May 16, 2007

A Wait-and-See Attitude

2007 1514 page5 caphree days after the Greek cruise ship Sea Diamond sank off the island of Santorini on April 5, the correspondent was searching for historical perspective.
Oozing empathy toward the camera, he queried one of the shaken survivors: “What do you think have been the long-term effects of the tragedy?”
The long-term effects? The Sea Diamond had by then been below the waves just 72 hours; American and Canadian passengers were only then arriving home; recovery efforts were just beginning. How could anyone possibly assess long-term effects?
But the savvy correspondent knew what most of his viewers may not have sensed—that after a full three days in the news cycle, the story of this tragedy was about to disappear, with little likelihood of resurfacing. Hungry for more drama, intrigue, scandal, and titillation, a voracious public would demand fresh tragedies and new outrages on which to feed. The loss of two lives, the rescue of 1,600, the story of miscalculation and carelessness behind the incident would all drift slowly down to the bottom rank of most important stories for 2007.
2007 1514 page5As a confirmed newshound, I’ve had many opportunities to observe this frustrating phenomenon. I watched in bemused fascination on the night of January 19, 2004, as the presidential ambitions of former Vermont governor Howard Dean deconstructed before my eyes. Dean’s infamous “Scream” speech—which was nothing more than a politician’s ebullient cheerleading for staffers disheartened by his third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses—became the stuff of scornful legend as the hours passed and the vultures gathered.
Pundits who had first seemed quizzical became downright contemptuous as the 11:00 p.m. news approached. All other explanations for the candidate’s behavior disappeared in the media feeding frenzy. I surfed all the major news channels, listening in amazement as each became increasingly passionate and denunciatory. Media surveys indicate that within four days, the clip of Dean’s speech had been played 633 times on cable and broadcast news outlets, effectively ending his presidential bid and his career in electoral politics.
Instant analysis, the pundits call it, as though like all other gratifyingly immediate things, that made it valuable. We want the commentary when we hear the news, saving us the trouble of developing our own perspective. In 90 seconds or less—a veritable eternity for television news—we learn selected facts about a frequently complex topic, person, or event; absorb instructive assessments of the meaning of what has happened; and listen to a prophecy of how it will shape the future—all in the time it takes to feed the cat or brush our teeth. In such a rapid-fire world, history is what happened last week: ancient history is what our parents experienced in the fifties or the sixties.
The first casualties of unseemly haste are always reflection and moderation, qualities not much in vogue these days in popular culture but prized in God’s eternal kingdom. Note the scorn our world reserves for those who adopt a “wait-and-see” attitude, who do not have immediate reactions to everything they experience, who choose to not reject what they have not fully understood.
If all such instances were found outside the church, we might conclude that these are only further evidence of the corruption that is in the world. But the perils of instant, unreflective analysis are on display in every church parking lot when the preaching is ended, and in the hallways of every committee room and constituency session while they are still in progress. We shred what seems unfamiliar, challenging, or complex. We destroy with quick and biting words the reputations built over generations. We give more play to the clever witticism that skewers the preacher than to the sermon that might have been our wake-up call to health and peace and holiness.
“Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand” (Phil. 4:5), Paul counseled believers in an age much slower than our own. Paul knew what his readers may have only dimly sensed—that time and Scripture are both on the side of quiet, teachable hearts and minds.
And, in the final analysis, “wait and see” sounds nearly right for a people looking for a Lord who alone can judge our times and seasons accurately.
Bill Knott is editor of the Adventist Review.