The concept of natural evil continues to befuddle mankind. Moral evil we can explain, with varying levels of cogency—murder, arson, theft. But what are we to make of a tornado that demolishes a school with teachers and children in it? A flood that wipes out a neighborhood? A virus that targets the elderly? Up to the latter part of the 18th century, a substantial part of the population in Western nations would have attributed natural calamities in some sense to God. We in the secular West now deal with the problem by collapsing the two categories so that even natural disasters are the result of human evil. Destructive floods are now the fault of lax engineers or corrupt local officials or the U.S. president, depending on your politics. Hurricanes and tornadoes are the fault of carbon-emitting factories and the powerbrokers who abet them.
Peter J. Thuesen’s “Tornado God: American Religion and Violent Weather” (Oxford, 293 pages, $29.95) chronicles the ways in which American Christians have interpreted the evils wrought by floods, hurricanes and tornadoes. The book is a superb work of scholarship, distilling a vast array of work on meteorology, theology and American history. Mr. Thuesen, a professor of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, has a special interest in violent storms, especially tornadoes, and writes about them with narrative skill.