Listening to The Dividing Line lately has been excruciating. James White, the host, is usually interesting to listen to, but lately he’s just been repeating himself and using an increasing number of cliches and buzzwords and fewer and fewer facts, especially regarding gay marriage. I have to admit that for the last couple of weeks if I hear him start in on Islam or gay marriage I will typically fast-forward until he moves on to the next topic. Listeners who skip him altogether missed a fascinating discussion of the primacy of Peter last week, but not much else.
One of tropes he’s been flogging lately has been the difference between the “culture of life” (in the Christian community) and the “culture of death” (in the broader culture). I’m accustomed to hearing “culture of life” meaning at least political (if not organizational) opposition to abortion and euthanasia; sometimes opposition to war; rarely any mention of support for say good nutrition or limits on pollution; almost never any references to homosexuality.
I’ll say just as an aside that claims to a “culture of life” are harder for modern evangelicals to make in the wake of the Iraq War, but that’s another topic for another day.
White repeatedly refers to gay men having shorter lifespans than their heterosexual counterparts; he sometimes goes on to suggest that any kind of legal marriage-like arrangement won’t lengthen gay men’s lives the way marriage does straight men’s lives. So I went looking for some data.
Back in June, Sean Gorman of the Richmond (VA) Times-Dispatch published a “Politifact Virginia” analyzing similar comments by Delegate Bob Marshall claiming that homosexual men live twenty years less than their straight counterparts [link]. Here’s the takeaway: there was a study conducted in Canada, looking at how HIV changed life expectancy among gay men in Vancouver over the period 1987-1992, and they had a life expectancy of about 20 years less than the baseline.
This was during a period of time that deaths due to HIV were rising substantially each year; these peaked in the US about 1995 [link]. Here’s Gorman’s quote:
In the United States, figures from the Centers for Disease Control show that the rate of HIV deaths per 100,000 people peaked at 36.3 deaths in 1995 and fell to 2.7 in 2010, the latest year data is available.
So far as I can tell there have been no substantial studies on the life expectancy of gay men since then, so if you’re willing to connect the dots the way Gorman does it’s reasonable to conclude that gay men in the United States are living longer today than their late Eighties counterparts in Vancouver, so their life expectancy is no longer twenty years less than their straight counterparts.
The truth of course is more complicated; gay men die of causes other than HIV/AIDS; they apparently have a cancer rate that is roughly double that of straight men [link]; during adolescence they attempt suicide at higher rates than their straight counterparts [link]; etc. But so far as I can tell nobody has updated the Canadian life expectancy numbers in a way that would substantiate the kind of claim Marshall makes above.
I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader whether White’s “culture of death” claims are as strong as he makes them sound.
A few weeks ago school ended and we had family visiting, and we took them about an hour and a half north to visit Taos, NM, home of the Taos Hum [link], some of the scenes in Easy Rider (1969), and KTAO, which has the largest broadcast area of any solar-powered radio station in the world [link]. Taos is also situated in the Southern Rockies mining area, and Chevron still has an active facility north of Questa on what is locally called The Enchanted Circle.
We were passing through a canyon near the Chevron facility when one of the visitors announced that the buckled strata we could see in the road cut was “clear evidence of The Flood,” by which he meant Noah’s Flood. We were then treated to a recitation of the ways in which a collapsing water canopy along with the rupture of underground water features could have produced the broken striations we saw in the rock faces around us.
I couldn’t bring myself to point out that while a flood may have produced some of the features we could see in the rocks there was no reason to believe that it was a particular flood, let alone Noah’s flood. It is my understanding that there’s evidence that New Mexico has been under water multiple times [link]; there are even mountains down south made mostly of coral. I have no idea how this sort of thing gets sorted out, and how people know when they’re correct, but I’d be willing to wager that there’s no good reason to point to a particular rock cleft and say it has any definite connection to Noah.
And this is one of the difficulties of growing up fundamentalist and becoming some sort of modern. There’s great value in having a simple faith, in prizing simplicity itself as a virtue, but I’m not sure this is what the Scriptures are meant to do, namely, to provide us with easy answers and to give us fixed opinions about things we otherwise know nothing about.
This is more or less what James White was talking about during a recent episode of The Dividing Line [link] regarding “being of two minds,” except he was dealing with the question from the other side, suggesting that science doesn’t offer answers to particular kinds of questions regarding purpose and meaning in the face of natural disasters. I’d encourage readers to give the episode a listen: I don’t think he asks the right questions, so as a result I can’t say he comes to the right answers.
As somebody who lives more or less with one foot in each world (a premodern world and a modern world) I think I have to argue that the Scriptures as we understand them answer one kind of question and Science as we understand it offers us answers to a different kind of question, and on close examination the two don’t really meet as neatly as we’d like. I don’t think it’s reasonable to ask the scientific method to produce answers to e.g. moral questions, and I don’t think it’s reasonable to ask the Bible to tell us why a road cut looks the way it does. And of course that’s just scratching the surface; there are plenty of questions left even if we have answers for those.
The first segment deals with an ongoing post-debate discussion between James White and Catholic apologist Robert Sungenis regarding the authority of the Roman Catholic Church to interpret Scripture and decide what is and isn’t orthodox Christianity. White’s description of his disagreement with Sungenis sounds to me like what I call for lack of a better term a conversation between a premodern point of view and a modern point of view.
In the premodern point of view an authoritative source decides what is true; in a modern point of view the authoritative source agrees with (plausible, verifiable, or whatever) objective truth claims. That’s the best description I can come up with, and when I use these terms that’s more or less what I mean. In truth most Christians as best I can tell live with one foot in one world, the other in the other most of the time. I don’t think the term “premodern” here is standard, but I use it because it is sort of the natural analog to the popular “postmodern,” which holds that there’s no central narrative, only local communities, and no absolute truth, only conversations. There’s also a kind of weak form of postmodernism that says that there is such a thing as objective truth, but there isn’t nearly as much of it as we’d all like. I tend to fall into this latter category sometimes.
This episode of The Dividing Line is also interesting because White wades into what he calls “convert syndrome” or which I occasionally hear called “convert as expert:” the tendency for people in category Y to consider a convert from X to Y an expert on X, not considering that they may have converted because they were a weak or lousy X in the first place. For example: we Evangelicals should have asked more questions about Ergun Caner as an ex-Muslim before considering him an expert on Islam. This is also a question that springs unbidden to mind whenever I hear a former evangelical, now Lutheran on Issues Etc. and I simply do not recognize the Evangelicalism (theology or practice) they describe.
I still think James White is a jerk; this episode of The Dividing Line is a good example of why I listen to him closely and regularly anyway.