Saturday, March 21, 2020

Across the pond

Snake river

This may be a suggestion without merit, but I'll float it for consideration. Streams and rivers have a serpentine appearance. Of course, the resemblance isn't close, but to human imagination there's a suggestive association. Rivers as serpentine metaphors. 

A river (or four tributaries) is a prominent feature in the Garden of Eden. It's essential to the life of the garden. Irrigates the orchard, provides drinking water for the humans and animals.

Could it be that one reason for the serpentine symbolism of the  Tempter that it trades on the visual and subliminal association between snakes and rivers? Just as the river is a source of life, the Tempter is a counterfeit life-giving savior? 

Is the vampire apocalypse upon us?

I've seen a graph making the rounds about the "power of social distancing". The graph charts the exponential growth curve in the transmission rate of the coronavirus.

Now, I'm not a statistician or epidemiologist, but the graph strikes me as quite deceptive. It's like the graph was produced by some dude binging on zombie/vampire/werewolf apocalypse flicks. You know how it goes. One vamp turns a victim into vamp. Two vamps can do twice what one can. So the propagation of vampires expands at an exponential rate: 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32…

But isn't that awfully mechanical and simplistic? It's pure math, but everyone isn't equally susceptible, are they, so the exponential curve is quite artificial, is it not?

One might argue that social distancing is still useful to lower the infection rate. But we should avoid hyperbolic graphs based on unscientific projections that fuel hysteria. 


Some cities and states that have lockdowns exempt takeout/delivery joints. That's better than nothing, and it's a boon to takeout/delivery industry.

This is supposedly in the interests of minimizing physical interaction and bending the growth curve of the coronavirus. I wonder, though, how many mayors, governors, and lawmakers have ever taken a look at the kitchen of the average takeout/delivery joint. Oftentimes the kitchen is visible from the customer area. In my experience, these are usually rather cramped spaces with multiple chefs–as well as delivery drivers ambling around. Social distancing isn't feasible in the kitchens of many takeout/delivery joints. Yet they're preparing food that radiates out to the community. Is that a potential vector of transmission? 

My point is not that we should shut down takeout/delivery joints. Rather, I'm probing the facile notion of social distancing. 

Hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin

1. Sure, hydroxychloroquine/azithromycin is promising. However I fear Trump is overselling it. It's far from a panacea at this point in time. Maybe that'll change in the future, but the problem is it's still to be determined. (Edit: A Stanford pathologist's opinion.)

2. In other words, hydroxychloroquine/azithromycin in combination to treat COVID-19 still needs to be proven through clinical trials. That's the standard to ensure safety and efficacy. However, right now, the evidence for hydroxychloroquine/azithromycin is primarily based on case reports. Case reports have sometimes or perhaps often fallen by the wayside in light of further investigation.

3. Same goes for other hopefuls like chloroquine, remdesivir, lopinavir-ritonavir, etc. These likewise need to undergo the gauntlet of clinical trials to demonstrate safety and efficacy. And some of these antivirals are already undergoing clinical trials (e.g. I've mentioned Stanford and remdesivir in the past).

4. By contrast, there already exists a reasonable therapy to tide us over until we can develop antivirals or a vaccine. It's called convalescent plasma therapy (serum antibodies). I think it'd be better to prioritize (in the interim) convalescent plasma therapy. I've described this in the past (e.g. here). Basically what plasma therapy would entail is taking the antibodies of someone who has already recovered from COVID-19 and transferring the antibodies to someone else. This can be done for treatment and/or prophylaxis. Plasma therapy would confer passive immunity to people. This is what infectious disease experts like Ian Lipkin (Columbia University), Peter Hotez (Baylor College), and Amesh Adalja (Johns Hopkins University) have been saying for weeks now.

We could do this for health care workers on the frontlines, the elderly, the immunocompromised. They're at higher risk than the general public of developing COVID-19 and dying. It'd likely be a monthly injection.

Again, plasma therapy is available right now. It's not theory, but reality. There's no large scale clinical trials required. We can start implementing it today.

To be fair, there are some medical issues to be dealt with in certain patients (e.g. allergic reaction), but that's outweighed by its tremendous benefits.

The real challenges are not in the medical technology but logistics (e.g. obtaining enough blood donations from those who have recovered from COVID-19, setting up blood banks, distribution).

Plague attire

It's often hard enough to know what to wear each day, but all the more so in a pandemic! What's de rigueur in a plague?

Certainly one needs a mask to protect from breathing in contagions - or out! Yet a mask could take many different shapes and sizes.

Likewise one needs to have sufficient places on one's person to carry or store basic medical supplies. Would that be best realized in outer pockets or inner linings? Would a utility belt work?

We wouldn't wish to limit our range of motion with too much apparel or too many accessories.

No doubt the spectrum of regalia could range from cloaks and capes to more threadbare options.

I'm sure we could continue to multiply issues to address in one's dress. But theory becomes tedious. Let us move onto substance!

Might I offer some of our finest Spring selections:

"The problem of biblical violence"

I'll comment on a hobbyhorse by apostate Randal Rauser:

Rauser is an articulate spokesman for progressive theology. That makes him a useful foil. As I've remarked before, it's striking how little he stands for. He has a menu of biblical teachings he constantly attacks, but he spends little time defending his alternative because his own theology is so thin. 

Friday, March 20, 2020

The suppression of public worship

Fred Butler responding to this post:

Just a preliminary point of logistics: this is a very inefficient means of communication. I'm not signed up for Twitter. The Triablogue Twitter account exists to notify the Twitterverse of our blog posts. As far as I'm concerned, it's not a debate forum. As the risk of stating the obvious, Twitter is not an intelligent medium for serious intellectual and theological engagement. It's inefficient when Fred leaves snippets on Twitter while I respond at Triablogue. 

Replying to 
You couldve just tweeted yes, if you were a senior pastor. Or begrudgingly no since you're a lay person. So will you write furious blog articles against your local church leadership if they decide to obey government authorities, or just grin and bear it?

What a loaded question!

i) I don't write furious blog articles. I mostly write analytical blog articles, along with some devotional posts, or satire, or fiction. 

ii) The question does go to my blogging philosophy. I don't write "furious" blog articles because I don't feel the need to persuade anyone or control the outcome. It's God's world, not mine. In terms of blogging, my sense of duty begins and ends with defending the Christian faith, presenting my arguments, and fielding objections. Beyond that, I'm not responsible. If I have no influence, so be it. I don't live for my work. 

iii) If my local church leadership decides/decided to suspend public worship services, I don't have to target them on my blog. This goes to another consideration in my blogging philosophy. There are different ways to make the same point. As a rule, I prefer to aim at a big target than a little target. 

The question of canceling church services is a general issue. In principle, that's something I could discuss without using any particular church as an example, since the same issue confronts churches in general at this time. Or I might choose a representative example or spokesman as a foil. 

iv) I happen to think the suppression of public worship by the state is a big deal. I'm struck by how many evangelical leaders react with indifference or toadyism. That exposes the amount of dry rot in evangelicalism. If my local church leadership has/had so little faith in the spiritual efficacy of public worship, why would I continue to attend a church like that? 

v) In reference to Fred's church, this was originally billed as a 2-week suspension of public worship. But the CA governor has now imposed a statewide lockdown/curfew with a minuscule list of "authorized necessary activities".  And even when venturing out to perform "authorized necessary activities," Californians must "at all times practice social distancing". 

Does that sound to you like the 250-person limit will be lifted two weeks after the ban was issued? Sounds to me like the duration has been extended indefinitely. Likewise, the scope has been extended to prohibit any social events beyond the "authorized necessary activities." Not to mention mandated social distancing. So that's not just a numerical cap on the size of Christian worship services, but a ban on public worship across the board. All that's now permitted is virtual worship. If so, where does that leave the original defense of the policy by Phil Johnson and Fred Butler?

Who Has Fabricated Data -- Lydia McGrew or Richard Carrier? (Part 3)


I've heard people speculate that the most militant anti-LGBT people are probably in the closet about being LGBT themselves.

In some progressive circles that is a popular preemptive defamatory allegation. In consistency:

1. The most militant animal rights activists are probably closet trophy hunters.

2. The most militant atheists are probably closet Christian fundamentalists.

3. The most militant opponents of racism are probably closet skinheads.

4. The most militant opponents of the Second Amendment are probably closet gun nuts.

5. The most militant gay activists are probably repressed heterosexuals.

So you don't need to confess to a priest after all!

Will you revolt if they shut yours down?

Replying to 

If the church where you currently attend is told by the state to close down for a couple of weeks, will you all do it, or are you gonna resist and rebel?

Fred is responding to this post:

His question is confused at multiple levels:

i) A layman can't decide for anyone else. 

ii) Depending on the polity, the only folks in a position to close it down are the (senior?) pastor, church board, and/or bishop. If it has a congregational polity, the congregation could overrule the pastor. 

That's unless the authorities board it up. In that case it's out of the hands of the clergy and parishioners alike, although churches can file class action suits. 

iii) If I was the pastor, and it was up to me, I'd defy the order. 

iv) Whether other parishioners attend or stay home is up to them.  

A Proof of Exodus

Quisling for Islam

A predicable and typical example of virtue-signaling by apostate Randal Rauser:

I’m guessing you have no Muslim friends because if you did, you’d recognize that the views you just expressed represent a selected portrait (one popular among conservative American media) which mirrors the uncharitable portrait of conservative Christians common in liberal media.

Your question — when are professed “Christians ever this bad? — suggests you have some rather dark rose tinting on your glasses. Professing Christians commit violent and un-christlike actions all the time. To be sure, you can say “Those aren’t real Christians” but then you fall into the no True Scotsman fallacy.

And the mirror opposite applies as well: my Muslim friends are loving and kind and thoughtful. They are like Izzeldin Abuelaish, the Muslim doctor who wrote a memoir, “I Shall Not Hate,” chronicling his journey of forgiveness for the Israelis that killed his family.

Of course, as you say the true Christians aren’t violent, you can also say the true Muslims are, in which case you can exclude Abuelaish as a false Muslim. And in that way, you can stumble yet again into the no true Scotsman fallacy.

A better way: you could choose to love your neighbor and treat them the way you want to be treated, to get to know some Muslims, and to set aside your stereotypes.

1. Rauser is smart enough to know that he's blurring crucial distinctions. The fundamental question isn't how professing Muslims and Christians behave, but whether their behavior is consistent with or even mandated by their authoritative religious sources. 

2. Modern-day Muslims routinely commit atrocities and social pathologies on a wide scale, viz. acid attacks, beheadings, female genital mutilation, sex slaves, a rape culture, honor-killings, jihad, martyring Christians, flogging women who refuse to wear a hijab, ISIS, Boko Haram. There's nothing comparable going on in modern-day Christianity. At one point Rauser tried to draw a comparison with the Rwandan genocide. 

3. We could go back in time to the brass-knuckle tactics of Roman Catholicism, which used to resort to torture and warfare to suppress "heretics" and "schismatics." In many cases I think their motives were sincere. They were being true to their religion. Of course, Catholic theology has undergone some drastic change since then, at the expense of internal consistency. I'm not obligated to vouch for their Christian bona fides. I'll leave that assessment to God. 

4. Islam isn't a sola-Quran religion. The Islamic faith is defined by the development of authoritative traditions and interpretations. 

5. Part of Rauser's duplicity on this issue is due to the fact that he's a progressive theologian who naturally sympathizes with progressive Muslims. Just has he rejects biblical authority, he deems it consistent with Muslim identity for them to reject their authoritative religious sources. He seems them making the same moves that he does. But, of course, that's hardly represents normative Islam. It just reflects the secularizing wings of Christianity and Islam alike. 

6. BTW, one of Rauser's tactics is to pick on soft targets. He will quote somebody who's easy to outargue, then pat himself on the back. 

Can the state cancel church services?

From two different conversations:

The question at issue isn't whether it's permissible to cancel church under some circumstances, but the circumstances under which it's permissible to cancel church. The abstraction offers no guidance.

I think that for many it is whether it is permissible to cancel church. So you affirm?

It's easy to dream up examples. Take a church near a raging forest fire. The extreme examples are an easy call. The coronavirus is more disputable because the projections are so iffy (for one thing). There's a continuum between unmistakable justifications and hypothetical threats with varying degrees of likelihood and severity.

If it is disputable, then you defer to civil authority.

No I don't. I don't defer to Mayor Blasio or Gov Newsom or Gov Inslee.

Since you don't explain how if it's disputable, you defer to civil authority, it's hard to respond, since I don't know your underlying rationale. We could probably go layers deep on the issue. 

i) If this is a Rom 13 thing, here's my general view of Rom 13:

ii) I'd add that even at a Rom 13 level, for Christian Americans there's a sense in which Rom 13 is mediated by the US Constitution inasmuch as submission to civil authority takes that particular form in our situation.

iii) If you subscribe to a generic deference to civil authority in case a public policy question is disputable, I disagree. That's too abstract. We always need to take the facts into consideration. If we know that a particular civil magistrate is a fool, we have no duty to defer to his judgment in policy matters. He has no wisdom or virtue. Indeed, we have a duty to dissent from his judgment in policy matters.

iv) I'd add that American officials have no authority to cancel church services. That violates the free exercise clause, further augmented by the RFRA. So it's not even civil disobedience to defy them in that regard.

v) There is, of course, a pragmatic dimension to this. We might defer to civil authority because it's too risky to resist. We must weigh the cost. Sometimes you can get away with it. If enough people disregard a law or policy, that often becomes moot. 

i) This isn't directly about a general right regarding free assembly but an explicitly guaranteed Constitutional right regarding the exercise of religion. The exercise of religion includes public assembly, but is more specific. 

ii) This is also about civil authorities taking it upon themselves to judge which kinds of goods and services are essential and which are nonessential, deeming public worship to be nonessential.

iii) I don't subscribe to mandatory evacuations. People should be free to stay at their own risk. many people disregard mandatory evacuations. That's a gamble, sometimes they lose the bet. But it's their life.

iv) Much depends on examples. It ranges along a continuum. Sure, authorities can shut down a building (including a church) with a gas leak. Or it can cordon off a road with a gas leak, indirectly impeding access to a church. 

If there's a raging forest fire, the authorities can block access to the area until the fire is under control. Temporary curfews are sometimes justified.

The question is whether these are valid analogies to an open-ended policy of criminalizing church services for the indefinite duration of a pandemic. Especially when restrictions about social distancing and essential/nonessential services are arbitrarily discriminatory. 

Put another way, there's the fallacy of extrapolating from clear-cut examples to borderline cases to increasingly attenuated examples where the principle becomes ac hoc and tyrannical. 

v) This isn't about shutting down a church building because it violates the fire code, but a sweeping ban on church services citywide and statewide.

Can Scribal Errors Account for Undesigned Coincidences? Responding to Richard Carrier (Part 2)

Red China virus

A kerfuffle has arisen over what to call the virus. I've been calling it the Coronavirus because it's a neutral designation, and one of the first quasi-official designations. If you want to be understood, you generally go with common, recognizable designations. That label has been popularized, and I have no overriding reason not to use it.

More pedantic is COVID-19. Trump has taken to calling it the Chinese virus to shine attention on the regime.  

I'd avoid that designation because it's too generic. However, there's nothing new about naming a disease in association with a particular region of origin, viz. German measles, Spanish influenza, Ebola, West Nile virus, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Cf.

Some people call it the Wuhan virus, which is more accurate but obscure, unless you're a geography buff. 

If I wanted to use an alternate designation, I'd dub it the Red China virus (or Chinese gov't virus) due to the extensive complicity of the Communist regime in contributing this disaster. However, "Red China" has Cold War connotations that will be lost on anyone younger than a Baby Boomer.  

“Here’s the lesson of the virus so far: Relying solely on government bureaucracy is insane.”

Claims that we see in the media that the US now needs to turn to “universal health care” are “fantasy”, according to Kimberly Strassel of the Wall Street Journal.

Here’s the lesson of the virus so far: Relying solely on government bureaucracy is insane. To the extent America is weathering this moment, it is in enormous part thanks to the strength, ingenuity and flexibility of our thriving, competitive capitalist players.

Government will save us? How’s that working out for Italy? … Crucial miscommunication in early days between the central government and hospitals resulted in a system that is now overwhelmed and rationing treatment.

The U.S. is working hard to avoid its own worst-case scenario, and the federal and state governments are playing crucial roles in coordinating resources, imposing public-health measures, and keeping the public informed. But the single biggest mistake so far came from the government. The feds maintained exclusive control over early test development—and blew it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s failure delayed an effective U.S. response, and the private sector is now riding to the rescue.

The “crooks” at drug company Roche had started on their own high-volume test in January, and were finally able to get approval from the Food and Drug Administration. Google is up with a website advising people on symptoms; retailers like Walmart and CVS are converting parking lots for drive-through tests; private labs are standing by to process them.

As for other “moneyed interests,” no fewer than 30 Big Pharma and small biotech firms are racing for treatments and vaccines. Moderna turned around a vaccine batch in just 42 days. Gilead Sciences is already in Phase 3 trials for its remdesivir treatment for Covid-19. Straight off President Trump’s announcement of FDA approval for antimalarial drugs to treat the disease, Bayer announced it would donate three million chloroquine tablets.

Meanwhile, the loathsome “multimillionaires” at Comcast, Verizon and Sprint are guaranteeing to keep Americans online for the next two months, regardless of who can pay. Adobe and Google are making remote-learning tools available to schools, universities and parents. U-Haul is offering free self-storage to college kids. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are suspending foreclosures. The list of corporations voluntarily offering sick leave, pay for contractors and vendors, work-at-home flexibility, and donations to affected communities is enormous—and inspiring, especially given the general financial distress.

Anyone who thinks this would be happening in a socialist America is smoking something. Government doesn’t have anywhere near the money, the speed or the creativity to stay ahead of a crisis like this—and the Trump administration deserves credit for embracing its private-sector partners.

Coronavirus is a stupid virus. The bet is that we’re not stupid people.

It started (we think) in filthy conditions, in a marketplace in Wuhan, China, where non-domesticated animals are caged live in squalid conditions and sold for food. It seems to have initially spread in those conditions.

So the virus itself is not the only factor affecting the spread of the virus. We’ve seen similar instances.

The Bubonic Plague bacteria was spread by fleas, which infected rats. Getting rid of the Plague included getting rid of rats and fleas.

Similarly, Polio was spread through contact with feces or when an infected person sneezed or coughed. Yes, we developed a vaccine for it, but around that same time, modern plumbing and sewage treatment helped with basic sanitation, and Polio has fallen off the grid as a serious concern.

In the same way, Coronavirus is spread by “non-viral” conditions. People with the virus cough and spread it. But Coronavirus is not a super-bug. It is a stupid bug. It has certain properties (which we know) can be significantly reduced and even eliminated in any environment by washing (hands, faces, things in your home) with simple soapy water, or simply by staying away from it and letting it die.

Sometimes this isn’t always possible. But doing so is a goal. And we now are in the midst of a major effort to remind people again to stay away from people who may have a spreadable form of the disease, and to wash their hands, wash surfaces that have been exposed to the virus.

Yes, “draconian” measures enabled places like China and South Korea to significantly interrupt the spread of the virus. But simpler measures such as these will likely be effective as well.

President Trump is betting that the Coronavirus is a stupid virus, and that 15 days-worth of attention to “social separation” and better hygiene will greatly facilitate the “flattening of the curve”.

That’s not the only response, however. The response we’re seeing is both massive and multi-faceted.

Trump as CEO is clearly in “git ‘er done” mode. For example, he has also called in Navy hospital ships to New York City and Los Angeles to ease burdens on medical facilities there. There are other (multi-faceted) military responses as well.

There is also an effort to enlist private enterprise as a counter measure to existing government (bureaucratic) ineptitude. The much-publicized failure in “testing” is a result of the fact that no one in the government has had the foresight to just go off and create and stockpile millions of this specific variety of test. Or N95 masks. Or respirators.

Trump as CEO probably had the issue of testing brought up, and he at first listened to his designated advisors on that, the CDC. “Yes, Mr. President, we can take care of that”, they would have said. The problem was, they weren’t prepared to do it. That process took some (valuable) time.

So Trump’s response has been to bring in a massive and muti-faceted corporate / public “partnership”, which included people who CAN do that. Large and small organizations alike have been enlisted to try to produce massive numbers of tests. Organizations that can enable quick and “drive-thru” testing at a retail level (Walmart, Target, CVS, etc.). And quick analysis and results through commercial testing labs like Roche and LabCorp. Along with a central source for compiling testing results.

Masks and respirators are now being mass-produced by major corporations like 3M and distributed by ThermoFisher, which is a large scientific catalog/distribution company. They have the ability to move to a “war-time” footing, in a way that is similar to the US’s production of bombers and bombs, tanks, ships, and other weaponry during World War II.

He’s also given the states license (by removing FDA regulations, which maybe involved congress) to turn States into “50 laboratories” of experimentation to create their own responses to their own individual needs. Each state can find its own version of Walmart and 3M and Thermofisher to facilitate their own testing and other responses to the spread of the virus.

Trump has mobilized huge numbers of different people and organizations to do lots of different things. At a federal level, he has removed obstacles such as FDA regulations, to enable the testing and public trials of existing drugs to treat the disease.

At a public level, we are asked to observe “social separation”, not to hoard, but to observe sound hygiene principles everywhere.

Out of this, some will be more successful than others. But we will learn what works and what doesn’t. Trump has been saying, he wants this process to be repeatable and scalable going forward. So if anything like this happens again, we as a country will have a ready pattern for mobilization.

We know the terms: “scalable”; “repeatable”.

And none of this is even beginning to speak to the financial responses.

Trump is in every way showing his trust in “the American people”. He is betting his presidency on the fact that Americans will catch on to the right ways to respond to a stupid virus. He is betting that Americans, by and large, won’t be stupid people. As more and more people recover (even those who are asymptomatic), more and more people will have immunity to the spread of the virus.

Hawk below has already cited a medical expert suggesting that we might find the fatality rate is “much lower than we have been fearing”.

And President Trump is predicting that, if that’s the case, things will get back to normal sooner rather than later.

Christians risked their lives to save others

"How Early Christians Saved Lives and Spread the Gospel During Roman Plagues" (Tyler O'Neil)

Love takes risks

Bob Cutillo is a Christian family physician. Crossway recently interviewed him about the coronavirus. I think the entire interview is worth a read if you have a few minutes. Here's an excerpt I appreciated:

I think what we see in Jesus's actions towards the leper, he didn't have to heal by touching. And yet, because he did touch it argues that somehow when we deal with people who are potentially contagious, there's a risk we're going to take if we're going to be able to love. But you really can't love faithfully if you're not willing to take risks. How do we judge that risk? I think we could further that conversation, but if we don't at least acknowledge the fact that the only way to love faithfully is to take risks, then we're not going to be able to get the conversation started.

...It's interesting because I think that when you read about how different societies have responded to contagions in the past, there's almost a universal in the particular: in every situation there are common reactions and the majority of people are not reacting in a loving way. Let me try to simplify it in this sense: right now, if you watch how people are reacting to the virus, there's two main ways—now, I realize that there's a lot of subtleties that people jump back and forth between—but there are two main ways of reacting and what's interesting is how extreme they are. One of the ways that people are responding is to be, I would call it, nonchalant about the situation. They're saying something like, This is not very important. This is nothing but an inconvenience. This is something that's bothering my schedule. This is something that really should not get in the way. It's just an accident waiting to go away and I'm just going to try to wait it out. There's this wonderful passage in Albert Camus’s book The Plague and if anybody has time—and you'll have a lot more time in the next few weeks—to read people's reactions to the Plague, they should read his book. One of the reactions is the reaction of the townspeople when the city of Oran first gets evidence that there's a Plague and it's not even getting quarantined. And he said this about the townspeople: “Our townsfolk were not more to blame than others. They forgot to be modest, that was all, and thought that everything still was possible for them which presupposed that pestilences were impossible. They went on doing business, arranged for journeys and formed views. How should they have given a thought to anything like Plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views. They fancied themselves free and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.”

...I think the counter reaction is the one that has excessive fear about the presence of this virus that is able to kill people. I think that you see a lot of that in people's responses. There's a great deal of fear and anxiety and that, I think, is something that the people of God can look at and say, Is that the response that I want to have? Do I have that response? And I think you have to look for yourself a little bit to ask, Do I have that response? because I think everybody's a little more prone to, as they pass someone, seeing that person not as a human being but as a potential source of contagion to them. So there's a fear factor that's playing out. Honestly, there's always fear when there's contagion in the environment. So the question is How do you deal with that fear? And is it realistic or is it free-floating and you've lost it? The thing that's unique about our modern society is the last time we had a virus like this was a 102 years ago in 1918 with the Spanish Flu. That was a much different society. It might be called the Early Modern society, but it was before the age of antibiotics and so that flu spread in an extremely rapid way and killed many, many people. One hundred and two years later, most of us don't have a personal experience of that, so this is a new one for us. But for us as an American society and for many in the modern West, this is a real disturbance to our well-being because we have lived for quite a while thinking that we are immune to this kind of stuff, that we have a sense of security and a sense of confidence about our lives so this doesn't make sense to us. In a sense, we want to push it away and we want to say, This is not the way our life is supposed to be. There's something wrong with this. And so we have an excess fear of it because we have never dealt with anything like this. We've been in the process of denying death for many years because we have been able to keep it hidden away through our capabilities in society to stay healthy and stay well. And yet this is a shock to our system. It's almost like we've been floating in a balloon and it's been popped and we've hit the ground. So I see a great deal of fear and I will name it and maybe explain it later, but it's really the fear of death that is before us and that's where I think the Christian can say, Do I have that same fear, or do I know something that others don't know that would change how I think about death and this situation?

...Basically for many of us, because we have lived in a modern society for so long, I would say since that epidemic of 1918, these last hundred years have seen the most incredible growth of our medical capabilities and the possibilities of delaying death, denying death, and conquering disease that has ever been before. But what that's produced is sort of a false ability that we can deny death, that somehow we can exclude from the fabric of our normal life any evidence of decay or death or helplessness. We've done that in a lot of different ways, and so in many ways death is something we don't even think about. We don't see it even as a necessity to be accepted, but more as an accident to be avoided. And so when something like this comes to play it's a shock to our system. It's even something that we get angry about and think, How dare someone disturb our sense of well-being!

I also want to add as I'm saying this that this is a unique perspective of only certain people in our society and in our world. There are many people in other parts of the world that this is not a shock to them at all. The presence of death is a part of their lives every day, and this is just another added danger. But for many people in the modern West who have enjoyed many of its fruits, they have somewhere along the line thought that maybe they don't have to deal with death and all of a sudden, it comes knocking on their door or jumps in through the window and they’re shocked by it. And I think for many they respond in excessive fear because they have never had an ability to even contemplate this possibility.

The mist

1. Just in passing, I'm sure everyone has already heard California has declared a state of emergency and is on mandatory lockdown. The governor mentioned the possibility of martial law, but later issued "clarifying remarks". I guess California is taking Italy's strategy.

2. It's interesting how life imitates art in our coronavirus pandemic. I'm sure examples could be multiplied.

A recent one is the film Five Feet Apart. I've only seen the trailer. The main characters appear to have cystic fibrosis, but that's where the analogy breaks down, because cystic fibrosis isn't infectious. Rather it's a genetic disease. But the social distancing fits.

3. Of course, movies like Contagion and Outbreak are obvious. There's likewise some overlap with the apocalyptic genre in general.

4. I suppose the pandemic has some parallels with Stephen King's The Stand. Thankfully COVID-19 isn't Captain Trips.

5. Perhaps one of the more apt parallels is Stephen King's The Mist.

Basically the film is about a group of strangers stuck together in a supermarket while an impending mist gradually surrounds them and traps them inside.

Man-eating monsters lurk outside in the mist. So people can't venture outside without taking their life into their own hands. Without risking death.

However, as scary as the mist and its monsters are, there are monsters lurking inside with them too: their fellow human beings. Which monsters are worse? Both are bad, but one is in the open, while the other is hidden. The difference between a massive fire-breathing dragon and a slithering snake in the grass.

We can sympathize with their confusions and frustrations at the beginning. No one seems to know or understand what's happening. They're thrust into their predicament after a storm hits the town.

Some immediately take on a "survival at any and all costs" mentality. Others are more selfless at first, but that changes too.

As the story progresses, we begin to sense increasing mistrust and distrust. We begin to see the heightened fear in their eyes.

We feel the growing panic. The fevered paranoia. It breaks out in yelling and screaming and fighting. People take sides. Form factions.

So, in the end, one by one, individuals are picked off. Either by the monsters outside or by the "monsters" inside, as people realize there's no escape. Death - or a worse fate - awaits them all.

6. In short, it's instructive to witness how some people are responding to this pandemic.

It's like they're stuck inside a locked gas chamber with the gas diffusing across the room and inching toward them by degrees. There's nowhere to run, but some people will still claw and scratch one another to savor a few more moments in the corner farthest away from the steadily approaching poison.

It's also somewhat reminiscent of Camus' The Plague as well as Sartre's No Exit.

By contrast, Christians need not fear death. We know this life isn't all there is. Death isn't the end - or worse. There is an exit. There is a door. His name is Jesus: "I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved..." (John 10:9).

Swab tests and blood tests

Nicholas Christakis has a good Twitter thread about testing for the coronavirus here. Thanks to Steve for sending it to me. By the way, I've followed Christakis' work in the past. He's good in terms of the medical science.

However, in case people don't wish to read his thread, here are what I perceive to be the main takeaways in non-technical language:

1. Everyone has been talking about "testing". What this means is swabs. Like they'll swab the back of your throat and your nose with a Q-tip thingy, then send it off to a lab to process, and eventually send you back a result. Swabs reveal the presence of coronavirus.

2. However, if someone has had the coronavirus, but recovered, then a swab test won't reveal the presence of coronavirus inasmuch as their immune system would have more or less eliminated coronavirus.

3. Instead, we need a blood test (serology) in order to reveal someone who has had coronavirus but recovered. That's because blood tests will reveal antibodies our immune system has produced against the coronavirus. So blood tests are basically testing or looking for the presence of antibodies against the coronavirus.

(By the way, that's generally how vaccines work too. Vaccines provoke our immune system to create antibodies against a particular disease.)

4 We need to be doing both types of tests. Swab tests and blood tests.

5. If someone has recovered from the coronavirus (i.e. there are antibodies present in their blood), then they are effectively immune from the coronavirus.

6. Also, they aren't contagious.

7. They can go back to school or work, go shopping, run errands, whatever. As such, Christakis argues, it would be good for our economy and society if we can prioritize finding out who is immune to the coronavirus so we can send people back into the work force and so on.

8. What's more, as there are more immune people walking around, this will confer a degree of herd immunity on society at large. The immune will be like a buffer to keep others from getting infected with coronavirus.

(Again, this is the same with vaccination in general. For example, if some people aren't vaccinated against the measles, but if everyone else is vaccinated against the measles, then the greater "herd" will protect the "weaker" ones in the herd who aren't immune from the measles and prevent the "weaker" ones from getting the measles. That's because the measles can't spread through the entire population unchecked if enough people are vaccinated and immune to the measles. The measles can't cut through a community if it hits a wall of immune people.)

9. When we have tested a representative sample of people, we will be able to have more accurate statistics. Christakis states we might find the fatality rate is "much lower than we have been fearing".

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Yes, Richard Carrier, There Are Undesigned Coincidences (Part 1)

Unconcerned about constitutional rights

I recently saw a political conservative (as well as Reformed Christian) state the following on Twitter:

Given the current health crisis, no one is currently concerned about constitutional rights.

1. I don't understand how any full-blooded American could ever say something like this. The Constitution and Bill of Rights were forged in the wake of war. In the midst of a fledgling nation threatened to be torn apart from internal strife. Surrounded by opportunistic enemies (e.g. British, French, Spanish). Facing outbreak after outbreak of disease which afflicted Americans in general as well as American soldiers defending the nation. Perhaps the most fearsome of the diseases at the time was smallpox. Smallpox is scarier than coronavirus. It had a higher transmission rate (R0) and fatality rate (CFR). (Thankfully we eradicated smallpox a few decades ago.) Yet, despite all these real and present crises as well as crises waiting to happen, including public health crises, our Founding Fathers were keenly "concerned about constitutional rights".

2. In fairness, the statement could be saying "constitutional rights" aren't even on the table right now. Not that we should be unconcerned about constitutional rights. If so, that's likewise something I don't understand. Why shouldn't constitutional rights be on the table during a public health crisis? If not during a crisis, then when? Only during "normal" times? Perhaps he's alluding to something like Lincoln suspending habeas corpus during the Civil War. If so, it's arguable whether Lincoln should've done that.

Coronavirus public policy

I have no public health expertise (e.g. MPH), I'm just thinking out loud here:

1. As far as public policies go, I think it's a bad idea to have a one-size fits all policy. I think it's better to tailor a policy to certain locales. Some locales might have low risk of coronavirus transmission while others are hot zones of coronavirus. As Steve has pointed out in the past, we should treat like cases alike, but unalike cases unalike.

2. What's more, there'd be less harm to our economy overall if many or most places can keep things "business as usual". For instance, not that I'm necessarily advocating this, but I'm at least using this as an illustration: if only impacted areas in a city shut down, but other areas remain open, then the city could still be productive and our economy less hurt overall vs. the entire city on lockdown.

3. I guess there's a tradeoff between how much we should take preemptive measures vs. how much we should take reactive measures. Perhaps there's no need to take preemptive measures if there's zero evidence of anyone sick with the coronavirus in the area. Perhaps places with no evidence of coronavirus can get ready so if there is eventual evidence of coronavirus in their community, then they can react with speed and purpose.

4. People argue there could be asymptomatic coronavirus carriers walking around in our communities. However, should we take preemptive actions like closing down stores and restaurants for this possibility? Isn't that sort of like worrying there could be a serial killer in one's community, therefore shut down everything, and let's start a man hunt?

Granted, it's an imperfect parallel. For one thing, there (hopefully) aren't many serial killers as a percentage of the population, whereas I've seen high percentages of how many could be asymptomatic carriers. Still, I presume that would more likely cluster rather than be diffused across the entire nation. More likely be nearer to where the outbreaks and hot zones are rather than across the entire country or even regions of the country. At least at this point.

Of course, if the virus has spread across the entire country, then that may call for different strategies. My concern is people are already fearing this without hard evidence of this. My concern is we're getting ahead of ourselves. My concern is that people are acting like there's an asymptomatic carrier hiding behind every tree or bush when that's not entirely clear to me.

5. At most, if we want to take preemptive measures, then why not far less dramatic or drastic preemptive measures? For instance, point-of-care testing at clinics alongside wider surveillance of affected regions. Stuff like that. And otherwise more or less business as usual.

Is it wrong to want damnation to be true

I commented once before on a post by apostate Randal Rauser (defending hopeful universalism), but I'd like to make an additional observation. He quotes J. I. Packer's statement that:

“No evangelical, I think, need hesitate to admit that in his heart of hearts he would like universalism to be true. Who can take pleasure in the thought of people being eternally lost? If you want to see folk damned, there is something wrong with you!”

There are three problems with appealing to Packer's statement:

i) It's a bogus argument from authority. Packer's opinion doesn't make it true. His opinion creates no presumption that it's true. 

ii) Whether or not I want to see folk damned is a red herring. The real issue isn't what I happen to think is best, but what God thinks is best. 

iii) Suppose there is something wrong with me. But if universalism is true, so what? Universalism takes the sting out of Packer's disapproval, as well as Rauser's disapproval. 

Is universalism the best possible news?

The second worst objection to Christian universalism: “If everybody is ultimately saved by Jesus, then why bother telling anybody?” 

Um, because it’s the best possible news. 

And God told us to.

And no, I'm not a universalist. I just can't stand bad arguments.

1. It's a pity that Rauser's aversion to bad arguments never extends to his own bad arguments. 

2. God didn't tell us to proclaim universalism.

3. Even if you suppose that Scripture teaches universalism, Rauser thinks Scripture is riddled with false teaching, so how does he know that God told us to evangelize?

4. God doesn't command evangelism for its own sake, but to give the lost an opportunity to be saved. If, however, universalism is true, then no one is lost, so the exercise is pointless. Rauser acts like we should mechanically obey the command after he eviscerates the purpose of the command. But God doesn't command things for the sake of commanding things. 

5. Is universalism the best possible news? Suppose Rauser unwittingly hitched a ride with a psychopathic killer. Suppose the psycho subdues him and takes him back to his cabin, to torture him for the next six months until Rauser succumbs to his horrific injuries. Suppose Rauser is very eloquent. He can either convince the psycho that there's nothing the psycho can do to him which will prevent the psycho from experiencing eternal bliss, or else he can convince the psycho that if he tortures Rauser for the next 6 months, the psycho will suffer eternally in hell. What's the best possible news to tell the psycho? 

Open-Access JSTOR Database Accessible to the Public

Disguise and recognition

There's an interesting and neglected parallel between theodicy and certain kinds of Bible stories. The basic idea of theodicy is that God has good reasons for not preventing certain kinds of evils, but his reasons may not be evident. They don't lie on the face of events. Rather, it takes imagination, a long-range view, or retrospective view, to appreciate the instrumental value of evil. 

By analogy, the Bible contains stories about characters in disguise as well as recognition scenes. They go together.

In the OT, some theophanies or angelophanies are God or angels in disguise. They have a human appearance (e.g. Gen 18-19; Josh 5:13-15). Their true identity might initially be revealed to the reader (e.g. Gen 18:1), but concealed to characters in the narrative until they say or do something that discloses their supernatural identity (divine or angelic), like when the angels blind the Sodomites (Gen 19:11).

So initial disguise leads to a recognition scene, when it dawns on characters that these apparently human visitors are supernatural beings. There's more to it than meets the eye.

We see the same pattern in the NT. For instance, both Mark and John introduce Jesus to the reader as the coming of Yahweh or Yahweh Incarnate. But outwardly, Jesus just seems to be a man. It's only as he begins to say and do certain things that a dawning awareness occurs that there's more to Jesus than meets the eye. They discover things about him that don't lie on the surface. 

Recognition can operate at two levels. At one level they learn what he claims to be, but some of them reject it.

At a deeper level, some of them realize that what he claims to be is in fact his true identity. They have an epiphany. 

This is a general pattern in the Gospels, although there are some dramatic disguise/recognition scenes (e.g. Lk 24:13-34; Jn 20:11-18).

This is analogous to the problem of evil, where there's a sense in which evil is disguised good. It's genuinely evil, but with the benefit of hindsight or a long-range view, the instrumental value of evil becomes increasingly recognizable. So initial appearances are misleading. There's more to it than meets the eye. You can't properly assess it at the time it happens. Rather, it has a larger significance that's initially obscure, confounding, or hidden. 

Let your peace return to you

If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you (Mt 10:13).

Here's an interesting passage. Normally, a phrase like "Peace be on your house" is just a social pleasantry, expressing the good will of the guest towards the homeowner. Like saying "I wish you all the best". 

These are ineffectual courtesies. A polite greeting. They don't cause what they wish or express. 

But here the idea seems stronger. If the disciples whom Jesus sends out as missionaries are rebuffed, then the gift of shalom returns to the disciples, as if Jesus granted the disciples the ability to confer an efficacious blessing on homeowners receptive to the Gospel. Not an impotent wish or expression of kind intentions. Rather, it makes an actual difference. 

Minimally, this means they won't experience an extra blessing of shalom. They will be in the same condition they were before they encountered the missionaries. 

However, the contrast might imply a curse. The alternatives are weal or woe. They will experience bane in place of blessing. They will be worse off. That makes sense.

The priority of corporate worship: Corporate worship and Covid-19

Destroy the village to save the village

Which Resurrection Evidence To Focus On

I've written elsewhere about the large number and variety of evidences we have for Jesus' resurrection. But it's often useful to narrow our focus, to present a more concise argument or to single out some lines of evidence to emphasize more than others.

A couple of areas I would recommend focusing on:

- Testimony from sources hostile to early Christianity. That can take two forms. You can cite individuals who were initially opposed to Christianity, but later became Christians. James and Paul are the two best ones to focus on, and the posts linked to their names explain some of the reasons why. Or you can cite sources who remained opposed to Christianity, yet corroborated one or more lines of evidence for the resurrection. See here regarding Jewish corroboration of the empty tomb and here concerning pagan corroboration, for example.

- Claims made by the early Christians that were difficult for them in some way. There's a lot that can be cited here. You'll have to choose which examples you want to focus on. Why did the early Christians claim that a resurrection had occurred, given how unexpected that was in ancient Jewish thought and given the alternatives available (a resuscitation, an apparition, a vision, etc.)? Why is the risen Jesus portrayed as having such an ordinary body, contrary to ancient Jewish expectation? Why are the early accounts so restrained? Why is the resurrected Jesus portrayed as retaining his crucifixion wounds? Why have a group of women discover the empty tomb while Jesus' male disciples are in a state of unbelief and fear? Why are female witnesses so prominent in Luke's gospel, yet so lacking in prominence in Acts? Etc.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

How Do The Dead Sea Scroll Forgeries Impact Christianity?

Hope about coronavirus


  1. The bad news first.

    Tim McGrew makes a great point here. This can't go on forever. It'd cripple us (if not worse) as a nation if it did.

  2. Peaks and troughs.

    Right now the prediction is the coronavirus (i.e. SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19) will peak in May, then start to decline after that. (However, to be fair, some argue COVID-19 could have an endemicity and seasonality to it, which in turn could mean more outbreaks and even epidemics again even after it peaks and declines.)

  3. Herd immunity.

    If the coronavirus infects enough people, which it looks like it will, and the vast majority recover, which is already the case, then we as a population would develop a degree of herd immunity to it. So this would delimit the coronavirus to a significant degree. Sure, there might be outbreaks in certain hot zones (such as with measles outbreaks over the last few years), but not an epidemic that consumes the entire nation like people fear now. It goes without saying it's comparatively much easier to control outbreaks than epidemics.

  4. Vaccines.

Prayer is the shortest distance between two points

Contrary to what they taught you in math, the shortest distance between two points isn't a straight line but prayer.

Indefinite social distancing

Here's an article that suggests things I can't endorse.
I'm all in favor of flattening the curve. I'm doing my part to promote–and to model–early voluntary measures to that end.
But the costs at multiple levels are already very high. And we are going to have to come to grips with the fact that certain proposals now on the table -- such as that we maintain, perhaps with little breaks, something like the present level of social distancing for 18 months–would come with a catastrophic price tag in human lives.
From farming to food distribution and logistics to infrastructure and public works to ventilator manufacture, large-scale, long-term slowdowns are going to create grave problems. Some people who would otherwise have lived out normal lives are going to die, not from COVID-19 itself, but from the domino effects from these other issues.
I have doubts whether we can maintain even the current level of closure for three months, both because of the dire economic costs and because people simply won't abide by it. If we do it for that long, assuming that the virus has been brought under control, we will find when we go back to our normal levels of social contact that many businesses are shuttered permanently. A vast number of people will be out of work. Some simple things to which many of us have been accustomed will be unavailable or prohibitively expensive, and maybe not just for the short term. Extrapolating those consequences to 18 months simply boggles the mind.
I don't have a solution to sell you. There are no solutions; there are only trade-offs and compromises. But some trade-offs are worse than others. It is going to take both knowledge and wisdom for us to figure out a long-term strategy.

3 top objections to Catholicism

Cameron Bertuzzi interviewed a Catholic apologist Matt Fradd:

Cameron asked him how Mary could process so many prayers. His response:

Just because we don't know the mechanism by which something works doesn't necessarily mean that it doesn't work, so I don't have any clue at all of how a YouTube livestream...But I guess I'd say God makes the prayers known to the saints. 

1. If we have evidence that something is the case, then we don't have to know how it works to know it's real. If something is actual, then it must be possible. If, however, the truth of the claim is the very point in dispute, you can hardly appeal to the claim as if that's a given to deflect the objection. 

It's not as if the intercession of Mary is a revealed truth. Divine revelation never says that Mary intercedes for supplicants. That's based on sheer ecclesiastical fiat.

2. In addition, the problem isn't merely due to lack of evidence but prima facie counterevidence. If we don't know that something is a fact, and we have reason to believe it can't be true, then that cuts against the credibility and rationality of the claim. It must overcome a presumption to the contrary.

Sure, God can reveal things to the saints. Reveal things beyond their natural sources of knowledge. But there are limitations on what even an omnipotent God can do with a finite medium. God can often bypass a finite medium to produce an effect directly, but if God is working through or by means of the natural medium, then that imposes a build-in limit on what he can do because creatures have built-in limitations. There are things God cannot enable a creature to do, due to the essential finitude of what it means to be a creature. 

3. Fradd says you won't find church fathers criticizing prayer to the saints. But fallacious appeal to authority. Although there's nothing inherently fallacious about the argument from authority–sometimes that's valid, sometimes invalid–there's no reason to think church fathers are privy to what Mary's heavenly activities. 

4. Fradd said that according to Calvinism, there is nothing on your part that you do. But that's a half-truth It's true with respect to things like election and regeneration. Beyond that, there are things that Christians must do to be saved. But in Calvinism, they make no independent contribution to their salvation.