May 21

Al Mohler and Cerebral Evangelicalism

The tornado that killed men, women, and children yesterday in Moore, OK, and elsewhere was an horrific tragedy.  That’s how, it seems to me, we should regard it.

Al Mohler thinks about it differently.  He says, in part, “The problem of evil and suffering is undoubtedly the greatest theological challenge we face.”

Not to pick on Al but, well, he pretty much asks for it.  When you’ve positioned yourself as the leading face and voice of Evangelicals (with apologies to Joel Osteen), you accept the responsibility of representing millions of people.  With the responsibility comes accountability.

So this is the gnat calling the hippo to task.

Two things about Mohler’s response deserve rebuke or correction.  The first, which is the lesser of the two but still significant, is his use of the term “evil” to describe what happened in Moore.  Granted, he calls it “natural evil” (a curious coupling, actually: evil is natural?  Really?).  The word “evil” may personalize the forces of nature but it also tends to depersonalize the people affected by the storm.  Tragedy, I think, is a better choice.  It’s personal.

The greater point to address is his contention that such events as happened in Moore are a great theological challenge for Christians.  This is an example of one of the great blunders of the church throughout history, i.e., missing the point.

An unnatural event — whether tornado, flood, fire, or otherwise — is not a puzzle for us to solve.  It is not a lesson that our Heavenly Teacher has presented for our edification.  It is, rather, a tragedy that should result in actions instead of words about theodicy.  Words of theodicy too often resemble theo-idiocy in the ears of suffering people.

“People all over the world are demanding an answer to the question of evil,” Mohler writes.  I’ll allow that Al certainly knows a lot more people than I, but I still suspect that — if we were to ask the people who were in the path of the tornado if that’s what they wanted most — they would disagree.  Empty words of theo-idiotic comfort just don’t cut it at times like this.

They want physical, practical help. They don’t need a cerebral Evangelicalism swooping in to fill their heads with logical defenses of God; they need a visceral, loving Evangelicalism that will demonstrate its love for mankind by being there, doing what it can, and just being there when there’s nothing to be done.

Sadly, like most of us, Mohler doesn’t see the people of Moore.  He sees victims, perhaps, or evil, or a combination of the two.  He sees representatives or examples of theological categories that “need” an explanation.

I broke down at one point while watching the televised aftermath of the tragedy.  A local reporter was talking about the elementary school that had taken the full brunt of the tornadic winds.  But he didn’t make it.  He began to cry and couldn’t go on.  At that point, the reporter saw not victims but people — the young, lifeless people who were and then suddenly were not; they had ceased to be victims in his eyes.  At that point, the reporter became a person, too.

I’ve been that guy, although never at a tragedy of such scale.  But back when I was a newspaper reporter I saw death and destruction up close.  I heard it.  Smelled it.  And it was horribly and hauntingly personal.  I saw dead people, not just victims of evil.

What the suffering people need – what I needed – is not a theological treatise on God and evil.  They don’t need to make sense of things, not at that moment.  When everything you thought was reliable and stable is suddenly gone with the wind, nothing makes sense.  The most cogent argument bounces off ears deafened by horror and incomprehensibility.

People need something else.  They need a shoulder to cry on, someone to lean on, another human being to help carry the crushing burden that follows in the wake of tragedies.  They need love, not education.  They need God in a human form.  Someone who cares.

They need a Christianity or an Evangelicalism that is visceral and cerebral, both feeling and thinking. People who will cry with them, help them, and do for them what they can no longer do for themselves.

We do need to be mindful in our loving, doing things for the right reasons.  But the feeling and loving must always come first.  Otherwise we’re just adding to the noise and confusion that has already overwhelmed them.  Clanging cymbals.  Tinkling brass.  Cold, impersonal, unloving.

Three things remain: faith (which has a cognitive aspect), hope (which is similarly cognitive), and love.

But the greatest of these is . . .