Theodicy, fire and mental illness

As long-time readers will recall, one of the basic religion-news templates used in the mainstream press is closely linked to a theological term — “theodicy.” While many people will define this term in different ways, the discussions almost always spiral back to this question: Why does evil exist in a universe created by a loving God?

Theodicy issues show up here at GetReligion all the time, especially linked to coverage of natural disasters (think hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, new James Cameron movies, etc.).

Recently, the Chicago Tribune ran a major news feature that was rooted in theodicy questions, even though the editors there did not seem to realize this. The story centered on a church fire and the painful story of the man who lit it, as could be seen in the headline: “Article of Faith: Congregation stands by mentally ill member who burned its church down.” Here’s the top of the story:

The fire climbed the wooden archways inside the sanctuary at Edgebrook Lutheran Church, feeding on the pews and hymnals, spreading fast. Flames rolled over the balcony, burning the carved symbols of the sacraments, melting stained glass windows and eventually exploding through the roof.

Outside, members of the congregation huddled together on the sidewalk.

“Do you think it could have been Jim?” someone asked.

“Don’t say that,” snapped Jack Anderson, 59, a retired contractor who had been a member since he was 2 years old. “Don’t say anything until we know.”

Many in the congregation knew that Jim Deichman struggled with mental illness. But they had welcomed him anyway, reaching out to the man who, they believed, needed little more than acceptance and support. And Deichman — a square-jawed, white-haired 62-year-old who came to church every Sunday in a rumpled dark suit — did his best to reach back. He volunteered to work as an usher, helped with the rummage sale and read Scripture during services.

So what troubled me about this story?

Yes, I did notice (hello, MZ Hemingway) that the story talks about a generic “Lutheran” church, as opposed to letting the reader know the denominational ties that define this flock. By the way, the church is part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which tends to hold down the left side of the Lutheran spectrum in this country on issues of faith and doctrine.

But this story didn’t really get into matters of doctrine and scripture, which is whole point of this post. It’s a story about someone who is suffering from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, conditions that have been known to raise questions about flaws in this creation and the role of human freedom in this life. Ask the parents of children who are mentally challenged in any way: Do you have any questions that you want to offer to God?

In the book Silence of the Lambs, doesn’t Dr. Hannibal Lecter — who drifts into theological territory more than a few times, in between his commentary on gourmet cooking — refer to the mentally ill as “God’s least favored children” or words to that effect? Help me out, since my marked up copy of the book is at home.

Suffice it to say, the Baylor University English major-turned-journalist who wrote the book knew that he was raising questions about theodicy (as well as pushing lots of sensationalistic buttons) as he spun his tale.

The big questions are rather obvious. Ancient, even.

Nevertheless, what is the Easter message that the Tribune says the members of Edgebrook Lutheran are pulling from this tragedy?

“Love your neighbor,” says Neil Hansen, 63, an accountant. “There are a lot of people out there like Jim, people who need to be loved, people who need help.”

But giving help is not always easy.

That’s an important point. But I think there are other issues at play here.

Deichman’s long and very sad story is told in great detail, while offering thin details about his interaction with the church. I, for one, wanted to know more about what he did there as he read Scriptures and served as a volunteer. The church people knew well his moods and rants, but many had seen his good side as well. Deichman enthusiastically identified himself as a member of the congregation.

The story of the fire is rooted in his contacts with church members as a mysterious anger built into a dangerous rage.

Shortly after 9:40 p.m., a fire captain responding to an alarm came up the stairway of the church, and was startled to see a man standing ahead of him. It was Deichman, looking agitated and angry. “This church is going to get exactly what it deserves,” Deichman growled, according to Capt. Gary Kuykendall.

Kuykendall — a stocky, 47-year-old in a fire helmet and coat — grabbed Deichman’s arm, handing him over to police who were standing outside.

A moment later, Kuykendall and another firefighter rushed into the church to extinguish what they thought was a small fire, smoldering near the nave. They didn’t know that at least one other fire, possibly more, had been set in the building. As the men reached a staircase landing, they heard the whoosh of the fire flashing up. Searing heat and black smoke knocked them back.

There are signs of hope, amid the ruins and soot, including the stained glass windows that survived — including the image of Jesus rising from an empty tomb. The church has created T-shirts that proclaim: “Faith is stronger than brick and mortar.” Church leaders have stressed compassion and forgiveness.

And that’s that, in terms of pulling explicit faith content out of these events. But, you know that members of the church must have wrestled with other questions, starting with, “Why does Deichman suffer like this?” to “Why did God let our church burn down?”

It’s a nice news story and, at times, quite gripping. As I read it, I kept waiting for the other theological shoe to drop. It never did and that represents a tremendous missed opportunity.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    Yes, I did notice (hello, MZ Hemingway) that the story talks about a generic “Lutheran” church, as opposed to letting the reader know the denominational ties that define this flock.

    That is not relevant to the story as written. If they had gone deeper as you wrote and I also wanted, then their theology especially surrounding theodicy would have been relevant.

  • http://www.prayingontheprairie.blogspot.com Tara

    Thank you for this blog entry! I wish more people/congregations treated the “outsider” with respect and dignity. My mom and sister both suffer from a mental illness. They suffer from manic depression/bipolar disorder. My mom is one of the most Godly women Ive ever met! She treats people with amazing dignity and respect. I sometimes wish others would treat her as well as she treats them. Yes, I questioned God sometimes about why them and why my family but in the midst of it all, God showed me why they are here. These individuals shouldn’t be defined by their illness. They are beloved children of God. Just my two cents!


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