Editor’s Note: In October 2020, Dr. Max Botner, associate professor of New Testament, published the article “God is Speaking, but How? Church in the Time of Coronavirus.” The article highlights several key takeaways for the American church to integrate into their systems. CU’s Audrey Wierenga connected with Dr. Botner to talk with him about the topic. In this interview, Dr. Botner discusses important aspects of the article and how the church should respond.
AW: I like the point you made in the opening paragraph about how it’s dangerous to believe that God is “speaking to us” through the pandemic. What are some common responses to the pandemic that you hear from church leaders or lay Christians?
MB: A lot of responses I hear come from students in our class discussions or from speaking with my own pastor. Church leaders I know have, thankfully, been responding with maturity and wisdom, but I have seen the gamut of responses on the national level from church leaders and lay Christians. They focus on the idea that God is judging the U.S. or even the world. In certain Christian communities, there’s been a sense of, “It’s the church’s time to stand up against the government.” I’ve seen people leaving churches because of the way they’ve responded to the pandemic on both sides of the spectrum. There’s certainly a lot of strong reactions to the pandemic. I’m most concerned that the “appropriate” Christian response is seen as flouting science, “othering” certain communities or defying the government. These are the kind of things that I’ve seen and my students have discussed. My wife was startled to hear friends of ours say they “could not get” coronavirus because they were covered by the blood of Jesus.
AW: You also discuss N.T. Wright’s article “Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To.” That’s really powerful. What can living in this uncertainty, and sometimes fear, teach us about God’s character?
MB: The primary response for Christian communities should be lament. We don’t do a good job of lament. It’s not something we’re comfortable with, not something we see as part of our Christian vocation. This pandemic has revealed how broken our world is, especially the brokenness and injustice of our systems. It’s an opportunity for churches to engage in deep reflection of the ways the current creation is groaning for liberation (Romans 8). Wright is trying to stave off the desire to arrive at absolute answers. As Christians, we sometimes think the primary objective is to arrive at absolute answers on things. Instances like the pandemic show us that it’s less about that and more about faithfully responding to reality and being willing to accept mysteries that we don’t fully understand. What we’re called to do in the present is love our neighbor as ourselves—that’s our primary vocation. This season is a great opportunity for lament. This pandemic is not something to rejoice in, but trial and tribulation can lay the groundwork for stronger foundations and foster hope for future joy.
AW: The first point in your article is that “buildings and programs can no longer rule the day.” Why is it important for church leaders to ruminate on this? And, why might it be difficult for churches to adapt in this way?
MB: Programs are not in and of themselves a bad thing. As a parent with a special needs child, youth programs are important to me. It’s a blessing to have programs my kids can go into for a Sunday school class. But, our churches are deeply ingrained in a marketplace logic. There’s no easy way out of that, but that’s not what the church is called to be. A season like this is revelatory as to how many Christians in the church don’t really know what to do. The reality is that most people who go to church don’t know the people sitting on their right and left. Churches tend to cater to and market themselves as a bill of goods. Once your building is closed down, your bill of goods is gone. It’s an opportunity to recognize that the ways we go about creating community have to change. The individualism of American life is something we need to combat. It’s a threat to us. It’s antithetical to the biblical vision of a singular body.
AW: In this article, you also discuss the importance of theological education—not just for the “spiritually elite,” but for everyone. How has the pandemic shown that the entire body of Christ should be exposed to theological training?
MB: I have a lot of students in my classes say “I’m not a theologian. I’m a counselor,” or “I don’t want to be a biblical scholar.” However, we all make theological decisions, but through what lens? The way Christians respond to the pandemic point to where their theology is at. Part of being a Christian is asking what it means to live a life that reflects Christ. And, that’s theology. It should be central to the church’s mandate. The church is training theologians to see reality through a Jesus Christ lens. Seminary has an important function in that because it is training church leaders and giving them space to explore this. There are people who are called to academic scholarship, but it’s also about learning to see all of life through the lens of gospel. We live very fragmented, compartmentalized lives. How do we break those walls down and ensure Jesus is shining in each of those areas—in how we live our lives and lead others?
AW: Your final thought focuses on the second “pandemic” that has arisen in 2020 (and throughout the decades)—systemic racism. What can predominantly white churches do to address these topics in their communities?
MB: The response of white congregations tends to be “There is a problem. We are in a position to fix it.” The best thing they can do is enter into a season of education, lament and support for leaders who have been in this fight for centuries. The education piece is critical. There are many white pastors who don’t see this as a problem, but for those who recognize it, what that pastoral team is going to have to prepare themselves for is backlash from congregation members. There are opportunities to bring in leaders—men and women of color and also white community leaders who are engaged in the conversation who can share their experience. Our church had an outdoor event a few months ago and it was a great first step in discussing this. Another really big thing that white pastors can do is think of how they’re framing the issue of systemic racism. A lot of white evangelicals don’t have the biblical framework of systemic racism, which is actually rooted in idolatry. Another important thing is to take it out of an individualist, guilt-based framework. They see this discussion as a personal attack on them and not an analysis of deeply broken systems and structures. Until we frame our theology and racism in a more holistic fashion, the recalcitrance will persist. One thing I’ve tried to focus my energies on as a white male is giving people a more robust theological framework of racism that was uniquely understood by African American pastors who had been enslaved and who lived through Jim Crow. We just have to be willing to learn.