In the Time of Coronavirus: Chronicles of a Pandemic — Book Review

In the Time of Coronavirus: Chronicles of a Pandemic — Book Review

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Published:
December 8, 2020

Editor’s Note: In the Time of Coronavirus: Chronicles of a Pandemic is a forthcoming book, published by Adventist Forum, of Spectrum columnist Hanz Gutierrez’ articles chronicling the coronavirus as it has swept through the world this year. If you are interested in purchasing a copy of the book once it’s available, please contact the Spectrum/Adventist Forum office by phone (916-774-1080) or email (linda@spectrummagazine.org), and our editorial assistant Linda Terry will be happy to assist you.

We will be discussing this book, along with N. T. Wright’s God and the Pandemic (Zondervan, 2020) during our December 11 Friday Forum Book Discussion. Find more details on that by clicking here.


Every time I read from the pen of Hanz Gutierrez I am impressed by his expansive view of life and faith. I find him optimistic, well read, and a faithful critic of our Adventist community. We are all better off because of his obvious desire to share with his Church. I had the pleasure to get to know him over ten years ago when he and his family came to Loma Linda University for a sabbatical from his service at Villa Aurora on the outskirts of Florence, Italy. What a joy it was to engage Hanz through our academic discipline, but I also discovered he was a pianist, physician, father, and husband. The fact that he speaks four or five different languages adds to his incredible depth.  

In his present reflection, In the Time of Coronavirus, he brings us with him into the pages of classic and more recent literature providing context for who we are as humans, in community with humans in the midst of a pandemic. Humans over whom “God pre-rationally and instinctively decides every time to extend His protecting wings” (80). The God we worship or perhaps do not, whose “protective wings…qualifies the very being of God.” The God, who, like a mother hen “doesn’t ask if the hatchlings have behaved correctly or if they have the proper ideas about him” (78). The God Dr. Gutierrez reminds us of in this reflection is not a God who sends a virus to correct humankind; to persuade us away from sin through threat or punishment. There is no whiff of such a God in his thoughts here, something for which I am profoundly appreciative. In such a time as this, Adventism will be better served by avoiding typical American evangelical, politically infused obsessions with God judging our nation. In his words: “…what should Adventism say in this crisis? Nothing. The less we say the better. Our end-time zeal and prophetic sense of mission that push us to pronounce our timely pearls of wisdom ought to be restrained” (19).

Thankfully, his effort here is pastoral, informed by his extraordinary theological depth, to remind us of a God who comforts in times of trouble; a God who, regardless of whether his creation is a “believer” or not, are “protected and covered by God’s grace and mercy” (78). Being consistent, he avoids the common moralizing we take in children’s stories where for us believers, God will make sure all things turn out okay. No. This is not the case, it has never been the case and Dr. Gutierrez doesn’t shy away from facing this absurdity. Viruses, like God, are no respecter of persons.  

In my favorite chapter, “Destiny, Fear, and Faith in the Time of Coronavirus: Reflection on Albert Camus’s The Plague,” he takes us into our emotions surrounding the absurdity of it all. The absurdity that asserts via our childlike minds that for those who profess His name, things like a virus will not affect us. How very many stories from this COVID-19 pandemic do we have of emboldened believers endangering themselves, their families, their congregations, and their communities in the name of Religious Freedom or simple-minded American individualism? Absurdity. Utter absurdity in the name of faith.

Chapter two is also a favorite, “Imagination in the Time of Coronavirus: Reflection on Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron.” Dr. Gutierrez highlights his take on the essence of The Decameron: “love, desire, and the power of the imagination are the key factors of social resilience and change.” I think I knew where he was headed at this point, aiming toward our Adventist community. What are the “key factors” that build our resilience in the face of a pandemic? Here he quotes from a “common pronouncement” from the “ministers of culture and arts” in Italy, Germany, and Spain:

“What would become of us in a time like this, without books, films and music in which to find refuge and support? What would our societies be without those who created them? Without artists. We are therefore even more determined to protect our most precious asset: our faith in solidarity and the power of culture.”

Those of you unfamiliar with Dr. Gutierrez’ theological work within the Church should know that he does not spare his faith community from difficult questions. Rather than offer my emphasis on his thoughts and questions here, let me allow him to speak directly to us:

“What about Adventism? Are we an imaginative Church? Are we a collaborative Church? Or, are we stuck in an iron-caged identity? Are our leaders visionaries for the world or merely faithful bureaucrats of a true but idolatrous and self-referential tradition? Are we able to imagine a different world, not one made up of only Adventists and then offered to others, but rather a world made up together with others while we wait the coming Savior? Is the message we are offering an enchanted message of mercy and reconciliation, or has it become an obsessive and paranoid end-time warning? Do we pretend to be at the center of the world scenario, or are we still able to put the world at the center of our hearts? All these timely questions remain open, and perhaps only a renewed imagination stimulated by this unpredictable world crisis will help us at least understand them properly. Must we continue to wait for visionary and courageous Adventist answers?”

I am not as courageous or insightful as Dr. Gutierrez when it comes to posing questions to my faith community. I do wish, however, that he had continued on in his reflections focused on Adventism and racism in America, that he explored a bit in chapter four. Let’s all encourage him to lend his incisive mind to helping American Adventism come to grips with its racism, for we can use all the help we can get.  

Additionally, I would welcome some reflection on Adventism and medical science. As a physician, Dr. Gutierrez might let loose his evaluation of our penchant to pat ourselves on the back for our advanced embrace of medical science while simultaneously, keeping the geological sciences at arm’s length.

Finally, as an ethicist who favors a virtue-centered approach, I would ask if he finds any resources within Adventism for some glimmer of hope that we could learn vulnerability, solidarity, and a longing for the common good of humankind. Tomorrow, at work, my Catholic colleagues are having me introduce “common good” as a fundamental element of why Catholics are in healthcare ministry. I don’t think we’re that far apart, but it is a language and theology that we should explore and embrace. Is it possible that we could move away from our arrogant Gnosticism? To what stories in our history could we turn in a search for the qualities, the character traits, of vulnerability and solidarity?

I get the sense as I progress through the chapters that, like so many others of us, Dr. Gutierrez himself becomes fatigued by it all. That is not hard to imagine. He is a public figure, a churchman, a professor and pastor. As his energy wanes, his pastoral reflection turns to scripture, to the Psalms where he finds the God who comforts, our God. The God of all humankind. With him, in the midst of my own exhaustion living in the time of coronavirus, I pray that this pandemic will help shift Adventism’s gaze, even if ever so slightly. May our vision of faith imagine a God who is a lot less retributive and a lot more merciful. May our imagination allow for an expansive view of who our neighbors are and how seeking the common good with them brings honor to God. May we embrace the idea that God’s character of grace envelopes all humankind, not simply those who sing his praises. May we find and worship the God who does not will any of his beloved creation to perish.

 

Mark F. Carr, MDiv, PhD, is regional director of Ethics for Providence Health & Services.

Image credit: Spectrum / Unsplash

 

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