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God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath

NT Wright

SPCK, 2020, ISBN 978-0281085118

Review by Neville Manning, Retired Priest in the Diocese of Chichester

<strong><em>God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath</em></strong>

Preaching amongst other things is a pastoral activity, expressing Gospel-based care for human beings. If preaching is not pastoral, I am not sure it is anything at all. Pastoral preaching involves responding to the real pressures, concerns and questions that are part of human life. One aspect of that pastoral task is how we respond to the Corona Virus pandemic and the questions it raises. Tom Wright’s deceptively slim book ‘God and The Pandemic,’ obviously written at the height of the pandemic and during the lockdown in the UK, is a valuable attempt to respond to the situation from a Christian perspective.

The author, one-time Bishop of Durham, is a well-known Bible scholar and writer of many books and will be already known to several of you. As we would expect of Tom Wright he deals with the issues and questions thrown up by the pandemic in a biblically-anchored way. The slim nature of this volume, less than 80 pages, belies the wisdom which we find here.

The author warns us against instant answers, especially the assumption that the virus is God’s response to some aspects of human sin. There is a need for time to lament (we are reminded that about one-third of the Psalms, such as 88, are psalms of lament). Alongside our lamenting there must also be time for reflection. Tom Wright urges us to focus not on what caused the Virus and the pandemic, in a kind of blame-game, but on what God in Christ is doing NOW. He draws on the story of the man born blind in John 9 and Jesus’ response to those who asked whether it was the blind man or his parents who had sinned. Jesus’ response is ‘He didn’t sin...nor did his parents. It happened so that God’s works could be seen in him’ (v1-3).

Similarly, he cites the story of the death and raising of Lazarus in John 11 and the questions of why he did not come sooner to prevent Lazarus dying and why did he not do something. After the shedding of tears the emphasis is then on what Jesus is about to do: ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ In both cases the focus is not on the causes but on what Christ is about to do.

Tom Wright makes it clear that we are called to be part of what God is doing now by participating in his work of hope and healing. Prayer has a key place in that work: ‘When the world is going through great convulsions, the followers of Jesus are called to be people of prayer at the place where the world is on pain.’ What powerful words! However, that does not mean some false pietism in which we really do nothing. Tom Wright refers to how throughout Church history Christians have responded in action, visiting the prisoners, caring for the wounded, welcoming strangers, feeding the hungry and, nor least, caring for the sick. He reminds us how Martin Luther, in times of plague, urged his clergy to remain in their posts as good shepherds.

Tom Wright’s answer to the question ‘Where is God in the pandemic?’ is ‘Out there on the front line, suffering and dying to bring healing and hope.’ At this point there are wise and balanced comments on whether or not church buildings should have been closed, as they were for many weeks here in the UK.

Those of us who are called to preach may well find ourselves next Easter prompted by the author’s reflection on John 20 v19-23, as the Risen Lord appears to his fearful disciples. What he has to say about tears, locked doors and doubts links well with the experience of many people in recent months. Jesus comes into that situation and calls us to do the same.

The Sunday just before churches closed as the lockdown began a member of the congregation I was with remarked of the spreading virus ‘It’s all God’s judgement,’ a comment I felt distinctly uneasy about. I wish I had had a copy of Tom Wright’s book to hand to him. At the time of writing this review it looks as though the virus will be around for some time to come. ‘God and the Pandemic’ may well feed our pastoral preaching in this situation, particularly to those who feel vulnerable in the recovery period.


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