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Geoffrey Botkin
August 21, 2014

In medical news, Kent Brantley did not die today.

Instead, Emory Hospital’s isolation ward released Brantly, declaring him to be free of a Marburg virus that was expected to kill him. Dr. Brantly, 33, is the American doctor who contracted the Ebola virus in June from one of his patients at a clinic in West Africa. Because there is no known cure for the pathogen, American news outlets had prepared obituaries for Dr. Brantly. But today he is one the few living persons worldwide with a hard-earned immunity to Ebola.

Today Dr. Brantly is known worldwide for three things.

  • He was the first known American victim of Ebola to bring the virus to American soil.
  • He is a rare Ebola survivor, and his case will be highly controversial because he was treated with experimental drugs.
  • His story kicked-off a visceral internet debate on the international and national duties of Christians.

The most controversial comments were made by neoconservative attorney Ann Coulter. Coulter is a professing Christian with an influential media presence. She has consistently assaulted the Hard Left, and for her efforts she has been attacked, vilified, ridiculed, slandered, and otherwise hated by a hostile press. But earlier this month Miss Coulter published something that was appallingly irrational.

Kent Brantly is a professing Christian who works outside the media. Something about Dr. Brantly’s emergency evacuation from Africa to the US prompted Coulter to attack a new target: American Christian humanitarian and missionary workers. She implied that overseas work in developing nations is wasteful, idiotic, misguided, inefficient, and pursued only by those who are too cowardly or too narcissistic to fight unpopular cultural battles in the US. Is she right? Only partly.

Coulter raised legitimate issues. But her reckless handling of them points up a timely warning about public health issues. No writer or speaker should go near the subject of Ebola unless he or she can be precise and rational about the big issues that will always surround potential pandemics: religion, politics, money, power, death and plague.

Coulter’s Valid Questions

Coulter raised questions that deserve answers. Do Christians have any idea how to invest their time and talent? Do Christians have the freedom to do whatever they want and justify its significance with the slogan “God called me to do it?” Is Africa a foolish investment of Christian effort? Is the “overseas mission” an easy cop-out for the Christian who doesn’t want to face ugly spiritual enemies on American soil? Is post-Christian America the only valid mission field for Christians? What, if anything, should America be offering the rest of the world?

On the Source of Cultural Power

Coulter knows from first-hand struggle that America is losing the war for moral clarity. The church is culturally powerless, politicians are without principle, and the population is devoted to entertainment and escapism. She believes America, and the world, would be better served if Dr. Brantly could work in a Los Angeles hospital as a doctor and evangelist to Hollywood power brokers. “The virus of spiritual bankruptcy and moral decadence spread by so many Hollywood movies infects the world,” she wrote.

Coulter has a good point. Hollywood is pestilential, and movies have infected the world with bad theology. Her vision of ideal Christian service and cultural warfare strategy is pragmatically strong: Dr. Brantly is deployed as a soldier of Christ in LA. He opens one set of eyes, and the Hollywood bigshot willingly uses his business connections to immediately change the world – more effectively than Dr. Brantly could over a century of treating malaria cases in Africa. Coulter suggests that through a top-down mechanism of infection, the power broker infects the world, and America, with American righteousness, one movie at a time.

Of course, Coulter’s brilliant strategy of world conquest only works if the pestilential theology of Hollywood is replaced by true theology, with the masses flocking to the films worldwide.

If Dr. Brantly was inspired by this idea and asked me if he should take up Coulter’s challenge and move to LA, I would first commend Coulter’s line of reasoning, but remind Brantly of these hard realities:

  • If you don’t have a lot of time to teach and train Mr. Bigshot how to think, and how to replace his Hollywood worldview, he is not likely to get good theology in Los Angeles churches. His creative new movies might confuse the culture more than heal the culture.
  • Keep in mind that Africans, Indians and Asians have created their own national film industries because they prefer their own stories. Someone needs to apply Coulter’s strategy there.
  • Keep in mind that US medical regulations will restrict doctor/patient relationships so tightly that you may never be able to speak to patients about anything metaphysical.

Coulter has stumbled into the doc dilemma1: What is the better use of a doctor’s time? To sew up a machete wound, or to heal souls? Many doctors serving in the third world are free from regulation and spend rich amounts of time investing even more spiritual wisdom into their patients than physical help. The most important people to help are always the most teachable ones. The lesson of history shows that the most teachable people become, over time, the most influential.

I have great respect for the power of mass media, which is why I have invested much of my life in training filmmakers. But I would have to admit to Dr. Brantly that one serious student in an African village could accomplish more in one generation than a trendy Hollywood filmmaker who made an emotional Little-League Baseball movie with a crying scene in Act III.

Assignment 1 for Ann Coulter:

Los Angeles churches and parachurch missions to Hollywood tell us there are many powerful converts in places of influence whose eyes have been opened. Please find one, just one, Christian power broker who doesn’t blindly follow this mantra of Los Angeles Christianity: “Don’t worry; we never bring our faith into the workplace or into our scripts.”

On the Source of International Light

“America is the most consequential nation on Earth,” Coulter argues, “and in desperate need of God at the moment. If America falls, it will be a thousand years of darkness for the entire planet.”

How can a nation still in need of God be the world’s last and best source of light? In what way, Miss Coulter, is America so consequential?

In Coulter’s world, America is still standing tall with all the favored neoconservative weaponry of worldly pragmatism. We have guns, money, a superpower military and warhawk policies for “nation-building.” With these we can project light overseas and bring light to places like war-torn Iraq through applied governmental power: plenty of lethal military might and proven bureaucratic solutions.

In what Coulter recently called “a magnificent war,” and a “magnificent success,” we spent $1.7 trillion in Iraq to banish religious darkness and replace it with religious light. That’s right. The Vice Chairman of the CIA's National Intelligence Council has candidly confirmed that American policy was as a deliberate exercise in advancing religious governance. He said the entire purpose for the war in Iraq was to support Islamic governance in Iraq; to spend American blood and treasure to exalt a moderate Islamist to power. Our official policies included the deployment of government soldiers, but no private individuals, churches, or others who could offer any other source of light. In shutting Christians out of the nation-building process and throwing soldiers into it, the experts invested all the weight and prestige of American consequence into building an Islamic state.

Assignment 2 for Ann Coulter:

Please quantify the “consequence” of spending thousands of American lives and $1.7 trillion on our effort to bring the light of Islamic government to Iraq. What is the net gain to date? More light to the world, or more darkness?

Assignment 3 for Ann Coulter:

Answer this question: If America is the most consequential nation on Earth, why are Americans largely ignoring Africa while China sends more than one million migrants to move in, build homes and families, and help Africa chart its cultural future? Which nation’s choice do you believe will be more consequential?

On the Motives of Kent Brantly, MD

Coulter suggests that Dr. Brantly went to Africa for fame. This “Christian narcissism” annoys her. Are Christian missionaries vainglorious narcissists?

Some are. Many, especially Americans, are shamefully self-serving. But Dr. Brantly and his sponsoring organization are not in that that category. Dr. Brantly is not a grandstander. He did not go to Africa to impress the New York Times. He was anything but careless, and Samaritan’s Purse (SP) has first-hand, practical, in-depth knowledge about the needs, the dangers, the costs and the realities of disaster zones – both in the US and worldwide. SP gets very little attention for the work it does alleviating real suffering. The organization does not seek the approval of men or publicity. SP staff and volunteers simply go where the needs are greatest and quietly do what is right. Dr. Brantly knew exactly what he was doing in Africa, and he knew he had a 90% chance of dying within days when he tested positive for Ebola on July 26. His sincere concern was that “God would be gloried in my life or in my death.”

Insincere Christians, on the other hand, should be ashamed of their pretention, and should get off the field of battle. I have met nationals in Africa and the Far East who have begged me to deliver this request to American churches: Stop sending silly short-term missionaries. They do far more harm than good on foreign soil. They confuse people, especially the young, who begin to believe Christianity and American pop culture are the same religion.

The difference between the true and the false is the difference between work and play. Brantly and Samaritan’s purse go where they go to work, to risk their lives, and to invest in people who are sincerely responsive.

Assignment 4 for Ann Coulter:

Write Dr. Brantly a letter and ask him to compare the spiritual receptivity among the poor of his own Zavala County, Texas and the poor of Western Africa. Which people are proving more spiritually responsive?

On Hopelessness in Undeveloped Nations

Coulter sees undeveloped regions as disease-ridden cesspools. Is that true of Africa? In many places, yes. Conditions can be deadly in all developing continents and nations. America was a disease-ridden experiment not that long ago. President George Washington had to vacate the nation’s capital2 one summer because the city became a yellow-fever infected death-trap. Approximately one third of the people who stayed were slaughtered by disease. Just down the highway from my home, yellow fever killed about a third of those who remained in Memphis when yellow fever mosquitoes flew in from the river in 1878. When I was a boy, my grandfather was still draining the low places on his farm so that its status as a disease-ridden swamp would be changed. I helped him take dominion of those low places, and malarial mosquito swarms are gradually fading into history.

In Africa, in the places where farsighted men have taken constructive dominion, the rich soils are producing strong communities, vibrant economies, and hope. People are learning to dig latrines, wash hands, and build civilizations on foundations of a Christian work ethic and the rule of law. But the stages from cesspool to skyscraper take time and work. In Africa, many want help. People who live in cesspools are asking for advice on how to climb out. Americans learned the hard way and we have knowledge to offer in the areas of agriculture, plumbing, construction, road building, health care and telecom. I have spoken to Africans who know they need more than this. They want American firsthand knowledge of Biblical ethics and how it works in everyday life and business. These men understand that the national foundations of emerging governments, emerging economies, and emerging cultures must rest on a solid and proven ethical base.

Assignment 5 for Ann Coulter:

Cholera and Malaria are equal opportunity killers. America suffered much under both, but our great grandparents had hope that we could eliminate these. Write a short description of how they attacked these two diseases, and compare America’s mortality rates with other nations.

On Life Priorities

“We're supposed to take care of our own first,” Coulter says in regard to Brantly’s work in Liberia. Coulter has reason to feel lonely in her battles for American culture. Her enemies are tireless and numerous. Should American Christians fight some culture wars in their own country before they go overseas?

As a general principle, Christians have nothing to offer anyone overseas unless they know how to build stable families and communities at home. Since the 16th century, Christians have broadly understood that the Christian life is supposed to be about making disciples where you live, starting with self-government, and working outward from strong families and orderly churches to build a decentralized, self-governing culture. This knowledge can then be intelligently applied to discipling other nations.

As Christian nations developed solid cultural foundations of governance in the 19th century, more Christians left comfortable homes to help the developing world. Today many African nations remember those European and American initiatives, which were welcome in Africa, but which were later cut short by the Marxist revolutions of the 1950s, throwing those nations back into paganism, witchcraft, or Islam.

The United States had its own Marxist revolution in the 1950s, and America too has been largely thrown back into an anti-Christian way of thinking and living. The American church has followed the culture downward into compromise and ignorance. Today the whole world is in need of civil society rooted in the moral order of sincere, non-apologetic Christianity. Are Americans the people to give it to them?

Before asking where Christians should be serving, Christians need to figure out what they intend to teach. Do American Christians have any idea how to help any nation?

The 21st century will be defined by the nations who sincerely ask, “What does Christian culture look like and how do we build it into our national life?” The nations who ask that question will tend to attract those who have the answers.

Assignment 6 for Ann Coulter:

List three messages the Christians in your community should be talking about with their neighbors. Then see if you can find anyone in your community who will listen. For those who refuse, ask them why they want nothing to do it.

Counting the Costs of Overseas Work

The high cost of Dr. Brantly’s evacuation from Africa bothers Coulter. Was it an unnecessary, exorbitant expense?

It was very expensive. Fiscal pragmatists can tell you to the penny how much it cost, in the same way Judas, the father of fiscal pragmatists, knew the broken alabaster vial of pure nard was worth 300 denarii. Here’s a quick mathematical consideration for pragmatists. The last time I took a team of 12 men into a dangerous African location, I paid enough in insurance premiums to protect all my men. I counted the cost of that trip in both spiritual and economic terms and those men were worth far more than the $12 million in estimated extraction costs. We made it out safely, with no evacuation expenses. That means insurance premiums like mine could be spent later on extracting men like Kent Brantly. His extraction preserved the life of a lifesaver, and taught the medical community lessons that might save the lives of millions. What was that worth, mathematically?

Assignment 7 for Ann Coulter:

Please calculate today’s value of one vial of Dr. Brantly’s blood. He is the only known survivor of Ebola in the world whose blood contains African Ebola antibodies but no traces of African AIDS, Malaria or Yellow Fever.

Conclusion:

None of us want to fight stupidly or waste our lives. Like Coulter, I believe that some battles are more strategic than others. America’s cultural conflicts are worth engaging and Americans should not give up on America. But it is important to be honest about the history of nations. The mightiest of them can fall. America has fallen dramatically from a position of moral authority. She has lost her credibility to speak about national reform and national greatness, mainly because she has lost her desire to be good.

There are miserable nations thousands of miles away that appear to be totally undeveloped. In some of them, there happens to be a highly developed cultural urge to be good and to be great. Like America once was. They have heard stories, and some of them have learned English. And they are asking for help. Kent Brantly is one man who has been brave enough and gracious enough to try.

At every great historic juncture, when strong nations decline and small nations rise, you can find quiet, courageous believers doing simple little invisible jobs, alleviating needs that others fail to see. There is a much larger story in Kent Brantly’s life than his miraculous recovery from Ebola. History shows us that average men doing quiet, dangerous, civilization-building work in disease-ridden cesspools have built very consequential nations.

Thank you, Kent. Welcome back to life.

  • 1. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones retired early as a physician to teach the Bible, explaining, “We [doctors] but spend most of our time rendering people fit to go back to their sin!” Iain Murray: D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The First Forty Years, 1899-1939, - pg 80
  • 2. Philadelphia, 1793

About the Author

Geoffrey Botkin is a cultural analyst, political consultant, veteran filmmaker, husband, and father. He currently serves as a senior consultant to the Western Conservatory of the Arts & Sciences.

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