Culture At Large

The 9/11 Museum and viewing tragedy from above

John Van Sloten

New York City’s National September 11 Memorial & Museum opens to the public today. The hope is that this facility will be the next step in a collective healing process, a place to understand and remember, a place where the world can come and learn about loss and resilience.

It’ll be tough to walk through those doors. As NBC’s Brian Williams said, “Visitors need to be prepared.”

A recent report in The Globe and Mail describes the museum as austere, striking, astonishing and excruciating. Visitors slowly descend seven stories as they take in exhibits displaying the shattered remains of that day: a huge steel column, a mangled New York Fire Department truck, parts of an airline fuselage, the singed contents of one woman’s wallet and other reminders of ordinary people just going about their daily lives, now gone.

One exhibit includes video footage taken by American astronaut Frank Culbertson from the International Space Station. When Culbertson first heard what was happening in New York, he instinctively picked up a camera and started recording the event from above.

“I just wanted the folks in New York to know that their city still looks very beautiful from space,” Culbertson says on the video. “I know it’s very difficult for everybody in America right now. …The country still looks good and for New Yorkers, your city still looks great from up here.”

These words really struck me and gave me hope. While a kind of hell on earth was playing out on the streets of Manhattan, someone, from a distance, was seeing things from a different perspective.

Is there a distance from which beauty can still be seen, even when a city is falling down all around us?

It makes me wonder how God saw New York City and the rest of His world on that fateful day. Is there a distance from which beauty can still be seen, even when a city is falling down all around us? If we stood back far enough, would we be able to see that there’s still so much good going on in our world?

Most cities on the planet were safe from terrorists that day. Even most of Manhattan was physically untouched by the day’s horrors. Watching the video reveals that there was still so much blue: the ocean, rivers and tributaries are all stunning. What’s more, the air is clear and the clouds are white.

Could it be that the God who surely suffered with us on 9/11 also has this other perspective to share? Was Culbertson imaging the heart of his Maker when he spoke those prophetic words of hope? Maybe God was saying something to us through this astronaut’s words.

While time - and the making of memorials and museums - will eventually bring some measure of healing, they’ll never fully explain the mystery of 9/11 and why God let it happen in the first place. But maybe, through an astronaut’s heart, God is saying something that can help. Perhaps He’s letting us know that there’s a bigger beauty that’s still very much in play, even as all hell seems to be breaking lose. While we can’t see it now – after all, we’re finite, human and can’t stand back far enough - the beauty is still there.

Perhaps there is comfort in knowing that it’s still there and that God – from His infinite and eternal perspective - sees it clearly. And maybe, one day, we’ll all be able to stand back far enough and look back long enough to see the beauty from where He sits. From that perspective, all of this world’s pain and brokenness might even be fathomable.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Theology, News & Politics, History, North America