July 1, 2010
Lightning Strikes and Divine Disfavor
— Adam Darlage
As mentioned in last week’s Sightings, until recently drivers on the stretch of I-75 between Cincinnati and Dayton had the opportunity to contemplate the six-story (62 ft.) Jesus statue at the Solid Rock Church in Monroe, Ohio, on the northbound side of the highway. On the night of Monday, June 14, however, lightning struck the statue, and the fire it sparked quickly burned the fiberglass skin and styrofoam filler. Only the blackened metal frame survived. The adjoining amphitheater was also damaged in the inferno, and officials estimate at least $700,000 worth of total damage to both structures.
To the people of the Solid Rock Church, the statue, completed in the fall of 2004 at a cost of over $200,000, was known as “King of Kings;” it depicted Jesus looking upward to Heaven with both arms raised to the sky and a cross near where his waist would be. Over the years it garnered other nicknames. Some called it “Touchdown Jesus” because the position of Jesus’ raised arms suggested to American football fans that he was celebrating a touchdown. Others dubbed it “Big Butter Jesus” for its creamy white color.
As the somewhat irreverent nicknames suggest, the statue was an easy target for criticism. Especially over the past few years as the Great Recession took its toll on the American economy, the statue came to represent to some a waste of valuable financial resources on the part of the Solid Rock Church, a “megachurch” with over 4,000 members. To others, including members of the church, the statue was a public witness to the power of faith in Jesus Christ. Darlene Bishop, a pastor at the Solid Rock Church, noted that the lightning strike only helped the mission of the church: “he (Jesus) couldn’t have gotten this much advertising if we had paid a billion dollars.” Indeed, the Solid Rock Church had insured the statue and intends to build a new one.
But it is the lightning strike itself that provides an occasion to reflect on historical and contemporary Christian responses to the destruction of churches by similar events. Lightning strikes can be interpreted differently than other natural events, in that lightning is not only instantaneous, but also more physically localized than earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, or tornadoes. These may kill hundreds, even thousands of people, but lightning usually strikes one person or one thing, as in the case of the “King of Kings.”
Our visceral response to lightning strikes owes much to the God of the Jewish and Christian scriptures, who is in complete control of lightning; see especially the book of Job on this point (28:26; 36:32; 37:3; 38:35). Legends about saints from the early church reinforce this response. According to one story, God struck down and killed the father of St. Barbara with a bolt of lightning after he beheaded his daughter for being a Christian. Moreover, our culture has been indelibly imprinted with stories of Zeus and his lightning bolt, comic book characters with the power to “zap” their enemies, and cinematic depictions of gods or demons striking down humans with lightning bolts; recall the lightning strikes from the 2006 remake of “The Omen.” In all these narratives, lightning is directed at a specific target for a specific reason.
Throughout history, when lightning did strike a church, many Christians believed that the lightning was evidence of divine wrath because of specific sins or heresies. Medieval and early modern Europeans routinely made this claim. Moreover, since the ringing of consecrated church bells was supposed to ward off thunderstorms and evil spirits, a strike was often regarded as particularly significant. In 1678 a Dutch Calvinist preacher in Orange contended that a lightning strike that torched the cloth of the main altar in the Roman Catholic cathedral church was a miracle that proved the truth of Protestant doctrine and the falseness of the Catholic Church.
To be sure, other explanations became increasingly available to Christians with the rise of modern science. Benjamin Franklin found that lightning struck elevated metallic objects, and many accepted the fact that churches with bell towers, usually the tallest building in town, were in fact quite vulnerable to lightning strikes. Some churchmen were slow to adapt his lightning rod technology in 1752, however, as they were uncomfortable ceding the point that consecrated bells actually attracted lightning instead of repelling it.
The historical Christian belief in lightning as a sign of divine wrath continues to this day, and its enduring hold on our culture becomes particularly apparent when lightning damages or destroys a church. The case of the “King of Kings” is simply the most recent example. In the days following the conflagration, blogs featured jokes about the irony of Jesus being struck down by God, as well as claims that the Solid Rock Church deserved God’s wrath because it is too materialistic. Pastor Bishop even felt compelled to confirm that the lightning was a natural event, not evidence of divine disfavor. Whether silly or serious, all of these responses draw from the same deep historical and cultural well.
Adam Darlage received his Ph.D. in the History of Christianity from the University of Chicago Divinity School in 2009. He is an instructor at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, Illinois.
For an article that covers the facts of the fire and Pastor Bishop’s response to the lightning strike, and also offers a video featuring responses by members of the Solid Rock Church, see http://news.cincinnati.com/article/20100615/NEWS01/306160001/Rebuilding-plan-Make-it-fireproof.
For a forum for online responses to the lightning strike and the resulting blaze, see the cnn.com belief blog: http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2010/06/15/jesus-statue-struck-by-lightning/
An eleven-second video of the fire can be found on Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mUZ3d1tTbWg