Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Peter J. Thuesen's "Tornado God"

Peter J. Thuesen is Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) and co-editor of Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation. His books include Predestination: The American Career of a Contentious Doctrine, and In Discordance with the Scriptures: American Protestant Battles over Translating the Bible.

Thuesen applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Tornado God: American Religion and Violent Weather, and reported the following:
I appreciate the invitation to participate in The Page 99 Test, though I’ll have to confess to some skepticism about Ford Madox Ford’s device. It strikes me as a bit similar to when some Christians open the Bible to a random page and seek guidance from the first verse they see. That said, such a method is time honored—it goes back at least to Saint Augustine, who famously opened the Scriptures to Romans 13:13-14—so here goes.

On page 99 of my Tornado God, I’m in the midst of describing religious responses to the St. Louis Tornado of 1896. That tornado was a tremendous calamity for what was then the nation’s fourth-largest city. At least 255 people died, a thousand were injured, and 7,500 buildings were destroyed or damaged. Many of the devastated buildings were churches, a stark reminder of the religious questions posed by the tragedy.

Across the country, clergy wrestled with the disaster in their Sunday sermons. I discuss some of those responses on page 99. I quote Ezra Squier Tipple, pastor of Grace Methodist Episcopal Church in New York City and later president of Drew Theological Seminary, who said that God permits tornadoes and other catastrophes to turn people’s attention from “the minor details of life” and to increase “sympathy among men.” I also quote T. De Witt Talmage, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Washington, D.C., who said that the “best thing that ever happens to us is trouble” because it drives us “into the harbor of God’s protection.”

But page 99 only gets at these sunny estimations of the tragedy’s significance. In the next chapter, I show how some twentieth-century theologians began to question whether there is any purpose or plan behind natural events. One such theologian was Reinhold Niebuhr, who was a three-year-old living in St. Charles, Missouri, just across the Missouri River from St. Louis, when the 1896 tornado happened. Niebuhr illustrates a central irony of my story, that despite the ongoing progress of scientific discovery, humans today are still in some sense as confounded by the tornado as Job was by the Whirlwind.

So does Tornado God pass the Page 99 Test? Not exactly, in that page 99 tells only part of the story: the optimism of the Gilded Age clergy who said that God sends tornadoes for human improvement. But whether they were correct or whether Niebuhr was right to be skeptical, page 99 does at least indirectly point to the central argument of my book: that the tornado is both American and transcendent, a national preoccupation but one that gets at questions as old as humanity itself.
Visit Peter J. Thuesen's website.

--Marshal Zeringue