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Joel BelzVoices Joel Belz

We can’t count

A primer on numbers helps with more than just math

Not the least of the weaknesses in our national culture, which the COVID-19 pandemic is exposing and highlighting, is this: We don’t know how to count.

Big numbers embarrass us. Just five months ago, we went—largely peacefully—to the polling places and cast something like 150 million votes for president and other offices. Then, and since then, we’ve stumbled all over the place trying to get an accurate handle on how many of those votes properly went to each candidate. And we tied the political process in knots, especially in states like Georgia, trying desperately to make numbers say contradictory things they obviously didn’t mean. Like I said: We’re not very good with numbers.

Within the last month, we were told that 500,000 Americans had died over the last year because of the deadly coronavirus. How many of those, some of us asked, had died explicitly from the virus and how many might have been expected to die, in any case, from other causes? You mean we haven’t mastered the basic art of counting?

It’s not just those great big figures that expose our culture’s numerical illiteracy.

It’s in the middle of all this that the Biden administration serves notice that funding for the Social Security system will be running out sometime before 2029—just eight years from now. The numbers are vast, which is probably why no one bothers to take the warnings seriously.

Here’s a disheartening exercise you might try on some of your friends sometime soon. “Take this concept of a ‘trillion,’” you say, “and tell me how many zeros there are in that number.” Chances are good that no one will be ready with the right figure. Did I say we’ve become a nation that doesn’t know how to count?

But it’s not just those great big figures that expose our culture’s numerical illiteracy. A few very elementary figures will illustrate the point—and I fear that might be just as true within Christian circles as outside.

It’s historically the case, for example, that God’s kingdom work has typically been funded by the weekly 10-percent-of-earnings offerings of God’s people. Now, however, that principle largely has been lost to our culture. Most people today are as ignorant of tithing as they are of how many zeros are in a trillion. And the best reporting I’ve seen (among those who call themselves evangelical Christians) suggests that only a relatively few people give regularly, and that what’s given comes in at a level closer to 3 percent than to 10. Did someone utterly fail to teach them how to count? 

Or ask yourself what’s gone wrong over the last several generations in evangelicals’ understanding of “1-7.” Give each member of your church’s youth group a blank sheet of paper and this simple instruction: “What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you see the figures 1 and 7? Write a brief paragraph on the subject.” People throughout Christendom have always had at least a vague sense that the way they behave on a day of rest maybe ought to be different from what they do on the other six. Today’s young evangelicals are largely uninstructed, and therefore illiterate, on the whole subject.

Or shift the focus just a bit and ask those same young people what comes to mind when they see the figures “1-1.” How do you get simpler than that? But watch out! You may be walking on treacherous ground. Not so very long ago, the 1-1 configuration almost always suggested God’s standard for marriage: “One man, one woman.” Today that same little numerical pattern is considered by a growing part of our population to be “hate speech.”

You get the point. I challenge you to compile your own list of numbers that are losing their meaning. Whether they’re meganumbers or minifigures doesn’t matter so much. Just be on guard.

Comments

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  • pilgrimflyer
    Posted: Sun, 04/04/2021 06:38 am

    Thank you, Joel. So true. Our culture and society are moving further and further away from God's design for life. The same thing happened in Germany in the 1930s just prior to the rise of nazi-ism. I'm apprehensive as to what is ahead for this country. Our focus and priority  as Christ followers must be to let the Kingdom of God shine in our lives to a decaying culture.

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Cyborg3
    Posted: Sun, 04/04/2021 02:22 pm

    Well stated Joel! We cannot count! Here is another figure that doesn't add up - the 10.5 million votes that Biden got over Obama. This meant that Biden got more numbers of blacks to come out to vote for him than Obama the first black President which clearly doesn't add up - even with a higher percentage of blacks voting for Trump. 

  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Mon, 04/05/2021 05:21 am

    Thanks Joel. Good thoughts.

    It seems that part of the human condition is that we want to turn everything into some binary debate, and choose sides. We don't read the Bible. Worse yet, we don't study the Bible. And to the Church's detriment, and God's dismay, we don't memorize His word that burns like fire.

    This reminds me of another number I, as a PK, used to hear a lot. 17:11. This is from Acts 17:11 which in the KJV, the biblical lingua franca of my childhood, refers to the Bereans who "were more noble" than those at Thessalonica as they "searched the scriptures daily." Also referred to as "STSD" clubs.

    We are more conversant with political strategies, and failures, election numbers, the US Declaration of Independence and Constitution than holy writ. Eternal life changing words, truths, and numbers, get lost in our passionate defense of American Exceptionalism over the Bride. Which is more important?

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Cyborg3
    Posted: Tue, 04/06/2021 05:54 pm

    Steve, you are one who looks at one extreme position on an issue, then looks at another and automatically plants your flag in the squishy middle ground. You then pat yourself and your compadres on the back claiming you are the enlightened Berean Christian.  Now I am not arguing for extremism for the sake of extremism, but today many issues do boil down to one side on an issue. Is the Christian position on abortion a non-binary issue? How about homosexuality? How about transgenderism? How about the anarchists AntiFa and Black Lives matter groups? How in any rational sense can anybody ascribe any good reason to get rid of the police? I look at these issues and wonder how a middle ground diplomacy is justified for these “binary” issues. Actually, claiming these issues are non-binary is compromising biblical values, which shows your position is actually not Berean in nature. 

    You also fail to recognize that the political issues can have a strong impact on our ability to function effectively as the church. Every day we see new approaches at chipping away our religious liberties. There is a continuous propaganda against Christianity found on the Internet. Our movies and media negatively portray Christians as intolerant, hateful, narrow minded, and dangerous. There is effectively a wall built by our education system and social media such that the gospel message is not heard by the youth and many of our kids raised in the church are leaving the church. All of these areas have political aspects to them which negatively impact the church. 

    I call you out for not being a Berean but being one who fails to see the battle that is before us. If we are serious about changing culture and winning the cultural battle and bringing revival, then we as Christians need to see the many ways we can accomplish this which may not all reside in the church. We need Christians developing movies that really get people to think through the issues. We need to develop Big Tech companies that are friendly to the Christian cause. We need companies who will provide services to Christians who are shut down because of their religious or political views. We need to develop institutes, schools, and universities that will challenge the secular propaganda that we see today. For example, funding an institute or university department focused on ID and/or Creationism could advance science to address real problems such as cancer, origins problems, pandemic response, search for life and a number of other areas. We need cultural changers willing to step out in faith and lead in the arts, business, education, and government. Rather than hide in our self righteous huddles, we need to go on the offensive with faith in a powerful God who does give us victory. At times it can be messy, and we may see ourselves working with people who are less than Christian but we will need to work with those willing to help us as God enables them.  I presented here options outside the church but there are a whole host inside the church too. I challenge you Steve to be a Berean and search the scriptures to find out “How we should then live”.

    Here I somewhat exaggerate Steve's point of view ( he is not all non-binary as his posts show) for he oftentimes writes very lucid posts. I only mean to challenge him to live more Berean like than he already is.

  • CarolinaJay
    Posted: Mon, 04/05/2021 10:11 pm

    You say "Within the last month, we were told that 500,000 Americans had died over the last year because of the deadly coronavirus.  How many of those, some of us asked, had died explicitly from the virus, and how many might have been expected to die, in any case, from other causes?  You mean we haven't mastered the basic art of counting?"

    I'm happy to inform you that the CDC does, indeed, know how to count.  The key here is called "Excess deaths".  Over time, and with a population as large as the US, it's possible to make a very well-informed estimate of the expected number of deaths in any given month of any given year.  Sure, there's a statistical "error bar" for this estimate, but the expected variation is also well known.  You will find this chart if you scroll down at https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/vsrr/covid19/excess_deaths.htm which shows the expected number of deaths from 2017 through today, along with the statistically expected upper bound of those deaths.  It's very clear that the Covid-19 pandemic really is responsible for 500,000 excess deaths.

    Now, some of those can be attributed directly and solely to Covid:  healthy, young individuals with no pre-existing or complicating conditions who died from no other cause than Covid.  For others, it's in the category of "excess deaths".  In other words, if we have Sam and Joe.  Both are 70 years old, both have diabetes, both have high blood pressure, and both have been lifelong smokers.  Sam gets Covid and dies.  Joe does not get Covid and lives to see another year.  Did Sam die of Covid?  Well, yes his death counts because without Covid he'd have lived to see another year also.

    Hope this helps,