“I have received no assurance that anything we can do will eradicate suffering. I think the best results are obtained by people who work quietly away at limited objectives, such as the abolition of the slave trade, or prison reform, or factory acts, or tuberculosis, not by those who think they can achieve universal justice, or health, or peace. I think the art of life consists in tackling each immediate evil as well as we can.“
Well, this is one heck of a time to launch a blog.
The Corona Virus / Covid-19 pandemic is well underway, and so is the panic. I was in Seattle the day the first Covid-19-related death was announced. Many of the region’s inhabitants responded to the first death from a contagious virus by … storming Costco and emptying it of toilet paper, thereby potentially exposing themselves to said fearful virus.
Just the sort of thing I’ve read about in many apocalyptic science fiction yarns I’ve read through in one sitting.
Yes, I’m a sci-fi nerd, and proud of it. It’s what I grew up escaping into, especially Robert Heinlein’s “teen hero” space travel books he wrote in the 1950s, and before that the classic Tom Swift, Jr. kids’ series. Later I came to see such stories as non-threatening ways to examine human nature, ask unanswerable questions, marvel at the intricacy of the universe. And ultimately deepen my faith, where I tend to welcome questions and ambiguity more than some of the traditional answers that discourage those deeper questions. These are the types of stories I enjoy writing and hope to share before too much longer.
I got to meet one of my favorite authors last summer, Frank Peretti. Aside from being a gracious and authentic man, he said something that really struck me about why stories are important: “Jesus told stories. Because they work.”
Even those who don’t share my belief in who Jesus Christ is recognize and even revere many of his stories. The Good Samaritan parable is one such example. Jesus did not present it as an historical event; rather, as a story told in response to a question meant to challenge him.
“Who is my neighbor?”
Jesus’ answer was that the neighbor, in this case the Samaritan, was actually someone who was hated by the respectable and righteous of that time and place. The hero of the story, who stopped and helped a man who’d been robbed, beaten, and left for dead, would have scandalized the listeners of the story. It would be like a pastor standing in the pulpit telling a story about a transgendered Muslim illegal immigrant risking infection to care for an elderly Covid-19 sufferer while mainstream Christians turned their backs. The story seems designed to offend.
We get used to stories that have been told over and over and they lose some of that original intent. Which is a good reason for new stories to be told, stories to challenge, stories that at first are safe to read because we don’t see them as about us.
Sometimes I realize those stories are not just about us, but about me.
That’s one of the reasons I enjoyed The X-Files. Aliens, monsters, weird stuff, conspiracy theories. But ultimately the series was about questions, deep ones. It’s not a source of my theology, but I love its willingness to ask questions, because I don’t think that God is threatened by our questions (even if God’s answers don’t jive with Fox Mulder’s).
Mulder in many ways reflects our society now, 20 years after the series aired (its recent reboot notwithstanding). His mantra for life: “Trust No One.” That is where we are at as a society, which makes navigating challenges like a global pandemic much more difficult. The national institutions that were held in high esteem two generations ago are no longer revered.
Our cynicism isn’t all off-base. And I am chief among sinners when it comes to cynicism. In so many ways our elected representatives no longer represent us. Sexual scandals have rocked our churches, destroyed lives and damaged our faith in those who should be pointing us to God. Much of our mainstream media is devoted to pushing agendas rather than reporting news. Our educational system seems to concern itself with issues and topics best taught at home, rather than basic foundational skills. Both science and faith communities often start with conclusions and avoid questions that don’t support what they already believe. Every political decision or weather event becomes an existential crisis, so that when a true existential crisis might be upon us most of us write it off. We’ve heard it all before. We’re all Fox Mulder. We trust no one, not even ourselves.
So when the president or the governor announces measures to contain the virus, no one outside their core voting bloc trusts them. “If he’s not my guy, he’s part of a conspiracy to destroy my life. And the (right wing / left wing) media is complicit, and the medical-industrial complex caused it, and we’re one step away from tyranny by the Democratic Governor / Republican President.”
Would you like your dictator painted blue or red? Then again, what competent government wouldn’t start to crack down when its citizens hoard toilet paper the moment the first person dies?
Maybe the virus is overblown. Maybe not. Maybe in a few months it will be a scandal that we’re raking our politicians for. Or maybe we’ll be burying friends and loved ones while still in isolation and wondering why we weren’t more prepared. I don’t know. For once I will be praying with all my might for a political uproar over a scare that ended with a whimper.
My trust is in God first. But to get through this, we – no matter our core beliefs about faith and the universe – need to begin to trust one another again. Maybe the institutions have indeed betrayed us. Our neighbors are still with us, next door, down the street, in town. People different than we are, facing a common threat, even if we don’t really understand what that threat is.
Some of them will be getting sick. Many will be afraid.
Serve him. Learn to trust her. Whether the Samaritan in the story is you or that other person.
If you are not involved in a front-line health care position, might have some extra time on your hands. If your escapist fantasy involves apocalyptic adventures, here’s a couple of my favorites. (Both are Christian authors, though the stories are not overtly so.)
Doomsday Book, Connie Willis – A mid-21st century college student who is researching history using time travel accidentally ends up in 1348 in the midst of the Black Plague that killed between 75 and 200 million people. A similar plague is loose in the 21st century, and we see that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Intricately researched, it’s not for everyone, but it’s my all-time favorite time travel book. Amazon link: https://www.amazon.com/Doomsday-Book-Connie-Willis/dp/0553562738
The Line Between, Tosca Lee – A young woman escapes the cult she’s grown up in, only to find that a virus threatens the existence of humanity. No time travel in this one, and maybe not something to read if you are losing sleep over Covid-19. At least our modern-day virus doesn’t cause madness as this one does. So if you’re into “it could be worse” scenarios, here’s a good one. Author link: https://toscalee.com/product/the-line-between/