Listening In: Jim Denison


WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith. And today you’ll be listening in on my conversation with author and speaker Jim Denison.

Jim Denison is the founder of the Denison Forum, an organization which helps Christians see the news through a biblical worldview lens. I first encountered Jim Denison a couple of years ago when people started forwarding to me his articles and podcast episodes—often with comments like, “You should really listen to this,” or “You guys think a lot alike.” And I don’t know if that’s true, but Jim Denison has become a go-to resource for me. He’s written nearly a dozen books, including his most recent, How Does God See America? That’s a book he co-wrote with his son, Ryan. 

Jim Denison also maintains a website, The Denison Forum, that has his articles and audio. His podcast is called The Daily Article. 

In addition to these activities, Jim Denison is a resident scholar for ethics with Baylor Scott and White health, which is a large healthcare provider in Texas. And he’s also a senior fellow with the 21st century Wilberforce Initiative. But I wanted to have Jim Denison on the program today to talk about a new white paper he’s written called Life After the Pandemic: What May Happen and How to Prepare Biblically. During this time of social distancing, I had this conversation with Jim Denison from my home studio in Charlotte, and he spoke to me from his studio in Dallas, Texas. 

Jim Denison, welcome to the program. And you know, I’ve been wanting to chat with you, to be honest with you, for a long time. I read your book How Does God See America, which came out last year and was taken by that book. And we may get around to talking about that book before things are all over. But the main reason that I wanted to talk to you today was about a short little document that you put out recently called Life After the Pandemic: What May Happen and How to Prepare Biblically. Let me just start by saying, why did you put that document together? Why did you feel there was a need for something like this? 

JIM DENISON, GUEST: Warren, thank you. And thank you so much for the privilege of being with you today. I’m so grateful for your ministry, so grateful for what you’re doing, and I’m just glad to have this conversation with you today. So I’m coming at it out of two perspectives. On the one perspective, what I do every day as a cultural apologist, I’m trying to speak biblical truth to cultural issues. And of course, this is the issue of the day and helping process it biblically, helping us think through a biblical worldview toward it, was I thought something we need to be doing. And that’s certainly something that’s within our missional call.
But on a second level, I also serve as resident scholar for ethics with Baylor Scott and White Healthcare. That’s the largest not-for-profit healthcare system in Texas. I’ve been engaged with them for a number of years. I was on their board before they asked me to take this ethics position. And so I’m seeing it through their lens as well. As recently as yesterday, I was on a couple hour phone conference with the board of the Baylor University Medical Center downtown. And I know enough about medical ethics to be able to see this in a sense through that lens and have some access to content and resources that aren’t necessarily available just to anybody. And so I wanted to be able to provide some resources from that perspective as well. What we know about it medically and how we can look at it biblically. So those two things converged in the paper that you’re describing.

SMITH: Well, I want to drill down on that medical ethics piece of it in just a moment, but I want to back up just a bit and kind of look at it from a macro cosmic point of view, Jim, because one of the things that you say early in this document that really struck me and it struck me because it resonated with me—I mean, I already can kind of sense the truth of it—is that the new normal is not going to be like the old normal. In other words, a lot of people are saying, I can’t wait until we get back to normal and you are bringing up the likelihood that normal is going to be real different.

DENISON: It really is going to be different. It’s on three levels, we think. On one level, there are things that we weren’t doing before that we’re doing now that we like and so we’ll keep doing them. You’re, for instance, going to see small towns have a renaissance, as people are deciding that they really can work at distance and they can pay less for a house, have a smaller cost of living and be able to commute on a telecommuting kind of a platform. So, we’re going to see all sorts of changes that are happening around that kind of phenomenon on kind of a permanent basis. 

On the worst side of the three kind of ways you could look at this, we’re going to see industries changed abruptly, if not going out of business. Gold’s Gym, which is one of the leading gym companies in Dallas has closed its doors with no intention to reopen. We’re hearing that tourism is going to be down 50 percent next year. I go to Israel four or five times a year, and I can tell you they’re struggling there to know what they’re going to be able to do on the other side of this, because there’s such a financial loss right now they may not be able to recover. They’re not entirely sure of what we’ll do in the cruise industry or what we’ll do with flight and that sort of thing. 

Then in the middle, we’re going to see a new normal in the sense of things that we wish weren’t this way, but we’re adjusting as we have to. We’re discovering that we can do teledocing and telecommuting with our doctor, even though we’d rather see them in person, we can do this as a second best kind of an option. Within healthcare, we’re having to make some changes that may be permanent in terms of the degree to which we test people before we see them, the degree to which we have personal protective equipment more available to us, even though it’s burdensome and not very cost effective because we don’t know what this virus is going to mutate in ways that will be beyond the vaccines that will eventually come. So there are going to be some really difficult new normals. There are going to be some really positive new normals. And there are going to be some new normals in the sense of things we’re aware of now that just don’t exist on the other side of all of this. 

SMITH: Well, Jim, what you just said, I mean, every sentence probably could lead to two or three more questions, but I’m going to try to focus our attention a little bit on a couple of things that you said, and maybe relate them together. In other words, you’ve talked about medical ethics and telemedicine and some other issues related to bioethics and healthcare. And you also talked about the economy. So I’m going to ask you a question that maybe integrates those two. And that’s the question about when and how we should reopen the economy. You know, I think that there are a lot of folks—I don’t know whether to say “even conservative Christians” or “especially conservative Christians.” I’m not exactly sure what the right descriptor is here, who are saying that we need to open up the economy again, that we’re seeing protests in some states. We’ve seen president Trump even retweet some of the “liberate” hashtags. What’s your thought about that? When should we reopen the economy? Should we reopen the economy? What are the conditions that need do exist before we do so?

DENISON: Now, that’s really the question. That’s the operative question of the day. It truly is. And unfortunately there’s no one way to look at this. There are two completely different approaches to take in trying to answer that question and they see them on some level to be in conflict with each other. From the medical perspective, I can tell you that we’re nowhere near ready to have all the testing that we need to have on the three levels that we need to have it. First of all, we need to be able to test people that have had it relative to antibody tests that you may have heard about, the blood tests that we can do, that sort of thing. We’re nowhere near ready to know how many people have had this. And along with that, how immune they are, if they’ve had it. With the way the virus is mutating right now, we’re not certain if they have antibody protection, and if so for how long and therefore are they safe to go out.

So let’s just assume for a moment that those that have had COVID, even if they weren’t symptomatic, are on some level immune to it, and therefore could go back out into the economy. We don’t know who those people are. We don’t know who is asymptomatic, but is nonetheless contagious right now. 25 to 50 percent of people with COVID never presented symptoms on such a level as would require medical care, but yet there at the same time, infectious. We don’t know who those people are. We don’t know who the people are that have underlying health conditions, such that they could be especially susceptible to that. They could have high blood pressure, for instance, which is a major indicator here and not know it. They could be dealing with prediabetic conditions and not know it. And so if I’m only answering from a medical perspective, I would tell you we need to do a great deal more than we’re doing now, before we start putting people out, because we don’t have any therapies, we don’t have treatments, and we don’t have it—we’re a long way away from a vaccine. 

Now, shift gears entirely. Medical health is not the only way to measure health. You’re thinking about depression rates. You’re thinking about mental health conditions in a larger sense of all of that. And as we continue to stay inside, how much more difficult that becomes from a healthcare perspective, not to mention the obvious financial consequences of continuing to do this. So, if I’m getting to a bottom line, my guess is that we’re going to have to reopen the economy for financial reasons, for mental health reasons, for familiar reasons, for cultural reasons, sooner than we wish we had to, from a medical perspective. If we waited until we had a vaccine, which is the ultimate safety, and then all 7 billion people were vaccinated, it could be at least a year until then. And we clearly can’t wait that long. 

So, my bottom line is we’re in the middle here. We’re going to open more quickly than we wish we were medically, but not as quickly as we wish we were financially. We’re kind of in that middle place where neither side is happy, but both sides are at least moving forward.

SMITH: Well, you know, Jim, I’ve thought about these questions that you’ve talked about and I tend to be on the side of—I studied the AIDS epidemic, written a lot about AIDS, went to India, in fact, a few years ago to cover AIDS in India. I’ve been to Africa. I went with Samaritans Purse to Africa to look at the Ebola outbreak that took place there. So I’m by no means an expert, but I would call myself a passionate amatuer whenever it comes to these kinds of issues and outbreaks. And one of the things that I came to grips with a long, long time ago, is that we could make, for example, air travel perfectly safe. We could say that we’re going to put everybody in an oxygen suit and we’re going to put a helmet on them. And we’re going to put them in a little capsule before we put them on the airplane. And we could probably make most air crashes, survivable. And yet it would cost $20,000 to get on a plane and fly anywhere. So we, every day, make a trade off in cost between human life and money. And we’re not always even aware that we’re making that trade off or making that calculation in our minds. So, I guess my question is, how do we make that calculation? Because as you just said, we’re going to have to open sooner than we want if we make this decision purely on scientific and medical reasons. And yet, if we wait until we have all the medical questions answered, we’re going to have other very negative consequences show up in our lives. What are the biblical principles that we should use to make these decisions? 

DENISON: That’s a great question and it’s exactly the case where we find ourselves today. We’re dealing with what in medical terms is known as triage decisions, where you have less supply than you have patients. You have someone presenting that might need a ventilator, let’s say, and they’re really in three categories. In the one category, they will probably survive without it. And the second category, they will survive with it. And the third category, they won’t survive even with it. And you only therefore allow the ventilator to be available to that middle category. Even though the first person is going to suffer more than they would. And the third person will suffer more than they would. If you only have a limited number of supply, then you have to make that available to those that are most likely to benefit from it. 

I think that’s the way in which we’re having to process this right now as a culture. If we waited until everybody was vaccinated, then obviously that’s the medical solution, but enormous consequences. If we move forward as though this didn’t exist, enormous consequences. So, kind of the middle ground that we’re trying to get to medically, and then I’ll speak to biblically, we do believe that there are some things coming down the way that will reduce the symptoms of this. We’re looking at serum testing, things like that, such that perhaps we could get this to the place of the flu. People die of the flu every year, but the flu doesn’t keep us indoors because we know while there is some risk of severe illness or even of death, mortality, especially for pr-eexisting condition, underlying condition, we’re willing to take that risk in order to move about our lives. If we were getting to zero risk, we’d never get outside in flu season. And so we’re willing to take the risk because it’s a calculated risk.

That’s the position I think we’re going to move to medically. I know we’ll be there before we’ll be there with a vaccine. We’ll be at that place where—and, for instance, there’s a therapy coming out of Israel right now that looks as though they can effectively treat the severe respiratory effect that comes from this that causes 50 percent of the deaths. We think that has a good possibility of helping to lessen symptoms relative to mortality, all that. 

All of that to say there’s this middle ground where we’re able to do more than we can do now, but not as much as we wish we could. From a biblical perspective, there’s the same balance as you know. On the one side, scripture speaks to the absolute sanctity of every life. Every individual is a priceless value. I’m convinced Jesus died for each of us as well as he died for all of us. “For God so loved the world” means that God loved every person in the world that God loved us. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us, Romans 5:8 says. So there’s this priceless, inestimable value of every person. If you go that direction, then you obviously relative to this conversation would do nothing to risk that person’s life in the context of COVID. Now you’d have to apply that to air travel. You’d have to apply that to traveling in cars. You’d have to apply that to all the other mortality issues out there as well. The other side is the sanctity of all life, not just of individual lives, but of the communal life. Of life, collectively. God loved the world in a communal kind of cultural sense. Every image of the church in the New Testament’s a combined image, a body with many parts, a vine with many branches. So, I say all that to say the middle place to be biblically is where we’re protecting individuals while at the same time enhancing the community. And I think that’s back to where we are now, where we’re taking individual risks, as long as they seem appropriate relative to the larger value that comes from moving forward.

SMITH: Jim, I want to pivot in our conversation just a little bit and talk about some of the practical considerations, some of which you’ve already raised. Some of which you raise in more detail in your paper about the economy and sort of what the new normal is going to look like. And let’s stipulate for the record here that as Yogi Berra once said, “Predictions are dangerous, especially predictions about the future,” but given that caveat, I do what I ask you a few things that you mentioned in your paper. One of which is what do you think sort of the snapback effect is going to be? In other words, we see unemployment now that is probably in excess of 10 percent. It’s gone from less than 4 percent to probably 10 percent or more just in a matter of weeks. That’s unprecedented. But once we can get back to something resembling a new normal, will the economy recover as quickly as it has fallen off a cliff?

DENISON: That’s the great question. It’s a V versus a U. You’re seeing both sides of that. There was an article in Forbes just yesterday saying that as they’d done a consensus of economists, they were thinking more of a U shape where eventually it does get back to some new normal that we’re very happy about and can live with, but it’s going to take longer than the V would be. It wouldn’t be a snapback as much as it would take longer than it takes now to get there. Then there are others that are thinking with all the stimulus that’s being made available right now, with all the opportunity that new economies are emerging out of all of this. Amazon hiring a hundred thousand workers, Walmart hiring 75,000 workers, all sorts of new businesses that are coming out of all of this, that we’re going to be adaptable in such a way with some technology and such that we’re going to see more of the V than we’re going to see of the U.

I think myself that the answer to that question is region by region and probably on some level vocation by vocation. There are going to be people that can’t work at distance. And so this new distance-based economy is simply going to make it difficult for them to wait tables, going to make it difficult for them to work in factories. Automation is going to be sped up even more quickly. We’re going to see fewer people working in grocery stores as people are more comfortable from a safety perspective doing self-check and all of that. So we’re going to see some people that are going to lose their jobs and won’t get that job back. And depending on what age they are and how educatable they are and new kind of technologies and such, it’s going to be fairly a permanent thing for them. And that wouldn’t be a U or a V. That’s going to be a significant setback for them. 

On the other side, we’re seeing companies right now—Netflix that had a huge first quarter—we’re seeing companies that aren’t even in the V right now. We’re seeing Amazon Jeff Bezos that I think made $42 billion since this has started, I think I read the other day on a personal level. And so really, I think it depends on the region you’re in. If we’re having this conversation in West Texas right now, relative to the oil economy, for instance, they’re thinking out there, it could take a long time to get back to where it was before all of this started just because you don’t flip a switch on this stuff. In the airline industry, it could take longer than we want it to. And the cruise industry, it could take longer on others. We think it’ll come back more quickly and some will be better than ever.

SMITH: You know, one of the other things that you said that I found fascinating, and again, I would call myself a passionate amateur. I think most journalists are whenever it comes to demographics. You talked about the possible resurgence of small towns because we’re going to be much more comfortable with telecommuting. And that deeply resonated with me because one of the things that it seemed obvious to me for a number of years is that, you know, the mega cities on the planet grew up mostly in the 19th century and early 20th century, when we had to be in close proximity to each other in order to work together. That’s not necessary anymore.

DENISON: That’s absolutely the case. As you know, that was a factory-based sort of industrial revolution, where you literally had to work at the factory in order to have a job. And as we move from the farm into the factory-based kind of industrial economy, everybody had to be in these major cities. Then you had economies of scale that existed there with Edison and electricity, which was much more concentrated in major cities than in small towns. It just became so attractive that it was difficult really to sustain the agrarian lifestyle that had been much more true of America prior to all of that. Now we’re seeing a reversal of that. We’re seeing a world where I can have exactly the same access to technology in a small town as in a major city. I can pay a half or even a third the same for our house as if I’m living in Silicon Valley. I can telecommute and be able to do everything that I could do. I didn’t know that two months ago. I might’ve even disagreed with that two months ago, but I’ve discovered that actually I can. Employers are discovering they can hold people accountable to their jobs even more effectively when they were doing it simply by walking around and seeing whether they were physically present on the campus. And so we’re seeing a lot of changes that are happening at that point. 

Something else to mention is that autonomous vehicles we think will play a significant role in this as well. We’re going to see people that are living out two or three hours in Northern California, let’s say, or in Austin, Texas living a long ways away because they can work while they’re commuting autonomously from the day they get in the vehicle.

A good friend of mine has a son who worked for Apple in California for a long period of time. Apple had, excuse me, for Google. Google had a van that was equipped with its own satellite linkup. So, from the moment they stepped into it, they had high speed internet available to them. And their workday started as soon as they stepped into the van, even if it took two hours to get to the headquarters. And then vice versa. We’re going to see that play a role in this as well. 

All that to say, we do think, a lot of sociologists do believe, that there’s going to be a continued kind of interest in small towns, small town living for a variety of reasons. And these are just some of them. 

SMITH: Well, Jim, along these lines, one other area that suggests itself is the possibility that distance learning and specifically homeschooling might have a resurgence because of what we’ve been going through. Can you say a few words about that? 

DENISON: If I could take out stock in homeschooling right now, I would be doing so. I absolutely would. And it’s really on three levels. On the one level, we’re discovering a lot of parents for the first time—and both of my sons and their families would fit into this category—that they can do things with their kids at home that they didn’t know they could. There’s technology available to do this. There are ways in which this can be done. And so you’re going to see at least hybrids perhaps in the future where you’re seeing there to be some kind of collective school experience one day a week, or for this subject or for that recreation experience or whatnot, but for others, they’re going to be working at home. So technology has a role. 

A second role is what’s happening, especially in public schools from a theological perspective. As you’re seeing public school boards move further and further in directions that at least evangelical Christians are very concerned about—whether it’s teaching sex education to young children, whether it’s teaching LGBTQ friendly agendas in contexts that we’re not happy with our children—there’s always been a concern, for a long time, anyway, a concern among evangelicals, especially relative to public education. But they didn’t have the means to put their children in private school. And now you’re going to see, I think, a move toward homeschooling for that reason relative to theological purposes. And then I’m expecting, I don’t know this I’m predicting, but I think there could be a third level, which could be a hybrid relative to Christian schools and homeschools. To some degree they’ve been seen as being in competition with each other, but I think they’re going to be some ways going forward, where you’re going to see the best of both. Where you’re going to see football teams and marching bands and all the things that Christian school offers while at the same time, being able to work at home, save costs in the midst of that, take greater control of your children’s life and future kind of a hybrid possibility in the future as well.

 

SMITH: Jim, I want to step back and ask you a couple of more big picture questions in just a moment, but since we’re exploring sort of these siloed areas of life, you know, like small towns and telecommuting and, you know, education, there’s one other area I want to explore with you before I sort of step back from that. And that is the area of church. One of the things that has happened in the last month, I know it’s happened at my church, probably at yours as well. We’ve not been able to gather and I miss it. I happen to go to a church that experiences the Eucharist, communion, the Lord’s table, every Sunday. I miss that. I miss many of the communal aspects. And yet I also know that we’ve been able to make some adaptations and while I’m really ready to get back to my community of faith and worship with them, I can’t lie. It’s been kinda nice to be home on Sunday morning with my wife. And I’ve got some grown kids that have been in school—one in undergrad and one in grad school. They’re home and it’s been kinda nice. In fact, I saw a survey that said that while a lot of folks are using Zoom technology to listen to sermons and kind of participate in whatever way they can on Sunday morning that a lot of folks are saying they may not go back to church whenever they’re allowed to. And I’m wondering how you think this era and technology is going to affect communal worship going forward from here.

DENISON: It’s a major issue. One of the things our ministry sponsors is a thing called a pastor’s view. It’s a weekly blog and a monthly teleconference that we do with about 3,000 pastors from around the country and some overseas as well. This was our subject last week. Was that very question. What’s church going to look like on the other side of this? On the one side, there are a number of churches that are discovering that they can reach people they could never reach before. I know a church in California that had 8,000 in its online service before the pandemic. On Easter Sunday, they had 1.3 million people in their online service. I know of a church in Houston that has been specializing in families for years. When all of this started, parents found themselves overnight with kids they didn’t quite know how to homeschool, they reached out to this church because they knew of their reputation. And the pastor tells me they’ve been able to minister to thousands of people they weren’t able to reach otherwise. And so you’re going to see churches do things they couldn’t do before, or that they weren’t doing before that they’re continuing to do even more effectively. I think there’s going to be a lot of missional good that will come from this as we use technology in ways that will enhance our ability to advance the kingdom of God. 

On the opposite side of this, we’re finding consumeristic people discovering, you know, I can really listen to the best preachers in America now. I can listen to the most well-produced worship services in America right now. And I can do it from the privacy of my own home. I don’t have to even do it on Sunday. I can do this when I wish to do it. It’s available asynchronously, not just in a live context. And so I’m able to experience worship to the degree that worship is something I watch happen. I can do this in a way that’s really tough for my local church to compete with. There just aren’t that many communicators in small churches or local churches that really are on the level of the people you see on national broadcasts and that sort of thing. And so I do think we’re going to see some members that are going to choose to go that direction. If they come back, it’s going to be for crisis. It will be for funerals or weddings or needs for which they have a need of that local expression of ministry or such. 

I think in the middle, we’re going to see kind of a hybrid. We’re going to see people that are really missing each other, that are missing the parts of the body of Christ, which require community. And in a sense of being together. As you know, every image of the church in the New Testament is a collective image, a body with many members of bind with many branches and doing that together in the book of Acts is critical. So we’ll see people moving in that direction as well.

SMITH: Well, Jim, that takes me to my final question, which you’ve kind of already partially answered at different moments all along the way, including just now. But that question, if I may frame it biblically is just this: How now shall we live? If the church is going to be the church, if the body of Christ is going to be the body of Christ, if we, as Christians, are going to love God and love our neighbors as we’re commanded to do—the first and greatest commandments. What is that going to look like?

DENISON: That’s the great question at the end of the day, isn’t it? I have for years believed that God redeems all he allows because he has sovereignty must at least allow or cause all that happens because he’s loving. He always wants what’s best for us. If he allows anything he can’t redeem for a greater ultimate good, he’s made a mistake in allowing it and he can’t make a mistake. And so I’m convinced that God is in the business of redeeming all that happens in this world. I’m not saying I’ll understand that redemption this side of heaven. I don’t have to understand airplanes to fly on them. I don’t understand the technology by which we’re having this conversation right now, but I can believe that God is redeeming in ways that I can see. And in ways that I cannot. So the way I like to reframe this, at least relative to our ministry and the people that have been speaking with, is to ask, what can we do now in a new way? Who could we reach we couldn’t reach? What could we do in ministry in a new way? What is it that God is redeeming this to allow us to do for the sake of advancing his kingdom? 

There’s a spiritual hunger right now that people weren’t maybe as much in tune with before. They’re aware of mortality on a new level now. An unprecedented crisis is by definition, an unprecedented opportunity. So let’s reframe this in that direction and ask—it’s the old Henry Blackaby question, joining God where he’s at work. How could God be redeeming this in your church? What could your local church do in your community now in the presence of this? And on the other side of it? What could you as a believer be doing right now as you’re sheltering at home to be deepening your personal walk with the Lord, to be strengthening your use of spiritual disciplines, to be strengthening your relationship with your family? How could you right now be using social media to reach out to lonely people that are homebound and hurting? What could we be doing right now to make contributions of time and money to ministries that are able to reach hurting people? 

And then when we’re able to get out of home again, how can we be building relationships now that we can use at that point? Right now we’re investing in the future. Right now we’re making decisions that will give us an opportunity to be used by God in a brand new way on the other side of this. 

A quick analogy, if I could. My father fought in World War II. Obviously his life was forever disrupted as a result. The country was disrupted as a result. But a lot of what we learned through World War II is what fueled that post World War II boom that the country saw on the other side. And we can go into that. The patriotism of it, the technology of it, the business of it. We’re in that place right now. So let’s be praying: Lord, how could you use me to redeem this for your glory and our good now and in the future?

SMITH: Well, Jim, that’s a good word on which to close. I just want to say, again, thank you for your work. Thank you for this little document that you put together,  Life After the Pandemic: What May Happen and How to Prepare Biblically. I’ve found it to be very nourishing. Much of it I resonated with deeply. So thanks again for doing that. Thanks for your time. 

DENISON: So grateful for what you’re doing, my friend.


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