Well, it feels a bit awkward to be writing again, given that I haven’t written anything in long form really addressing COVID-19 since the beginning of the shutdowns. It’s not for want of trying, but, as they say—the spirit is willing, but the flesh is wrapping up a major landscaping project, helping the wife with the kids, and working extra hours from home. It’s also tough to adequately craft a post when the warp-speed news cycle changes the conversation every few days.
I feel a bit like Elihu—hearing his elders bicker back and forth, biting his tongue and biding his time until, at last, he opines (Job 32:4-10). So, you’ll excuse if I’m a bit stream-of-consciousness here. And I do not mean to flatter myself with the comparison to Elihu; rather, I mean that, by God’s grace, I am endeavoring to break my relative silence in such a way that is worth the wait.
Some Preliminary Aphorisms
Before diving in, allow me to preface my remarks with a few theses outlining where I fall on the current COVID issues. (If you’re short on time, skip to the next section.) There is a time to play one’s cards close to the chest, and there is a time to lay them on the table, with any the necessary qualifications. I am not opposed to playing it close to the chest, but given the state of the current dialogue (“You hate old people!” “Wearing a mask makes you a slave!” “Orange man bad!”), I’d rather stave off any potential misunderstandings from now. So, here is my foundation:
- The pathology of the virus is one thing; the psychology of the response is another. The pandemic and the panic are both covenantal curses.
- As a result, one may argue for or against the level of threat posed by the virus without necessarily denying the threat to personal liberties. One may also hotly contend for personal liberties without becoming, of necessity, a flat-earther. It is possible, after all, to face threats to our civilization from multiple angles.
- The virus is more transmissible than we thought it was, but less lethal. For a certain segment of the population, there can be dramatic and potentially lethal effects. Tragic deaths have occurred, and we ought to weep with those who weep (Rom. 12:15).
- At the same time, the virus is not an equal opportunity killer. Among those most at risk are the elderly, the immunocompromised, and those with comorbidities. More than 40 serology studies have begun to paint the picture that the vast majority of healthy individuals are able to fight the virus. In terms of case-fatality rates, adjusting for unique situations like those found in nursing homes or in New York City, the virus is simply not quite the threat to most ordinary, healthy individuals that we were told it was. The pandemonium was unwarranted.
- A wide-scale suspension of common sense has infected the psyche of much of public policymaking. Natural herd-immunity was not pursued. “Flatten the curve” became, in effect, “Hide until Erskine’s super-soldier serum has cleared clinical trials.” In keeping with the spirit of the age, our egalitarian ethos dictated that Montana be treated the same as Manhattan. A rather bourgeois decision was made that pretty much everyone but physicians and Amazon delivery drivers should telecommute, resulting in massive harm to the country’s working class, poor and homeless, and immigrants and refugees.
- The pandemic has shaken loose a complex matrix of related issues, from religious liberty to the ideal of the basic right of self-determination, and the resulting cloud of confusion is dark and ominous. The cabal of media and magistrates has unmasked itself (as fitting a term as ever). The truth simply does not matter to the principalities and powers of our age. Why should we be surprised that those who shut their eyes to the inherent differences between, say, male and female would be equally challenged in virology and or economic forecasting? (Here’s looking at you, Dr. Levine.)
That said, I’ve spent the last few weeks collecting metaphors—biblical metaphors capturing the state of our society, smooth stones to lop into the giant’s forehead at the right time. And there are enough of these to fill a small volume.
- Like David, we were ripe for judgment and given a choice between natural disaster or human disaster, but, unlike David, we foolishly chose the latter (1 Chron. 21:8-17).
- As our cultural moment has degenerated from dire to absurd, we see on the one hand the priests of scientism wailing and cutting themselves to be heard by their gods, unwilling to admit that the models are deaf and dumb (1 Kings 18:28-29). Conversely, we also have a shortage of prophets willing to break out the polemical potty jokes in the cause of righteousness (1 Kings 18:27).
- That reliable information is so hard to find is not a separate problem but is a self-same part of God’s passive judgment on a people who no longer care for truth. Yet we should not mistake an apparent lack of prophetic voices for an actual lack thereof, because it’s also difficult to maintain a serrated prophetic edge in a culture that parodies itself. Like the Jewish leaders of Christ’s day, our intellectual elite constantly want it both ways. “‘But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn”’” (Matt. 11:16-17). Cloth masks are really just petri dishes, but we’re mandating them. Trust Dr. Fauci, but only when he’s speaking ex cathedra. The death toll is comparable to a flu season, except when it isn’t. Models are unreliable, except when they align with our political aspirations. Be a good Romans 13 Christian and obey Caesar, but looting is understandable. Our blue-checkmark philosopher-kings want to have their cake, eat it too, then take that special pill they have in Panem to do it all over again.
- Given permission (?) by President Cyrus to return to church at last late in May, we are returning from exile to rebuild, as it were, our houses of worship—and as it was in the days of Ezra, so now we find that the glory of the latter house pales in comparison to the memory of the former, and the shouts of joy are all muddled together with the cacophony of weeping (Ezra 3:13).
The Bible is given to us as more than a manual on cultural color-commentary, of course; its whole purpose and end is the Person of Christ (Luke 24:44-47; John 5:39). But Christ is also our wisdom from God (1 Cor. 1:30), and wisdom fills its whole house with treasures (Prov. 24:4). And so there is no shortage of insight to gain by holding the photonegative of our inverted generation up to the light of holy writ.
Yet, in an ironic twist of fate, our prophets are beauticians and barbers, while too many pastors and politicians, our would-be watchmen on the wall, anxiously pace that wall nail-biting and hair-pulling.
Oh yes, I had forgotten, this is all by way of prologue.
Allow me to return to an earlier point made in passing regarding masks. Though I’ve been known to opine on the internets, I am not a virologist, and I am still waiting for my honorary M.D. from Twitter. But it doesn’t take a medical professional to realize that reusable cloth masks, hand-crocheted and oft-touched, are less than sterile. This is not to say they are altogether useless. Let me go on the record and say that there are both good and bad reasons to wear or not wear a mask. Good reasons to don a mask include protecting the vulnerable, patiently complying with employer regulations, or avoiding a spat with the grocery store bouncer. Then there are the bad reasons to wear one—blind, undiscerning panic, for instance.
But when I think of Scriptural admonitions about infected cloths, Isaiah 64:6 comes to mind: “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.”
This rather opaque metaphor calls for us to engage in a bit of biblical theology. Throughout the story of Scripture, the abstracts of guilt, innocence, honor, and shame intersect in the image of clothing.
- Man, in his sinless state, was naked and without shame (Gen. 2:25). When he ate the forbidden fruit and incurred guilt, his first impulse was to conceal his shame with fig leaves (3:7).
- Man’s makeshift garments proving insufficient, God promised a Savior and provided skins in their stead (v. 21)—teaching the infant race that only shed blood covers the shame of sin (Heb. 9:22).
- Noah, himself a type of Adam given a flood-washed world to subdue and populate, also sinned with fruit and found himself naked and ashamed (Gen. 9:21).
- The people of Israel were proverbially naked, bloody, and abandoned until Yahweh found her, clothed her, and adorned her with beauty in the exodus and striking of the Siniatic covenant (Ez. 16:1-14).
- The Levitical priests were given careful instructions on concealing themselves while performing their ministerial duties (20:26) and special garments signifying their consecration before a holy God (28:2ff).
- When the nation broke the covenant, her wanton idolatry was like the nakedness of a prostitute, which God then in fitting discipline allowed to be paraded before the pagan nations (Ez. 16:35-39, 23:1ff).
- After the nation broke the covenant, fell into exile, and returned to its homeland, Zechariah saw in prophetic vision the high priest Joshua standing before God clothed in filthy rags. But when Satan brings accusation against Joshua, the angel of the Lord orders that spotless garments be given to him instead—a picture of the divine forgiveness, cleansing, and restoration ultimately fulfilled in Christ (Zech. 3:1-5).
Yes, right—back to the masks. The idiom “virtue signaling” has caught on so quickly that to apply it here seems trite—a bit too on-the-nose, perhaps. After all, one may say, if one is virtuous, is it so wrong for that to be seen? Are we not to so shine our light before others that they would see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven (Matt. 5:16)?
But one need look no further than the local grocery store to see that signaling virtue is really much of what is happening with the use of masks. One shopper believes fully in mask wearing and straps on his N95, above the nose and all. Another shopper really just wants to grab a gallon of milk and avoid judgment, so she dons her bandana. But in any crowd, there are those for whom the mask mostly symbolic of the statement: See, I value life. Dr. Fauci admitted as much last week. And among the more radical are those brave citizens who chase non-mask wearers out of grocery stores with expletive-laced tirades, then remove their mask to sneeze, and whatnot.
Selective scrupulosity is the inevitable byproduct of a seared collective conscience. Having swallowed whole the Roe decision and the bitter fruit of more than 60 million dead, we strap fig leaves over our mouths. Having shut our eyes to the poor, the orphan, the sex-trafficked, and the oppressed, we don the finest vestments, broaden our phylacteries, tithe mint and dill, and pluck specks from the eyes of our unmasked brothers. Having declared sodomy and fornication “clean,” we go out and about in broad daylight in full surgical garb.
“Selective scrupulosity is the inevitable byproduct of a seared collective conscience.” —@ajkocmanTweet
For those to whom a mask is a mere symbol of virtue, such deeds are indeed filthy rags. The term Isaiah used (עִדִּ֖ים) properly refers to used menstrual rags. Equally foul are our attempts to whitewash our sin as a people. No soiled cloth can signal enough virtue to appease a holy God. No fig leaves can cover this nakedness.
I again feel it is necessary to remind my readers that none of this is a commentary on the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of masks. That depends entirely on which experts you happen to read at any given moment. Masks work; masks don’t work; all hail masks. This confusion actually underscores my point: for far too many, this isn’t about health. For many, it is about adorning ourselves in self-righteous rags.
But If You Need a Covering…
Our disease is more than skin-deep; it infects the heart itself. What we need is a covering not only for the body but the soul. And for those in search of such a covering, the only answer is Christ.
“No soiled cloth can signal enough virtue to appease a holy God. No fig leaves can cover this nakedness.” —@ajkocmanTweet
Christ, the great physician and all-wise king, inhaled a toxic gulp of his people’s sin, guilt, shame, and death on the cross. Stripped naked himself, he hung on hateful display while corrupt law enforcement gambled over his priestly undergarments. Yet in the process, he adorned us with his own robes of righteousness (Is. 61:10). “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). He decks out his people in white like a pure, virgin bride (Is. 51:2, Rev. 21:2). He purifies us down to the deepest, guilt-ridden part of the conscience—“I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you” (Ez. 36:25). He beckons us wash in his healing, convalescent blood. “Blessed are those who wash their robes” (Rev. 22:14).
One last aside: all this talk of blood sacrifice, purity, and atonement tends to fall on secular ears as the troglodyte ramblings of a divine child abuser. But our nation’s tsunamic surge in tyrannical dictates, juxtaposed against the real injustices flooding our streets, reveals an inescapable principle at play. It is not a matter of whether we will have purity laws, but which purity laws we will enact. Either we will have the fear-ridden edicts of unelected bureaucrats, coupled with a good bit of hypocritical comedic irony, or we will seek to apply the law of Christ. The issue of biblical law is never far downstream from our present controversies.
And on this point, we must be bold in announcing that only God’s law has provision for atonement: faith in the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ. Man’s law offers no such provision—only heavy burdens, hard to bear (Matt. 23:4).
By all means, believe credible scientific data and take whatever precautions you agree to be necessary between yourself, your family, and your God. But the perfect hindsight of eternity will show that only the imputed righteousness of Christ alone can suffice as a covering for a people as guilty as we. And his righteousness is the only virtue worth signaling.