Acts of God and Acts of Nature

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This paper will be based on three years of qualitative research on media coverage for the 1997 flood in Grand Forks, ND, which inundated the city, destroying much of the downtown and adjacent neighborhoods.

This paper will ask how people made sense of the disaster, and will look particularly at language describing the presence of God and nature during and after the Grand Forks flood. It will show that language blaming the disaster on "God" was almost entirely absent, and in this way fits the findings of much of the current literature on natural disasters. Nevertheless, and against this literature, the overwhelming reticence of people to publically label the flood as an "act of God" is not evidence of secularization. Instead, the presence of the divine shifts in the literature surveyed: there were frequent instances which saw the Christian God acting in efforts to protect and rebuild the city, for instance, and numerous instances of the disaster blamed on an external "nature," sometimes deified (e.g., into "Mother Nature").

Rather than God exiting the scene, this research uncovered two different (though overlapping) narratives used in explanations for the flood as alternatives to traditional "act of God" language.. In the first, the Christian God is very much active, but God's activity is seen in rescuing the people of Grand Forks and in saving (or rebuilding) neighborhoods. In the second, the flood responses show a struggle between two different "ultimate" things, the Christian God and an idealized nature, in a battle to see which would become dominant. The portrayal of God as acting against the flood is thus part of a conflict between two religious frameworks that are simultaneously held together - a belief in a Christian God, and a belief in an ultimate and deeply powerful "nature" - which ask whether nature or God holds ultimate control.


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