Where Was God in Hurricane Irene?

Did God send Hurricane Irene to deliver a message or does his handiwork present a paradox? Perspectives on the hurricane six years after Katrina.
Ocean-Ave.-Pt.-Beach-8.27.1

A message for Hurricane Irene in Point Pleasant Beach, NJ

“Our storms have not yet been tamed. But our God has,” said Boston University Religion scholar Stephen Prothero at CNN’s Belief blog as Hurricane Irene made her way up the East Coast over the weekend.

“When the Great Colonial Hurricane raced up the east coast and lashed New England in August 1635, its 130 mph winds and 21-foot storm surge were almost universally viewed in supernatural rather than natural terms—as a judgment of God on the unfaithful,” he said.

Now, we generally view those (like Pat Robertson) who express such views as “cranks and outliers-relics of a bygone age” because the language of science has largely “routed” the language of theology when it comes to earthquakes and hurricanes, said Prothero.

As if right on cue, a campaign spokesperson for presidential candidate Michele Bachmann claimed her boss was joking Sunday when she suggested that Irene was sent to deliver a political punch. “I don’t know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians,” said Bachmann. “We’ve had an earthquake; we’ve had a hurricane. He said, ‘Are you going to start listening to me here?’”

“Video of Bachmann’s appearance in Florida shows that her remarks were delivered in at least something of a lighthearted way. If the campaign says she meant it as a joke, it’s a believable explanation. That does, though, raise the question of whether it’s appropriate for a presidential candidate and member of Congress to be joking about a major weather event that has already resulted in fatalities and extensive property damage, and isn’t over yet,” Politico’s Alexander Burns chided.

His is a good question six years after Hurricane Katrina unfurled her wrath on the Gulf Coast. The devestated Ninth Ward of New Orleans “still looks like a ghost town,” the Associated Press reported. “Redevelopment has been slow in coming, and the neighborhood has just 5,500 residents — one-third its pre-Katrina population.”

Nevertheless, there is citywide reason to celebrate.

“Entrepreneurship and civic engagement is up, city schools have shown test-score gains and the middle class is growing, according to a new report by the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, a group tracking the city’s recovery. Even crime — still nearly twice the national average — is being held in check and falling, the report said. Meanwhile, the Army Corps of Engineers is getting closer to finishing $14 billion in work to better shield the city from future hurricanes.”

The world God created, loves, and is working to redeem and restore is a place of beauty and fecundity and of arbitrary brutality and terror,” said West Virginia Wesleyan College Assistant Professor of Religion Debra Dean Murphy at Sojourners’ God’s Politics blog. “We’ve been wounded by organized religion, perhaps, disgusted by its hierarchies and hypocrisies” and decide we can worship God on a mountaintop or a golf course, until an earthquake or hurricane “spoils the romance,” she said.

“The cruel caprice leaves us in stunned silence. But being the chatterers most of us are, we rush to fill the silence, to explain the unexplainable, often with well-worn pieties (‘God has a purpose in all of this’) that can be as cruel as the destruction they mean to rationalize. The biblical tradition asks us to wrestle our whole lives with this paradox.”

As a lifelong Jersey Shore resident I’ve not only wrestled, but have learned to hold these truths in tension. I revel in God’s handiwork and respect it, but worship him alone. 

About the author, Christine A. Scheller

Christine A. Scheller is a widely published journalist and essayist, and an editor-at-large at UrbanFaith. She lives with her husband at the Jersey Shore and in Washington, DC, where she helps facilitate dialogue between scientific and religious communities.

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