Sunday, January 03, 2021

God and Pandemic Lit


You may have noticed that 2020 brought us a number of pandemic-themed novels even though they were written well before COVID-19 became the acronym we've all come to know and hate. How did the authors anticipate what would unfold? As Tom Power, host of CBC Radio's Q said to one author whose book is chillingly accurate, "could I get you to choose numbers for my lottery tickets?"

I haven't got to the somewhat older Stations 11 by Emily St. John Mandel yet, but Ruth tells me it is engrossing. The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donaghue takes us back a century to the flu pandemic which killed more people than the conflict of World War I, and it is certainly worthwhile. 

I was really impressed by The End of October by Lawrence Wright which was published early in 2020. A deadly virus develops in an Asian detention camp and while efforts are made to contain it, a person at the periphery of the outbreak becomes the catalyst for spreading in around the planet. While this virus is more virulent than the one we're experiencing, the parallels to what has transpired with the coronavirus are uncanny. More than once I wondered how Wright could have developed a story-line which is based on the science of transmission while nations have struggled from the get-go to understand what was unfolding with our pandemic. Of course, politics has played a part in our drama, as with the novel. 

Almost midway through the novel Henry, the epidemiologist who is the unlikely hero of The End of October, has a FaceTime conversation with his tween daughter who is in the United States while he is half a world away. She asks the question of her agnostic father "do you believe in heaven?"  He is evasive, and knows that his response is not helpful. The daughter eventually offers that she does believe in heaven, although her description is not conventional from a Christian standpoint. Then again, what is often presented as a Christian heaven has more to do with speculation than anything we find in the bible or in the teachings of Jesus. 

What struck me about this father/daughter conversation is that in the midst of a well-structured, page-turner story which is rooted in science, God and the afterlife shows up. For months we have listened to the medical experts and the politicians as they shared their messages about hygiene and limiting transmission. We've heard from the religious types who claim that neither the scientists nor the politicians are "the boss of me" and want to continue to gather because it's their God-given right to do so. 

Our United Church of Canada has tended toward caution throughout, seeing the decision not to gather for at least several months as one which demonstrates that we "love our neighbour" and which honours our elders. I personally think this is better theology that the Martin Luther wannabees who huff and puff about religious freedom. Most UCC clergy have been very pastoral in the midst of the disorienting realities of the pandemic. 

I do think we could all engage in some deeper discussion about our views of heaven or the afterlife or whatever term we want to use. So many have lost loved ones in the past ten months, often without opportunity for meaningful goodbyes or to come together to celebrate and mourn these lives. There is a lot of anxiety and fear and confusion roaming about that we could do with some honest conversation about all of this. 

What do you think? How could this happen when we can't come together to speak from the heart and pose the questions we want to ask? Would it help if you could? 

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