Jewish World Review Oct. 14, 2005 / 11 Tishrei, 5766

Paul Greenberg

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Cold comfort | Poor, stricken New Orleans could use a comforting friend right now, but instead it seems to have drawn a prosecutor in Franklin (Son of Billy) Graham.

Speaking of the disaster that struck the Crescent City, the evangelist threw in a reference to its "satanic worship" and "sexual perversion." Like cause and effect? He wasn't saying New Orleans deserved what it got — not in so many words. But the connection was hard to miss. In short, it's hard to imagine his older, wiser father putting it that way.

Graham the Younger specifically denied that the Good L-rd had sent Katrina to wipe out that sinful city, but he did say that, in the wake of the disaster, people might be more receptive to a spiritual revival.

I've been approached by people like Franklin Graham in moments when I've been most vulnerable. They didn't come bearing what I recognized as help, or even a silent, understanding presence — which may be the best thing we can sometimes offer the grief-stricken. But always the Franklin Grahams arrive as if they see in our pain and bewilderment . . . a grand opportunity!

My reaction to their exhortations was predictable enough and natural enough: All I wanted was for them to leave, leave, leave.

Remember Job's comforters? They, too, arrived on the scene offering simple explanations and a chance for salvation. Their words, too, were carefully crafted. Worst of all, they were utterly sincere. They had it all figured out, and were going to straighten out their suffering friend. And in their appalling sincerity, they deeply offended the G-d they purported to serve. Not only that, but of course Job saw right through them, too.

Even if the New Orleans we knew and loved was Sin City, surely her sins were only carnal ones. And those are surely less dangerous than the hardness of heart that moves us to judge others rather than comfort them when they most need comforting.

Theodicy is a tricky business. If the people of New Orleans brought this disaster — excuse me, great spiritual opportunity — on themselves by their sinful ways, why would the poor Lower Ninth Ward get swamped but the French Quarter and Bourbon Street stay high and mostly dry? He must work in mysterious ways His wonders to perform.

Then again, some of us always did suspect that all that highly advertised sin in the Quarter (GIRLS! GIRLS! GIRLS! NO WAITING!) was mainly for show.

And what of those towns stricken all along the Mississippi coast? The ones full of little churches and idyllic views. Were Biloxi and Gulfport and Ocean Springs and Waveland centers of perversion and satanic worship, too? Waveland?!

Must it take a disaster to prepare the ground for spiritual renewal? Suppose New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast had been spared the hurricanes' wrath? Wouldn't spiritual renewal still have been possible, desirable and maybe just as probable? Is not thanksgiving as great an impulse for renewal as despair, maybe even greater?

Or would our modern-day Jonahs disagree? Would they, too, seeing their warnings go unheeded, go off and sulk, mad as all Get Out that Nineveh, that sinful city, had been spared? Would they, too, feel that their purpose in life — to batten on disaster — had been thwarted by a G-d who never follows through despite all His tough talk? And that, dang it, they had known all along that it would turn out like this! (" . . . For I knew that thou art a gracious G-d, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of evil.")

There is something irresistibly comic in Jonah's story. And deeply comforting. Whatever Brother Graham's faults, there is also something funny and assuring about his Theology of Disaster. As if he were oblivious to all the goodness daily showered upon us and could draw moral sustenance, like some Rev. Joe Btfslpk, only from some eternal rain cloud bursting overhead. While all the goodness and forgiveness of Creation shines all about him unremarked.

To appreciate the City of Man, and realize that it, too, has its splendors, is not to place it above the City of G-d but to accord both their due. Nor is it always easy to separate those two cities. Their streets tend to intersect — like Elysian Fields and Bon Enfant in New Orleans. Like an elaborate pagan paradise and the simplicity of the Good Child.

In Walker Percy's simple classic, "The Moviegoer," it isn't always clear just which of those cities its hero Binx Bolling has found, G-d's or Man's, on those occasions when he feels the Presence and breaks the bounds of what he calls everydayness, or the Malaise.

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On those rare moments it is as though he could see both clearly, side by side, in a flash of insight, and in the most unlikely of times and places. Say, at a drive-in movie with his luscious date by his side and his afflicted brother resting on the hood of the car.

Maybe it is precisely because Binx is so deeply, tenderly aware of the smallest transitory beauty of his earthly city (much as Walker Percy was) that he is always on the cusp of receiving an unearthly grace. Maybe that is why he is so open to the possibility that there is something Going On behind these temporal scenes.

The best evangelism, like the best writing, follows the old Show, Don't Tell rule. I daresay the Baptists who rushed down South with their mobile kitchens to feed the thousands, and the Salvation Army, and all those others who didn't preach in this crisis but just showed up to help, delivered the Word far more effectively than all those trying to squeeze supernatural lessons out of a natural disaster.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. All the quotations in this column were culled from Tuesday's edition of the Democrat-Gazette. Send your comments by clicking here.

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