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A Theological Engagement with T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land

12 October 2020

in the Context of COVID-19

The declarative opening line of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is that ‘April is the cruellest month’. It is cruel because the hope of spring and new life clashes with the realities of suffering in the undead city. As COVID-19 escalated, April was, once again, perceived by some as the cruellest month. As Holy Week approached, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams warned Americans to brace for the hardest and saddest week of their lives (Law, 2020). Whatever the merits of this assessment, the coincidence with Holy Week invites theological reflections on suffering and hope. This paper draws The Waste Land into conversation with the work of Donald MacKinnon and Karen Kilby to explore Christian accounts of suffering and hope amidst COVID-19. Eliot’s poem is especially poignant as it arises in the postwar and post-pandemic context of the Spanish Flu outbreak in 1918- 19, which Eliot and Vivien, his wife, contracted. Elizabeth Outka argues that the pandemic setting of the poem is often overlooked: ‘despite the wealth of readings, critics have missed the poem’s viral context’ (Outka, 2020, 143). A pandemic reading does not supplant other interpretations, but further textures the richness of the poem, and offers insights into human experience amidst the trauma of war and a viral epidemic that open horizons for theological reflections on suffering and hope in COVID-19.

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