Experiencing the known world as falling apart is no new thing. That’s what reading Dead Wake, in which Erik Larson tells of the German sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania and how this drew the U.S. into World War I, reminded me. To be suddenly plunged into World War I or II would stun us.
Still, we live amid our own sense that normalcy is not holding. That’s why stories about the end of civilization are popular. Of many apocalyptic novels I’ve read, a favorite is Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel’s elegiac account of disease striking all Earth, grounding the planes, leaving her main characters living in an airport before finally they must see what’s left beyond.
Her vision sears my heart. This is because she shows in fast-forward what we fear is already unfolding in slow motion. It’s also because, even post-apocalypse, she spies hope.
Mandel inspires me to keep pursuing hope. Even now. Especially now. That’s what I’m pointing toward with “Unseen Hands,” the title of my new column for MWR. I want to pursue the unseen hands in personal experiences; larger church, cultural and global dynamics; biblical resources.
The image itself, which comes from a dream I later heard echoed in Marty Stuart’s “Unseen Hands” gospel song, launches me on the journey. Unseen hands are, for me, first of all, personal. They came to me in that years-ago dream when the mountains seemed too many and high. I was climbing what in waking moments is the steepest grade I regularly encounter. Suddenly, unseen hands, giant invisible hands, supported my back. Same hill. Same life. But newly walkable.
Years later an invitation to an assignment that scared me came by cellphone just as I was climbing that same hill. I remembered the dream. I felt the hands. I said the yes that might otherwise have been no.
Meanwhile, in the larger culture I glimpse unseen hands in, of all places, those richly layered, streaming TV shows suitable for binge watching. Two examples: The Killing and River. Both touch on painful issues of the day, whether racism, immigration, tensions across cultures and religions as diversity soars. They address sin, shadows, sickness of soul. Yet also, quite strikingly, they ask about atonement, forgiveness, healing. Main characters in both are broken people, grappling with addictions, abuse experienced and inflicted, abandonment. Both portray tussles with mental illness that simultaneously scar and strengthen sufferers.
And both point toward unseen hands. Each offers scenes in which golden light breaks through metaphorically and literally. Yet what could be cliché makes the soul shiver — maybe because it’s earned by the unsparing portrayals of streets and characters drenched in rain, violence, wrong turns and sorrow.
I sometimes wonder how the Jews survive their own apocalypse. As exiles by the rivers of Babylon they weep, hanging up their harps rather than, as Psalm 137 indicates, singing God’s song “in a foreign land.”
Walter Brueggemann, in The Message of the Psalms, says they do it in ways I recognize from The Killing and River: honestly naming their bitter realities, including their raging thirst for vengeance, while maintaining a “resilient . . . hope against enormous odds.” They stay true to a vision of the Lord’s unseen hands through which “there will be a homecoming to peace, justice and freedom.” They have much to teach us.
Michael A. King is dean of Eastern Mennonite Seminary, publisher of Cascadia Publishing House and blogger at Kingsview & Co.
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