GOD'S WILL/ GOD'S SUCCOUR? Religious interpretations of epidemics

Dossier "Epidemics. Perspectives from cultural studies"

© Jens Niebaum, gemeinfrei, exc, public domain

Writing in Christ & Welt in February 2021, Peter Frey, editor-in-chief of the German television channel ZDF, criticized the churches for having gone underground during Corona, saying that, while it is true that the church is no longer portraying the pandemic as God’s punishment (as it used to do), it has not embraced a new creativity during the crisis. For Frey, there has been no spiritual depth to the pandemic and its consequences. In contrast, the Münster sociologist of religion Detlef Pollack said in an interview in March 2021, also in Christ & Welt, that it was right for the churches largely to refrain from interpreting the meaning of the pandemic, saying that the time when religion was responsible for solving all problems is long gone. For Pollack, many people probably do not interpret the crisis in religious terms, but rather perceive it as a medical and political problem only. The contributions in this dossier trace religious interpretations of epidemics, as they can be read in textual testimonies and images from past (and more devout centuries), but also turn their gaze to present-day Africa, for example.

© Jens Niebaum

God’s Punishment – God’s Mercy. Dealing architecturally and pictorially with the Great Plague in Venice of 1629-31. By art historian Jens Niebaum

Religion played a Janus-faced role in how society dealt with epidemics in the pre-modern era. On the one hand, it was used to provide explanations for the occurrence of the epidemic, which barely seemed conceivable other than as God’s punishment; this explanation accorded with the Biblical account (2 Sam. 2; 1 Chr. 21), which relates how God sanctioned King David’s arrogance by bringing a three-day plague upon Israel.  More

© exc

God’s punishment – divine justice? On the “multimodality” of religious interpretations of epidemics in Africa. By social anthropologist Dorothea Schulz

At a time when the populations of a growing number of African countries are facing a third coronavirus wave, this time in the form of even more dangerous variants, different interpretations of the epidemic continue to compete there. Religious, scientific and esoteric interpretations, as well as conspiracy theories, circulate, partially overlap, and sometimes inspire each other, and exhibit varying degrees of instability and innovativeness. More

© public domain

“Religion protects the people”: visual propaganda used by popes in the pandemic crises of the 17th century. By art historian Eva-Bettina Krems

As has already been pointed out in this dossier, the benedictory measures taken both during and after the plague epidemic in Rome in 1656/57 were recorded for posterity in various visual media, with the reigning Pope Alexander VII (r. 1655-1667) being celebrated above all as the intrepid vanquisher of the plague. Surprisingly, this visual memoria foregrounded in large engravings not so much the religious and more the health measures taken. More