THE PROBLEM OF PESTILENCE

The following comments are in response to segments of THE MIND OF THE MAKER by Dorothy Sayers, a contemporary of C.S Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein.  Sayers was widely known as a mystery writer, but her cultural commentary addresses timeless truths about the human creative processes where she clearly articulates the issues surrounding problems and solutions.  She insists that, strictly speaking, some problems are insoluble, yet our modern society, obsessed by the practice of a mathematical and scientific period, act as if man has a quick and definite solution to every problem.  This article springs from my own contemplation on Sayers’ work, attempting to make application of her wisdom to our current generation.

PROBLEM PICTURE

“We have begun to suspect that the purely analytical approach to phenomena is leading us only further and further into the abyss of disintegration and randomness, and that it is becoming urgently necessary to construct a synthesis of life.  It is dimly apprehended that the creative artist does, somehow or other, specialize in construction, and also that the Christian religion does, in some way that is not altogether clear to us, claim to bring us into a right relation with a God whose attribute is creativeness.” (Sayers, 1941, p. 181)

This opens up Sayer’s discussion about “problems and solutions.”  She writes, “…the words problem and solution, as commonly used, belong to the analytic approach to phenomena, and not to the creative”  and again, “…the artist does not see life as a problem to be solved, but as a medium for creation.”  What are we to do with the materials of this life but to create something new with them?  We do not have the power of creating ex nihilo, but are given grace, gifts, talents, materials and substances to be somewhat “co-creators” or “sub-creators” under the Guiding Hand of THE CREATOR.  As imagers of God, we assemble, modify, exchange – create, if you will – something new. 

 In further discussion of problems and solutions, Sayers talks about the problem of death.  Man cannot solve the problem of death even though from earliest times, alchemists have sought the elixir of life and searchers have sought the fruit from the everlasting tree of life.  Sayers suggests that mankind is so reluctant to concede that there are problems that exist incapable of his solutions.  It is less noticeable when death occurs privately and in small quantities “…but great disasters, great pestilences, and above all great wars, cram our eyes and ears with the detested knowledge that life intends to kills us.” (Sayers, 1941, p. 196)   What “crams” the 21st century person with such “detested knowledge” more than the 24-hour news cycle…over and over again?   At the writing of this (my) article the worldwide pandemic of the coronavirus is being billed as one of those “great pestilences.”  In 2017 the 8th leading cause of death in the country was influenza and pneumonia, totaling 51,537 deaths. (Healthline, 2018)  The top leading cause of death was heart disease with 635,260 deaths and 2nd was cancer at 598,038 deaths.  Current Coronavirus cases in the U.S. is 11,413 with 171 deaths (Worldometer, 2020).  The panic and anxiety perpetrated has shut down schools, the market, businesses.  Much of normal living conditions has been interrupted by this worldwide threat.  It seems that Dorothy Sayers’ contention that this knowledge that life intends to kill us via a “great pestilence” which is being crammed into our eyes and ears constantly in a 24-hour news cycle is, indeed, detestable to us.  In the aftermath, depending on the length of government mandated shutdowns, we shall see what current startups and early-stage businesses survive.  What price will be paid for our efforts to abate the inevitable (death)?  Sayers argues that the real problem with our dealing with death is that we “feel affronted by the notion that anything in this world should be inevitable.”  I guess that is why our society is not bothered about 850,000 abortions per year, because we decide who dies in those cases.  Those decisions are not an “affront” because they are not “inevitable”.  They are clearly within our control.  (Infant mortality rates are slightly more than one-half of a percent of live births in the United States.)  If the CDC placed abortion statistics in their list of top causes of death, voluntary deaths of babies would be the #1 cause of deaths in the U.S.  It is a much more dangerous environment to be in the womb of an American mother than to be exposed to Covid-19.  Eighteen percent of pregnancies in the U.S. ended in abortions, while 99% of currently infected Coronavirus patients are in “mild condition”…leaving 1% of active cases as being serious or critical. 

In comparison, during World War II (in Dorothy Sayer’s day), the Nazi bombing raids killed 43,000 civilians.  While this was war, not pestilence (per se), the number of deaths resulting were significantly more than the current (9390) worldwide Coronavirus has stacked thus far. Sayers thinks that the efforts of many people during Britain’s involvement in World War II were motivated by a desire to evade, abolish and solve the problem of death which she saw as a waste of spiritual and mental energy because death is inevitable.  In her opinion, this irrational preoccupation actually hampered Britain from dealing with the practical question of the possibility of war.  In the forefront of all considerations was the fact that war kills many people.  She felt that if the nation focused so singularly on this outcome, they would give no consideration to the havoc it would play in the lives of the survivors.  The conclusion of such focus could be to put all efforts into evading the war at all costs rather than dealing intelligently with the conditions of life (as opposed to the conditions of death.)  This perspective has caused me to question if the strategy of our government leaders, first and foremost, is to evade the Coronavirus pestilence (via demanding us to distance ourselves from one another and inflict self-isolation) at all costs (including economic costs) because they are trying to control the number of deaths?  How quickly our society has been moved to the brink of martial law via the mechanism of an irrational preoccupation with the fear of death!

1 Chronicles 21:14 says that the Lord sent a pestilence to Israel that killed 70,000 men because of David’s sin to conduct a population census.  While we do not know the time period in which this devastation took place, we do know that more destruction was at hand because the Lord had sent an angel to Jerusalem to destroy it.  David’s census to assess his military might was motivated by Satan (1 Chron.21:1).  The king had forgotten the declarations of Psalms 91, stepping out from underneath the shadow of the Almighty, his refuge and fortress who promised protection from the noisome pestilence.  David’s sin exposed him to the pestilence when he did not dwell in the habitation of the Most High.  Hence, His angel was sent, not to bear David upon the angel’s hands, but to bring judgment to a nation because of its leader’s pride.  What a price to pay!  David had to reset his love upon Yahweh, hoping for His deliverance.  In David and the elders’ (leaders) repentance, the Lord rescued them from their pride.  I wonder what would happen if America’s leaders would humble themselves in such a way to stay the pestilence. That would be something “new” – would it not?

Bibliography

Healthline. (2018, November 1). What Are the 12 Leading Causes of Death in the United States. Retrieved from www.healthline.com: https://www.healthline.com/health/leading-causes-of-death#influenza-and-pneumonia

Sayers, D. (1941). The Mind of the Maker. New York: Harcourt, Brace.

Worldometer. (2020, March 19). Worldometer. Retrieved from: Total Coronavirus Cases: https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/us/

One Comment Add yours

  1. Your # 1 Favorite 😉 says:

    I read the story of David and his sin to conduct a population census just recently. It was mind numbing, the outcome of his one act of sin, one you wouldn’t think would carry such a heavy price. How often though do we find ourselves giving in to sin or making a snap decision without fully processing it first? But David’s humility and repentance for the sin is what drew the Lord in to forgive them. Throughout scripture it speaks of if we would just humble ourselves and seek his face, pray, repent and turn from our wickedness HE will heal and forgive.

    2 Chronicles 7:13-14
    When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.

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