Theology After Disaster
From This Point Onward: Lesson Plans and Annotated Bibliography
From This Point Onward is an educational resource section which will appear in every issue of this journal. We hope the resources will be useful in guiding further reflection and discussion on the topics addressed in the journal. For our first issue, Theology After Disaster, we offer three lesson plans and an annotated bibliography. At the end of this section, you will find a link to download the entire section as a PDF file.
Feeling Disastered? You Are Not Alone! by Kathy L. Dawson
A further exploration of disaster response, whether personal or communal, using the lament psalms found in Scripture as a model for expressing feelings in the presence of God
Bible, paper, writing implements, musical instrument (optional)
1. Open in prayer by reading portions of Psalm 107 that seem most appropriate.
2. Ask participants to name the mood of this psalm. (It is most often classified as a communal psalm of thanksgiving.) Think about the movement in each stanza from naming the painful circumstances to an acknowledgement of God’s power and caring.
3. Explore the following question in light of the first section of the Mark Douglas article “Searching for Stars”: How do you get from feeling disastered to seeing God’s steadfast love?
4. Look at Psalm 6. Here the author is in the midst of trying circumstances. List some of the symptoms of feeling disastered found in this psalm. Wonder together what the circumstances might have been surrounding its composition. What type of disaster do you believe elicited these passionate words? What do you believe helps the psalmist move from verse seven to verse eight of this psalm? (Many things may be listed but among them may be “hope” or “remembrance of God’s past faithfulness.” Other answers may provide helpful topics to explore.)
(*Walter Brueggemann, “The Costly Loss of Lament,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, no. 36, October 1986, 58.)
Theodicy: Who and where is God in disasters? by Kathy L. Dawson
This lesson explores the encounters between God and human and the face of disasters recounted in the Bible. The lesson will not provide an answer to the question of theodicy, but allows participants to explore the many faces of God found in Scripture.
Bible, chalkboard, whiteboard, or large pad of paper with appropriate chalk or markers, paper—both lined and drawing
1. Opening- Begin by reading Psalm 46:1-3. Leave time for silent reflection, then ask the two key questions for this lesson—Who is God in this passage? Where is God in this passage? Ask participants to think together about when this concept of God as refuge and helper has been important to them as believers.
The Flood: Genesis 6-8
The Exodus Call: Exodus 3-4
Job: Job 1, 19, 38 and 42 (The book of Job in its entirety would make an interesting study for this topic and for the one that follows in lesson 3, as there are many faces of God depicted here, as well as some less than pastoral responses from those that surround Job in his suffering.)
Paul: Acts 16:25-34; Romans 5
4. Apply- Read the opening of William Harkins’s response in this issue where he details the encounter with a particular parishioner. In light of your encounter with God in the face of biblical disasters, how would you respond to this man with multiple losses?
5. Making it personal—Compose a prayer or letter addressed to God, or draw a symbolic picture with your new insights after encountering God’s word in Scripture and with your remaining questions as to how God is present or not in disasters. Use your creation (prayer, letter, or drawing) during your devotional time this week, spending time listening for God’s response.
Comforting Words & Transforming Words by Kathy L. Dawson
There are many Scriptural and liturgical resources to draw on for those of us who would like to minister to others in the aftermath of a disaster. This lesson explores two different types of response—comforting and transforming. It is also where we confront hurtful remarks that are often spoken in the face of disaster.
Bibles, copy of the hymn/lyrics, “Nearer My God to Thee,” musical instrument (optional), TV/VCR/DVD (optional), hymnals, liturgical resources like The Book of Common Worship or collections of prayers, contemporary accounts of survival and rebirth from media/internet resources (see annotated bibliography on this Web site for possible resources), index cards, paper and writing implements.
Step #3 in the sequence below should be set up in advance. Lay out several tables of materials—Bible table*, hymnal, liturgies, and prayers table, and contemporary narratives table. Each table should have index cards and writing implements in addition to the collected materials that fit each table’s description.
- Comforting–Psalm 103:13 or Isaiah 66:13; Isaiah 40:11; Isaiah 41:10
- Transforming—Revelation 1:17-18; Zechariah 8:1-8; Isaiah 65:17-25.
* The movie “San Francisco” would be good to show in its entirety if time permits, as it contains many overt theological themes along with the disaster and aftermath footage.
(See preparation section in this lesson plan for the suggested tables of materials for this activity.) Since there is often little time to prepare for disasters, exploration time will be limited at each table (somewhere between three to five minutes). Participants are to find the resources that they find most comforting and transforming and record the references (by book reference, song title, or concept) on the index cards at each location, taking the completed cards with them to the next table.
4. Synthesis—Each brings back completed index cards to a central location. Encourage participants to individually think about each of the items on their index cards and compose a list of the items that he/she has chosen, either organized into two categories (comforting and transforming) or in the sequence he/she might use them in the face of a real disaster. The resulting sheet will constitute the person’s pastoral disaster preparedness list and will be utilized in the closing for this lesson. If time permits you may invite participants to read aloud their completed lists if they so choose.
your working in this world. Help us to be faithful carriers of your
messages of comfort and transformation.
Theology in a Time of Disaster: An Annotated Bibliography
What makes this book so useful is not only its immediacy (it was written after the Asian tsunami) but Hart’s searing attack on all accounts of horrendous evil that allow observers to offer packaged comfort while contemplating the suffering of others from a safe distance. His theological thesis is basically “what God permits, rather than violate the autonomy of the created world, may be in itself contrary to what he wills.” Hart says, “that suffering and death, considered in themselves, have no true meaning or purpose at all…Our faith is in a God who has come to rescue creation from the absurdity of sin, the emptiness and waste of death, the forces…that shatter living souls; and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred.” Hart gives permission to feel what is often most natural in times of disaster a deep anger at its unfairness. He also provides a critique of Calvinistic theodicy that Reformed Christians might find challenging. This book’s startlingly different take on disaster makes it worth the slow read.
Straightforward and undemanding, this book raises a host of questions posed by survivors and victims of natural disasters. And, in raising more questions than answers, Harbaugh provides not a coherent theology as much as a reassuring suggestion that God is with us in all our quandaries, confusions and doubts. Sections of the book that offer practical suggestions on assisting victims of disaster are particularly strong.
Writing in the aftermath of September 11th, O’Connor deals frankly with the reality of suffering and our inability to give full voice to pain. Poetically beautiful, this study shows how the act of lament can be an authentic and helpful response to human disaster.
Contrasted to writers who gloss over one or the other, this book is true both to the reality of suffering and to the affirmation that God creates, sustains, and redeems. Hall is bold enough to suggest that certain aspects of what is called suffering–loneliness, the experience of limits, temptation, and anxiety–are in fact necessary parts of God’s good creation. A lengthy appendix offers a constructive critique of several classic works on suffering by Rabbi Harold Kushner, C.S. Lewis, Diogenes Allen, George Buttrick, and Leslie Weatherhead.
Elie Wiesel’s masterpiece, Night is a candid, horrific, and deeply poignant autobiographical account of his survival as a teenager in the Nazi death camps. In an unbearable way the reader is privy to Wiesel’s wrestling with the intolerable question: how can a loving God have allowed these monstrous events to occur? This agonizing book describes how faith is changed forever by disaster. It is an honest account of the death of a naïve view of God and the explosion of religious platitudes in the face of unmitigated horror.
Subtitled “Discovering God Amidst the Rawandan Holocaust,” this extraordinary first-person narrative by a survivor of the Rawandan genocide speaks to its almost impossible theme. Immaculee, the author’s last name, means “shining and beautiful in body and soul” and is an apt description of the writer. This book is both horrifying and encouraging, depressing and uplifting.It exposes the depravity of humanity, simultaneously lifting up our capacity for graciousness. Immaculee’s remarkable path to forgiveness is a precious gift for anyone struggling to comprehend a loving and caring God amidst intense suffering.
In this existential take on suffering, Frankl uses a therapeutic method in his attempt to construct meaning from his experience of the Holocaust. Unlike the writers of much Holocaust literature, he never gives way to even a hint of nihilism or bitterness. His abiding faith in the ability of humanity to make meaning out of the darkest moments is a stark contrast with the rampant cynicism of our own age. Frankl later developed logotherapy, a form of psychotherapy in which the search for personal meaning aims at being the driving force in healing.
In The Sweet Hereafter Banks dramatizes the aftermath of a tragic accident in the fictional New Hampshire town of Sam Dent, then tells how several characters are affected by the accident. As these stories intersect and weave together other accounts of how the families coped with this senseless tragedy, readers explore the complexities of grief, various struggles to make meaning of something so “wickedly unnatural,” and human capacity for forgiveness and hope. This was made into an excellent movie directed by Canadian Atom Egoyan.
Though a complex and academic text, Evil and the Augustinian Tradition provides a remarkably illuminating description of how St. Augustine thought about evil, human existence, and theology. Moreover, it does so by giving attention to the way Augustine’s thought continues to be relevant to contemporary society and used by contemporary scholars. Given Augustine’s effect on all of theology that has come since him, this book may be helpful to readers who want to explore his influence in greater detail.
II. General Web Sites
Searching the web using only Google and Yahoo yields results but one must sift through an immense variety of material: articles, reviews, books, blogs and more. This little search engine makes things much easier. Plug “faith and disaster” in the search bar and you will get only articles from respected magazines and journals.
Ostensibly for preachers seeking resources for sermons on lectionary texts, this site provides a surprisingly helpful series of links to more general material related to faith and disaster. The home page has a link titled “Resources for Use in Times of Terrorism and War” that leads to a wealth of sermons, articles and prayers that the average layperson would find useful. By entering “disaster”, “tsunami” or “Katrina” in the search bar one is taken to a plethora of resources. The variety is extensive, the points of view diverse, and the material well-laid-out and easily accessible.
This is the home page for the Washington-based Sojourners community. Led by Jim Wallis, this group advocates a demonstrable Christian response to poverty, war, and racism, billing itself as “a progressive Christian commentary on faith, politics and culture. It seeking to build a movement of spirituality and social change.” Using the search feature one can access a number of small articles about hurricane Katrina, the Pakistani earthquake and the Asian tsunami, many of which appeared in Sojourners magazine. The articles are overwhelmingly political and often critical of the Bush administration. One particular resource that is offered as a download (there is a small charge) is the discussion guide entitled, “What the Waters Revealed: Christians and hurricane Katrina.” This electronic study is focused on hurricane Katrina in particular, but exposes the inherent racism and injustice in both the response to the disaster and in the inadequacy of preparation for such a cataclysm. The chapter on “Reading the Bible after Katrina” is alone worth the cost.
The Revealer “is a daily review of religion in the news and the news about religion. We’re not so much nonpartisan as polypartisan — interested in all sides, disdainful of dualistic arguments, and enamored of free speech as a first principle.” This site provides a useful compendium of religious news articles and commentary from around the western world. Because it is updated daily it is always topical and so particularly useful in attempts to address a particular disaster as it unfolds. A search of the site uncovers a variety of articles on the tsunami, Katrina and some dealing disaster in general. There are a number of interesting articles with a focus on the big question, “Where is God in all this?” The fact that it provides articles from many different religious persuasions helps readers gain a broader perspective.
This site connects readers to the wide range of missionary and relief programs sponsored by the PC(USA) as well as to resources for dealing with particular recent disasters and for thinking about how to respond to them more generally.
This site was designed to help specifically with the terrorist attack of September 11th but is germane to dealing with disaster in general. The site is helpfully organized into broad categories to assist in navigation. Of particular interest are contemporary hymns, prayers and poetry dealing with disaster.
This site is a comprehensive resource for dealing with all aspects of disaster. With a few mouse clicks you can find out how to give to disaster relief; find an update on the tsunami or Gulf Coast hurricanes; find resources for children, apply for a disaster assistance grant or download a 30-page document designed to help individual congregations care for disaster victims. Of particular note is the wide availability of streaming video and photographs. This is by far the best denominational site.
III. Articles and Essays on line
This provocative article takes on several of the common theological mistakes made when contemplating God and natural disasters. David Toole skillfully and yet magnanimously undoes the deist argument (the forces of nature are divorced from any direct relationship to God) and wades into the dangerous waters of apocalyptic eschatology and finally sums up with an excellent reflection on the biblical story of Job. Throughout the article, Toole maintains that natural disaster does not impinge on the integrity of God. Although this article was written in 1999 and thus seems a bit dated, it is nevertheless both challenging and comforting.
This brief article from the online journal Science and Theology News outlines the inability of Government and faith based organizations to work together to combat the onset of the next flu outbreak. The article highlights the potentially tragic failure of the government’s pandemic plan to leverage faith-based organizations’ key strength: the ability to reach the poor, the elderly, immigrants and others who either distrust or lack access to public health facilities.
This provocative article notes that the tsunami disaster prompted a leading Swedish political scientist to publicly declare his return to the Christian Church. The author points out that he was by no means alone and goes on to point out that this was a remarkable reversal of the public reaction to the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which for Voltaire and others implied that the Church no longer possessed exclusive insight into the human condition. Be forewarned this article is written by an avowed humanist who laments this reversal.
The Sunshine Mine Disaster is a book of poetry and nonfiction about the 1972 mining disaster in Kellogg, Idaho, the worst catastrophe in the state’s history. The author James Brock says of his work, “I would describe my effort in Sunshine as a form of “witness” poetry.” This site provides only four poems from the book but one senses the full intensity of Brock’s search for meaning in face of disaster. Through his invented persona, the miner Dan Taylor, Brock explores despair, spiritual disenchantment, and ultimately discovers hope.
One can find many excellent articles relating to faith and disaster at home page of the respected magazine Christianity Today. However this article is unique because it offers some advice on spiritual disciplines from a Sri Lankan minister who was a personal witness to the tsunami. The advice he gives to his colleagues is both practical and moving.
I am not usually a fan of blogs because they are too random and unfocused for my liking. However this blog, moderated by four academics (including the senior pastor at Irvine Presbyterian Church in Irvine, California), is different.Theological questions are posted and bloggers are invited to respond resulting in a sort of on-line chatechism. The site is laid out so surfers can search by question or read the latest entry. There are some excellent and pithy responses under the heading “suffering”. Of particular use are the comments about how and where to make donations when so many agencies are asking for contributions.
IV. Grief Resources and Disaster Response
This is an extremely comprehensive site with a huge number of links to educational resources including a 53-page guide to help congregations design and implement disaster ministry programs (downloadable as a PDF file). There are several resources that are of particular use for members of the military and their families.
The Church World Service (CWS) is the relief and development agency of the 36 denominations of the National Council of Churches of Christ USA. The above page is where CWS training resources are made available. The listed resources are not for individual use but rather are for churches or church councils who want to provide organized relief following disaster. The manuals provide understandable, well organized and thorough plans for local use.
This is a very useful and practical resource for helping victims deal with the psychological aftermath of disaster. The site explains in lay terms the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and gives some simple hints for caregivers. The site provides some other links that connect to other fact sheets and information on PTSD.
This is a kit designed to help share the hope of scripture with those affected by disaster. As one would expect all the various resources in the kit are mostly comprised of quotations from the Old and New Testaments. The material is unabashedly evangelical in the proper sense of the word; the assumption being that the Bible can speak to those in need. There is no deep commentary or lengthy excursus; the words of scripture speak for themselves. The kit contains a sample of seven pamphlets and booklets that would be of use in any Christian attempt to help those in immediate need. The above site lists all of the kit resources individually and includes instructions on how to order.