Covid Vaccines #5: Why It Matters

Over the last couple weeks, I’ve written about 12,000 words making a case for covid vaccination, arguing we can generally trust the official data, that covid vaccines are effective, and that we have good reason to believe they are generally safe. Perhaps it seems odd, then, for me to reiterate that my greatest hope for this short series truly isn’t to convince anyone to get vaccinated. I do think vaccination is wise, for the reasons I’ve laid out. But my greatest, overarching concern, the concern which has troubled me for months, is that a great number of evangelical Christians have been blatantly misled by people they trust.

I cannot tell you with 100% certainty that vaccination is the right choice. I think it is, but I may be wrong. I may be mistaken about some facts, or missing other facts, or simply coming to the wrong conclusion. So I am not certain I am right about all this. But I am absolutely certain that many widely held beliefs among American evangelicals are objectively wrong—not in the debatable sense of “I disagree with your conclusions,” but simply, factually, plainly false.

If people truly understand the available information about covid and vaccination—maybe even facts I’m unaware of, facts that demonstrate I’m wrong—and then make an informed decision not to be vaccinated, I’m not especially worried about that. I don’t think civilization is going to collapse if we can’t figure out how to jab every human being on the planet (though I do think an honest, informed look at the available facts would lead most people to get vaccinated, to everyone’s benefit).

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Covid Vaccines #4: Are They Safe?

In the previous post, I looked at the latest available data to see if the covid vaccines are effective. Despite challenges from the new delta variant, it is hard to dispute that the vaccines remain remarkably good at preventing infections, or, in the case of relatively rare breakthrough infections, preventing hospitalizations and deaths. If you want to protect yourself and those around you from covid, it makes sense to get vaccinated… unless the vaccine itself is a significant threat to your health.

I have waited until the end of this little series on covid vaccines to talk about safety issues for a couple reasons. First, I think this is one of the most difficult objections to engage, because it is an emotionally charged issue tied up with sad stories we’ve heard from friends or seen circulating on social media. One can’t—and shouldn’t!—simply dump a pile of safety studies on someone convinced that the vaccines injured or killed someone they love. However, our responsibility before God as stewards of our own health and of our neighbors’ wellbeing means we do have a responsibility to think carefully about even such difficult stories.

This brings me to the second reason I wanted to address safety issues last. As I have surveyed some of the main arguments against the vaccines in my earlier posts, I wanted you to see the way in which motivated reasoning and carelessness with the truth have so polluted this debate for more than a year. Many who should have known better have negligently passed along bad “facts” without much apparent effort at verification, simply because the claims fit a narrative they assumed to be true.

This blizzard of misinformation has, of course, been reinforced by Dr. Fauci’s self-confessed dishonesty, by the hypocrisy and abuse of authority by many in power, and by very reasonable skepticism about the trustworthiness of our government, the media, and Big Pharma. In a low-trust environment, we are mentally primed to believe the worst.

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Covid Vaccines #3: Do They Work?

In my previous article in this series, I looked at whether we can trust the data on covid and vaccination. That is a very important question, and if you aren’t sure about it, I would encourage you to go read that piece first. The short version: Challenges with testing and reporting mean case counts are more like estimates than exact tallies, but the more important figures for deaths and hospitalizations seem generally trustworthy. Also, the rumor that the CDC is counting vaccinated and unvaccinated cases differently is based on a misunderstanding of a completely different data collection program. Looking at the reporting systems in place, and cross-referencing the official picture with other real-world data, there doesn’t seem to be a good reason to doubt the basic picture of the pandemic which is presented by the official numbers.

In this post, I’ll look at what the numbers tell us about vaccine efficacy. I’ll look first at whether covid is still a threat, then at how protective the vaccines actually are, then at whether natural immunity is better, and finally at the problems of waning immunity and the delta variant.

Is covid even a threat anymore?

Just a few months ago, it seemed like covid was on its way out. Now, not so much. This survey from Jim Geraghty (a conservative writer who has been a good source of covid info throughout the pandemic) includes many links to local news stories in states across the country describing hospitals strained to capacity.

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Covid Vaccines #2: Can We Trust the Data?

In my first post on covid vaccines, I made a case for why vaccination is the best way to love our neighbors and be wise stewards of our own health. However, my argument had a major weakness. I think most skeptics would agree that vaccination is wise if everything I assumed was true was actually true. It’s that “if” which causes all the trouble. Most of us have heard any number of arguments that the data about covid and vaccines is unreliable, or that the vaccines don’t really work, or that they are dangerous. If those arguments are sound, then the case for vaccination collapses—and some of them seem quite compelling at first glance.

In this post, I will look at one major set of arguments against the vaccines: that, for one reason or another, we shouldn’t trust the numbers on covid and vaccination. This is an important question, because our picture of the pandemic and its possible solutions is necessarily built from statistics, percentages, and probabilities. Because covid is only moderately lethal compared to viruses like smallpox or the Spanish flu, we aren’t going to see bodies littering our neighborhoods. The official number of roughly 600,000 dead is “only” one in 500 Americans. Even though that’s twice as many Americans as died in World War II, it’s still few enough that most of us can’t get a good sense of the magnitude of the tragedy by personal experience unless we work in a hospital in a hard-hit region. For most of us, our picture of the pandemic has to come from numbers, and if we can’t trust the numbers, we can’t even begin to discuss anything else.

So let’s look at those numbers. I’ll first discuss the overall numbers which inform our understanding of the pandemic in the US, then more recent accusations that the CDC is intentionally fudging the numbers to blame most current cases on the unvaccinated. If you think I missed an important argument against the accuracy of covid numbers, please share a summary or link in the comments and I’ll update this post if needed.

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So, About Those Covid Vaccines

Also in this series:

To those of you who forgot I existed or subscribed because you thought I was a recipe blog, Hi! I still have a year left in seminary, but, for the first time since I started at GPTS, I hope I’ll have the time to start writing semi-regularly again.

As I’ve considered resuming writing, I spent the summer vainly trying to find my way around the elephant in the room: namely, the world’s ongoing thoughtful little chat about vaccination. I have repeatedly talked myself out of discussing it lest I do more harm than good, but after a lot of thought and prayer I have decided to start blogging again by embracing the covid elephant instead of dancing around it.

Let me start by saying that I am fully vaccinated against covid (thank you, Moderna) and I think you probably should be too. But my primary goal here isn’t to prove that vaccination is safe and effective, nor to convince you to get vaccinated. Instead, I have two main hopes.

First, I keep hearing from friends who are genuinely distressed and unsure who to believe about covid and vaccination. I cannot approach that question as a medical researcher or doctor, but then, you probably can’t either. We are both in the position of interested laymen, trying to find the truth in a haze of confusing data and conflicting narratives. And while I’m not a medical professional, I have spent the last 15 years teaching argumentation and research. That doesn’t make me infallible, but I hope it will make my perspective helpful.

Secondly, more than anything else about the past year, I have been heartbroken to see the anger and foolishness from all sides of our public discussions, including within the church. I am increasingly convinced that the controversies of the past year have been a divine test for the American church; a test we have largely failed as we have fallen into opposing camps, each defined by their loudest and least reasonable members while everyone else is afraid to start a potentially explosive conversation. Yet we are unlikely to find either peace or truth if we are scared to talk to each other! God’s tests are often preparatory, and I wonder how we will handle the next complex and divisive issue. Will we show the world what a difference it makes to be indwelt and sanctified by the Spirit of Christ, even in disagreement, or will we disdain those for whom Christ shed his blood? If I don’t change a single mind about vaccination but do help to bring some mutual understanding to a contentious debate, I will be happy and satisfied. (And on that note, please pray for my own wisdom and self-control as I write!)

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On Stewardship, Idolatry, and Dave Ramsey

Money

For many American Christians, if the Bible had an appendix, it would include a few books by Dave Ramsey. The personal-finance guru and creator of Financial Peace University is immensely popular, and rightly so. Ramsey’s practical advice has helped countless families get back on their feet after financial difficulties, or simply avoid financial difficulties in the first place. I have personally suggested Ramsey’s material to families and will do so again, but I always do so with an important caveat—because as helpful as Dave Ramsey’s advice is, any good financial self-help program carries with it very real dangers.

Ramsey’s 7 Baby Steps to Financial Freedom offer a good snapshot of the counsel he offers:

BABY STEP 1 – Save $1,000 to start an emergency fund
BABY STEP 2 – Pay off all debt using the debt snowball method
BABY STEP 3 – Save 3 to 6 months of expenses for emergencies
BABY STEP 4 – Invest 15% of your household income into Roth IRAs and pre-tax retirement funds
BABY STEP 5 – Save for your children’s college fund
BABY STEP 6 – Pay off your home early
BABY STEP 7 – Build wealth and give

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Losing Community, Losing Wisdom

Dinner party conversation

When political scientist Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone in 2000, the evocative title neatly captured a social disintegration which Putnam traced back more than a generation. Beginning in the middle of the 20th century, essentially every form of civic engagement, from hanging out at a bar to volunteering with the PTA, declined significantly as American society became more atomized and Americans became more isolated.

In the nearly two decades since Bowling Alone came out, we have become more busy, more mobile, and more digital, but no more connected.

This social disconnection extends into American Christianity, as professed Christians are increasingly unlikely to regularly attend church and even less likely to be part of a church community where they experience meaningful discipleship and fellowship. Like most of our lives, religion is an increasingly do-it-yourself affair. And among a thousand other consequences, this shift has made it much harder for us to grapple with questions which require wisdom.

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The Problem of Not-So-Sinful Second-Generation Christians

Happy friends

Our church’s liturgy includes a confession of sin near the beginning of every Sunday morning worship service. This week, our pastor borrowed the words of John Calvin’s Strasbourg Liturgy. Calvin’s confession ends on a note of hope, asking God to “blot out our sins and stains… producing in us the fruits of righteousness and innocence which are pleasing to You,” but it takes a hard road to get there, mourning that “we are poor sinners, conceived and born in iniquity and corruption, prone to do evil, incapable of any good, and in our depravity we transgress Your holy commandments without end or ceasing.”

Such grim language feels out of touch with the cotton-candy religiosity of our culture, but we use it because it reflects how the Bible speaks of sin. It was not Calvin but God who warned through Jeremiah that “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jer 17:9). It was not Calvin but God who inspired Paul to declare that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). The Bible is not shy about calling us sinners, nor about declaring sin damnable apart from the grace of God, so Bible-believing churches teach the same. But unless we’re careful, these scriptural truths can make the gospel feel less urgent, less relevant, for those who grew up with all the advantages of a Christian family and a Christian community and struggle to see themselves as desperately wicked sinners.

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An Internet Pastor Is Not All the Teaching You Need

Listening to a sermon on headphones

The Bible is quite clear in its expectation that being a Christian is a community experience. From the Lord’s Prayer’s appeal to “Our Father who is in heaven,” to Paul’s frequent references to the church as a single body with Christ as the head, to the institution of the Lord’s Supper as a shared, communal sacrament, the Scriptures take it for granted that our faith entails horizontal relationships as well as vertical. And not just any sort of relationships, but relationships within an organized local church. So Paul considered it a matter of utmost important to appoint elders over local congregations (cf Acts 14:23, I Tim 3, Titus 1); the same local congregations to which he collectively addressed his epistles. The author of Hebrews made it even more explicit, warning his readers against “forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some” (Heb 10:25).

The Bible expects—or rather, directs—that the normal Christian life is a life embedded within a local church body. That is particularly important for us to remember in our individualistic American context, with an internet full of rich, compelling, biblical preaching available for streaming to our heart’s content. When I can listen to Tim Keller or Sinclair Ferguson with the click of a button, why bother with a local church where the preaching is (let’s face it) probably not as good?

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Work Will Trump Family Time (Unless We Fight It)

Man with phone at work

My child arrived just the other day
He came to the world in the usual way
But there were planes to catch, and bills to pay
He learned to walk while I was away
And he was talking ‘fore I knew it, and as he grew
He’d say, I’m gonna be like you, dad
You know I’m gonna be like you

I first heard Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s In The Cradle” when I was a young boy, and even then I felt the poignancy of the lyrics, with the understated sadness of the closing verse as the now-grandfather is brushed off by his grown son. “And as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me / He’d grown up just like me / My boy was just like me.” As I’ve become a man, then a husband, and now a father, the song has stuck with me as a reminder of the terrible danger of prioritizing success in every area of life except the one which is especially my own to steward, to cultivate, and to love: my family.

I still vividly remember having lunch with a prominent figure in Christian publishing and asking him for any insights into how to care for one’s family while working in a ministry field where there is always one more good thing to be done before you wrap up for the night. This elderly, godly man replied, with tears in his eyes, “Don’t be like me.” He had learned his lesson the hard way, amid the ruins of his first marriage.

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