I am traveling this week so I must produce this column early and hurriedly. I am unable to devote the hours and hours of labor necessary to produce anything as seamlessly smooth as my previous submissions. (You detect, I trust, a little of my sly, winsome humor.) What I’m saying is: You all cut me some slack this week.
What I do have are a couple of items, both, in my judgment, deserving some little skewering.
• I like this sort of theology not. A Lutheran pastor posted on Facebook that his building was spared in recent tornado activity, and he piously concluded for all of his friends, “God is good.”
God certainly is, but I’ve always felt uncomfortable connecting God in any fashion to natural calamity. Would he have asserted “God is good” had the building shattered, or might he in reverse have chastised God for the pile of splinters left behind? If the Southern Baptist neighbors lost their building while his stood, would God still be good? Sure, I know, he was only trying to express gratitude and relief. Yet the praise he sought to give God indicates in the context of a tornado that God evidently is “good” to some and not equally so to others. Or perhaps God has mood swings: Good to Lutherans today, Southern Baptists tomorrow, Catholics day after; we all must learn to take turns.
What bothers me most with a remark of that sort is that it does not express even a smidgen of sympathy for those whose homes were demolished, for the lives that were lost; a little something for the terrible anguish endured.
Of course Facebook is hardly the place to do theology, but that’s no excuse for peddling bad theology. Even the commonplace pieties we repeat to one another that never make it to Facebook can get all twisted up with unintended implications wherever they are uttered. Confronted by disaster, heartache, and death almost everyone becomes a theologian, and almost always a very poor one, struggling to find a framework in which to talk about God. Theology, I have half decided, is far too important to leave to amateurs and fuzzy-headed pastors.
I was living in Charleston, South Carolina, when Hurricane Hugo swept over us. After a week or better in the dismal mess left by the storm I packed up the family and headed for somewhere clean, Savannah, Georgia, for a couple days camping. Driving through Savannah we happened across a church yard sign reading, “Thank You God for Sparing Savannah.” I was instantly livid. To me the subtext read, “And Smashing Charleston Instead.”
With messages of that kind there is always a subtext threatening to leap out at someone and it just happened to land on me. I was in no mood at all to be told Charleston was ripped so Savannah, as pretty as it is, could be spared. If I had not been in the wrong lane I might have pulled into the parking lot, stomped into the church demanding to see the pastor, offering a free remedial lesson in theodicy.
Aw, of course, theodicy is a philosophical topic and it doesn’t really have much to do with a biblical faith. Theodicy questions how a good God could botch up creation so badly. But a biblical faith, that fortunately is different. A biblical faith on suffering starts with Job: “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Nonetheless, Job’s faith is unmediated by the cross of Christ.
While Job is resigned but not embittered, St. Paul meditates chastened in the shadow cast by the cross and so puts it to the Romans: “If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” This, under the cross, is the only reason to say “God is good.” The catastrophe that befell the Son characterizes all conditions of human existence and answers buildings shattered as well as unscathed. Where is a good God? You will find him climbing Golgotha.
I’m a little long here, but copy and post this as your Facebook status anyway.
• Salem, Massachusetts, is having trouble with witches and psychics. Like, this should surprise us? Until 2007 Salem city government kept a strict limit on the number licenses it would issue to psychics and witchy sorts setting up shop, and on top of that, also required a one year residency before application could even be made. (Licensing did not include any test of actual psychic ability, if you are wondering.) That year the city solicitor, citing constitutional issues on restraint of trade, lifted the cap on licenses and removed the residency requirement. Just any old psychic off the street with a fifty-dollar license fee may now set up shop.
Some psychics like the increased “sparkle” the influx of new psychics are giving to the area. Christian Day, a warlock operating two shops, is quoted saying, “As a person who believes in the power of the free market, I believe that the free market should decide whether or not there are too many psychics. If we have too many, they won't make any money and they leave. It's just like anything else.” He argued in good free-market style the limitation on licenses protected bad psychics from competition and prevented better ones from opening shop.
More established psychics have complained that unregulated psychic readings might give all psychics a bad name. “Just like having a Chanel bag,” comments Laurie Stathopoulos. “You want the real thing. You don’t want the run-of-the-mill or a knock off bag.” Or, as warned another disgruntled seer, “It just becomes a bunch of gypsies.”
Only in America, I guess, do fake practitioners of false phenomena worry about the authenticity of their professional work.
Oh, I am minded to mention the Psychic Friends Network, that 900-number outfit from the 1990’s one could call for friendly, sage, and prescient advice. Anybody remember it? At one time their infomercials, featuring Dionne Warwick, flooded late night cable channels. If you have not heard from them for awhile there is a reason. The Psychic Friends went bankrupt in 1998. Yes, it was a very sad thing. As their attorney ruefully remarked to the media at the time (I remember reading this), “They never saw it coming.”
A pastor of the North American Lutheran Church, Russell E. Saltzman lives in Kansas City, Missouri. His previous On the Square articles can be found here.
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