When Bad Theology Happens to Good People

The news from Moore Oklahoma is almost unfathomable.

I lived in Tornado Alley during my teenage years, but they were quiet years for tornadoes. Honestly, I never took them seriously. Teenagers are invincible, after all. Whenever the subject came up we’d make jokes about trailer parks. It was classist privilege—I know that now, wrapped in a candy coating of “it couldn’t happen to me.”

It could. It certainly could.

I don’t know if crazy stuff is happening more frequently or if it just seems like it because I’ve been on this earth long enough for stuff to accumulate. Not to mention the effect of cable news and Twitter. But it’s tiring. It’s not even happening to me and it’s tiring. I’m tired of telling my kids to find the helpers. I’ve included the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance donation info so many times in emails to Tiny Church that I might as well incorporate it into the template on MailChimp.

But this post isn’t about parenting or logistics. It’s about bad theology that creeps in, even among those who studiously try to avoid it. My cousin lives in Moore, OK. For a little while folks didn’t know if he was OK. He is. In his message he said that they’d recently moved to a new house. The new house is fine, but the old house is destroyed. Whoa.

And there it was, like a flash: Man. Someone’s livin’ right, I said to myself.


No no no.

This is a good call for greater compassion on my part toward people who blurt out bromides in the wake of disaster, illness or suffering: God needed another angel in heaven. Everything happens for a reason. We’re being punished for our sin. (Really. It’s only a matter of time.) 

Linda Holmes, writing in a completely different context today, talked about the difference between a reaction, and a thought, and a conclusion. A reaction is just that—an initial response, easily tweeted but not much of substance, unless we examine it, test it, develop it into a thought, and maybe in time, a conclusion. If our reaction doesn’t survive that scrutiny, we should let it go.

The trouble with a lot of our public discourse, whether we’re talking about Sunday night’s episode of Mad Men (I gather something bizarro went down?) or dozens of people perishing in an F5 tornado, is that we don’t get past the reaction stage. “Someone’s living right” is a reaction. It’s an understandable one—even though I don’t see this cousin much, I don’t want to see him suffer—but it’s ultimately false. It’s a product of the lizard brain.

So what do we do with our reptilian reactions? We hold them under the microscope. No, maybe they are the microscope, or the telescope, and we peer through to see if they bring other parts of our lives into sharper view. If they do, maybe they are worth keeping.

And if we’re religious, we also press them like flowers between the pages of our sacred texts, and see what happens. Sometimes they crumble from the pressure. And sometimes they hang together.

But “someone’s livin’ right” doesn’t hold together. Neither does “it’s because of gay marriage.” (Because seriously. In Oklahoma?)

The trouble is, when it comes to suffering, the more we work with our reactions and our thoughts, the less conclusive we become. Christian Wiman’s latest book, written about his struggles with faith in the midst of cancer, is an elegantly devastating case in point. He writes in My Bright Abyss:

If God is a salve applied to unbearable psychic wounds, or a dream figure conjured out of memory and mortal terror, or an escape from a life that has become either too appalling or too banal to bear, then I have to admit: it is not working for me.

I laughed out loud when I read that. Yes: Who is this God who makes it all better? Who punishes the wicked and rewards the good with uncanny precision? Tell me, New Atheists, about the God you don’t believe in. I don’t believe in that God either.

And yet, like Wiman, I continue to wrestle in faith, even though conclusions are increasingly hard to come by. I continue because there is heart-wrenching beauty happening in Oklahoma tonight—it’s in the caring efficiency of hospitals and shelters; it’s in the scrabbling through the rubble; it’s in embraces between neighbors. That beauty is not the work of God. That beauty is God. That’s all I can say for certain… and even that’s not very certain at all.

15 thoughts on “When Bad Theology Happens to Good People

  1. Pingback: Oklahoma | CATERPICKLES

  2. Bob Braxton

    There were those few days in the wake of superstorm Sandy on a chain saw “first responders” crew (actually second responders) and then the evening of training on First responders – giving me / us just a glimpse of what those trained people are up against.

    1. MaryAnn McKibben Dana Post author

      I was amazed that my cousin was able to send out a Facebook message. And it went out pretty quickly, all things considered. I expected it to take a while. Thankful for infrastructure that we so often take for granted.

  3. Deborah Lewis

    There are things worth merely reacting to (I can’t believe she wore that to the Oscars) and things that take time to even know how to react, much less to respond thoughtfully. Thanks for helping us to think about the movement from reaction to reflection.

  4. Pingback: When Bad Theology Happens to Good People | Gulf Shores First Presbyterian Church

  5. janewilk

    I saw a video of one of the OK tornado survivors coming out of his shelter and filming the damage with his phone silently, then just saying on camera, “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.” I do not fault him for his reaction in the moment – the poor guy had just lost his house, neighborhood, everything – but I think that this was another example of a kneejerk response that (hopefully) was not his true belief. I *hope* he doesn’t believe that God took away his house and everything he owns with a tornado for some reason. I think we all just continue to hold the survivors and families of the victims in the light and hold space and belief for them, the way we would for anyone who just suffered a profound loss, death of a loved one, some deep and unfathomable pain. I count on other believers to believe for me when I can’t, so I try to hold space for others when they need me to. Lord, in your mercy.

    1. Ken

      I’m not sure you can call quoting a relevant scripture a “knee jerk” reaction. It seems appropriate to me. Sometimes that is what makes Scripture helpful, quoting a biblical reflection on tragedy when going through one’s own. The man probably felt like Job. Isn’t that what Jesus did when he said, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” It was not that God had forsaken him, but he felt like it, as did David before him (Ps 22). All in all, I’d say the man’s comment was right on target. So are MaryAnn’s. We don’t always react well, but we do the best we can. God help us all.

      1. MaryAnn McKibben Dana Post author

        It sounds to me like Jane (if she’d been the man’s pastor and/or friend) would have wanted to unpack that reaction with him **at some future date when the situation is not quite as fraught**. Did God really take away? Was the tornado God’s doing? If so, then that’s a bit problematic isn’t it?

        I agree that scripture can be a great comfort in the moment… and long after the fact. I don’t take kindly to being told “don’t be scared.” But if someone says to me, “Be not afraid,” that gives me courage because I instantly recognize it as grounded in the deep narrative of our faith.

        But that doesn’t mean that all scriptures apply in all situations.

        God help us all indeed! Thank you for commenting.

        1. Ken

          Oh, I certainly agree that scripture can be, and often is, both misquoted and misapplied. But my point was 1) I think in this instance it was applied correctly. No doubt the man felt like Job, and an expression of Job’s faith when the man was clearly struggling with is own is a case of “having faith for another.” 2) I think that is one of the great uses of scripture; to help us understand and put into words that which we sometimes find inexplicable.

          In your example, its not what is said (be not afraid) that is most helpful, but who says it (often an angelic messenger).

  6. Scott Cone

    I enjoy taking quotes of some of my favorite spiritual others, digest, reprocesses and combine into my own thinking. I don’t take credit for their origins, but more so in how they are put together. Then again if inspired from the infinite, they belong to the universe, which I am a part, therefore belonging to all. This may come off as just a bit of rambling, though it matters not.

    Present thought leads us to believe that science and theology are adversaries and in a constant battle where one is out to disprove the other. I choose to see a different relationship. Science being in the realm of space time and theology in the domain of the infinite, scientist say the goal of their discipline is to find what is false for the reason that what is believed to be true remains under constant evaluation. Theology does much of the same. God being infinite and we in the finite, religious intellectuals seek to find what God could not be, more so than what God is. There is an amazing thing about this process, when we learn what God is not, our God actually gets bigger, seldom withers, and we actually to grow deeper in spirit. In the same instant, we acquire a healthier understanding of what in life could be of divine will.
    It is true that scripture doesn’t change, but we do. As our sense of humanity and knowledge moves forward, scripture must remain under sound reinterpretation. It is important that we refuse the luxury of a devout understanding without first enduring the anguish of its contemplation. This can be a difficult thing to do, but what is to give light must also endure burning and even though we are facing the light we should never forget that we also cast a shadow. One of the responsibilities of religion is to provide the crucial wisdom so that scientific knowledge will be directed toward the betterment of all creation. Many times our wisdom comes from recognizing and honoring our own limits. Should we always reach beyond our grasp or simply embrace the mystery? Both are very important, more so than just looking for the right answers. Although, for reasons I cannot explain, at times, it just feels better when I discover certain answers on my own. I am suspicious of those who know so well what God wants them to do, because I have noticed it’s most always consistent with their own desires. Life is a search where absolutes are rare and when finding a jewel of true, as difficult as it may be, it should also be held as tentative. One should never be ashamed to admit been wrong, which is also to say, I am now a bit wiser. We need to let our children grow up to face life equipped with knowledge, more knowledge than we ourselves had at their age. The thought is chilling, but the alternative would be more devastating. I believe our knowledge directed by wisdom is the will of our creator
    When I think about the life of Christ, what settles my soul is to know with certainty that hope does triumph over despair. I am reminded of the words of one of my favorite Ministers, “If religion is our response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die, the purpose of life is to live in such a way, that our lives will prove worth dying for”. I choose to believe Christ went to the cross for humanity, which means for you and me, so I now must be willing to ask if I am living life in such a way that honors what Christ made sacred.” Is what Christ made sacred my ultimate concern? I ask this question because the word sacrifice actually means “to make sacred”. I believe what Christ made sacred was life itself. It’s also my conviction that life is primarily a search for what’s sacred. With small town America having a church on most every other corner, the purpose of our lives should be obvious. The question now is, in this day and time, living in a small town, does our Christian theology provide the spiritual tools and freedoms that allow for a genuine search for a sacred life by having the courage to be?
    “Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.” E.E Commings


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