God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and its Aftermath, by N. T. Wright. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020. 96 pp. $11.00 (pbk). ISBN: 9780310120803.
As I write this, the pandemic wears on, continuing to affect life far longer and far more deeply than most of us could have imagined at the outset. For many individuals and churches, the initial wave of fear and paralysis has given way to a new way of life and mode of being in the world. Now, however, as the months wear on, deep theological reflection is needed as we consider what the pandemic means in the context of Christian faith and practice. With this book, hot off the press, N. T. Wright has given a gift to churches and Christians who long to think more seriously about what it means to be people of faith in the ongoing context of the pandemic. What’s more, Wright helps move Christians and churches from paralysis and fear to faithful response.
Wright roots his understanding of the pandemic and a Christian response to it in a biblical perspective. This helps him resist the “knee-jerk reactions” that have characterized some “Christian” responses to the pandemic: “This is a sign of the end times!” or, “God is judging humanity for our sins!” Wright begins the book with a brief examination of these sorts of typical responses to the pandemic and tragedies throughout history. Yet rather than linger on the question of “Why?”, Wright encourages readers to move toward “What can we do?” (p. 3).
Beginning with the Hebrew Scriptures, Wright invites readers to consider how early Jewish people of faith responded to their greatest tragedy: the Babylonian exile. In the book of Lamentations, he finds a powerful resonance with today: images of a devastated Jerusalem, empty city streets, suffering and scattered people, and cries for God’s help. Wright guides readers through a number of Psalms to remind readers that God does not work the way so many people have supposed throughout history: if we are good, good things will happen to us, and if we are bad, we’ll get what we deserve. Wright rather forcefully admonishes such a perspective: “Whenever anyone tells you that coronavirus means that God is calling people—perhaps you!—to repent, tell them to read Job. The whole point is that is not the point” (p. 12). Job does not lead readers toward a satisfying conclusion, nor does Job give a once-and-for-all answer to the question of theodicy. Wright suggests that that is part of the point: “We are simply to know that when we are caught up in awful circumstances, apparent gross injustices, terrible plagues . . . at those points we are to lament, we are to complain, we are to state the case, and leave it with God” (p. 14).
Turning to Jesus and the New Testament, Wright focuses on the story of the man born blind in John 9. Upon seeing the man, Jesus’ disciples ask whether his sin or his parents’ sin caused his blindness, but Jesus rejects their assumptions about the way God works. Instead, as Wright observes, “He looks forward to see what God is going to do about it” (p. 17). Jesus then heals the man, displaying and embodying God’s sovereignty and power. Yet Wright also acknowledges the very real pain caused by suffering and by the pandemic, observing Jesus’ own anguish at the death of Lazarus in John 11: “the tears are real. The horror of death . . . is overwhelming, even for the Lord of life” (pp. 26–27). In Acts 11:27–30, Wright finds yet another story with a particular resonance for the current moment. In this narrative (one that I had entirely forgotten about, to be honest!), a prophet named Agabus announces to a group of Christians in Antioch that there will be a famine that ravages the entire world. Wright notes the response of the Christians: they do not attempt to lay blame, call for repentance, or assume that Jesus is returning soon. Rather, “They ask three simple questions: Who is going to be at special risk when this happens? What can we do to help? And who shall we send?” (p. 32). This is not simply a pragmatic response, he observes; instead, it suggests that God responds to suffering in the world in and through God’s people. In the lives of Jesus, the disciples, and the early church, Wright sees a common pattern: “The point is that God’s kingdom is being launched on earth as in heaven, and the way it will happen is by God working through people of this sort” (p. 34).
As Wright moves toward the end of the book, he again encourages readers to begin their response to the pandemic with lament. Following that, he calls readers to action, to be God’s “partners in the work of redemption and new creation” (p. 55). This, he says, is the task of human beings in Genesis, and in Jesus’ ministry as well. It follows that this is the task readers are called to in response to the pandemic. Wright reminds readers that throughout Christian history, Jesus’ followers have started hospitals, cared for the wounded, fed the hungry, and tended to the dying. Faithful response means looking for ways to address the very real needs in our communities and in the world. In this time of exile, he says, people of faith should “seek the welfare of the city” (p. 70).
It will come as no surprise to many readers that N. T. Wright is one of the first biblical scholars to publish a book on the pandemic. That he and the publisher have worked to bring this book so quickly to press is of great benefit to churches and people of faith. While some might suppose that this book will have a “short shelf life,” given its specific topic, the pandemic will no doubt prove to leave lasting marks on individuals, society, and churches. This is likely the first of a wave of theological books in response, and it sets the right tone.
Wright writes for a broad audience. The book is accessible to lay readers, and would make a great book study for a church group. Its five brief chapters make it wholly suitable to a short-term study. Pastors who find themselves struggling to preach as the pandemic wears on will find in this slim volume much that will spark inspiration. I commend this book to all who are wrestling with theological questions in the midst of the pandemic.