In Western culture, and especially in America, patience is rarely considered a virtue. Increasingly, we celebrate impetuosity. The punchline of a recent New Balance commercial, for example, is “impatience is a virtue.” This tactic is ostensibly deployed for marketing purposes—mere hyperbole meant to highlight that company’s corporate social responsibility initiatives (i.e., when it comes to doing good in our community, we don’t dally). It seems innocent enough. But the ad’s sentiment belies a real and broader cultural movement. We have become tyrannized by immediacy. The one thing we all seem to agree on in this hyper-polarized climate is that we need to get things done, and right now! No matter what, just hurry.
This psycho-social condition is especially problematic in the current political climate. Institutions propose new “solutions” before the root of a problem is adequately understood. Even the best solutions are abandoned before they have a chance to accomplish their objectives. In the corporate world as well as government, there’s no time for review, reflection, or regeneration. Those who call for patience are obsolete, hopelessly off message. It’s no wonder we perpetuate tribalism. Why wouldn’t we rush to judgement? We rush to everything else.
It’s not just institutions. Individuals follow culture’s cues. Our daily liturgies are whack-a-mole as we triage a chorus of notifications across various devices, devices that are supposed to simplify tasks and optimize time but somehow seem to make things more complicated, more time-consuming. For all the good that digital technologies afford us, they also tend to exacerbate what popular blogger and media ecologist L.M. Sacasas defines as “the tyrannical imperative to optimize everything.”1 Here I draw on Jacques Ellul and other Christian thinkers to suggest ways that we might resist the tyranny of immediacy, or the imperative to optimize everything.
The secular world struggles to agree on telos, or shared purpose, among other reasons because it divorces means and ends. The world asserts that mere human agency—our knowledge, technological capacities, political decisions, etc.—those are the sole means by which we will perish or thrive. In those terms, we struggle to locate an ultimate source, as well as an eschatological end, from which we can derive shared meaning. In such a world, humankind is at its own mercy. This belief leads can lead to cynical pessimism of the type expressed in cultural products like the recent film Don’t Look Up, which satirizes humankind’s inability to save itself from climate change, or by antinatalists suggesting that humans stop procreating. Or else it manifests various shades of technological utopianism that would make Orwell and Huxley roll over in their graves.
Christianity, on the other hand, asserts that God’s means and ends are ontologically indivisible. However tragic the world seems, that is, creation is ultimately and finally redemptive by the very fact that God is here, at work, now. To live into this truth, for Christians, is to acknowledge that relationship with Christ—not mere technological development or ideological adherence—is both temporal and eternal, means and end. Christianity proper doesn’t over spiritualize life, nor does it set aside or downplay the real problems people experience here and now. Indeed, it asserts that in our fallen state, humans are utterly dependent on God’s sovereign grace for salvation and redemption. As Ellul writes:
We never have to look for an objective outside ourselves, which we try to attain by very great effort (all efforts are accomplished in Jesus Christ), but we, within ourselves, have to carry the objective for which the world has been created by God. For it is not man who establishes this end, as such, and achieves it; it is God who orders and arranges it and then brings it to pass.2
Such a view opens the door to cultural engagement in unique and powerful ways. Although Christians live out theological convictions that are many times at odds with “the world,” we’re called to recognize that we, too, are broken and subject to God’s mercy, and in that recognition to love our neighbors as ourselves, to extend grace to those with whom we disagree. It’s in this work, in humbly engaging the wider world, that God’s providence is made manifest. As we engage the culture in which we find ourselves, we can rest, we can slow down, in the knowledge that all things work together for the good of those who love Him.3 This doesn’t mean that there’s never a time for urgency or that evil is any less terrible. Of course, there are many cases when urgent action is immediately required, and lament is entirely appropriate. But eschatological patience provides a balm for the kind of existential angst our impatient world so often exhibits. Lament, yes; despair, no.
From this Christian perspective, then, engaging culture is not something to be avoided, but part-in-parcel of faithful praxis. An example helps to illustrate how cultural engagement is different when we keep this in mind. In a recent Tweet and subsequent thread, Tim Keller defended his endorsement of late-night TV host Stephen Colbert’s exchange with a guest on his show. Colbert, a Roman Catholic, was asked by popstar Dua Lipa about the relationship between his faith and his comedy. Colbert responded, “I think us being mortal, the faith will win out in the end, but I certainly hope that when I get to heaven Jesus has a sense of humor.” He went on to say:
I’m a Christian and a Catholic, and that’s always connected to the idea of love and sacrifice being somehow related, and giving yourself to other people, and that death is not defeat. […] One of the reasons I love it [the film Belfast] is that I’m Irish-American, and it’s an Irish movie, and I think this is also a Catholic thing because it’s funny, and it’s sad, and it’s funny about being sad, in the same way that sadness is a little bit like an emotional death but not a defeat if you can find a way to laugh about it […] So if there’s some relationship between my faith and my comedy, it’s that no matter what happens you are never defeated, you must understand and see this in the light of eternity and find some way to love and laugh with each other.4
Colbert’s response elicited mixed reactions from Christians. Some decried it as “not Christian enough,” writing in online forums that Colbert has cozied up too closely to popular culture, and his response is further evidence of this fact. They argue that the Gospel should always be a stumbling block to the worldly; it should not sugar-coat Christ-crucified in ways that delude the message.
Others, like Keller, have applauded Colbert for his winsome approach and held him up as an exemplar of Christian public witness. Keller tweeted that Colbert’s response was “[…] a brilliant example of how to be a Christian in the public square. Notice the witness, but in a form the culture can handle.”5 While others lamented what they perceived to be too much accommodation, Keller favored the way that Colbert engaged the culture by using his platform to speak in terms that modern Americans can understand and appreciate. By using humor, Colbert connected with his audience before establishing that he is a Christian and a Catholic. It made an otherwise jarring topic—in the context of late-night TV—more palatable for his viewers. By citing a critically acclaimed film like Belfast, too, Colbert provided a familiar reference for viewers to make connections between key Christian themes like love, sacrifice, hope, and joy in the face of death. Even though he directly referenced Christianity only once and avoided introducing harder-to-swallow doctrines, Keller and others see this as an asset instead of a liability.
Keller, Colbert, and others like them practice eschatological patience by trusting in God’s sovereignty. They recognize that engaging culture is rife with difficulties and is always imperfect, or at least imperfect when considered from our limited, temporal perspective. They also acknowledge that engaging culture is not the same thing as endorsing it. Rather, they and I would suggest that it’s good to winsomely plant seeds—however small and seemingly insignificant—and in faith trust that God will water and grow them in the fullness of time. To borrow a phrase from Robert Woods and Paul Patton, we must retain our willingness to be “prophetically incorrect”6 at times, but winsome persuasion is unfortunately too rare a trait in contemporary Christian circles (to say nothing of culture writ large). Street-corner preachers who offend polite sensibilities have their place, but we also need to make room for gentler forms of public witness.
As it applies to our media practices—as producers, consumers, and commentators—such a view suggests that we are not called to “purify” our habits in the pursuit of mere virtue. Nor, however, are we to relativize its (im)moral content. The Christian view is more nuanced. Ellul wrote about the technological Leviathan of his day (the industrial city), but his ideas here just as well apply to man’s technological project today—digital media:
By this means God gets a foothold in man’s world. He chooses a city, or rather he lets man choose a city for him (after all the city belongs to man!), and by accepting from David’s hands the consecration of man’s counter-creation, God intervenes in the world where man wanted to refuse him entrance. And it is by the hand of man himself that it happens. God does not act as a master able to break down the barriers set up by man, to bring down the walls of Jericho, or to break the gates of Damascus. He does not act as a judge, far above every effort of man to revolt against him, a judge able to destroy Sodom and annihilate Babel. God meets man on his own ground, on his own terms. As he meets Satan and his spiritual powers where they are.7
God patiently bears our iniquities as they are. He sets Leviathan free, for a time. He allows the broken world to run its course, and in so doing accomplishes His will. As Schultze writes in Habits of the High-Tech Heart, “The prophet Isaiah spoke of a ‘suffering servant’ who would one day save the world, not by conquering it with technique but by suffering for it.”8 We’re called to imitate Christ by patiently loving others in faith and hope that God will multiply our meager loaves and fishes in ways that we may never see. This is how we resist the tyranny of immediacy—by cultivating patience with eternity in mind and trusting our work to God’s providence.
This entry has been adapted from a paper delivered at the 2022 Southern States Communication Association Conference.
- L. M. Sacasas, “You Can’t Optimize for Rest,” The Convivial Society 2, no. 21 (2021), para. 18.
- Jacques Ellul, The Presence of the Kingdom (2nd Ed.), trans. Olive Wyon (Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers and Howard, 1989), 65.
- Romans 8:28
- Stephen Colbert (@colbertlateshow), “@DuaLipa Shows Off Her Interview Skills and Asks Stephen about His Faith and Comedy,” Twitter. February 4, 2022, https://twitter.com/colbertlateshow/status/1489470018957942784
- Timothy Keller (@timkellernyc), “This is a brilliant example of how to be a Christian in the public square,” Twitter. February 4, 2022, https://twitter.com/timkellernyc/status/1489664357189443590
- Robert H. Woods and Paul D. Patton. Prophetically Incorrect: A Christian Introduction to Media Criticism. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2010.
- Jacques Ellul, The Meaning of the City, trans. Dennis Pardee (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1970), 101.
- Quentin J. Schultze, Habits of the High-Tech Heart: Living Virtuously in the Information Age. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 85.