Last night, a 62 foot statue of Jesus was struck by lightning and burned to the ground, leading church members to proclaim it was an “act of God.” Notwithstanding the entire statue was made of Styrofoam and steel (an excellent flammable lightning rod if there ever was one), parishoners were sure God was trying to tell them something, as evidenced by this video.

The incident reminded me of a similar phenomenal incident recently, where Gov. Rick Perry and US Rep. Tom Cole wrote the Deepwater Horizon oil spill off as an “act of God.” Going further back, conservatives were also quick to say that the Hurricane Katrina disaster was an “act of God” because of the decadence and immorality of New Orleans and the French Quarter. They said the same thing about 9/11 and plenty of other storms and squalls.

Natural disasters and unforeseen though naturally occurring events are typically refereed to as acts of God, where liability is limited to likely and possible outcomes. But it’s easy to take those events (and unpleasant man made ones which can be understood in their proper historical context given time and education) and apply whatever meaning you like to it. In fact, it seems any event can be an act of God, an empty canvas on which to apply your own meaning. This is much like many situations where confirmation bias can lead us to giving God (or some devil) credit for any event you please. Example – today my leg hurt. Is this because A) God is punishing me for something I feel guilty about – B) The Devil tormenting me for something I’m feeling good about – C) my muscle is out of shape? Given that all those things may be true whether I believe them or not, I’m likely to pick whichever has the most emotional relevance to me. In the case of large scale events, I can also attach religious meaning to it, if it suits my purposes (as in propagating a value-based message with the powerful fallacy of appeal to religion). For instance, if I was a hawkish conservative I could easily say God had us discover lithium in Afghanistan as a blessing for carrying out His work (by slaughtering countless godless Afghanis). Regardless of the history of the conflict, the situational psychology of the people involved, etc etc. I find it very easy to say what I want, because a quick summary is more interesting to you than a thorough analysis of the circumstances surrounding the topic in question. 

Though church leadership now says the “Touchdown Jesus” fire was not a sign from God, it’s amusing to think what could have been meant if it was. Maybe Yahweh was saying “Hey, don’t make a $300,000 graven image after I put the rule right in the 10 commandments.” Or maybe, “This statue really blows, it looks nothing like me.” We could roll with this and say God was trying to tell people to quit using oil when he allowed BP to screw up royally and let the oil spill occur (though I have a hard time believing God gets the credit for that). Katrina could have been God saying he hates Jazz music, not debauchery. He just got there a little late to kill Jelly Roll Morton, but then again, “one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.

Given a fresh perspective, any number of the “acts of God” mentioned could make for messages the Religious Right was not expecting. 9/11? Some religious thinkers thought it was a catastrophe we deserved, while the perpetrators likely thought it was a miracle we deserved. And meanwhile, it is what it is. A gaudy sculpture of styrofoam and fiberglass goes up in smoke, and people call it God. Mysterious ways indeed. Does this God know what he’s doing? It might be helpful for befuddled conservatives to suggest He’s figuring it out.