Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Did Sin Cause the Tornadoes? OBU Dean Says Yes

It has been gratifying to read and hear about the great work Oklahoma Baptists have done since devastating tornadoes struck Central Oklahoma last Sunday and Monday.  For those who have not heard, the BGCO's disaster response team has, as usual, responded effectively and compassionately.  OBU opened its dorms to people whose homes were destroyed and to many out-of-state volunteers.  Everyone has been pitching in.  For a few days, at least, it did not matter whether your organization was fundamentalist or moderate, Protestant or Catholic, religious or secular.

OBU Theology Dean Mark McClellan has a piece in the Huffington Post that purports to offer a Baptist perspective on "what" to do following deadly tornadoes, as well as "why" they happen.

First, the "what:"
We weep with those who have lost loved ones, especially these precious children and we will help lay some of them to rest, seek to bring comfort, friendship, material provision, and spiritual counsel to those who have suffered loss. Our message is one of hope for the temporal future and for eternity. We seek to do this with our hands, our hearts, and our words.
Amen! Amen!

McClellan's "what" to do is innocuous enough.  "It is our faith in Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord which propels us provide, serve, love, and give counsel to those in this devastating tornado."  Even so, many people who don't believe anything in particular about Jesus nevertheless summoned the goodwill to do likewise.  McClellan's statement implies that, apart from faith in Jesus, Christians would not do anything at all to help.  I think that paints us in a pretty bad light.

Unsurprisingly, I can't get on board with McClellan's brief discussion of the "why:"
We seek to speak with both confidence and humility about the "why." We believe that God created all things from nothing and His creation is good. In Genesis 3 sin entered into God's creation and it had a cosmic impact. Sin has devastating effects on human life and all creation. We live then in a Fallen world where the daily provision of the good things from God's creation upon which we all depend are received along with earthquakes, hurricanes, and yes, tornadoes, to name some. We do not know "why" God has permitted these to occur in specific places nor any specific reasons addressed to the specific communities. "Why" they occur, we believe is natural evil in a fallen creation. Romans 8:20-22 explains to us that creation will someday be set free from corruption and that it is presently groaning until that moment.
For starters, McClellan might consider using "I" instead of "we."  Who does he think he's speaking for?  All Oklahoma Baptists?  That is definitively not the case.  I don't often see Genesis 3 invoked in explaining bad weather.  Do all or even most Baptists believe that tornadoes happen because of sin and Fallenness?  Do all or even most Baptists believe that God uses storms to kill his innocent children?  Do they believe that God intervenes (selectively or indiscriminately) to rescue some and let others die?  Do all or even most Baptists invoke a theology of evil to talk about weather patterns?  Do they explain natural disasters by appealing to Paul's description in Romans 8 that "the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now?"

The column follows a strategy that a lot of fundamentalists employ to make their theology seem more palatable.  They don't want to sound like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson blaming 9/11 on liberals.  So, unlike Falwell, they try to say some nice things to temper the worst parts of their theology.

In this case, McClellan sandwiches his apology for why a presumably omnipotent, omniscient, and omni-benevolent God killed those people ("We do not know 'why' God has permitted these to occur in specific places nor any specific reasons addressed to the specific communities.") between statements that are soothing, kind, and pastorally effective.  To McClellan's credit, at least he does not claim to know why "God has permitted these to occur."  But he still attributes the deaths to God.  Both Falwell and McClellan explicitly state that God lifted a curtain of protection and allowed evil to destroy, kill, and maim.  Whereas Falwell blames the evil of 9/11 on specific sins, McClellan merely blames the tornadoes ("natural evil") on sin in a general sense.

The difference is more one of style than of substance.  Dean McClellan is theologically closer to the late Reverend Falwell than to any minister I would want to hear preach on a Sunday morning or theologian I would want to hear lecture in an OBU classroom.

For my part, I do not know what causes tornadoes.  According to the internet, they are caused by unusually warm and humid conditions in the lower atmosphere, along with a difference in wind speed and direction over a relatively short distance in the atmosphere.  I'm not sure where sin (Adam's, Eve's, mine, or sin's "cosmic impact") figures into the equation.

Just as Baptists have traditionally held that good government needs separation of church and state, I submit that good theological discourse needs separation of God and weather.

Maybe Dean McClellan can speak for the men who hired him and the men he's hired as part of the "changes that have been going on the past couple of years" at OBU.  But I suspect there are many professors, students, alumni, and Oklahoma Baptists who would say, "With respect, sir, you do not speak for me."

Speaking just for myself, I would add: I don't even want to know your god.


  1. Jacob, I wonder if sin is the cause of such terrible things like natural disasters. I most definitely do not agree with Falwell or McClellan and hold their words to be abhorrent. In no way do I think specific sin caused this. It's not as if the people of Moore and elsewhere deserved this because of their sin.
    However, did God not create this world in perfection, whether that was in six days or over millions of years. And with the entrance of sin, what was perfect became imperfect, much like humans. Creation now longs to be redeemed, both humans and environment. And with Christ's return all of creation will be redeemed.
    So tornadoes happen because of ...(let science speak), but with Christ's return, the redemption of all creation, and the eradication of sin, won't things like natural disasters also be taken care of? I think sin is what we are waiting for to be fully taken care of...the fullness of His Kingdom. I mean, the Kingdom is here but not yet fully, right? So in its fullness all creation is redeemed, both humans and environment.

    1. That's the thing... Fundamentalists couch their theology in such a way that you can't disagree with all of it. Here, McClellan sandwiched the theological part with very nice pastoral sections. Even in the theological discussion, he says a lot of things you can't really challenge (e.g., " We believe that God created all things from nothing and His creation is good" and "We cannot explain His every act in these cases of disaster.") But right there in the middle lies the stinker: God could have saved those people but he killed them instead.

      What you are saying is quite different from what McClellan apparently believes about God, sin, creation, redemption, etc.

      Personally, what you are suggesting sounds much more in line with classical Christian theology to me. I don't know what that portends for weather patterns in the future. But theologically speaking, I personally am pretty far from mainstream OBU, as has occasionally come to light on this blog. I don't know what to think of "Christ's return." I have usually conceived of the fullness of Christ's Kingdom in terms of justice, mercy, and faith -- not weather. But you are right that there must be some ecological dimension, as much very fine ecological theology (evangelical and otherwise) has pointed out.

    2. I think this may be the line you are referring to when you say that McClellan says that "God killed them instead." - "We do not know "why" God has permitted these to occur in specific places nor any specific reasons addressed to the specific communities. "Why" they occur, we believe is natural evil in a fallen creation."

      If so, I can sort of see what you mean. I don't think McClellan would use the words "God killed" when referring to these victims, but a sense of "God killed" may be couched in certain language. That being said, he does follow up the "God permitted" line with natural disasters are simply part of a "fallen creation" that has "natural evil" in it. Therefore, I read him saying yes warm winds/cool winds (science...) cause tornadoes, but there just isn't something right about creation. Meaning: it is no longer how God intended it to be so it groans for redemption, just like humans.

      Also, I should have clarified that I really have no idea what "Christ's return" or "redemption" or "the fullness of His Kingdom" look like completely. However, I know that God has made promises to us to make all things right; as He originally intended.

      Finally, I liken your post to Rachel Held Evans' response to Piper's very stupid tweet:
      I'm sure you were following along with this debacle as I was. I initially read Held Evans' response and agreed and was mad at Piper. Then I read Piper's actual posts and what he said he meant by them. Then I saw Held Evans say her response was ill timed...much like Piper's stupid tweet. I agree that in times of tragedy the first thing we should be saying are words of care, love, etc. We should be on the side of the victims offering support. Really, the last thing we need to be doing is talking theology and really even trying to logically explain things away. I only bring this up because I think what you are drawing from his HuffPost article may be a little off-base. However, the article is ill-timed and not even close to what he and all other Christians should be saying to the victims.

      I do want to say, Jacob, that I like your blog and that I never really thought that I'd be backing McClellan up. Keep doing the hard work and facing the scrutiny, I hope you know you are appreciated.

    3. No worries. I just don't get into the whole "natural evil" justification because I don't think that God has anything to do with the weather. My conception of God is very, very different from the dean's, and it comes as no surprise to me that most readers will find themselves closer to McClellan than to me on the theological spectrum. -j-

  2. Far more problematic in McClellan's piece (and perhaps in "anonymous" above) is the assumption that tornadoes are a result of sin and will not be part of God's redeemed creation. In effect, then, the parts of creation that survive the harrowing by Christ will only be those that can be neutered and controlled by man. All of Creation that does not obey us is evil and will be smacked down in the "new Earth."

    I do not think this is a faithful approach to creation in the present, and I doubt that it is faithful to what God will do in the future age. It may bring me no comfort, but I reserve the right to judge tornadoes for the God who chose to speak to Job from the midst of one.

    The real story here is what happens when apologetics becomes the primary task of theology, as I believe is the stated intention of the department of religion at OBU under McClellan. Theological categories like "creation" then become tools in service of convincing a straw man of his role in "sinful" "creation" before either category has been sufficiently defined. Far better for the church to affirm that God is both creator and redeemer, ask for God's mercy, and then go about consoling and cleaning up (as your excellent litany promoted, Jacob).

    1. Excellent points all. Thank you so much. Your last paragraph is worth reading, repeating and meditating on. Gets at the heart of the matter.

  3. McClellan's arguments lead me to this sort of thinking:


    1. Exactly. People who want to claim the traditional attributes of God (omniscient, omnipotent, etc) are stuck with a God who could stop evil but chooses not to. I'd much rather say that God can't than that God won't. But again, my conception of God is radically different from McClellan's. Thanks for weighing in, Tony.

  4. Just thought I'd tell you that Fallwell apologized for those comments and Robertson is just an idiot, this coming from a conservative evangelial Christian. I've never been a fan of Robertson and frankly the last 10 years he has said some very stupid things. Also, he's into the whole "health and wealth" "faith healing" and junk like that.
    Anyways, in short McClellan is simply pointed to that fact that we can thank the fall of man to why we have natural disasters. Before the fall, man was perfect, earth was pure. Thanks to the sin of Adam, we have natural disasters.
    Do you even have a Biblical view of God Jacob? It does not seem you do.

  5. Also, the Huffington Post is a joke. Having you represent the Republican view made me laugh.

    1. Agree 100% about HuffPo. The commenter is referring to this segment (unrelated to Save OBU), where I was on a panel of four guests. The moderator (Jon Huntsman's daughter) was clueless. She had no idea who Frank Schaeffer is, and they somehow surmised that I would be representing the conservative point of view.


We invite you to join in the conversation. However, anonymous comments are unwelcome.