(RNS) — The United States is setting new records for reported daily hospitalizations and COVID-19 deaths.
Cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles are issuing stay-at-home advisories for their residents, and the country’s leading health experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, have recommended families weigh the risks of gathering for the upcoming holidays.
With the U.S. heading into what seems like a bleak and potentially deadly winter, many people may be looking for comfort. Some may be looking for answers to spiritual questions the pandemic has raised.
A number of prominent Christian leaders are hoping to offer those insights in new books published since the virus first upended life last spring.
Here are a handful of books offering a spiritual perspective on the pandemic.
“Virus as a Summons to Faith: Biblical Reflections in a Time of Loss, Grief, and Uncertainty” by Walter Brueggemann
As a Bible teacher, Walter Brueggemann writes that he believes “any serious crisis is a summons for us to reread the Bible afresh.”
“I think that is now a summons to which we must and can respond,” Brueggemann begins his short book, “Virus as a Summons to Faith.”
Brueggemann, the William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament Emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary in Georgia, explores what Scripture might have to say to a range of topics in pandemic times, interspersed with his own poetic prayers.
That includes an examination of differing interpretations of God’s role in “the onslaught of a plague,” such as COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus (though he admits that’s not necessarily the most comforting in the midst of one such plague). He also reflects on examples in Scripture of God’s mercy amid pestilence and how one might pray during a deadly virus.
In Brueggemann’s reading, the coronavirus is a summons to reexamine relationships, both with God and with all creation, and to imagine “new social possibility.”
“The good news is that we need not go back to those old ways that are punitive, parsimonious, and predatory. We can embrace a new normal that is God’s gift to us!” he writes.
John C. Lennox invites his readers to imagine they’re sitting down together for a cup of coffee when the question on the cover of his little book comes up in conversation.
“Where Is God in a Coronavirus World?” is Lennox’s attempt to answer using Christian apologetics.
COVID-19 has raised a number of “perplexing and unsettling” questions, writes Lennox, an emeritus professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford and emeritus fellow in mathematics and the philosophy of science at Green Templeton College. He explores what atheist, theist and specifically Christian answers to some of those questions might be, about the existence of suffering and “natural evil,” about why a loving God would allow a deadly virus and how Christians should respond in a pandemic.
In the end, he concludes, “Peace in a pandemic? Only Jesus can give that. The issue for all of us is this: will we trust him to do so?”
John Piper, founder of Desiring God ministries, has written a small volume, “Coronavirus and Christ,” that connects COVID-19 to the need for a greater reliance on God.
“What God is doing in the coronavirus is showing us — graphically, painfully — that nothing in this world gives the security and satisfaction that we find in the infinite greatness and worth of Jesus,” Piper writes. “The reason God exposes us to such losses is to rouse us to rely on Christ.”
His book has been published in a number of forms — including shrink-wrapped with the mailing of the May 9 print issue of the evangelical Christian magazine World — and in more than two dozen languages.
The prolific author’s linking the pandemic to the judgment of God caused waves early in the days after the book’s publication.
A military religious watchdog complained to then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper that some chaplains were “horribly aggrieved” that an Army chaplain was distributing the book, which it said tied the virus to God’s judgment. Piper cites “the sin of homosexual intercourse” as an example of a past example of divine judgment discussed in the New Testament Book of Romans.
“The coronavirus is, therefore, never a clear and simple punishment on any person,” Piper writes. “The most loving, Spirit-filled Christians, whose sins are forgiven through Christ, may die of the coronavirus disease. But it is fitting that every one of us search our own heart to discern if our suffering is God’s judgment on the way we live.”
It’s hard to forget the image of the pope standing alone in a dark, empty, rain-soaked St. Peter’s Square, usually thronged by the faithful.
Those photos are reproduced in “Christ in the Storm” alongside Pope Francis’ extraordinary Urbi et Orbi message, delivered March 27 as Italy and much of the world ordered life to a standstill to slow the spread of the virus.
“Thick darkness has gathered over our squares, our streets and our cities; it has taken over our lives, filling everything with a deafening silence and a distressing void, that stops everything as it passes by; we feel it in the air, we notice in people’s gestures, their glances give them away. We find ourselves afraid and lost,” Francis said in the homily.
But his message is a hopeful one, a call to come together and comfort one another.
The pretty little book also includes a foreword by Crux editor John L. Allen Jr. and an introduction by Timothy P. O’Malley, director of McGrath Theology Online at the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame, as well as the text of the liturgy and explanations of the history and symbolism throughout the event.
“From Survive to Thrive: Live a Holy, Healed, Healthy, Happy, Humble, Hungry, and Honoring Life” by Samuel Rodriguez
The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez dedicates this book to his eldest daughter, who survived time in a COVID-19 intensive care unit, and encourages readers to approach life — and the pandemic — as David faced Goliath: by not giving up in seemingly impossible circumstances.
Rodriguez advises in “From Survive to Thrive,” “When we feel stuck in solitude, languishing in lockdown, or quelled in quarantine, we must ask for a breath of spiritual air, a new instilling of God’s Spirit in us.”
The president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference writes that the way to thrive in difficult times is by being “conduits of grace and conductors of generosity,” interacting with family, friends and strangers, giving them undivided attention — even while wearing a mask.
“If we want to thrive, not merely to survive the trials and turmoil of the pandemic, economic uncertainty, and social unrest, then we must honor God in all we do,” he writes. “We have to stop allowing our worry, fear, anxiety, depression, and shame to steal the joy, peace, power and purpose God gives us.”
Each chapter of his book, which includes personal anecdotes about perseverance, ends with a few questions and a prayer for readers to personalize their journey toward thriving.
Early in the pandemic, popular author and scholar N.T. Wright was asked to write for Time magazine and offer a spiritual perspective on the pandemic. The resulting piece was titled “Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To.”
So perhaps it’s no surprise Wright’s book on the same topic, “God and the Pandemic,” is a slim volume.
In it, Wright, a retired Anglican bishop and now chair of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, takes a careful look at what Scripture might say to this moment.
Christians, he writes, are called to be “people of prayer at the place where the world is in pain.” He cautions his readers against knee-jerk reactions to the pandemic and encourages lament instead.
“If we spent time in the prayer of lament, new light may come, rather than simply the repetition of things we might have wanted to say anyway,” he writes.
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