Michael Lewis’ Premonition: A Cautionary Tale

REVIEW of Michael Lewis, The Premonition: A Pandemic Story W. W. Norton & Company (May 4, 2021).

After retirement I am deeply enjoying reading again at a level that I could not do when I was so busy. I just finished The Premonition: A Pandemic Story by Michael Lewis. Michael Lewis is the best-selling author of Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, The Blind Side, The Big Short, The Undoing Project, and The Fifth Risk.

Rather than an exhaustive overview of the pandemic, Lewis tells us from the viewpoint of individuals—a state public health officer, an epidemiologist, IT entrepreneurs and medical researchers racing to understand what was coming and sounding the alarm amid the complexity and disconnect that is American healthcare and politics.

It is a great read, as all of Michael’s books are, but it is focused on the puzzle of how our society was felled by the virus by our incompetence and inability to move quickly and unified, of deep distrust bred over decades, the politicization of the CDC (for example, it’s director ceased being a civil servant in the Ford, Carter, and Reagan errand instead became a political appointee, thus dooming any independence and functioned less to act and more to discuss and recommend.)

A quote That stood out to me was this one: 

One day some historian will look back and say how remarkable it was that these strange folk who called themselves “Americans” ever governed themselves at all, given how they went about it. Inside the United States government were all these little boxes. The boxes had been created to address specific problems as they arose. “How to ensure our food is safe to eat,” for instance, or “how to avoid a run on the banks,” or “how to prevent another terrorist attack.” Each box was given to people with knowledge and talent and expertise useful to its assigned problem, and, over time, those people created a culture around the problem, distinct from the cultures in the other little boxes. Each box became its own small, frozen world, with little ability to adapt and little interest in whatever might be going on inside the other boxes. People who complained about “government waste” usually fixated on the ways taxpayer money got spent. But here was the real waste. One box might contain the solution to a problem in another box, or the person who might find that solution, and that second box would never know about it. (p. 77)

He tells multiple stories about individuals who saw it coming or had extraordinary insight into how we might act and yet ran into wall after wall when action was of the essence. There really isn’t much about the usual Democrat or Republican politicizing for what followed.  Rather, it was the perfect storm of human inertia, oblivion, and bureaucratic lethargy.  His insight is that some of the problems came about because the solution of some earlier generation became a problem for the next one. 

I have seen this in the institutional church in my life experience. The hardest thing in the world is to kill off something that three people started 70 years ago and only two people are keeping going now. Rather than celebrate what it did and give it a proper burial, we perpetuate something because of our inability to say that it no longer is the best thing we could do. 

Michael Lewis

Perhaps part of the problem is our constant rushing past “endings” in life—to say, “This was a very good thing once, and we honor it.” Our style as humans is generally either to worship the mythical past as perfect or destroy it as the worst that ever was. It may be why we keep trying to turn genuine history into something else—control of the so-called “narrative.” Instead, our best efforts might be letting history speak to us completely rather than only hearing what we want to hear.

Another issue is our inability to think and act on the long view. The first real effort to build a pandemic response plan began not with President Obama but President George W. Bush. The problem, though, is that that it only became an interest during crises and then other issues would push it aside once more. The bureaucratic and political problems of the CDC and other health entities stretch back all the way to the 1970s and Gerald Ford’s administration. In our rush to the future, Lewis warns, we continue to sustain our prior lessons.

Some critics have debated the heroes he chose and that his portrayal of lonely and persistent people against the wave of indifference or hesitance is not fair.  Still, it is easy to see how what he says is true.  I came away with sympathy for all those who were struggling to come to grips with this—even understanding the tendencies of those who hesitated. Nothing is the same in real time. For those of us in leadership of institutions, it is a familiar pressure. It is incredibly difficult under pressure to recognize and galvanize others to respond to a crisis in a timely way. In these kinds of moments, you can never wait for all the information before you can act. That’s what makes these kinds of decisions so much harder than more routine ones.

For me it also brought up the challenge of community building. America has been tearing itself into tribal warfare for a long time, but while pressure is necessary for pushing us into solutions, it ultimately must be turned into actual concrete actions. For that reason, the deepening of genuine citizenship, enlarging our tents, and continuing the good fight to get one another engaged and involved rather than analyzing and posting might be the great challenge of our day.

I love everything Michael Lewis writes, and this is no exception. I would suggest that his prior book, The Fifth Risk is a great companion read with this one. It focuses (and genuinely sets the stage for Premonition) on the disruption of transition from one administration to another, looking at 2016-17 in particular, but more directly on the issue of “competence” as one of the great threats to our current existence. This is a book that takes a complicated story and serves it up well. It’s worth your time to read it, because this will not likely be the last pandemic we face. Will we learn?

We are, I believe, in a crisis, and the needs of this moment are for competence, cooperation, and authentic leadership. This is why authoritarianism is appealing to so many. The great temptation in our anxiety is to turn to the safety of giving responsibility to someone else. Far harder is stepping up to our own part.

Michael Lewis stirs all these thoughts and more. You ought to read this book. It is not so much a comprehensive look at the pandemic as a larger reflection on the costs of inaction and bureaucratic insulation that cripple us when institutional wisdom and clear leadership are needed most.

Returning

Location, real estate people tell us, is everything. To be DIS-located is, then, a threat.  When things come apart, our energies naturally go toward “relocating” or returning to where we were as soon as possible. A year ago, when the pandemic began, most of us didn’t really know how long it would last or how bad it would be. There is no need to rehearse the vast array of dislocation that has happened.

But what does it mean to “return?” While we are all eager to get back to normal, whatever that is, we have seen things about our common life and each other that we cannot “unsee.” There are more than half a million fellow Americans who died as the world struggled to find a solution. If we rejoice we must somehow also grieve together.

My wife and I were fortunate to get our first shot on Wednesday and we will go back in three weeks to get the 2nd. By the time we are able to be with our youngest grandchild again, we will have missed two of her birthdays except for online presence which thankfully has been a daily sitcom. Social media brought us destructive darkness, but also a lifeline of connection. So it is with all human powers. Everywhere, people found their ways to keep on.

I often think about the people who clean our water, repair our appliances, deliver our groceries to the stores, truck drivers and warehouses and loading docks and people who coordinate all of that movement. Highways are built by people we never meet. It is paid for by the rest of us and regulated by are law enforcement people. We have peered into our systems this year and learned that they are complex and vulnerable. Law enforcement, government and neighborhood have been tested to the limit. And nothing more than our vast system of healthcare and its heroic workers.

We have been through a year in which all of the ways that hold us safely together and on which we depend have come near to unraveling. And when things unravel, both the best and the worst that is in humans comes into view. We have been inspired, and we have been dismayed.

After forty-one years of fulltime ministry, my wife and I retired from fulltime professional ministry at the end of February. I include us both because ministry in a local church is “all hands on deck, all the time. So now I mark the beginning of the end of the pandemic with the beginning of a new chapter in my own life. I began my ministry at Vestavia Hills Baptist Church 27 1/2 years ago to a standing ovation in a crowded church on a July afternoon. I concluded my ministry of 41 years with a socially distanced room that was mostly empty, but still the most people I had spoken to other than funerals for a year. Perhaps it was fitting that it should end this way.

But like all that is best in the church, they found ways to celebrate a little at a time. They gave us a splendid and creative month of farewell. The leaders each week did things to say thank you and to send us out in a spirit of appreciation. We have also moved and are just about finished settling into our new place.  For three weeks we have been emptying out, downsizing, giving away, and reorganizing.

It is a fitting metaphor for this moment. During the past year, I preached for many months only to a camera and one cameraman while we sought to hold our community of faith together safely. The staff worked harder than it ever has, like every business, family, school and organization, to keep going.

I recognized, of course, that the world wasn’t simply going “back to normal.” The phrase “new normal” is a bit worn so I’ll pop in one from the world of family therapists: “neo-stasis.” Homeostasis is the term from the sciences about the biological balance of an organism.  When you live in a dysfunctional family, therapists say, sometimes it requires anxiety and disruption to move to a healthier place.

The old “normal” was not completely healthy anyway. No “used to be” ever was. Families, like cultures, are always struggling with their history, debts and obligations to one another. So are nations. We have a chance to renegotiate who we are going to be with one another and figure it out. As a Christian I would simply say that this renegotiation is going to involve proper grieving. And a lot of hard work toward real forgiveness and reconciliation. Some spectacular innovation has been forced upon us, and we will learn from it.

My calling moves to a new place. There are books to write, songs to sing, family tending to do. So, among other things, I am turning to a time of reflection and writing, and in this space over coming weeks and hopefully years, I will take some regular time to think back on a life given to ministry and spiritual truth. I hope I can live up to that. And my hope is that in looking back I might also do a little looking ahead in ways that help. As we return, oddly, to something new.

I’ll end today with a song from my last album, an old traditional piece, called “Hard Times, Come Again No More.”

Holiday Songs

Mark and I are finished with our album. I’ll post the release this week upcoming. One of the songs on it is a recent composition entitled, “Hope to Be Together.” It’s about Thanksgiving, but the mood and message reflected this unusual moment we are sharing–pandemic, separation, isolation and disconnection.

I will be releasing holiday and Christmas music over the coming days and weeks. After a bruising election, pandemic, global grief and sadness and economic hardships, it is not a bad idea to sing (even if we can’t do it together)!

This first one was part of a soundtrack I produced for an indie film by my former bandmate Greg Womble entitled “Visitor to Virgin Pines.” It’s a story about faith, failure and separation and the hope of reconnection with one another, a perennial prayer of Christmas, I think. It was a great short film. This particular song occurs as background to a section in the center of the film when the mother is telling her story. I did all of the music for the movie, and it was a new undertaking for me. I thoroughly enjoyed it. My bandmate, Melanie Rodgers, played the violin with me on the opening music.

Living Through Exile

I wrote this to our church back at the beginning of April. I hoped, like all of us, that we’d be “back to normal” by now. But we aren’t. So in looking back at this, it’s more relevant than I thought. We’re in it for a while. Hold on.

The exile in ancient Israel was a traumatic disruption.  The city of Jerusalem and all the towns of any size were sacked and burned, people scattered and all the Judaeans with any talent, leadership or education were marched across the desert to Babylon Iraq where they lived in an ethnic ghetto, not speaking the language or having any access to power, wealth and influence in their new land.

It was a time of terrible devastation. Excavations at Debir, Lachish and Beth-shemesh show enormous devastation.  No town in the south escaped. Many died in the siege, many died of disease and starvation.  The population decreased from 250,000 in the 8th century to perhaps 20,000 after the return .

The Exile presented many problems. First, of course, was simple survival. And how do you live in an  interim?  But by far the most profound was a theological and spiritual crisis. Their whole world, the one they knew, had disappeared from under their feet.

It became a profound time of spiritual change. They began to transfer and organize their scriptures from collections and memories into books. The synagogue was born, since the Temple was gone. But above all their was their shared memory.  Psalm 137:5-6 comes from the exile.

                        If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!

                        Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,

                        if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.

It was a time when they realized that only God could taken them home again–and they eventually did. At times, as in Jeremiah 29, they had premature hopes that it would happen fast, but eventually they settled in for the long haul. Exekiel 37, a vision of resurrection for the nation (from which James Weldon Johnson’s wonderful“Dry Bones” comes from), saw a return to the life they loved. But alas, not right away.

It is breathtaking how quickly our full and prosperous lives of ballgames, family gatherings and entertainment venues was collapsed by a tiny little virus. Now we sit in our homes, even unable to come to God’s houses to worship together. Hugging our friends, sitting together on the pews, choir rehearsal, Wednesday night supper, is now cut off for a little while. No ballgames, no concerts, no movies at the theater.

We’re making the best of it, and praying, helping and trying to keep the kids going, as much normal as possible. It dawns on us that this passage is going to be tough. So what to do?

We’re figuring out how to survive, how to do the interim, keep it going. We post things to lend a little courage to one another.  But the spiritual crisis is also pervasive. And it’s not what self-anointed prophets of doom proclaim. I’ve been listening to those people since the 1970s, convinced that the end of the world is now at hand. Maybe, maybe not. Jesus said you and I don’t get to know that. Period. (Acts 1:7). The book of Revelation is not a how-to book of prediction for us to know ahead. It’s a promise that God will outlast evil.

Interestingly, there are people who can help us. A member of our church whose husband received a heart pump in a near death crisis five years ago emailed me this week and said, “We’ve laughed and said that actually everyone is now living our lives that we inherited five years ago — that we can never be apart from each other and we really go very few places anymore.” People in nursing homes understand, as do caregivers of the elderly, prisoners and parolees. Life is has edges that are determined by realities external to your will.

So what now? Just keep on. Live your faith, teach your children, laugh and rejoice all you can. Help out, and pray for the helpers. But above all remember that this is not the first time of crisis for the world. The spiritual opportunity is not about scaring people into faith—it’s about revealing that the way of a cross always was the way. The only way over it is through it.

As we finish this Lenten journey, the tone of our moment is matching the Jesus story in a remarkable coincidence. We aren’t just reading about disciples afraid of the unknown up ahead. It’s real. We don’t know where it’s going or how many of us will get through it unscathed. There is only surviving, holding on, trusting in faith.

There is precedent for this moment. And with that I tell you, “Hold on.” There’s always something on the other side of every cross.

At least that’s what I trust, even when my knees are shaking a little. I’ve been listening to Bob Dylan again, a lot. This one is a hard song, but still speaks to me.

Diligence not Goosebumps

There is plenty of good work to do—beyond the ministries of the church itself, we have a world of opportunity.  Children and schools are important to all of us. Hungry children need food. Frightened children need reassurance, even if it’s not certain out there. Lonely children need connection.

The technology that was supposed to make life easy now is only our connection to get things done.  Everything is a lot harder.

Here’s the problem now: the pandemic is going to stretch well into next year, from everything I can read. No vaccine is coming next week. I can see businesses adjusting, schools are figuring it out.

man dark portrait terror
Photo by Rene Asmussen on Pexels.com

A caution in these times when the mind can fly off down Twitter rabbitholes: don’t give in to flights of fancy and fears of apocalypse.  Beware the gloom and doom crowd.  Conspiracy theories come along always in these times. So do second coming fears.  In my lifetime there have been at least a dozen times over forty-one years in the pastorate when

My friend Dwight Moody wrote an excellent piece about this.

“You may know this phrase—Late Great Planet Earth—as the title of a book. It was written fifty years ago and sold more than 35 million copies. Which of course made

Moody-3-formal-2-500x300
Dr. Dwight Moody of The Meetinghouse

a lot of money for the author (Hal Lindsey) and the publisher (Zondervan).  [at that time, he predicted the end would come at any moment.  [it became the dominant interpretation of evangelicals and Pentecostals, said Dwight. 

I’ve been around this my entire ministry. Again, and again, I remember times when timid and fearful Christians were the equivalent of Forrest Gump when he saw Lt. Dan on the dock and jumped into the water, leaving his boat to crash without anyone to steer.

The problem with this end times philosophy is twofold.  First, it’s built on a very questionable interpretation of the bible, particularly the books of Ezekiel and Revelation.  Second, it is neither the only nor the best interpretation of those books.  And before the early 1800s, it was not dominant among Christians. Most of what you hear as pop Christianity presents this as though Christianity has only had this single approach. It hasn’t.

In the 1970s, the world seemed to be coming apart—racial division, Vietnam, ecological crisis, and the changing mores of the world caused many Christians to see signs that the end was near.  At several points along the way, the same thing popped up again and again. In particular, I remember it at the end of the 20th century Remember that dreaded glitch in our computers that were supposed to make the world stop?  (y2K) Then came the New Year and…life went on.  9/11, the Recession, and now this. Every time, anxious people said to me, “It seems like the Lord may come back any time.”

This is exactly why the Apostle Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians, and he said his famous verse that every parent has cited to a young adult that won’t go get a job:  “If they won’t work, don’t let them eat.” People had literally quit working and began sitting on their spiritual keisters to wait for the apocalypse.

 

Paul also said, in Ephesians, these words:

25 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not make room for the devil. 28 Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, to have something to share with the needy. 29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up,[b] as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.[c]

Imagine the difficulty of planting these congregations when they came from pagan backgrounds, little or no knowledge of the Jewish scriptures, and no guidance.  Paul gave them these basic guidelines because they needed the most elemental things.  He is saying: Focus on these.  Don’t be distracted by speculations, arguments, and divisions. Be kind.

These truths don’t depend on figuring it all out.

When you feel a little discouraged, do something for someone else. Call a family member or neighbor who is alone and listen. When you get angry about something on the news, turn it off and go fix something in the house.

I would suggest never buying books about the rapture, but if you must, at least read something practical to balance it.  Most of those books fall into the category of Christian fiction. They are opinions, interpretations, but they are not beyond dispute.

My friend Dwight said at the end of his piece, “Hal Lindsey and Carole C. Carlson are old people now, having gotten wealthy on predictions that proved false. The rest of us, however, are the poorer for it. We are suffering through the worst year since the Depression and the World War, largely because …[we] are still distracted (and deluded) by a book published a half century ago.”

The theology of “Left Behind” and its ilk presents a closed and fatalistic history—nothing matters. Most of creation will be destroyed and the small handful of faithful ones will be preserved but the rest of it done away with. That its enthusiastic supporters always count themselves among the few is glaringly self-centered.

Christian hope is not about terrifying people. It’s meant to…well, give you hope.