Westmont faculty discuss historic pandemic responses

Maddy Simonsen, Staff Writer

Last week, the pre-recorded lecture series “Plagues, Pandemics, and Perseverance” focused on humanity’s historical response to plagues and suggested a proper Christian response to the current pandemic. This lecture series featured Dr. Helen Rhee of the religious studies department, Dr. Lisa DeBoer of the art history department, and Drs. Paul Willis and Marilyn McEntyre of the English department. Though pre-recorded, it debuted Sept. 29 on the Voskuyl Library website.

Dr. Helen Rhee depicted the church’s response to plagues throughout the centuries. She explained how  Christians in the early church believed that individuals possessed a social responsibility to treat the sick. Because the early church cared for the sick, they destigmatized sickness, which was generally considered to be divine retribution in the Greco-Roman culture. However, the church’s response was not always positive. Rhee highlighted that the Christian church was quick to blame the Jews as the source of the Black Death during the 14th century. 

To conclude her talk, Rhee demonstrated that Christians possess the burden of creatively loving their neighbor, which involves maintaining the health guidelines and reaching out in different ways. Additionally, she argued that Christians should carefully discern a pandemic theology and put their hope in the future bodily resurrection. 

Humans consistently respond to plagues by panicking, fearing the worst and blaming others.”

Dr. DeBoer analyzed art during times of pandemic in her discussion. She shared that Christians throughout history have stressed the importance of remembering death so individuals maintain proper priorities. Therefore, art often depicts saints holding skulls while meditating. In other works of art, Christians are shown burying the dead, which was considered an act of mercy. While the individuals burying the dead endangered their own lives, they continued to show others love in times of plague. Concluding her discussion, DeBoer explained that art historians differ on the Black Death’s effect on the artwork that emerged after this time.

Dr. Willis shared a selection of poetry in his lecture. Reading Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 97,” he emphasized that the plague in Shakespeare’s time forced separation from loved ones and a lack of summer enjoyment. After this poetry reading, Willis shared his own poem, describing how humanity is distracting itself during this pandemic. However, he explained that individuals do better by distracting themselves with smaller things in life, such as Scrabble, rather than exclusively worrying about COVID-19. He read from Lynn Ungar to encourage individuals to view this pandemic as the Jews see the Sabbath and use the time wisely. 

At the beginning of her lecture, Dr. Marilyn McEntyre highlighted humanity’s response to plagues by examining Western literature. She showed that “The Decameron,” written by Giovanni Boccaccio in the 14th century, depicts individuals’ response to the Black Death through letters written between wealthy individuals and displays the prevalent helplessness and blame. Daniel Defoe’s work, “A Journal of a Plague Year,” describes humanity’s reactions to the bubonic plague of 1665. Specifically, this work demonstrates that humans consistently respond to plagues by panicking, fearing the worst and blaming others.

This series of lectures allowed the Westmont community to utilize a liberal arts approach to learn about the history of plagues and to understand how to best live in this pandemic. Those interested in learning more can view the entire set of lectures here: https://libguides.westmont.edu/c.php?g=1058506