Brandon Knight, Ph.D.
Asst. Professor of Communication
William Carey University
In the past few weeks, Americans have found themselves at a unique moment in history. In recent years we have experienced a span of political, social, and religious divide; now, the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) has beckoned all to consider the global community and how we can bridge the divide.
Following many public calls for quarantine around the nation, Americans are having to consider the health of their neighbor as much as themselves. Yet, in the middle of the chaos, there is a spectrum when it comes to heeding health guidelines in public settings. On one end of the spectrum are those who wear masks and gloves in public; on the other end are those who crowd Florida beaches during spring break. You get the idea. This spectrum can even be witnessed among Christian communities in America. Throughout the nation, many congregations were slow to listen to warnings of social distancing, referencing a lack of concern; distrust of the government; religious freedom; or—more significantly—a word from God.
Of course, many churches, both big and small, took to webcasting their sermons and constructing drive-in services during the last few weeks following the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control, as well as the Trump Administration’s COVID-19 Task Force. Nevertheless, other congregations saw the loss of the Sunday gathering as an affront to their faith and religious freedom.
Plus, given the current political divide, one must take into consideration the varying interpretations of “closing doors.” For example, in an interview with Rev. Josh King, pastor of a 1,100-member congregation in Arkansas, he contended that, “In your more politically conservative regions closing is not interpreted as caring for you,” he explained. “It’s interpreted as liberalism or buying into the hype.” In other Christian contexts, we see a similar form of political suspicion. Liberty University—a staunchly conservative institution, continued on-campus operations despite a majority of universities and colleges around the nation transitioning to virtual classes and even cancelling commencement ceremonies. Such displays of distrust, however, can be considered minutiae when related to other more supposed “divine” reactions to the virus.
To clarify, by “divine” reaction I mean God-talk. God Talk is any form of discourse in which someone claims, “God told me…” thus hindering counter arguments and bestowing upon them a divine credibility as a spokesperson for God. Such forms of rhetoric are very important to consider but are not novel to the twenty-first century or even particularly to Christians. Some might claim that God Talk persists in the twenty-first century due to post-modernity wherein “my truth” is just as important as “your truth.” But this discourse is also employed by those who cling to objectivity, seeking to supply simple answers for complex scenarios, thus indicating that no worldview is immune to such practices.
In fact, the current pandemic has given way for many examples of God Talk. The more familiar styles, of course, occurred early on as Jim Bakker, a famous televangelist, sought to persuade the public of his divine cure for COVID-19 called silver solution. Since then, he has been arrested on federal charges. Other examples have taken on more nuanced forms whereby nature is divinized. British actor Idris Elba, following his recent positive test for COVID-19, contended that nature was retaliating through this pandemic against harmful human industry. But should we care about claims of God Talk? In what follows, I consider the twofold negative effects of such language. To do so, I would like to discuss one of the more popular examples of God Talk in recent weeks.
Earlier in March, Hobby Lobby announced that their stores would remain open nationwide despite the continuing spread of COVID-19 throughout all fifty states. The reason? God told them to. Following an initial tweet, a letter was sent to all Hobby Lobby employees noting that the owner’s wife, Barbara Green, was given a message from God during her quiet time: “Green said the message meant that ‘We serve a God who will Guide us through this storm, who will Guard us as we travel to places never seen before, and who, as a result of this experience, will Groom us to be better than we could have ever thought possible before now.’” For a business that prides itself on Christian values, Hobby Lobby is now seemingly confusing the public by placing employees—and their families—in harm’s way. Much can be learned as we hone in on God Talk and the negative consequences visible in this recent occurrence.
First, God Talk is an offense to God because it undermines His authority and leads to a desecration of his name. This is interesting considering how such claims, like Barbara Green’s, are characterized as God-honoring. Those who heard the word of the Lord in scripture and followed through in obedience are considered as models of faithfulness. So how are modern day examples dishonoring? To understand, one must consider orthodoxy. The biblical writer of Hebrews declares that God’s speech-acts were given through the prophets climaxing in the logos, Christ himself: “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe” (Hebrews 1: 1-2, NIV). Therefore, the church’s proclamation is not additional prophetic utterances, but rather a harmonizing with the special revelation of God given over history and canonized in scripture. In many ways, this is what sets Christianity apart from, say, the Latter-Day Saints (Mormons). Therefore, the mystery of the gospel revealed in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection was the last major prophetic utterance as witnessed in the New Testament canon.
From this orthodox perspective, God Talk is manipulative toward God, ultimately casting doubt on the glory and weight of his name through a type of deceitful ventriloquism through which the Creator becomes passive to those He created. God Talk, from this perspective, essentially idolizes the self and breaks the greatest commandment: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’ Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’” (Mat. 22: 36-37, NIV). When Hobby Lobby argues that they should remain open due to a prophetic word heard from God despite national calls to close, they are using God’s name for their own profit. Any negative results that follow fall more upon the worth and dignity of God’s name to an even greater extent than those who uttered the claim. Well, just this has happened.
Despite the initial confidence in Barbara Green’s experience, the business shortly later started laying off workers. In an article regarding a leaked company memo, it was reported that “‘The managers have been instructed not to warn employees until it happens, and to not tell other stores at risk of closing down,” the Hobby Lobby manager wrote in an email to Business Insider. ‘[This makes] it harder for employees to receive aid because it will come out of nowhere and they will go from ‘report back to work in a few weeks’ to ‘you’re fired.’” The negative response has been viral to say the least. Yet, it is not just the credibility of the Greens that has been lost. Discussions on social media express much of the public sentiment. Take for example a tweet by @WilliamsforOK: “So Hobby Lobby waits til yesterday to close, continually exposing employees and others because ‘it’s in the hands of god.’ Today, they fire people by email. No severance. No insurance. Apparently, God doesn’t want the Greens to use their billions to help their laborers. Grace.” Critiques later move to their final stage after Hobby Lobby finally announced that all of their stores would be closing effective immediately following “careful consideration.” As you can guess, the social media critics came and God, just as much as Barbara Green, was the major focus of critique: “Didn’t they say god contacted them and told them otherwise? Guess god changed his mind.”
Second and lastly, God Talk violates the second greatest command, which is like the first, to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mat. 22: 39, NIV). Through Mrs. Green’s prophetic word, she is claiming implicitly that God will divinely protect employees and the business in the days ahead despite reports about the highly contagious nature of COVID-19. God told her that He would Guide, Guard, and Groom, right? Therefore, employees have continued to work, putting themselves in harm’s way for the sake of arts, crafts, and faithfulness to God’s word. Green’s statement would be diabolical indeed, if not wholeheartedly true with no ulterior motives.
But alienation has been wrought in the lives of their employees due to the recent layoffs. Not to mention that it is taking place during what seems to be one of the biggest health crises of our lifetime. If Christ’s sacrificial love is to be the measure by which the world knows his disciples, leading scared employees to such a detrimental end does not meet the mark. In recent weeks, the world has borne witness to countless acts of grace and hospitality whether in medical care, electric bills, education waivers, etc. Yet, a public Christian company seems to treat others like the initial priest in the Good Samaritan story who, after worshiping in Jerusalem, passed on the other side of the road when he saw the “half dead” man (Luke 10:30-37, NIV). As a result of these actions, it is probable that many will lose trust in God altogether following such an experience, especially if they were among those who felt manipulated. All in all, much more can be said for the lack of neighborly love in Hobby Lobby’s initial divine call to remain open as employees put themselves in harm’s way and as infections and fatalities continued to increase.
The last few weeks have proven to be quite informative in the midst of the current global pandemic. If anything, the moment has shown much regarding how religious discourse can be employed during times of crises. Although Hobby Lobby is only one of many examples of God Talk occurring during this time, much has been learned from engaging with Barbara Green’s prophetic claim. As discussed, God Talk breaks both the first and second greatest commands: love God and love your neighbor. Even if unintentional, when someone claims that “God has spoken to me directly with a new word,” they may be using God as a prop to speak their own desires, feelings, and motives. As a result, those listening—neighbors—are led down a path of devastation. Instead, we should be seeking to harmonize with the voice of Christ through scripture thus keeping with orthodoxy.
Despite Barbara Green’s claims, Hobby Lobby’s employees are people made in God’s image who, at the same time, are still very much able to be harmed by unemployment and illness—and manipulative spiritual language. At this point, we can only pray for the safety of those who fell ill while working in this pandemic as well as those who have lost their jobs, or worse, loved ones. More significantly, we can repent of such future practices ourselves. In doing so, we will be loving God and loving our neighbor. For “all the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Mat. 22:40, NIV).
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