on Thursday last I saw these giants in the earth bending in arborescent obeisance.  The wind is easily forgotten.  As I worked on Weathering the Psalms, I easily sketched out the chapters on rain, lightning, and even snow.  But wind.  If you exegete a storm often the most damaging aspect is the wind.  Hurricanes and tornadoes damage due to their great wind velocity (the former also from impressive rain dumps).  What we call EF5 (or F5) tornadoes are so violent that any instrument directly in their path can’t survive its onslaught.  Winds swirling over 300 miles per hour are pretty much incomprehensible.  And yet when they dissipate, those violent winds are once again invisible.  Isn’t that just like the gods?

Tempestuous Wind

There was quite a windstorm that blew through here yesterday.  It reminded me rather forcefully of Weathering the Psalms.  Firstly, it blew loudly enough to wake me up a few times in the night.  When I finally climbed out of bed, listening to the blustery concussions beating the house, I remembered that the first chapter of Weathering was about the willful wind.  That’s not just a poetic phrase—according to the Psalter, the wind does the will of God.  Like much of the weather, it’s weaponized by the Bible.  Seeing what the wind can do, the reasons for this should be obvious.  Hurricanes are tremendous windstorms (although unknown in the land of the Bible), but they are also known for their tremendous rain.  Tornadoes, however, are pure wind and are among the most destructive forces on the planet.  (Before people came along, anyway.)  Wind commands respect.  We’re a very long way from taming it.

When thinking of meteorology, it’s easy to forget wind.  Rain and snow are pretty obvious.  Even desert heat is impossible to ignore.  The wind, invisible and powerful, is perhaps the most godlike of weather’s many features.  To the ancient way of thought, it was also inexplicable.  We understand the earth’s rotation and temperature differentials between water and land and the uneven heating between the surface of the ground and air aloft.  The ancients understood it more to be a pure act of God.  The wind certainly can seem spiteful.  It’s not difficult to attribute agency to it.  Such things go through my mind when the howling is loud enough to wake me.

Invisibility suggests power.  It wasn’t so much the “monotheism” of Israel that made it distinctive as it was the inability to see its deity.  That lack of visual confirmation not only necessitates a kind of faith, but it also veils a threat.  We humans tend to be visually focused.  We fear the dark.  Foggy, misty settings can give a story an atmosphere of foreboding.  Placing the divine out of site only enhances supernatural powers.  So it is with the wind.  As is to be expected, the windstorm has mostly blown itself out by now—moving on to another location until the temperature differentials even out and its howl becomes more of a whimper.  It will have done its work, however, for even as it passed through it brought to mind the proper respect for that which cannot be seen.  

Last Call

The alarm that wakes you in the middle of the night.  There’s something primal, something visceral about that.  We humans, at least since our ancestors climbed down from the trees, have felt vulnerable at night.  If our sleep is constantly interrupted we don’t think clearly.  We build secure houses. Lock our windows and doors at night.  Say our prayers before we go to sleep.  Last night I discovered that the homeowner has even greater concerns than the humble renter.  While 11:30 may not be the middle of the night for some, for early risers it is.  And there’s nothing to strike terror into the heart of a homeowner like a tornado warning.  Especially here—our realtor laconically told us that they never have tornadoes in eastern Pennsylvania.  The weather warning system disagreed with him last night.

Getting up as early as I do, first light is hours away.  Hours before I might check for damage with the light of old Sol.  My wife had to work, no less, at a venue some distance away and we both had to rise early and wonder what the damage might be.  We knew, of course, that the pointless ritual of changing our clocks would occur tonight, but that does alleviate concerns about whether the roof was still on the house or not.  You can’t take anything for granted, not even the continuity of time.  Thus my thoughts returned to Weathering the Psalms.

Severe weather led to that book.  If I were to rewrite it now it would come out quite differently, of course.  No one would write the same book the same way after a decade and a half.  Still, there may have been some things I got right in it.  The weather is a cause of awe and fear.  The sound of the wind roaring last night was impressively terrifying, even in a technological world.  Especially in a technological world that relies on an unwavering power grid and constant connectivity.  In the midst of a wakeful night, alone with thoughts too haunting for the day, the weather has a power with which we’re foolish to trifle.  Global warming is a myth if it gets in the way of profits.  Then darkness falls and we realize just how very small we are.  In the light of dawn, the damage was not too bad.  A frightened car meeping its mewling alert.  And a strange justification that perhaps my book contained some truth after all.

Do the Twist

TwisterA used book sale is like a box of chocolates, if I may abscond with a simile that fits many scenarios. After all, you are there to buy books that others have discarded. Some of them show their age rather blatantly. Keay Davidson’s Twister: The Science of Tornadoes and the Making of an Adventure Movie is one such title. Those who know me well know of my fascination with weather—I wrote a little book on the subject based on that obsession. Although the weather informed and formed me long before I was ever near a tornado, these particular terrors were so exquisite that I couldn’t help but look. Although I grew up in Pennsylvania—not exactly tornado alley—one night when I was away from home a tornado swept by less than ten miles from where my family was. It toppled trees down one side of a hill and up another. It was eerie and uncanny and in many ways shook me out of the feeling that I never had to worry about them. Then when I went to Ann Arbor for a weekend with my fiancee the sky turned bronze. Rain was whipping past horizontally. Later we learned that a tornado had passed maybe four miles from where we were. Living in Illinois and Wisconsin, we experienced many tornado warnings. I never saw a tornado, but somehow thought I should.

It goes without saying that if I see a book on tornadoes that is reputable and cheap, I can’t pass it up. Davidson is a journalist whose work appears (as of the two decades ago when the book came out) in National Geographic. Some of you may not have been living in tornado alley twenty years ago, and therefore may not have felt the excitement that Twister, the movie, promised. By the time it came out I had already been thinking about Weathering the Psalms, at some level. I was a bit disappointed in the film itself, but it does mention that an F5 tornado is “the finger of God.” Davidson’s book picks up on this as well. At several points witnesses, and even scientists, lapse into divine language to describe tornadoes. One person even says that a tornado is an image of God, or that the storm is God. That’s a very natural way for people to think. The power of a Midwest storm has to be experienced to be believed.

The divine represents the highest echelon of language. The tornado fits because it is the most powerful wind on the planet. Concentrated, raging, and fickle. One can’t help but think: I was raised Protestant, what if the Catholics are right? Substitute any religion in either half of the equation. The weather simply does not do what we want it to do. It reminds us that humans can’t comprehend our own atmosphere that we so blithely pollute. The book may look dated—who remembers Twister anymore?—but it is a forceful reminder. When you need a metaphor for the most intense experience the weather will always be waiting.

Weather for the Birds

As Christmas nears so does a warm front, dashing hopes of a white Christmas in New Jersey. Well, at least there are no tornadoes coming. The weather, as my readers know, has long been perceived as a divine barometer. In a time when patience is wearing thin with religion, and weary headlines ask if it will ever finally disappear, our animal cousins seem, as usual, to pick up on clues more readily than we. An article on the BBC science page describes how a set of tagged golden-winged warblers vacated their nest a day before a tornado struck. Scientists suspect that the birds—and likely other species of birds as well—picked up the infrasound of the tornadoes that is well below human hearing range. Sensing the danger, they flew nearly a thousand miles, stopping just south of the storm’s track.

1957_Dallas_multi-vortex_1_edited

Of course, tornadoes don’t last an entire day. If the birds fled that long in advance, they couldn’t, I suspect, have heard a tornado that hadn’t formed yet. Since I’m no scientist, I’m not really qualified to offer an explanation, but I do wonder if such behavior isn’t related to consciousness. Several books that I’ve read recently have explored the concept of animal consciousness, and although we are reluctant to admit them to the realm of the self-aware, I wonder how long we can deny it. No doubt, if the birds fled (and returned after the danger had passed) there was an intentionality to their actions. Jealous of our intelligence, we must find a way to explain that animals can predict natural disasters of many kinds long before humans detect their more obvious traits. Our technology gives us seconds, or minutes, of warning. Dogs, cats, and birds know well in advance. But we are the superior beings here.

One of the problems with consciousness is that we can never get outside our own. Other people act in ways similar to us, and describe similar mental states, so we assign them the same kind of consciousness we have. Animals, not using human language, also act in similar ways to us. We call it “instinct” and continue on to the truly important stuff. I have no idea if birds can detect infrasound; I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they could. Without the ability to place it in the context of danger, however, I doubt they would take a thousand mile vacation just after their annual migration. We could learn a lot from our fellow creatures, if only we’d admit them to the conscious club and not the food club. And perhaps they might be able to explain to us why, despite all we know, religion never seems to go away.

Jonahado

SharknadoSome movies are so bad that they become classics. Some are just plain bad. The jury in my head is still out on Sharknado. The story, obviously tongue-in-cheek, is so far-fetched as to be pretentious, and anyone who knows something about either sharks or tornadoes, or both, will likely find credibility waning from the first scene. For those sensible among my readers, who’ve not seen the movie, the title gives it all away. A global-warming-induced hurricane hurries toward Santa Monica with its forever young sun-worshippers. The hurricane floods the California coast, bringing sharks to the city streets. As our protagonists drive around somewhat pointlessly, the sharks attack their car, eventually eating everyone who’s not family. At one point the family tries to buy rations at a liquor store, only to have the news announce that this is the apocalypse. The store owner scowls that it’s the government, not God, that’s bringing this upon them. Then the waterspouts appear, morphing into tornadoes carrying sharks, still hungrily chomping at everything as they fly through the air.

Ironically a biblical theme comes about with the swallowing of Nova. As she falls from a helicopter (don’t ask), a great white shark snaps her up in mid-air, and since she’s about the only character you can care about, the movie seems to have reached its nadir. As the tornadoes dissipate and the sharks coming raining down, the eponymously named Fin is swallowed whole by a huge great white, while still holding his chainsaw. We already know that this latter-day Jonah will make his way back out, and we are supposed to be surprised that this is the very same shark that holds the reborn Nova, who admits her real name is Jenny Lynn. Like Neo in The Matrix, she is the convert to a new faith, this time in the family of Fin, whose only fault, it seems, is that he cares too much for others.

While a made-for-television B movie (although C or D might be more appropriate), Sharknado demonstrates the popular conception of the apocalypse. Not that it will involve flying sharks and destructive wind-storms, but that the end of the world is somehow inevitable. We have convinced ourselves that its a matter of when, not if, the world will meet its demise. Global warming, clearly our fault, is blamed by the movie (as is the government), but the story is that the flimsy culture we’ve constructed is subject to utter ruin by a hurricane and maritime predators. Or I could be reading far too much into this. Religious tropes may be picked and chosen at will. And when things really go wrong, like accidentally switching on Sharknado, we have a ready arsenal of religious ideas at hand to blame. And the apocalypse may be the least of our worries.

Sowing the Wind

F5On May 31 in 1985, I was working at a church camp outside Uniontown, Pennsylvania when some severe storms rolled through the area. I had trouble sleeping through the thunder and lightning. I awoke the next morning to hear the news, in groggy disbelief, that tornadoes had invaded the county where my family lived. Frantic for their safety I tried to phone, but lines were down. It turned out all right—the nearest twister had been about five miles away from my home. This event was a shock because I grew up believing we never had tornadoes in Pennsylvania. I have always been terrified of them. I suppose that’s why I wrote my little book on weather in the Psalms. I just finished reading Mark Levine’s F5: Devastation, Survival, and the Most Violent Tornado Outbreak of the Twentieth Century. I’m not sure why I’m compelled to read about what scares me so much, but I suspect it’s because tornadoes have a whiff of the divine about them. Indeed, Levine’s book makes several reference to religious imagery when describing the utter destruction of Limestone, Alabama during the Super Outbreak of April 1974. It gives me little comfort that the storms that raked Ohio, Pennsylvania and Ontario eleven years later were the second deadliest outbreak following that of the book’s exploration, up to that time. There’s so much left to chance, with tornadoes.

Despite the complete lack of any intentionality behind the raw forces of nature, the phrase “finger of God” has become a fixture in the tornadic lexicon. Perhaps it is because the human perception of divine intervention has always been sporadically applied. One person’s miracle is another’s nightmare. Obeying only the complex rules of meteorology, the weather has ways of its own that even computer models cannot yet fathom. We still stand helpless in the face of the tornado. I have often thought, without a whole lot of data to back me up, that weather has played a major role in the human understanding of the divine. Quite apart from the obvious celestial orientation, the weather is easily forgotten until it turns bad, and when it does there is nothing humanly possible to do about it.

In April of 2011 a super outbreak of 358 tornadoes swept through the eastern United States and Canada, killing 348 people. In terms of damage, it was one of the costliest natural disasters in US history. And the capriciousness of the tornado stands at the center of it all. F5 is a hard book to read. The story practically turns its own pages, but the loss in human terms in the cold face of a planet that doesn’t exist for us is sobering indeed. Many religious people in the south were asking how God could allow children to be killed and hundreds of people maimed both physically and mentally for the rest of their lives. They prayed for answers that never came. And this may be the cruelest aspect of the apparently random nature of the weather. It maintains the right to kill, and prayers seem to bounce back from that brazen sky that comes just before a tornado strikes, and especially afterwards. Skies are silent. When they are not, it is time to duck and cover.

Blown Away

NovNationalGeoWith the weather that has dropped down over much of the US this past week, I can’t help but think of the religious implications of the weather once again. I’ve had a couple of discussions of my weather book, and perhaps it will be worth reviving; meanwhile the meteorological divine is alive and well. I recently had the chance to look through a November edition of National Geographic. We used to subscribe, but with the loss of too many jobs and the attendant moves, they became literally too heavy, and since the magazine is relentlessly prolific we finally had to donate our back issues to a loving home. In any case, this November’s issue proffers a cover story on Tim Samaras, the storm chaser who was killed by a tornado back in May. It was tornados that first led to my interest in the divine implications of the weather since the twister is often described as the symbol of an angry deity. The article on Samaras, however, took a different approach to the tornadic.

Describing the fatal May 31 tornado in El Reno, Oklahoma, Robert Draper, the article’s author, tends more toward language of the diabolical. Defining the terminal whirlwind as a “dense, moist leviathan,” Draper adopts the language of the chaos monster of antiquity. Over time leviathan came to be associated with evil (although originally it was morally neutral), even with the devil. That isn’t a biblical assessment but in a modern world swiftly becoming depleted of superlatives, leviathan has come to stand in for Satan. A few sentences later the trees are shaking “as if possessed by the devil.” Weather is often the provenance of the divine, but it can also be the tool of the devil. And since this was a fatal storm, one must be careful of blasphemy.

I have never witnessed a tornado first-hand, but I have been within a few miles of one or two. The utterly savage and random nature of the destruction translate to one of the most frightening atmospheric conditions imaginable. Reading about the growing storm, knowing that it will eventually murder the protagonist, reminds me of the stresses that led to my line of research at the very beginning. We have overcome so many of our natural predators that being completely vulnerable to the weather bestows a kind of metaphysical cast to it. We can still be frozen, washed or blown away, or overheated by the weather. It can desiccate us and begin wildfires to consume us. Its scale is immense. The origins may seem celestial, but the results infernal. Perhaps I will return to my book on the weather; it is clear that it remains one place where human power must bow before something so immense that it can only be divine or diabolical. Or both.

Oklahoma

The tragedy outside Oklahoma City transcends petty human differences. Tornadoes, no matter how we dress them up, look like the wrath of God incarnate. The fifteen years I spent in the Midwest were filled with literal nightmares of tornadoes and even a few hours spent cowering in the basement. Such phenomena remind us that we are quite small in the face of nature, and the news reports are full of religious sentiment as people want assurance that God hasn’t abandoned them. Nature doesn’t favor humans over anything else that happens to be in the way of whirling 200 mile-per-hour winds. Even one’s belief might get blown away. Yet it doesn’t.

Although a tornado hit New York City last year, my terror of the storm evaporated when we moved back east. In the Midwest, although there were hills, I felt so exposed under the open expanse of the heavens. In the utterly flat part of central Illinois, I recall some truly awe-inspiring storms. The sky was so ubiquitous and overpowering, and you could see clouds towering thousands of feet over your head, throbbing with constant lightning. It was then I began having the idea for my book on weather terminology and the book of Psalms. Humans helpless in the face of nature. This is the raw material of religion. Like children we pray to God to make it go away. Storms do not obey prayers.

TornadoBlack

By their very nature tornadoes are capricious. We like to believe the good are spared and the evil punished, but as schools are destroyed and children killed we have to face the cruelty of nature. What happened in Oklahoma was a random act of nature, as much as hurricanes Andrew, Katrina, and Sandy were. We can’t help, however, any more than the people of the Bible, supposing that God must somehow be behind the weather. We may influence it, as global warming has repeatedly demonstrated, but seldom for good. And when we look for the divine in the fierce winds, we will end up facing tragedy.

Tortured Gospel

Tornadoes? I don't see any tornadoes.

It is a little difficult to force yourself to think of tornadoes when you’re in sunny California. On my flight into Santa Barbara I could see the tail end of the gray whale migration from a few thousand feet in the air. Outside the tiny municipal airport (with its full-body scanner) I see palm trees swaying in the wind. The air smells like flowers. Life is too easy in California for me ever to live here. I need more angst in my diet. I can’t come to the sunny coast, however, without the Eagle’s “Hotel California” replaying endlessly in my head. It was the running joke at Nashotah House that the real Hotel California was located in the woods just outside Delafield, Wisconsin. The haunting lyrics by Don Felder, Don Henley, and Glenn Frey managed to capture the witch’s brew of mind control, humiliation, and desire that laced that little, gothic seminary in the woods. Yet even sitting in California with its full greenery in March, I see that Pat Robertson is blaming the devastation of the recent tornadoes on lack of prayer.

Blaming the victim is a classic fascist technique, and it is very easy to proclaim one’s own righteousness when not in harm’s way. Herein lies the darkest sin of the self-justified; they think themselves specially blessed and therefore not responsible to help the victims. While flying over the Santa Ynez Mountains, seeing the smoke from California wildfires climbing like the terminal flames of Babylon, I could hear a voice like a choir of fascists singing, “Alleluia And her smoke rose up for ever and ever.” Schadenfreude fuels too much of the evangelical worldview. According the Gospel writers, when Jesus foresaw the destruction of Jerusalem, he wept. WWJD, Rev. Robertson?

Tornadoes look so much like divine judgment that it is almost understandable how a naïve believer might see them as coming from God. We, however, are the gods destroying our own planet with the accompanying degradation of the weather. Neo-cons deny the fact of global warming. It is not a myth or a theory, there is inconvertible proof that it is happening. Still, it is more convenient to blame God. After all, chances of him showing up to deny false charges, as history repeatedly shows, are very slim. Ask any innocent woman tied to a stake in Medieval Europe accused of being a witch. Apparently the divine calendar is too full to worry about the troubles of hundreds of thousands, or even a few millions who are falsely accused. Why not send some terror from the sky? It is hard to think of such things in sunny California. Yet as the “good news” of the televangelists spreads to the ends of the earth, even those forever in the sun will need to stand in judgment before a very capricious deity.

Eye in the Sky

No one is safe. The calamitous tornadoes that have been devastating the south are indeed tragic. Some years ago while working on my weather in the Psalms book, I experienced a brooding fascination with tornadoes. Since I was living in Wisconsin at the time, this was natural enough, but the facet that always gleamed the darkest was the arbitrariness of it all. Tornadoes are notorious for destroying one building while leaving the one next door unharmed in a rapture-like abandon. And there are those who claim the righteous survive while others soberly state the good die young. The fact is life always ends in death, and if tornadoes don’t get you, earthquakes, comets, or microbes will. Our religions help us cope with the fact that consciousness leads to a sense of victimization—things are always after us. Religions teach us that something (God, spirits, Tao, karma) will balance it out. We so hate to see the bad guys win.

Tornadic devastation does have the divine edge, however. Apart from the randomness are the celestial origin, the sharp distinction between those reaped and those sown, and, of course, the angry brow of the frowning wall cloud. What is purely a natural event feels like punishment from our species-specific view. And who doles out the punishment if not a parent stronger than the cowering children? Does religion reassure in this case? The one who is begged for comfort is the same one who sent the storm. As humans the best we can do is help those who are within reach.

The photos emerging from Joplin, Missouri are heart-rending. The more we build the more we stand to lose. Long before European settlers laid claims to this land, cool, dry air masses tumbling over the Rocky Mountains collided violently with warm, moist air flowing in from the Gulf of Mexico. For as long as prevailing weather patterns have been established, there have been tornadoes. Believing in God’s protection and blessing we build on dangerous fault lines, in drought-stricken plains, and in the shadows of biding volcanoes. Disasters are a matter of perspective, for they are as natural as the air we breathe. Perspective transforms them to divine chastening and us into helpless children.

Coming for you?

Reap the Whirlwind

A pillar of cloud by day

Something seems to be absent. The blazing rhetoric of televangelists and others proclaiming the wrath of God on New Orleans when Katrina blew ashore are strangely silent as a massive outbreak of tornadoes has ripped through the Bible Belt. Hundreds have unfortunately died as nature’s most severe weather-weapon has raked the south. In an apoplectic frenzy rivaling the 1974 Super Outbreak, tornadoes are well ahead of seasonal schedules this year as one wholesome Christian location after another vanishes in a whirlwind the envy of Elijah himself. I do not make light of this disaster. Having lived for many years in “Tornado Alley,” I very much feel for those victimized by these severe storms. They are a great tragedy and the loss of life, for Americans, is mind-boggling.

There is, however, a lack of continuity. Katrina, we were repeatedly informed, was the judgment of the Almighty on the sinful city of New Orleans. The tornado, surely the most divine of windstorms, remains a tragic natural phenomenon. “He makes the sun to rise on the just and unjust,” I recall someone once saying. Human tragedy is never easy to explain in any religious system. Even the self-righteous must acknowledge that – on some level – their pristine, exemplary lives deserve a thunderbolt or two. They speak loudest, however, when lifestyles of which they do not approve are decimated. How does the Bible-believing, rural farmer offend God? Were there no Christians in New Orleans?

The problem is forcing all members of one location into a category fit for reaping. It is sowing the wind. Human compassion demands that we not stand in judgment of the unfortunate, we simply help in what ways we can. One of the greatest dangers of any religion is that it validates one group above all others. Either we are all favored or none of us are. Waiting for a divine answer may take centuries, or even millennia. Lifting a hand to help a fellow human being is the only ethical response. Tornadoes are not the finger of God. Katrina was not the Almighty losing his masculine temper. We are all victims of the world into which we are born, and the sooner we refuse religion’s diabolical temptation to claim our special place, the sooner we will find our own way to a just society.

Weather Religion

Byline: Yazoo City, Mississippi. Event: major tornado. Suspects: God. In the face of any tragedy, whether it be killer tornadoes or Christie’s budget, God is always implicated. It is the white god’s burden of monotheism. I am the last person to make light of tornadoes. Many a nightmare and sleepless night in Wisconsin were haunted by the loud, roaring gusts and twisted detritus mangled by apparently willful winds. Erratic fluid dynamics of violently spinning vortices of air are often chalked up to the divine. No less so in Saturday’s tornado outbreak.

An Associate Press article begins, “One prayed to God under a communion table as his church was blown to pieces around him.” The article goes on to note that a ravaged hymnal lay open to the page with “Till the Storm Passes By,” as if there were a divine message inscribed on a chance event of nature. One of the hardest lessons to accept is that nature cares nothing special for our species and that we are offered no guarantees in life. This is one of the reason religion is so powerful: here the faithful find divine-bound guarantees of at least a peaceful afterlife if the present life is torn apart by storms both physical and metaphorical. It is hard to struggle without an assurance of final victory.

I have contended for years that the association of the divine with the weather is intimate and tenacious. The weather has eluded human control well into the space age, nuclear age, and technological revolution. We still can’t stop the rain on Sunday’s picnic or festival. And so we pass the weather on to the CEO in the spiritual chain of command. God controls the weather, while we crouch under rickety communion tables. There is a deeper lesson here, for those willing to sift through the rubble.

Nightmare on Church street

The Divine Finger

As the thunderstorms break out overhead yet once again, I am naturally reminded of tornadoes. I grew up in a part of the country relatively free from natural disasters. In my little corner of western Pennsylvania we felt secure from the earthquakes, volcanoes, wildfires, mudslides, and hurricanes that seemed to plague other parts of the continent. Then one night a tornado came. I happened to be a few hundred miles from home working a summer job when the cheery newscaster announced that a tornado had swept through my hometown during the severe thunderstorms we’d had the night before. I had always believed our unrelenting hills made us somewhat resistant to the tornadoes that plagued our next-door neighbor Ohio. It was probably then that my fascination with severe weather, especially the tornado, began.

Pulling the divine plug?

Pulling the divine plug?

One of the reasons for the entirely understandable fear accompanying tornadoes is that they have all the hallmarks of an ideal divine weapon. In an article soon coming out in Maarav, I argue that an obscure Hebrew word should probably be associated with whirlwinds rather than tumbleweeds. Although violent tornadoes are rare in Israel, the story of Elijah seems to imply that a weighty prophet may be hefted skyward by a whirlwind, and that sounds tornadic to me! There are passages where whirling winds are referenced as harbingers of divine wrath, an association that clings to tornadoes even today. I ended up writing an entire book on weather terminology in the Bible that had been fueled on by this ambiguous fascination. Publishers, it seems, alas, do not share my enthusiasm for the topic.

Classic F-5

Classic F-5

The popular media, however, shows a glimmer of understanding. The second half of the 1990s (when I finished my draft of my book/doorstop) was a bonanza of American storm fascination; Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm (1997) was shortly followed by Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm (1999) and both tailed the much-touted movie Twister (1996). Being somewhat of a connoisseur of tornadoes, I was disappointed by Twister, but one scene remained scoured into my memory. A layman asks one of our overly-folksy, lovable storm-chasers what an F-5 tornado (the F-, or Fujita-scale is the measure of a tornado’s intensity based on the level of damage it leaves behind — 5 is the highest number on the scale) would be like. One of our jocular heroes becomes suddenly serious and replies, “The finger of God!” Despite the cornball, this is an accurate explanation of the awe that surrounds a storm as random as a tornado. Adjacent houses can suffer entirely different fates in a tornado, or, in a poignant story I’ve never forgotten, a Wisconsin tornado killed one of a set of young twins in the same house during the storm. Finger of God, indeed. If Moses had lived in Iowa I’m sure he would have made liberal use of the tornado for precisely that image.