Friday, July 13, 2012

Storm Disgracers

I've never been much impressed with John Piper. I just got done with N. T. Wright's Justification, where Piper gets himself ripped handily, and it included some quotes from Piper about first century contexts which, if accurate (and with Wright, why would they not be?) reveal Piper to be a fundamentalist exegete on the order of Geisler.

But that's not the topic of today's post. The topic is how Piper has abused a story of a tornado that hit Minneapolis in August, 2009, at the time of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America's (ELCA) conference. Piper made much of how this tornado, a very weak one, hit the church the ELCA was using as a base (they were meeting at a convention center across the street) and knocked the steeple over, at roughly the same time the ELCA was taking a controversial vote on homosexuality. Piper described this event and concluded with a smugly self-righteous commentary that it typical of the tone he takes with others he condemns, particularly those who reject Calvinism, though that didn't enter into things here:

The tornado in Minneapolis was a gentle but firm warning to the ELCA and all of us: Turn from the approval of sin. Turn from the promotion of behaviors that lead to destruction. Reaffirm the great Lutheran heritage of allegiance to the truth and authority of Scripture. Turn back from distorting the grace of God into sensuality. Rejoice in the pardon of the cross of Christ and its power to transform left and right wing sinners.

In turn, the fundamentalist we commented on Monday -- an apologist who should be disbarred from practicing apologetics, for this and other reasons -- made a YouTube video on the same theme and story.

I've never had much patience with those who make asinine remarks about how certain weather events mark God's judgment (e.g., Hurricane Katrina vs New Orleans). Not only is it arbitrarily judgmental, it is also absurd. We're apparently to believe that the God who struck people dead for lying to the Holy Spirit is now into "gentle reminders" instead. He also is so incompetent at target shooting that He has to send a whole raft of tornadoes over several states, just to knock down one steeple. Finally, God has apparently never noticed a whole lot of other churches where serious sin is going on, like one near me where the pastor collected people's Social Security information under the pretense of providing services and instead used the data to commit fraud. That ought to be worth at least a sinkhole here in Florida, but no dice.  Piper's God has apparently gone daft since the days of Ananias and Sapphira.

It goes deeper than that though. Piper's report is premised on a major inaccuracy. No, I didn't become a weather expert overnight; but I know one -- someone who hangs out with those "storm chaser" guys, and, although not a trained expert himself, knows his business well enough to debunk Piper's theological fantasies. I asked for his feedback, and he sent me some commentary and some confirming links to NOAA weather data and predictions. These are the sorts of things Piper should have checked before mouthing off, but I've never known the self-righteous to do much fact-checking when God has a plan to smack their Sinners of the Month.

One major point Piper makes to set the stage for this alleged bumble of providence (lower case P intended) is in a quote from a "friend" of his who wrote:

On a day when no severe weather was predicted or expected...a tornado forms, baffling the weather experts—most saying they’ve never seen anything like it. It happens right in the city. The city: Minneapolis.

No severe weather predicted or expected, huh. Hmm. Yeah, this is what happens when you "ask a friend" instead of someone who knows their business. I'll relate what my friend said in my own words.

Simply put, it's just plain false that no severe weather was predicted or expected. On that date, August 19, 2009, there was a potent low-pressure system in the area, and the winds from it were enough for an outbreak to occur, but certain other conditions with respect to instability in the air raised questions about exactly what would happen. In the end, though, and without using technical jargon, conditions were such that if any place was going to be hit by a tornado -- it was Minneapolis.

What may be confusing Piper's friend is that there wasn't a tornado watch at the time. Well, that's not unusual with weak systems that may end up doing nothing at all, and it's quite understandable. Here in Florida there's a fine balance between warning people about hurricanes and not warning them so much that if one take a sudden turn and misses, they get more complacent next year. I imagine the same logic is used for posting tornado watches, though it's no doubt a little different inasmuch as you can see a hurricane coming a lot easier.

In any event, the Storm Prediction Center had warned that morning that there was a heightened risk of storms in the Minneapolis area. A 2-5% "tornado outlook" was maintained in their public outlook. Links below tell more of the story. As you can see, there were 30 reports of tornadoes that day, and all came from a narrow corridor that went from Minnesota to Ohio, with a concentration in the Minneapolis area. There was also a 15% outlook for damaging winds in and around Minneapolis. Maybe Piper can find some sinners being conveniently judged in those areas, too.

Piper and his little friend on Youtube might want to take some advice from far wiser parties:

He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:45)

You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name. (Exodus 20:7)

In my ideal world, "godly men" like Piper who do things like this, and apologists like the aforementioned fundamentalist, would never be permitted to teach or preach again until after they'd taken some courses in logic, research, and exegesis. Then they'd get one more chance and if they screwed up this bad again, they'd be fired for life.

Good thing for them that the god (lower case intentional) in charge of their world has such problems hitting his targets.


  1. Yes, it's about time someone slammed Piper for his myopic exegesis of Scripture. Might I ask, though, after reading N.T. Wright what your position on the New Perspective on Paul is so far? Also have you read "Justification and Variegated Nominism" yet, supposedly it's the greatest refutation of the New Perspective around. It's not written by theologians like John Piper, but actual biblical scholars like D.A. Carson and such.

  2. I'll say more in a review here, probably next week, but my basic response is, "What new perspective?" A lot of what Wright says is stuff I already agreed with. I don't think he has it absolutely right because he's missing some social science aspects, but I'm far closer to Wright's view than Piper's.

    I read parts of JVN ages ago. Can't recall much of it now. Wright mentions it in his book and indicates most of it didn't seem to him to actually dispute what he said.

  3. Yeah, an unusual amount of Justification and Variegated Nomism produced data you would expect if Wright was correct about Paul and 1st century Judaism. Not unusual because of the nature of things, but unusual because the books were meant to refute the whole idea.

  4. Color me a little surprised by the topic of this post, since it's about 3 years after the fact. Any reason why you felt this was the most relevant?

    On Biblical interpretation, he said it was a warning to all of us, he didn't single out the ELCA. Jesus used the tower killing 18 to warn all of his listeners to repent. JP is using a chance event to warn all listeners to repent. There is definitely some symbolism of a cross being destroyed by natural disaster at the same time the representatives of a large number of churches choose to reject God's teaching on the subject. Your example of individual church abuse excaping divine action isn't on the same level as a group of churches coming to a consensus that they would choose a wrong course of action. It may be proof that the ECLA aren't the worst of sinners; but JP doesn't say they are; same as Jesus saying those killed by the tower were not the worst of sinners.

    As for the weather, I'm no weather expert, but 2~5% seems to indicate a low risk probability. The event at the time had tents set up outside per JP; people didn't seem to expect tornado level winds on that date. A general low risk of an event happening was predicted, but it's one thing to predict that a tornado might occur somewhere in an area, and another to predict that that tornado will happen in a specific location. JP could reasonably refer to the (lack of the) latter prediction.

    What surprises me the most is that you're basically using the worst possible interpretation of what JP said, rather than paying attention to what he reasonably might have meant. One calls out unbelievers for using that type of Biblical interpretation, so why use that methodology on JP's words? If it's because one disagrees with JP on many things, that'd seem to warrant using the best possible interpretation when dealing with his thoughts, so you can show just how wrong he is.

  5. @Hamster

    1) Three years old it is, but I only just heard about it when I was investigating some stuff put out by that fundamentalist I alluded to. I would have tackled it earlier had I known about it.

    2) Regardless of all of that, it was completely inappropriate for Piper to use this. I am not saying anything about the level of sin ELCA engaged; that is irrelevant to my point. It is also far too presumptuous to point to the damage to the steeple, not only because of all the damage done elsewhere, but because steeples by nature are highly subject to damaging winds.

    3) 2-5% is low, but it is still higher than Piper's "not expected" at all claim. He was highly irresponsible for failing to check his claims and simply relying on a "friend".

    4) There is no other "interpretation" of irresponsible presentation of information.

  6. @1: Ah. Fair enough. Have you also read JP's followup post?

    @2: We differ on how natural events and God's will/actions intersect, then. Your standard is that natural events are merely natural with no further meaning. I think there's precedent in the Bible that we can give God credit for natural events. For example, clothed flowers and fed birds were used by Jesus as an example of God's faithful provision and why we should act accordingly. I get that people can and have abused this, ("God hates orphans because the earthquake caused the orphanage to burn down") but we'll just disagree on how to avoid that abuse.

    @3: If I'm gambling $10 with a 95% chance to lose and a 5% chance to win $100, one can reasonably say one expects to lose and expect to not win, even though a mathematician will predict a 5% chance of you being happily surprised. There are different levels of expectation one can have; if the experts highly expected a tornado would hit Minneapolis, I'd expect them to tell people to take shelter. It seems they didn't expect there'd be enough damage to justify the warning. The weather didn't cause any loss of life AFAIK, so the experts probably made the right call on what to tell the public.

    JP is not a weather expert, and while his language might not meet the technical definitions experts use, it is "accurate enough" for a layman, and JP is a weather layman. He is not presenting his opinion as an expert opinion, either. He made it clear he is using a friend as source and quoted the friend verbatim.

    @4: JP reports what his friend told him, and presented his own opinion. His opinion or his friend may be wrong, but the information is laid out with clear (layman, word of mouth) sourcing. It's not like this is a prepared sermon or in a book; it's a blog post for quick thoughts.

    He is speaking as a famous pastor, so he does need to speak carefully. But IMAO, "is it true?", or at the very least, "not wrong?" is sufficient justification for a blogpost.

    I can understand disagreement. I just find your post to be an overreaction. But then, I don't usually have to deal with silly arguments about Christianity, so maybe his post struck a raw nerve.

    (If I am quibbling too much for your taste, I'm an engineer because I typically think like this. Apologies.)

  7. @Hamster

    1) Didn't see that, no, but it haw me wondering just what sort of conclusion an analysis of the evidence would lead to.

    2) Actually my view is that it is the burden of a claimant like Piper to prove that a natural event has greater meaning. I certainly do not hold that they never can, just that the burden of proof has to be met. The accessory damage, the weather forecast, and the presence of 29 other tornadoes the same day work strongly in favor of this one as natural. It isn't that hard to avoid abuse -- it just needs to be subject to careful analysis.

    3)I am not sure the stats work that way. For example, a weather hobbyist at says that "5% is the threshold of what I consider to be a significant threat". explains their outlook info further. It actually seems that it was worse than I understood it to be, and that it is a great deal (if not exactly) like rain forecasts.

    >>> He is not presenting his opinion as an expert opinion, either. He made it clear he is using a friend as source and quoted the friend verbatim.

    That only adds to his irresponsibilty. He is a pastor, and people listen to him regardless of what he talks about. When he expresses an "opinion" (4) he does so to an audience that takes him at his word as a "man of God." So, no, I can't minimize that aspect just because it is a blog post with thoughts -- any more than I do for myself.

    As an information science person -- that is why it bothers me.

  8. As a Calvinist, Piper would have thought every single thing that happens is an act of Divine Providence, i.e. there is nothing in this world that is allowed to happen freely on its own principles without having been caused directly by God, so the idea of a "natural event" would have been foreign to Piper.

    1. Well said. Piper's theistic determinism should stop him from making any moral statement, especially since he believes God made the ELCA accept homosexuality to give God greater glory.

      Well written article Brother. I live in MN and there were several conservative commentators who gorged on this event.