Clouds of Unknowing

Making sense of the tornadoes

Growing up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, one knew that tornadoes weren’t just things that happened to other people. This disquieting knowledge came in the form of regular tornado drills held at school. Children would be told to leave their belongings at their desks and file quickly into the hall, away from classroom windows. There we would sit, side by side, placing our arms behind our necks and touching our chins to raised knees. This way, the boys liked to joke, if an actual twister hit we were ready to say our prayers and kiss our asses goodbye. 

While I recall a couple of terrifying instances when the sky suddenly darkened and the leaf-strewn, agitated air seemed to herald the Trump of Doom, no actual tornadoes struck my school—or my home, where the linen closest or bathtub served, in my parents’ judgment, as the refuge of last resort. 

Those hit by the recent tornadoes in Tuscaloosa and across the South and Midwest will not have the luxury of remembering only close calls. They have to reckon with the thing itself: in places, a more-than-half-mile-wide path of complete destruction. “I’ve never seen devastation like this,” President Barack Obama said during his visit to my hometown. Looking at the magnitude of the devastation in Tuscaloosa or in Joplin, Missouri, one senses what it must have felt like to emerge from the rubble of a bombed German city at the end of World War II.

Unlike last year’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (where Tuscaloosans like to vacation), this tragedy comes not from the stupidity of man, but from the hand of nature. And unlike hurricanes, which arrive gradually and affect a wide area, tornadoes are localized, sudden, and furious. For that reason, I’ve often thought they raise questions of theodicy in a particularly acute manner. Why was my house leveled, while my neighbor’s stands? Why did the tornado’s path come down Fifteenth Street and not Lurleen Wallace Boulevard? Why did the Angel of Death visit here and not there, now and not then? 

Tuscaloosa and other parts of the South and Midwest will recover, although it will take months or even years. Even so, the agony and the wormwood will endure. The top floor of my late grandmother’s house was lopped off as if from a single, giant ax blow. My aunt and uncle lost their garage and every tree in their yard. All that remains of the drugstore my mom used to schlep me to when I was young are its concrete foundations. The collapsed remnants of several churches had to be bulldozed. But more important than bricks and mortar are the lives lost: 236 in Alabama alone, 329 across the South, and hundreds more dead or missing in Missouri. Many families were left with an empty bedroom, an unfilled chair at dinner. 

As they have done in other times of calamity, many turned to Scripture to make sense of it all. Though the Bible Belt can yield a narrow biblicism, it has also enriched Christian understanding in its tradition of storytelling, and in its insistence that you can never wrestle with God enough if it’s done in the spirit of an honest lover’s quarrel. Flannery O’Connor recognized this well in her remarkable essay “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South”:

The Hebrew genius for making the absolute concrete has conditioned the Southerner’s way of looking at things. That is one of the reasons why the South is a storytelling section.... Our response to life is different if we have been taught only a definition of faith than if we have trembled with Abraham as he held the knife over Isaac. 

On the first Sunday after the tornadoes hit, my parents’ church turned not to the story of Abraham but to the book of Job. “What did you do, Job? What did you do, Tuscaloosa?” the pastor Tim Lien asked, before criticizing the well-intentioned but misguided questions offered by Job’s friends. The “whys” of life’s tragedies will often remain, he went on, and we must allow them to dangle in all their vexing inscrutability. Often the best we can do is try to expose the bad answers and let the questions themselves wean us from disordered affections.

The “whys” will certainly linger. Often they will be channeled into anguished, grief-stricken prayers. While prayer can be “exalted manna, gladness of the best,” as George Herbert wrote in his poem “Prayer,” they can also be “the Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth / Engine against th’ Almightie,” as he put it in the same poem. A common practice in many Baptist churches is “testimony time”—a time when anyone, “led by the Spirit,” can stand up and indicate how God is speaking to them. In one especially vivid moment from my childhood, I recall one man, whose daughter had recently died, standing up and, expressionlessly, quoting Job 13:15 to the congregation—“Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him”—before sitting down again. 

Many people in my hometown and across the middle of the country share this sentiment in the aftermath of these tornadoes. The restoration of faith, hope, and love will come in due time. But the path from here to there will not pass through dry Leibnizian formulas about the necessity of things as they are, but through an anguished, Bible-invoking caterwauling about the way things ought to be. This caterwauling might at times appear maudlin, ill-formed, or uncouth, as individuals struggle to fit their personal and family tragedies into the greater Divine Comedy of redemption. Even so, Catholics, Protestants, and all people of good will stand to learn something from this struggle—something about our shared fragility and about the all-too-human art of being a wounded lover of “th’ Almightie.”

Published in the 2011-06-17 issue: 

Thomas Albert Howard holds the Duesenberg Chair in Ethics at Valparaiso University and is the author of The Faiths of Others: Modern History and the Rise of Interreligious Dialogue, forthcoming from Yale University Press.

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