A Viral Message?

“Messages, messages. From Western Union you get messages. From me you get pictures.”

Movie producer Samuel Goldwyn, 1940

​​​​Two-thirds of American believers of all faiths believe that the coronavirus pandemic is a message from God telling humanity to change how it lives.

That was the headline from a recent poll by the University of Chicago Divinity School and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Read the full story at this link: https://bit.ly/2AXjW2P

It makes sense, I suppose, that a shattering event like the pandemic and the ensuing economic meltdown would trigger a search for some sort of deeper meaning. (And the hours of social isolation between Zoom calls have offered opportunities for reflection that perhaps might not have been available in other catastrophes, such as a zombie apocalypse.)

The AP story quoted a fellow named Lance Dejesus from Dallastown, Pa., who saw a possible bigger message in the virus.

“It could be a sign, like ‘hey, get your act together’ – I don’t know,” the 52-year-old Dejesus, who said he believed in God but didn’t consider himself religious, told an AP reporter. “It just seems like everything was going in an OK direction and all of a sudden you get this coronavirus thing that happens, pops out of nowhere.”

Well, leaving aside for the time a broader discussion of what was meant by “everything was going in an OK direction,” I have doubts.

First, although some kind of national and global reflection about how we might change the way we live would be welcome, I am skeptical – isn’t this the same conversation we had after the Sept. 11 attacks? How long did that period of national reflection and transformation last?

More to the point, I’m not convinced this is the way God sends messages, wrapped up in a bad-news package that has created (and will continue to create) untold miseries for millions of people.  It seems like a lot of trouble. Why not just send us all Western Union telegrams?


A couple of other notes worth considering from the AP story:

Kathryn Lofton, a professor of religious studies at Yale University, said she thought the number of Americans who perceived the virus as a message from God expressed a “fear that if we don’t change, this misery will continue.”

“When people get asked about God, they often interpret it immediately as power,” said Lofton. “And they answer the question saying, ‘Here’s where the power is to change the thing I experience.’”

Thinking about fear and power and God bring me back, of course, to the Old Testament – and more specifically, the Book of Job. For years, I’ve treasured Stephen Mitchell’s 1987 translation of this magnificent poem, which confronts some of the biggest questions we face – questions that naturally surface again during fearful, uncertain times. In the poem, Job eventually lashes out at God for his torment, and draws a response, (a rebuke?) from God – or, as Mitchell translates it, “The Voice from the Whirlwind,” and I suppose whirlwinds offer certain advantages for conveying messages.

By the way, Mitchell argues (convincingly, I think) that Job is not so much cowed into meek submission by the Voice as he is transformed spiritually – but this is perhaps a point that can be endlessly debated as we ponder this powerful work.

Despite the beauty and the power of the Book of Job, I’m still unsatisfied by the notion of God speaking to us via a whirlwind, although it’s a method guaranteed to grab our attention – the way, say, that a global pandemic might.

My sense is that God sends us messages via a quiet, still voice that only we can hear – and only if we’re paying enough attention. That requires silencing the ambient noise – the buzz, the static – that we surround ourselves with as a matter of daily life. Maybe it requires a dramatic disruption to our daily lives to give us a chance to grab a slice of silence. Maybe there is something to this poll after all. I’m still listening.

What are you listening for, Sea?

Mike McInally, a member of First Congregational’s Council and the former editor of the Corvallis Gazette-Times, is searching not just for the voice of God but also his next paying gig.

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