WWJV?

WWJV?

WHO WOULD JESUS VACCINATE FIRST?

As the first precious drops of the COVID-19 vaccine roll out across America, a pressing question swirled in prior weeks: Who gets them first?

In my state, as in most others, the majority of those doses will go to extremely vulnerable residents in nursing homes and long-term care facilities. (Though front-line workers will deservedly get some too.)

After all, nursing home residents are amongst those most likely to die from COVID-19. So we might be tempted to think that putting them first is nothing more than a common sense deduction that any civilization would make.

It is not.

And we should take a moment to recognize that fact—and then give thanks.

CRATERS ON THE MOON

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor describes the lingering influence of Christianity on Western culture like craters on the moon.

What he means is that the impact marks of the gospel are still visible, even if the theological beliefs which formed them are no longer so widely held. We are seeing one of those “impact marks” now in the decision to give our first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to people who may have little time left to live, even without it.

After all, one study showed that the average length of stay in a nursing home before death was about five months (here). Other studies differed slightly (here).

But by any tally, it’s not long.

So is our distribution plan “correct” by a purely utilitarian metric?

THE COUNTER-ARGUMENT

I listened recently to the Yale scientist, Nicholas Christakis, as he explained why giving our limited supply of COVID-19 vaccinations to those in nursing homes might NOT be the best approach.

He suggested that it could be better to distribute the vaccine “upstream” amongst citizens who are more likely to spread the virus, and thereby yield an exponential case-load reduction.

I have no epidemiological opinion on which approach is best; and even if I did, you shouldn’t listen to it (because getting your science and medical “takes” from unqualified people on the Internet is like calling a plumber for an appendectomy).

My point is NOT to say who SHOULD get the vaccine first, from a medical standpoint.

My argument is that our culture’s default assumption that “The last should go first” is influenced by theological factors that go beyond utilitarian ethics, economics, or default human behavior across millennia.

And I give thanks for that.

A HISTORIAN WEIGHS IN

Historian Tom Holland argues that one of the most enduring marks of Christianity has been the elevation of individuals who would have previously been seen as “less than” or disposable.

As an atheist himself, Holland does not believe the theological claims of Scripture, yet he admits that Christianity is the biggest reason “why we [in Western culture] assume every human life to be of equal value.”

When studying the ancient Greeks or Romans, he notes:

It was not just the extremes of callousness that unsettled me, but the complete lack of any sense that the poor or the weak might have the slightest intrinsic value.

Why did I find this disturbing?

Because, in my morals and ethics, I was not a Spartan or a Roman at all. That my belief in God had faded over the course of my teenage years did not mean that I had ceased to be Christian [in those assumptions].

Tom Holland, Dominion, 16-17.

Of course, both Christians and secularists have often been terrible in consistently applying this ethic.

To choose just two examples: On one extreme sits a naked refusal by some to recognize the full humanity of brown-skinned kids in cages at the southern border. And on the other rests a stubborn inability to condemn the killing of unborn babies in the womb. Hypocrisy abounds.

Nonetheless… the assumption (at least in theory) about the intrinsic value of the vulnerable has seeped into the cultural groundwater.

And at the end of that long historical trajectory sits someone like Margaret Keenan—the 91-year-old British woman who was the first person in the UK to receive the COVID-19 vaccination.

CONCLUSION

What was the reaction to the choice of Margaret Keenan, and others like her?

Not a single person I heard said, “Why save her? She’s going to die soon anyway.” Not a single person said, “Give the first doses to the powerful, the top-earners, and the ‘old-but-not-THAT-olds’.”

To be clear, I have no doubt that there will be inequities in vaccine distribution, especially in underdeveloped countries and underserved communities. But the very fact that we have chosen (in theory) to prioritize those who, by worldly standards, can contribute least to our economic and materialistic future shows a small glimmer of grace in a dark year.

That grace comes, as René Girard noted, from a Light that “has revealed so many things for so long a time without revealing itself that we are convinced it comes from within us.”

It’s a ray of sunlight on the craters of the moon.


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The haunting of David Bazan

The haunting of David Bazan

Hurtling through the sky at 30,000 feet can give you a chance to do things you don’t normally have time for – like listening to a long-forgotten album.

On a recent flight to Orlando, I gave a re-hearing to David Bazan’s anguished recording from 2009: “Curse your Branches.”

The whole thing is fantastic. And terrible.

bazan album cover

It was written, according to Bazan, as a breakup letter to God (since he now considers himself an atheist). Yet I learned in a recent interview that Bazan was astonished that Christianity Today named “Curse your Branches” one of their best albums of the year.

They weren’t wrong.

As Bazan admits, the manifesto that he had originally penned as a giant middle finger to God, turns out at key moments to sound almost like an early stanza from the Psalms or Lamentations (with, sadly, no resolution).

And the irony is that for someone who doesn’t believe in God, Bazan spends an awful lot of time talking to him.  In this way, he sounds somewhat like the honest atheist described by Francis Spufford, who says of God: “He doesn’t exist, the bastard.”

To use the imagery of the Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, the album is “haunted” by Transcendence. This, says Taylor, is the true mark of a Secular Age. It is not that belief has been vanquished or that most people now sit neutral to the question; it is rather that faith seems so fraught for many tortured souls that they end up like the novelist Julian Barnes, when he writes: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.”

That is precisely the attitude of “Curse Your Branches.”

Even Bazan’s (past) descent into alcoholism is linked to his God-haunted memory. As he puts it:

All this lethal drinking is to hopefully forget about You

And the last word trails into a plaintive wail that betrays a capital “Y.”

The most evocative stanza of the album follows:

I might as well admit it, as though I had a choice / The crew have killed the Captain but they still can hear his voice. A shadow on the water / A whisper on the wind / On long walks with my daughter who is lately full of questions about You… (“In Stitches“).

While Bazan is clear that he now rejects all forms of theism, one senses that it is certain kind of theology that seems especially untenable to him: a form of deterministic Calvinism in which God sovereignly causes everything and then blames us.  “Curse your branches” is itself a play on Paul’s metaphorical olive tree from Romans 11, in which some limbs (peoples) have been broken off and others grafted in.

Given this deterministic assumption (God causes everything), the conclusion follows naturally:

“All fallen leaves should curse their branches / For not letting them decide where they should fall / And not letting them refuse to fall at all”

If this were what Paul meant, then I would not disagree.  For in view of David Bentley Hart, determinism does seem to have the strange result of rendering the universe morally intelligible at the cost of a God who is rendered morally loathsome (see here for my most widely read post on that topic). Or as Bazan asks: “Did You push us when we fell?”

Despite his bitterness toward Christianity, Bazan is open about a recurring “temptation” to doubt his doubts and to recant from his “repentance”:

Though I have repented, I’m still tempted I admit / But that’s not what bearing witness is (“Bearing Witness”).

In other words: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.”

SOME TAKEAWAYS

Why write about this album?

Aside from the fact that good art needs no utilitarian justification, I have three reasons:

  1. Christian leaders should listen to “God-haunted” deconversion stories.

For pastors and professors like myself, truly listening to voices like Bazan’s should be a requirement in an age where more and more people find themselves in the “haunted” position that Charles Taylor describes.

Listening well is a pre-requisite for pastoral sensitivity.  But sadly, a survey of our social media feeds shows that many so-called apologists are more known for their ability to “demolish” and “destroy” the opposition.

And to quote Bazan, “That’s not what bearing witness is.”

  1. Ask: “What kind of god don’t you believe in?”

Second, Bazan highlights, at some points, a kind of divinity (and Christianity) that thoughtful believers should be quick to disavow—and not just on the question of determinism.

On this subject, I recall the words of N.T. Wright as he met with UK college students during his time as a university chaplain.  Upon hearing that many did not believe in God, his next words were not a rebuttal but a question.

“What kind of God don’t you believe in?”

The question is important, since Christians sometimes assume that the word “God” has univocal meaning.  It doesn’t.  And upon listening to the student’s answer (See #1), Wright tells how he would often respond with “That’s very good; I don’t believe in that God either. The God I trust is the one embodied perfectly by Jesus Christ.”

  1. Preach to and for the “haunted.”

Lastly, I’ve been incorporating more quotes from folks like Bazan in my sermons (e.g., David Foster Wallace, last Sunday)—not as “strawman” foils to be quickly dispatched, but as opportunities to acknowledge questions, doubts, and fears that are present in the minds of “the faithful”–not just “out there” in the big, bad world.

“Maybe you’ve felt like that,” I try to say.

“Maybe you’ve wondered why an invisible God would even care if humans believed in him, rather than the competition.”

As Bazan asks:

Red and orange; or orange and yellow? / In which of these do you believe? / If you’re not sure right now; please take a moment / ‘Cause I need your signature, before you leave (“Curse your branches”).

In the view of Tim Keller, the ability to anticipate these unvoiced questions and fears is crucial to empathetic preaching (Though I don’t pretend to do it perfectly)–especially when coupled with the “haunting” of the Holy Ghost.

Toward this end, albums like “Curse Your Branches” can actually serve the church, like an Eloi, Eloi… wafting up to 30,000 feet, awaiting answer.

———————

If you’re interested in an accessible book for anyone feeling baffled by the Bible, check out my new book, Long Story Short: the Bible in Six Simple movements (here).


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Love in the Ruins

Love in the Ruins

No one ever expects the English to be rascals.

That, at least, is the opinion of Dr. Thomas More, the self-confessed “bad Catholic” in Walker Percy’s strange and brilliant novel, Love in the Ruins.

they got rid of God two hundred years ago and became extraordinarily decent to prove they didn’t need him.

Love in the ruins

Regardless of the truth of More’s statement, it is clear that Percy’s novel desires to explore the relationship between belief and obedience; faith and morality; doctrine and ethics in the modern world.

For his own part, Dr. More is afflicted by Christian belief as by a terminal condition—“God, the Jews, Christ, the whole business”—but as he admits:

I love women best, music and science next, whiskey next, God fourth, and my fellowman hardly at all. Generally, I do as I please.

I am a Renaissance pope.

Nevertheless I still believe.

LOVE IN THE RUINS

I read Love in the Ruins early this summer and found it enthralling.

It is a dystopian apocalypse set near New Orleans, after the “Christ-forgetting, Christ-haunted” United States has been pulled apart by tribalism, identity politics, racial tension, and technology gone wrong.

It was published in 1971 but reads as fresh as ever.

The main character (More) is an alcoholic psychiatrist, whose daughter died and whose wife “ran off with a pagan Englishman.”

Like all of Percy’s novels, it is filled with theological insights, and like all good novels it resists cliched conclusions.

Despite the dark setting, the book is frequently hilarious—as when the evangelical (“Knotheads”) throw a patriotic Pro-Am golf tournament on July 4th, complete with a giant banner that reads: “Jesus Christ, the Greatest Pro of Them All!”

I’ll let you read it.

A CRATER OF THE GOSPEL 

For now, my interest in the book has to do with that opening quotation (about the Brits), and with what Jamie Smith speaks of as “craters of the gospel.”

Smith’s point (via Charles Taylor) is that while modern culture is increasingly post-Christian, many “craters” of the gospel’s influence remain—like pockmarked impact-zones upon the surface of the moon.

I’ve noticed something like this even in the moral concerns of avowed atheists like Sam Harris and Dax Shephard, who have almost a hyper-sensitivity for certain ethical issues, despite acknowledging that all such “absolutes” are mere human preferences.

they got rid of God … and became extraordinarily decent to prove they didn’t need him.

Far from ridiculing the moral outrage of such atheists, however, I am grateful for it in some cases—even as I ponder the extent to which they realize they are harvesting from vineyards not their own; “plowing craters” so to speak; without fully understanding that “An enemy did this” (Mt. 13.28).

How long can it last?

What will be the longterm results of such selective “worldview-appropriation”?

Likewise, it seems that many so-called “believers” have more in common with Dr. Tom More than with his post-Reformation namesake — even as we cite prooftexts to justify our “doing as we please.”

Which camp does more damage?

NOT PIGS NOR ANGELS

Regardless of the answers, Percy’s novel is both brilliant and hilarious, even as it holds out hope that when “lust [gives] way to sorrow,” we may realize

It is you [God] that I love in the beauty of the world and in all the lovely girls and dear good friends, and it is pilgrims we are, wayfarers on a journey, and not pigs, nor angels.

Check it out (here), if you need a summer fiction read.

 


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