Weathering Religion: Weather Channel Theodicies?

Kate Daley-Bailey, Religion Nerd

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The death toll from severe storms that punished five Southern U.S. states has jumped to 269.” 

This is the opening statement from Weather.com‘s article, “Tornadoes Cut Path of Destruction,” which documented the devastating tornadoes that hit Alabama on April 27th, 2011. 

The article itself did not surprise me… but the comments from the website’s respondents most certainly did. What I found most intriguing was the theological language being used on this modern media site, one explaining scientifically natural weather phenomena and includes no reference to any theological agenda.  Here are just a few examples:

God loves us so much and He is trying to get our attention one more time before He judges the earth. He wants us to live and not die. Wake up, people.

I pray God’s protection during this difficult time. May He give us His peace, comfort, and strength.  Romans 12  

Many such comments were directed towards those affected by the storms, letting them know that people were praying for them and the affected region. However, there were a few indicating that those people spared from the wrath of the storms felt that God had spared them for a reason. Other remarks used thick theological language indicating that these disasters are signs from God, of the ‘End times,’ and have been sent by God to call Americans to repentance. 

Representing another audience entirely, some challenged these theodicies. Theodicies offer religious justification and explanation for why evil (deadly tornadoes) exists in the world: if God is all knowing (knows that innocents are being killed), all powerful (has the power to intervene to protect said innocents), and is all good (loves his human creations), then why doesn’t he intervene and stop such disasters, which often happen to good, God-fearing folk? Of course, some commentators anticipated this tough theological problem, and either worked to resolve it, or berate those who might raise it in the first place, insisting that:  

God is the only reason more weren’t killed.  Be thankful it wasn’t your family. 

Don’t get upset people. Just pray for this very lost person! 

I wonder if that was what the people thought when Noah built the ark?  I believe!:  D and I am so glad he is preparing a place for me.. Sure don’t want that smoking place, do you? 

Yes, hopefully [people] like you, low life ass crack scum, will go first……I’ll pray for that. 

Wake up in hell and I think u will change your mind. 

Dear Lord, Please bless the people who walk with the breath you gave them and down you with it in the same. These people need a guiding light as they have become lost in their path. Please protect their families as they are lead into Hell by the sinners of the lands. In your name we pray, Amen.

God does exist. He wants America to repent of their sins and turn to Him. John 14:6 Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” 

Satan has turned many against God, including many of the posters on here. Questioning the existence of God is EXACTLY what Satan wants you to do…Satan …causes all the bad in the world, not God. Stop blaming the one who gave you life and put the blame where it really belongs!

These responses seem to be drawing on various starting assumptions about the nature of God: 

  • God does exist and He is using natural disasters to chastise certain people so they will repent and return to God;
  • God is the source and catalyst of natural disasters, but is also the reason more people were saved;
  • God is sending these disasters as signs of the ‘End times’;
  • Satan (the originator of evil) challenged God’s authority and now stalks weak humans attempting to destroy their faith in God; those who pose non-religious explanations for such events are themselves lost sinners in the grip of Satan and are headed for Hell unless they repent and believe.

The source of my wonder here is the eagerness to assign these natural disasters to an all-loving supreme being, the loathing directed at nonbelievers, and the medium through which these ideas are being conveyed. While these views are as old as monotheistic belief itself, what I find surprising is the social platform through which commentators offer such a stark and uncompromising theology… The Weather Channel.

Weather Religion?  

The connection between religion and weather is actually not as unusual as it may appear at first glance.  Many of the earliest theorists have argued that the origin of religion lies in its relationship with the natural world. Max Muller, a 19th century German linguist and one of the “founding fathers” of the comparative religion, argued that, “all religions, primitive or otherwise… have their origins in the personification of natural forces and objects and the ‘myths’ that arise from these personifications.” 

This view, Naturism, holds that, 

humans gain a sense of the divine from natural phenomena: sun, moon, stars, mountains, rivers, thunder and lightning, storms, the seasons, animals, and plants. Faced with such an inspiring, mysterious, frightening, and awesome natural world, humans endowed nature with supernatural qualities. (Rodney Stark, 24-5) 

Some scholars have supported sociological, anthropological, and psychological analysis of what they claim is the human creation of the supernatural and religious, via the personification of natural phenomena. Other scholars, however, have advocated for a view of ‘religion’ as a separate category all together. For these scholars, religion is separate, and human experience of the sacred is a ‘real’ experience, and not merely a byproduct of language, social construction, human anxieties, or psychological dysfunction. 

Mircea Eliade, an adamant supporter of the categorical separation of religion from other disciplines and oft labeled ‘high priest’ of the ‘history of religion’ model mentioned above, opens his hallmark work, The Sacred and Profane: The Nature of Religion, by praising the work of a German scholar by the name of Rudolf Otto

Instead of studying the ideas of God and religion, Otto undertook to analyze the modalities of the religious experience… Passing over the rational and speculative side of religion he concentrated chiefly on its irrational aspect. For Otto had read Luther and had understood what the ‘living God’ meant to a believer. It was not the God of the philosophers- of Erasmus, for example; it was not an idea, an abstract notion, a mere moral allegory. It was a terrible power, manifested in divine wrath. (8-9) 

Otto rejected the idea that the ‘holy’ or ‘sacred’ is necessarily moral or rational.  For Otto, the ‘numen’, the ‘holy’ minus moral and rational aspects, is awe-inspiring, mysterious, terrifying and ‘wholly other.’ Due to the ‘wholly otherness” of Otto’s ‘numen,’ all language falls short to accurately express it in its totality.  

Despite the limitations of language, humankind has borrowed the imagery it has used to describe the most mysterious, terrifying, and ‘wholly other’ phenomenon humans have encountered—nature.  Otto’s description of the divine as terrifying and ‘wholly other’ and Muller’s view of religions as originating in the personification of natural forces, although hardly comforting, do seem to find some resonance in the Hebrew Bible’s description of the holy and powerful god of the Hebrews, Yahweh. 

The Jewish Weather-deity? 

Walter Gerhardt Jr. in his article, “The Hebrew/Israelite Weather-Deity,” presents a persuasive argument that the Hebrew God “is expressed in Biblical literature as an “allegorized idiom” of the weather phenomena” (130).  According to Gerhardt, the Hebrew God, known as YHWH, “is the personification of environmental forces and energies of weather indigenous to the Sinai/Edom and Syro-Palestinian geographic locales” and is often described using “the precipitive elements of the rainstorm” (130). Gerhardt presents Moses’ encounter with the deity on the holy mountain as an excellent example of this, emphasizing the dense cloud shrouding the mountain (133). Gerhardt highlights how YHWH thunders from heaven and “scatters lightning” (138). 

Indeed, the Hebrew Bible, known the TaNaKh to Jews and the Old Testament to Christians, is chock-full of disastrous natural events as well as sometimes contradictory explanations for them. One need look no further than Genesis to find stories where natural disasters are being attributed to the God: Noah and the flood, the fiery destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, are two of the most commonly referenced events. In Exodus, Moses encounters God via a startling viewing of a burning bush, represents Him before the Egyptian pharaoh, witnesses ten horrific plagues used to motivate the pharaoh to relent, experiences the parting of the ‘Red Sea’ which in turn “saves” the Hebrew slaves but wipes out pharaoh’s army, and negotiates the terms of the covenant with the Hebrew deity while on a holy mountain surrounded by a lightning storm. 

Luther’s God of Lightning 

The Hebrew Bible, noted above, is not just a sacred text for Jews but for Christians.  Christianity, historically, grew out of an apocalyptic and messianic sect of Judaism in the 1st century, Common Era. The earliest followers of Jesus believed him to be the ‘messiah,’ a long anticipated political and religious savior meant to overthrow the Romans and restore the ancient kingdom of Israel. These earliest followers came to this conclusion about Jesus’ identity by finding what they interpreted to be prophetic statements in the Hebrew Scriptures. Early Christianity inherited the Hebrew Scriptures and added their own writings about Jesus and the early church to them to make their own Bible. So, it is worth asking whether the weather-deity of the Hebrew Bible persisted as Christianity developed out of Judaism. 

Christians inherited not only the scriptures of early Judaism but also many of the theodicies buried in the scriptures themselves which give various justifications for why ‘evil’ exists.  The book of Job itself provides numerous explanations, though none are conclusive, as to why disaster had befallen Job and his family, although the text states that Job was blameless in the sight of God.  The book of Job ends with the Hebrew God appearing to Job in a whirlwind, another destructive weather-related phenomenon. 

Such stories have not been lost on prominent Christian theologians, such as the architect of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther. Luther suggested that his own entrance into monastic life was driven by a terrifying experience he had during a violent thunderstorm. Protestant Christianity has been deeply marked by Luther’s description of how the Christian God used nature to His own ends. As Craig Martin writes on Luther’s perspective in an article titled “The Ends of Weather: Teleology in Renaissance Meteorology” found in The Journal of the History of Philosophy

… He also interpreted “fruitful weather” as proof of God’s love for humanity.63 Thus, in the Sermons on Luke 21, while rare events were ominous or apocalyptic, fair weather might signal God’s protection.”(275) 

Many Protestant Christians today, especially those of an Evangelical nature, like many Christians found in the South Eastern United States, still hold to this correlation between nature disasters and God’s will.

Evangelical Christians in the South

According to a survey given by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, regarding the “most religious states” in the U.S. (based on four criteria: “the importance of religion in people’s lives, frequency of attendance at worship services, frequency of prayer and absolute certainty of belief in God”), Southern States consistently lead the states in self-claimed religiosity.  According to their data: 

“More than eight-in-ten people in Mississippi (82%) say religion is very important in their lives… In some other Southern states including Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, and South Carolina, at least seven-in-ten people say religion is very important in their lives.”  

The U.S. Religious Landscape survey, also from The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, estimates that 50% of the U.S.’s Evangelical Protestant Christian population lives in the Southeastern region of the country.  

Not surprisingly, Evangelical Protestant Christians make up 49% of Alabama’s state population (the national average is 26%).  Mainline Protestants represent 15%, historically black Protestants make up 18% and Catholics only make up 6% of the states’ population (while nationally they represent 24% of the population).  Jews, Orthodox and other Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, Mormons, Buddhists, Hindus, separately, at most, represent 1% of the state’s population.  A group labeled “unaffiliated” make up 8% of the state’s population. 

An article in the Christian Century titled “Most don’t blame God for disasters,” presents the following statics based on a poll by Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with Religion News Service after the devastating earthquakes and tsunami in Japan: 

“Nearly six in ten evangelicals (59 percent) believe that God can use natural disasters to send messages—nearly twice the number of Catholics (31 percent) or mainline Protestants (34 percent) who so believe. Evangelicals (53 percent) are also more than twice as likely as the one in five Catholics or mainline Protestants to believe that God punishes nations for the sins of some citizens.”(14)

Why the Weather Channel?

Now, the most compelling question of all… why the Weather Channel.com?  Why are these comments showing up in an unlikely platform?  Why did these respondents feel the need to post such overtly religious comments on such a seemingly “secular” website?

 The reasons may be multifold. The Weather Channel’s website specifically does NOT offer theological reflections on natural events. While science is often credited with telling us how the world works, religion has often presented us with reasons, adequate or inadequate, for why the world works as it does. The desire of respondents to find meaning, and not just logistical analysis of how weather works, may be why they felt the need to provide meaning to these disasters. 

However, while the Weather Channel does not specifically offer theological explanations for natural disasters, this doesn’t mean that the site doesn’t attempt to capitalize off of the deep-seated desires of the population to feel “in control” over weather events. 

Monitoring the conditions which might lead to dangerous weather does not equate to controlling the weather but scientific analysis and advanced technological weather-monitoring equipment which result in weather ‘forecasting,’ may be feeding the same desires for control that religions have often offered to the population. 

Nicole Fleetwood, in her article “Failing Narratives, Initiating Technologies: Hurricane Katrina and the Production of a Weather Media Event”, explains how some viewers may be turning to various technologies to feel in control, which I would argue is one of the desirable characteristics institutionalized religion offers:

“On some level, meteorological technologies give the power to predict the future. We are able to witness the storm as weather media event from its inception as tropical storm to its naming to its levels of categorization to its arrival. The detailed sophistication afforded the viewer promises to lower our risk by increasing preparedness. Marita Sturken argues that computer visualization technologies, such as Doppler radar, ‘are used to convey the sense that weather-tracking technologies can actually help to control the weather itself.’” (772) 

Perhaps the reason the Weather Channel’s website has become a platform for commentators to process grief, send condolences and prayers, and work through theological concerns is due to the fact that the meteorological technologies, like religious and spiritual theodicies, provide some sense of control and order in times of chaos.

Filed Under: American ReligionChristianityFeaturedJudaismKate Daley-BaileyReligious StudiesViews, News, & Issues

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