Three Questions to Ask of Any Conspiracy Theory

My wife and I recently began watching a show called Good Girls. Three suburban women, struggling with extreme personal and financial pressures, rob a grocery store. Complications ensue and before long they are laundering money, smuggling prescription meds—and occasionally re-robbing that grocery store. The show is well acted and an interesting watch, at least for Kim and me. Sort of a more family-friendly, female version of Breaking Bad.

One of the show’s primary points of tension involves their circle of trust. At first, it was just the three of them. Their families were blissfully unaware why the mortgage was suddenly up to date, the single mom was able to buy her child an expensive phone, and the struggling couple was able to afford the expensive kidney drug their child needed. The excuses given for the new money were often comical.

But the secret is too big to keep. And each time a person is added to the circle of trust the complications multiply. A store manager figures things out and threatens to notify the police. The husband who finally gets a job on the police force is then forced to choose between sending his wife to jail or tampering with evidence. A random soccer mom accidentally finds out and leverages her knowledge to help cover for her own indiscretions.

At the end of season two, the circle was still less than a dozen people and the pressures were so great the writers had to basically reboot the premise for season three.

And that’s my problem with basically every conspiracy theory. The complications that come with keeping a secret are so immense that they are impossible to maintain.

In the 1970’s some underlings in Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign engineered a break-in at their opponent’s headquarters. The news made its way to the Oval Office. A cover-up was agreed on by a relatively small group of the most powerful men in the world who had great motivations for keeping it.

If word got out that there had been a break-in—and that they’d decided to cover it up—the repercussions would be serious. Loss of power. Even loss of freedom, since what they were doing was criminal. The rewards of keeping the secret were strong. Keeping the secret meant they maintained power and wealth.

The conspiracy fell apart in a matter of just a few days. [1]

Recently, it seems like I am being bombarded by people asking me to believe the latest conspiracy theory. Some are simple concepts, like Watergate. Most are insanely complex. I am always skeptical. And you should be, too.

Here are three questions to ask to keep you from being fooled by the latest fad theory.

  1. For this to be true, how big must the circle of trust be? Keeping secrets is hard. If the Area 51 conspiracy theories are true, hundreds of people have been working in this top-secret installation for fifty years. During this time not a single janitor has given in to the temptation to sneak out a small alien gizmo for their kid to use in show-n-tell. And remember, the more elaborate the theory, the larger the circle.
  2. How big would the rewards be for breaking the circle? Six-figure book deals are a real possibility for a person who can provide dirt on a major political or entertainment figure. And the first person to turn on their accomplices in a criminal enterprise will almost always be given a more lenient sentence—and they may get off scot free. “But they could be risking their lives if they come forward.” People in our society risk their lives for a few hundred bucks or a couple thousand YouTube likes. Is it realistic to believe the lowest-paid person in an elaborate circle of trust wouldn’t disguise their voice, use an alias, and then begin a new life under a new name if millions of dollars were waved in their face?
  3. How long has the circle supposedly held? This is where the multiplication factor really kicks in. Conspiracy theorists say Lee Harvey Oswald was part of a conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy.[2] Dozens of powerful men were in on it. To believe the conspiracy we must accept that in almost sixty years not one secretary who had access to the phone calls decided to secure their family’s financial future by selling a deathbed confessional. And no one was overwhelmed by guilt, wanted their fifteen minutes or fame, or just let a key phrase slip at the wrong time. For fifty-seven years.

In his fantastic book, Loving God, Chuck Colson recounts his experience as a Watergate conspirator—and how short-lived the conspiracy was. (His jail time greatly exceeded the duration of the conspiracy.)

Then he moves on to talk about the Resurrection of Jesus. After the Resurrection, the Jewish leaders planted the idea that it was all a conspiracy cooked up by the disciples to hide the fact that they had stolen the body (Matthew 28:13-15).

Colson then puts all the pieces together. While a handful of the most powerful men in the world couldn’t hold a conspiracy together for more than a few days, the powerless disciples held theirs together for decades.

The Watergate conspirators literally had nothing to lose by maintaining the conspiracy and everything to lose if it fell apart. The disciples could have avoided immense pain, suffering, and sacrifice if they had simply shown officials where they put the body. The Watergate conspiracy broke almost instantly, but every one of the disciples went to their graves maintaining their “secret”—and often went to their graves because of the “secret.”

It is one of my favorite pieces of evidence supporting the resurrection. The only explanation of the evidence that makes sense is that the disciples believed Jesus rose from the dead.

It is also one of the biggest reasons that I remain highly skeptical of any conspiracy theory, especially ones that become basically impossible to believe when you ask three question: how many people are in the conspiracy, how much can they gain by abandoning it, and how long has it allegedly lasted?

[1] I loaned out my copy of the book, but I believe it took around 50 days for one of the conspirators to give away the secret.

[2] Just as their predecessors were convinced John Wilkes Booth didn’t act alone in killing Abraham Lincoln.

40 Questions About Islam

How could I go over fifty years being this unaware of something so important?

I never really thought that much about Islam the religion and never even considered how little I knew about the world’s second-most popular religion. And then I received my review copy of 40 Questions about Islam, and I must admit I’ve rarely felt this uninformed. (Note: I received my copy in exchange for an honest review.) (Also note: I really want to say “ignorant” but that word might turn off some people.)

Thankfully, this book is great for uninformed people like me. Matthew Aaron Bennett knows Islam both from living in Muslim-majority countries and from having many Muslim friends in America. This is a great advantage because the book isn’t just an abstract about the Muslim faith, or a treatise defending one of Islam’s branches. He understands the extremist groups (and I now know which branch they primarily belong to), the nominal Muslim, and most groups in between. (I recently heard a comedian say that most Muslims are about as good at practicing their faith as most Christians are practicing theirs.)

Bennett also understands Christian faith, so when he compares the world’s two largest religions, he is speaking from authentic knowledge of both, and not just the vague awareness of mainline denominations, which seems to be the information limit of many writers.

One strength of the 40-questions format is that Bennett is able to start with the most basic questions (Where did Islam come from? Who was Muhammad and what was his message?) and gradually dig deeper (What are the Five Pillars of Islam? What is the role of the Clerics?) Along the way, it’s easy to jump off the straight-through reading and move to topics of personal curiosity or interest. (What is the Islamic view of Creation? Does the Qur’an overlap with the Bible?)

If the book has a weakness, however, it may come from the format. Because each question is intended to stand on its own, at least to some extent, there is necessarily some repetition. But that’s a nit pick. This is a wonderful book and I’m glad to have it in my library.

Different Perspectives One Truth?

Five suggestions for filtering out truth in a world of mixed messages.

Saturday I read an article about Sweden’s response to the coronavirus from one of the news sources I trust, one which leans right politically. When I finished it, my Google News Feed suggested another article on Sweden from another of my more trusted sources. From my perspective, the second one leans slightly left. The differences between the perspectives were shocking.

Now before I show you the articles, I need to reinforce something. These are two sources that I generally trust. They lean right and left, but they’re not extreme.

First, here’s the headline and start of the article from National Review, the conservative publication:

Sweden Bucked Conventional Wisdom, and Other Countries Are Following

No lockdown, no shuttered businesses or elementary schools, no stay-at-home. And no disaster, either.

Spring is in the air, and it is increasingly found in the confident step of the people of Sweden.

With a death rate significantly lower than that of France, Spain, the U.K., Belgium, Italy, and other European Union countries, Swedes can enjoy the spring without panic or fears of re-igniting a new epidemic as they go about their day in a largely normal fashion.

Wow. Good news.

But here is the article that Google News suggested when I finished that one:

Trump Says Sweden ‘Paying Heavily’ For Failure To Lock Down As Death Tolls Rise Over 2,500

Sweden has eschewed stay-at-home orders and sanitary measures like public mask-wearing; as a result, the country is being wracked by coronavirus and people are dying faster than they are in the United States, which has attracted the attention of President Trump. He took to Twitter on Thursday to bash Sweden and praise U.S. lockdown measures.

“Despite reports to the contrary, Sweden is paying heavily for its decision not to lock down. . . . The United States made the correct decision!” Trump tweeted.

More than 26% of Sweden’s 2 million inhabitants will be infected by May 1, 2020, Swedish Health officials say (New York’s infection rate is 21.2%, for reference). 

Sweden has 2,586 deaths, for a mortality rate of 256 per million residents, while there have been much lower tolls in its locked-down Nordic neighbors: Denmark has had 452 deaths and a mortality rate of 78 per million, and Norway has had 210 deaths, or 39 per million residents.

The Swedish government chose not to order residents to stay at home based on the belief that doing so would hurt the economy and exacerbate the crisis—it’s trusted citizens to voluntarily abide by social distancing, and it only banned gatherings of 50-plus individuals and forbade citizens from visiting nursing homes as of late March.

Sweden’s central bank, the Riksbank, and a key Swedish think tank say that the country’s economy will suffer equally to its locked-down European neighbors, CNBC reported Thursday.

That’s the world we’re living in. Conflicting messages, all being put forth as truth. Who should we believe? How do we filter through all the noise to find something worth holding on to? Here are some ideas:

  1. Remember, nobody knows. Everybody claims to know. Nobody does. This is the novel coronavirus. The new one. It’s never been here before. We’ve never dealt with it and we have no history. There are no exact parallels and models are simply intelligent guesses (even if they are made by highly intelligent people). Everything you read contains speculation, no matter how intelligent they are or how confident they sound.
  2. The more confident they sound, the more I mistrust them. Anyone who claims certainty is deluding themselves. Period. (See point 1.)
  3. Seek out people who disagree with you. Confirmation bias, our tendency to find evidence that supports what we want to be true, is real. That’s why I read Forbes and National Review and The Atlantic and The Wall Street Journal, which each have their biases, but tend to balance each other out. I’ll also check out Slate and Vox, which are way to the left of me. (I don’t need to seek out the extreme right because so many of my Facebook friends live there and their opinions populate my news feed.) If you see consensus forming across the “battle lines”, you might just be seeing something real.
  4. Root out selfishness. I am a selfish person. So are you. It’s the only flavor humans come in. We want things to go in a way that works best for us. That is the strong current that guides the stream of our lives. The only way to ever hope to overcome it is to actively fight it.
  5. Keep the faith. God’s grip on his universe hasn’t slipped. Don’t let your fear drive your opinions.
  6. Go for growth. Okay, this one isn’t about filtering the news, but still… If you have more time for introspection, listen closely to what God wants to teach you during this time. I know he is taking me in some directions that I’m not sure I’d have listened to six months ago. He may well want to move you in some significant new directions during this time as well. Listen and cooperate.

Anyway, those are my five plus one. If you have more, leave them in the comments. And if you’d like to know more about analyzing sources for media bias, this site is far from perfect, but it’s a reasonable place to start.

How Pastors Are Thinking About Reopening

How and when should churches reopen as the Corona restrictions are eased? It’s one of the most challenging decisions church leaders have been confronted with in recent memory. Here are six views from six pastors in six very different contexts.

About two weeks ago, a small-town pastor in Montana noticed that the governor of Idaho had issued guidelines for reopening the state.

Well, that’s right next door, Craig Wilson thought. He pulled together a dozen questions for his elder board: How should we configure the seating in the sanctuary? Should we keep the front doors open, or enlist door openers? How should the use of bathrooms be operated?

Wilson’s questions are being asked by pastors all across the country. But since no two churches are exactly alike, it can be hard to follow someone else’s plan or example.

However, it can be useful to see how other church leaders are thinking through reopening. TGC talked to six pastors—in the city and in the country, in big churches and small, in every region of the country—to see how they’re getting ready to physically regather God’s people.

Continue reading here.

SSC Path Forward

With Governor Cooper’s 3-phase reopening plan, we can begin to strategize toward our path to whatever the new normal will look like. Here are the NC Phases, along with a framework for what that could (emphasis on could) look like for Spout Springs Church.

For now, we will stay with multiple online services each weekend over multiple platforms, with online Connection Groups only (and my daily lunchtime Bible Studies).

The state is currently not at Phase 1 and probably cannot get there before Mother’s Day. Whenever Phase 1 is reached, we will offer “Churches in a Box”, where we provide everything needed for up to 10 adults to gather and watch our online service while children meet in a bonus room or other large room. These groups will probably include some post-sermon discussion questions and videos for the children.

People who are high risk, or who just choose to, will still be able to attend services from their own living rooms.

We anticipate the increased number of people allowed at gatherings in Phase 2 to be around 50. One option would be for five of our 10-person “Churches in a Box” to combine into a small congregation of 50, still watching online, though a live speaker may be possible (and is probably preferable). We will need to determine where these would be held, with opening up our campus a strong probability for at least some of these. One other option would be to make each service a “ticketed” event so we can maintain the appropriate attendance cap.

Another option during this time would be to offer some family church services, where family groups meet in the tent building, holding the total attendance to fifty. These could involve some combination of children and adult services, with individual families seated at round tables, and a few children’s ministry facilitators moving around to assist with any hands-on portions, like crafts. Services could include a children’s lesson video, upbeat music, and an abbreviated live version of the sermon.

Depending on level of comfort, and even preference, people are free to stay with in-home family worship or “Church in a box” groups of ten. (We are not ruling out that some people may decide to choose one of these as their primary worship experience moving forward.)

While this may allow us to resume Sundays as usual, our expectation is that the size limits and social-distancing expectations will require multiple Sunday services.

As I said at the beginning, these are projections and general concepts. Everything is written lightly in pencil. We’d love to hear your comments and suggestions as we strive to move SSC forward under these unique and challenging circumstances.

Just for your information, the next two images recap the state’s current situation and what is required to move forward.

A Challenging Article on Government Checks

What should a Christian who is not suffering from the economic effects of the Coronavirus slowdown do with their check? This article will make you think.

Here’s a tease from the article by Matthew Soerens in Relevant Magazine:

It’s very natural in times like these to think about how to protect and benefit ourselves and our immediate families. But the Christ-like model–which was my wife’s instinct, but not my own–is to “value others above yourselves” (Philippians 2:3).

How then should we live, as rich Christians in an age of coronavirus?

SSC Coronavirus Update

Here are some points from the video:

For over a year, our church has been in transition, moving from a church concerned with how large we could become to how large an impact we can have.

The transition is embodied in three phrases.

  • Helping you become the person God created you to be so you can do the things he created you to do.
  • We do things that matter.
  • We are a multi-denominational church.

This crisis can actually help our transition. We don’t want to just survive the crisis. We want to thrive through this crisis.

We plan to maintain our emphasis on excellent Sunday morning services but bring it online for now.

We plan to increase our focus on spiritual development tools.

  • Online Lunchtime Bible Study in Colossians starting next week.
  • Stronger church made up of stronger people

We plan to increase our focus building community.

  • Connection Groups
  • Triads
  • Community in a Box

We plan to do an even greater job doing things that matter.

  • Pastor Barry is being drawn to lead us to have an even greater impact.
  • Ask yourself, “How can I help?” or “Who can I help?”
  • Ask God to show you who you can help and how.”

We plan to come out of this crisis with stronger people and a stronger church.

Send us your suggestions on how we can do even better job…

  • Developing people
  • Building our multidenominational community
  • Doing things that matter

And pray that God guide us and empower us during this time.

Khmer Music and Overwhelming Trials

I hope you don’t mind if I post a few articles that aren’t about Covid-19.

Way More than You Can Bear

A common myth in Christianity is that God will never place more on you than you can handle. I don’t know of anything further from the truth, as this author points out.

Recently, I was going back through my journals and I read words I had written years before: “God, I can’t handle this anymore. I don’t know what to do, but I can’t do this.”

The circumstances in my life had become overwhelming, everything was crumbling, and my world was falling apart.

To be honest, if someone had come alongside me at that point and tried to reassure me by saying, “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” I may have punched them square in the face.

That tired, old phrase often sounds more like a taunt than a comfort. When we are down and out and feeling discouraged, hearing those words can cause us to feel like we are not measuring up. It causes us to ask, “If I am supposed to handle this, then why can’t I handle it?”

The truth is, God never said He wouldn’t give you more than you can handle. There will be times in life when you will feel like you are drowning and there is no one to help you.

Continue this (brief) article here.

The Attraction Battle We All Wage

This article was written by a same-sex attracted woman who wrote one of the best articles about Christianity and same-sex attraction I’ve ever read. Here she digs into what all of us have in common when it comes to placing all our attractions under the control of Jesus.

I’m just going to put this one here and walk away sadly. Very sadly.

Abortion industry celebrates “Abortion Provider Appreciation Day”

Play That Khmer Music

So, a young graduate of UC Berkeley writes and records a song with lyrics her Cambodian mother wrote in Khmer (the Cambodian national language). They upload it to YouTube and pretty soon they are leading a Cambodian pop music renaissance. Did I mention the young lady didn’t really speak the language when they started?

Nothing super spiritual here, but our church has a strong tie to Cambodia and this article teaches a lot about the nation while telling an interesting story.

If you come across an article you think others might enjoy, share it with me at

Church, Common Sense, and COVID-19

Once or twice a year here in central North Carolina, there’s is a snow panic. Forecasts call for the potential of 1-5 inches (which is a big deal here). Our population immediately seems to fall into one of two camps. One group laughs, scoffs, and yells, “Bring it on.” The other immediately blockades themselves in at home to eat milk sandwiches until the siege is lifted.

In a day or two, the storm either materializes or doesn’t. Then it melts and we go on with our lives.

The COVID-19 epidemic strikes me very much like a slow-motion snow storm. Some are walking around not washing their hands and begging the disease to come at them. Others are eating milk sandwiches inside toilet-paper stockades in their living rooms.

I thought it might be a good idea to bring out some facts supported by multiple doctors and scientists. (Not that I don’t believe your friends’ cousin who puts up some great Facebook memes and read a couple articles while waiting their turn at the barbershop.) I’ll follow those facts up with what I believe to be a slight dose of common sense.

Fact One: If you are exposed to it, there’s a strong possibility you’ll catch it. It is more contagious than the normal flu or the common cold. By the way, COVID-19 and the common cold are both forms of coronavirus.

Fact Two: For the overwhelming majority of people, if you do catch it, you’ll be fine. We won’t know the accurate percentages until the storm has calmed, but we know quite a few things from what we’ve seen so far.

If you’re a child and you catch COVID-19, the symptoms will probably be extremely mild. So far, there has not been a single fatality among the children in China who caught the disease. Almost universally children have had extremely mild responses to catching it.

Some healthy adults get strong flu-like symptoms. A very, very small percentage die, while some end up hospitalized. Quite possibly, there are more adults who don’t even get symptoms than get hospitalized. (Thirteen percent of all people who catch the normal flu don’t get any symptoms either.) Of the two confirmed cases in North Carolina, both are recovering at home and neither has required hospitalization.

What this means is that most healthy adults don’t have much to worry about for themselves. They should be more concerned with passing it to people who are at-risk, namely the elderly and people with compromised lung functions. This last group needs to taking the strongest precautions.

Fact Three: Just like our annual snowstorm predictions, we won’t really know how this will play out until we are in the middle of the storm. That leads to a couple things that aren’t established facts, but are just good, common sense (at least in my opinion).

  1. Don’t over react or under react. This is not the end of the world. It’s probably just the newest form of flu which may well be part of our lives for the foreseeable future. The CDC is trying its best to contain it not to keep it from getting here but so doctors can manage the flow. If everyone gets it at once, it overwhelms medical personnel. Keeping it to a trickle makes it more manageable and helps the medical community do their best to help the sick and not be overwhelmed.
  2. Don’t be an idiot. Wash your hands. Well. Try not to touch your face in public. Cover your coughs. Stay home if you’re sick. Take greater precautions if you are part of a more at-risk class.
  3. Be a good neighbor. If you’re sick, don’t go out in public. But also, let’s not put our local small businesses out of business. If we move to extreme measures before it’s really necessary, we’ll make it very hard for local restaurants, florists, mechanics, etc. to still be in business when this slow-moving storm passes (or becomes just part of our lives).

As far as Spout Springs Church goes, I’m one of many in our church who are monitoring this closely from reliable sources.

Across the country, large events are being cancelled for good reasons. Some are being cancelled because the event is in the middle of a storm surge. A high enough percentage of the community is already infected that a mass gathering means many more infections.

Others are being cancelled because they draw people from diverse geographical areas. SXSW was cancelled because people come to the event from all over the world. The likelihood of infected people bringing the virus with them is extremely high, and so is the almost certainty of them then distributing the virus back out to areas that were previously infection-free.

On the other hand, basically everyone who will be at SSC tomorrow will be from the same safe-so-far population pool. We are all going to the same restaurants, shopping at the same stores, sending out kids to the same schools. There may well come a time when the virus is introduced to our population pool. Then it may be prudent to switch to online-services only. That may even be true by next week.

But it’s not yet.

So, I hope to see you tomorrow. Wash your hands before you come and once you arrive. Use elbow taps or Vulcan salutes instead of handshakes. And take advantage of the opportunity to get out of the house before the coming storm possibly locks you in for a while.

Those milk sandwiches get old pretty quick.