"If only you would be altogether silent! For you that would be wisdom.'
Modern media brings us close to the centre of dread events. Whether we think back ten years to 9/11 or just a few days to the Japanese tsunami, photography and video footage are both iconic and affective, giving us a sampler of the reality of what is taking place in our world. The past few days have witnessed a constant stream of ever more shocking footage of events in Japan, each of them portraying something fresh of the scale and magnitude of what has happened. Whether it be the wide angle aerial view of the tsunami wave relentlessly encroaching inland, or the more intimate videos of people recording the interiors of their apartments or places of employment in the midst of the 8.9 quake, it is impossible not be moved by the sheer horror and humanity of what has unfolded in the Pacific Ocean. Twitter has been alive with 140 character cameos from people at the scene, and YouTube is awash with both edited and unedited footage.
It is difficult to conceive of how these events were reported before the advent of new media, and the proliferation of video capturing devices. Internet technology has opened a door for these events to invade our consciousness and life experience in incredible ways. Traumatic as it may be to view such devastation and dereliction from the incongrous comfort of our homes, it is a good thing for us to be mindful and aware of what is unfolding in a country, in communities and the individual lives of people far removed from us geographically.
However, with this dubious blessing there comes also a curse. In Christianity Today, John Dyer recently commented on the bane of blogging in terms of serious theological debate and engagement, and the inherent dangers of everyone being able to contribute their unconsidered opinion on what is happening in the world. His focus is on the Rob Bell controversy, but his words no less hold true when it comes to events of more global significance. In the wake of Japan's earthquake and tsunami it appears that all and sundry feel the need to hold forth on the what, why and wherefore of such an overwhelming events. Much of the coverage generated is fairly innocous, and some of it, while simple and brief is deeply moving. It has been wonderful to read the status updates of friends on Facebook as they pledge prayer for those engulfed by Japan's tragedy, and to feel part of a community of intercession. Other contributions are darker though...
Arguably most scurrilous among all the amateur web media's comment on the earthquake and tsunami has been that of some funadmentalist Christians. YouTube and blogs are buzzing with content posted by dangerously dimwitted disciples who feel that the world needs to know why Japan has faced the fury of nature. This is, they say, God's judgement, this is the sign of Christ's return, this is God's villification of atheism and vindication of theism, this in short a terrible Divine visitation on those who, frankly, deserve all that they get.
Idiotic as such sentiments seem, they do garner attention and at times approbation from those within and without the Christian community. Particularly for those on the outside of Christian belief these things are proof (as though proof were needed) that believers are bumptious, unthinking, self-righteously dysfunctional individuals with a smugly (not to mention harmfully) deep seated sense of how God operates and how God hates those not in the same camp as themselves.
And for the rest of us...the sense of embarrassment is crippling. We know that no matter how strong and emphatic we are in rejecting these statements as reflections of true Christianity, we will be tarred with the same brush, and that the actions of a small minority of radical, fundamentalist fools will reflect badly on us - and, more tragically, on Christ himself.
So what can be said? At a personal level since Friday I have found it hard to articulate anything about such awful events. With not a shred of postmodern angst I have found that words, opinion and interpretation of what Japan is enduring are slow to come. To reverse Wordsworth's original expressions of joy above Tintern Abbey, the pain of such tragedy is 'felt along the heart' rather than assimilated by the mind. I have increasingly found myself turning aside to prayer, simply beseeching God to help those in such horrendous difficulty.
From 11th March my daily Bible readings have been in the great concluding section of the book of Job, with God intersecting man's commentary on why bad things happen, with his great self-declaration, his great articulation of his own contentment with the inscrutability of his ways. Looking back through Job I find a much more nuanced take on trouble than that offered by Twitter and Youtube, one which doesn't break down into the simple binaries of bad equals blight and belief equals blessing. Job's world is one of complication, of earthly frustration with heavenly providence, a book which is alive with all of the helpless, wordless, powerless reality of living in a broken world with broken lives. The dramatis personae of Bildad, Eliphaz, Zophar and Elihu offer nothing but platitude and personal certainty amidst the slings and arrows of Job's bereavement, rubbing the collective salt of their high sounding sentiments into his wounds. Job's exclamation is well founded in 13:5 that silence would have been their soundest counsel.
In the light of what has happened in Japan, Job lends dignity to the question rather than to the answer, to the sufferer rather than the morally superior. Answers are to be found, and God ultimately demands faith, but only at the end of 37 chapters of human struggle and dialogue. Job trumps the trashy sentiments of online sages, and shows their confident assertions for what they truly are - dangerous, blasphemous folly which are a modern embarrassment to the ancient wisdom of what God has actually said.
The question marks in Job ultimately take us to Jesus, to the terrible torrents of grief that engulfed his body and soul on the cross, to the pleading pursuit of God's purpose amidst unspeakable pain, to the 'why' of a forsaken Son handed over to the tumult of human evil and agression, and divine wrath against sin. The Bible's answers are a million miles from the palid glow of webcam pundits; they are the answers of a riven side and nail pierced hands, a bloodied Saviour, buffeted by the brokenness of the world He chose to enter and redeem - they are in short emotionally integrated and morally coherent answers to our deepest questions.
Our sense of resolution is not found in prepositions but in a person and the awful contradiction of the God-man crucified, of the Father's beloved Son impaled on the point of a world gone wrong. The resurrection lets us taste something of what God will do in ultimately redeeming all of this mess in which we find ourselves.
Until that day dawns, it might behove us to hold our tongues, and hold tight to our Saviour, praying that He would minister mercy and work out His good purpose in the terrible events of three days ago.