Book event highlights the problem of evil

Book event highlights the problem of evil

John Webster, PhD, professor of theology at La Sierra University, expounds his conviction that atrocities such as the Holocaust necessitate the presence of demonic forces working in human history.

From the moment it started until the lights went out two hours later, a special book event, held Friday, April 1 at Loma Linda University Church, delivered a stimulating look at the problem of evil.

Titled "God of Sense and Traditions of Non-Sense," the program was timed to coincide with the release of the 404-page book of that same title by Sigve K. Tonstad, MD, PhD, professor at Loma Linda University School of Religion and assistant professor at Loma Linda University School of Medicine. 

The program blended historical, philosophical, theodical, theatrical, and musical presentations by a panel of international scholars and Loma Linda University School of Medicine students. To open the event, students Nolan Kinne and Pedro Orta performed the theme from the movie "Schindler's List" on piano and violin. Bernard Taylor, PhD, who recently retired as scholar-in-residence at Loma Linda University Church, welcomed attendees and offered the invocation.

Tonstad then took the podium to share his personal recollection of hearing a sermon by the late theologian A. Graham Maxwell about the rape of the concubine recounted in Judges 19. "She lived in the days of the Judges, at the time when there was no king in Israel," Tonstad shared, "and everyone did what was right in his own eyes. But she lives in our time, too. She lives and dies in our time; the victim in an era of apparent god-forsakenness on an industrial scale." Tonstad concluded by saying that the twelve pieces of the concubine's dead body, which were sent forth in the biblical narrative to the world, demand "comment, an answer, and a sunflower on her grave. She told me to tell her story; she ordered me to do it. I have done it in Chapter 11 of my book, but the initial summons came to me in this church, University Church, in 1980."

Laura Oppegaard, a student, read the first paragraph from Tonstad's book, titled simply, "Holocaust." The reading recalled the events of November 26, 1942, when Norwegian police and Nazi officials rounded up 302 men, 188 women, and 42 children, all Jewish, in Oslo, Norway. A week later, all the women and children were murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. The reading set the stage for the rest of the presentations at the event.

Dragutin Matak, PhD, assistant dean of Adriatic Union College in Croatia, talked about the Holocaust as an almost palpable reality in his country despite the fact that it ended more than 70 years ago. He shared what it was like to grow up in close proximity to the Jasenovec extermination camp, where an estimated 77,000 to 99,000 Serbs, Jews, Roma, and other people termed "undesirables" by the state were put to death. Matak emphasized the Holocaust as a topic and subject for the present, and noted the need for theological engagement on a variety of issues it raises.

Ivan and Alyosha Karamazov, two central characters from Fyodor Dostoevsky's epic novel, "The Brothers Karamazov," appeared on stage as students Joshua Wendt and Bogdan Dumitriu. Their vignette, titled "Returning the Ticket," has Ivan telling his brother that he would respectfully return the ticket to God rather than participate in an eternal life with a deity who had allowed the suffering and torture of children. The logic would echo, 80 years later, in the "Cancel my subscription to the Resurrection" lyric from the 1966 anthem, "When the Music's Over," by the Doors.

The next vignette, "Utter Stupidity," featured students Pedro Orta and Joshua Gentsler, with Orta as the second century philosopher Celsus, and Genstler as the Christian apologist Origen, who died in 254 AD. Although unknown to many today, "Origen of Alexandria had a fully developed cosmic conflict theology and a rare understanding of the role of freedom in God's economy. The students gave a riveting glimpse of the pagan criticism of the Christian God and God's alleged weakness, and Origen's closely reasoned defense," Tonstad observed.

In his presentation, titled "Cosmic Conflict," John Webster, PhD, professor of theology at La Sierra University, addressed two deficits he sees in contemporary reflections on the problem of evil: the neglect of the cosmic perspective; and the absence of a serious notion of the demonic in discussions of unconscionable atrocities. He then introduced the work of Holocaust victim Etty Hillesum, whom he described as a figure of resilient hope amid unprecedented horror.

In "Job and His Friends," Kenneth Wright, PhD, a professor and program director in the School of Medicine, joined students Luke Heyliger, Tessa Lambertan, Aaron Lerner, Jarred Rhodes, Philip Van Arsdale, and Garrett Lui in the biblical portrayal of the beleaguered patriarch and the three "friends" who, along with the youthful Elihu, have come to comfort him. 

In "Bursts of Sense," theologian Bernard Taylor, PhD, described Tonstad's book's engagement with the most important biblical stories. He talked about paying attention to the details of the text when reading the Bible, and maintaining an awareness of the context. He recounted Job's experience of being rejected by his friends who, unlike himself, did not think a human had the right to expect an explanation from God or believe that He would provide one.

In his thank you to the many individuals who helped in the publication of his book, Tonstad expressed his appreciation to many people, but singled-out Farzaneh Alemozaffar, of the interlibrary loan department at the Del E. Webb Library, for her help in locating obscure books and manuscripts. He said he could not have brought the book to fruition without her assistance.

Student Faith Calaminos read a selection from the published prayers of Etty Hillesum, who cried out to God for deliverance, strength, and finally submission from the depths of her despair during the Nazi persecution of Jews. Marvin Ponder, who recently retired from pastoral responsibilities at Loma Linda University Church, sang the poignant, if somewhat obscure hymn, "Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown." During the song, images flashed onscreen of the horrors of the Holocaust, including  a black locomotive heading mechanistically down the rails on its garish mission to deliver victims to Auschwitz.

The final and one of the most dramatic presentations of the event was the recitation of a series of messages written on postcards and flung through openings in cattle cars the Nazis used to haul Jews and other "undesirable minorities" to the death camps and gas chambers. Not only did student Chelsi Green recite the lines with such power and pathos that it was easy to forget that she was not the original writer, but she also managed to leave the final notes of her presentation hanging loud and high on the air. 

It was a fitting conclusion to a moving, inspirational, and somewhat disturbing presentation that left many in attendance in a reflective and emotive state of mind.