In his book Preaching in an Age of Distraction (Downers Grove: IVP, 2014) J. Ellsworth Kalas writes, “Some think we are part of the most distracted generation in human history. I’m constitutionally uneasy about using words like ‘the most,’ ‘the least,’ ‘the worst’ or ‘the best,’ because I know just enough history to realize that it’s hard to prove such superlatives. Even so, I can’t help feeling that whether or not distraction is now at its worst, it is certainly at a level where it imposes serious hazards to what is best in our human character, and it presents particular issues to those of us who try to lead by preaching, teaching, and writing” (page 14).
Interestingly, Kalas feels that to some extent distraction is a necessary and helpful to human beings. Were it not for distraction, for example, creativity and invention would suffer because we would simply settle into, and be content with, the status quo. So the issue is not a matter of distraction or lack of distraction, rather, it’s a matter of discerning when distraction becomes hazardous.
And, I suppose, it’s a matter of coming to terms with the fact that distraction can indeed become hazardous. I’ve only read one chapter of the book thus far, and so I’m not sure what hazards Kalas sees, but for now I see at least three. First, too much distraction harms our ability to think because we lessen or lose the skill of contemplation. The more we consent to the “give it to me quick and easy” culture, the less we are able to understand great things and think great things on our own. Constant distraction diminishes our mental capacities, and this impacts us more than we realize.
Second, too much distraction harms our ability to love others mainly because we lessen or lose the desire to spend time with people, to listen to them, to simply be with them, to enjoy them. Often, we spend time with others by engaging in some form of media together—a movie, a video game, a You Tube clip, a song, or whatever. But we were created to love one another in more personal ways. I’m not saying it’s a sin to enjoy some kind of media with a friend or loved one, I’m just saying that more and more our relationships seem to be based on media and I’m concerned about how this is affecting our ability to love one another. If we need a “mutual buzz” to be in one another’s presence, will we know how to love when that buzz is no longer there?
Finally, and most importantly, too much distraction harms our ability to love God not in the least because we lessen or lose the ability to contemplate the beauties of God, the wisdom of his Word, and the worth of his ways. For example, the vision of the glory of Jesus in Hebrews 1:1-4 alone has the potential to be life-shaping, but such transformative power is only released when we take the time to understand what we’re reading and contemplate the Christ about whom we’re reading. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:18 that we are transformed into the image of Christ by coming into contact with the glory of Christ. That is, the will of God is that we become like Jesus by being with Jesus. But this takes time and patience and the ability to contemplate. It takes the ability just to be with someone, aside from busyness, media, and unnecessary distraction.
We live in a media saturated world, a multi-tasking world, an extremely fast-paced world. This is not likely to change any time soon. But what can change is our relationship to this world. We have the ability to put first things first, to prioritize time with God and others over time with various media. We have the ability to enjoy books and other things that promote rather than harm our ability to contemplate. We have the ability to take advantage of the gift of distraction while avoiding the pitfalls of too much distraction.
May the Lord help us as we seek to find the right balance and thus learn to love him and others as we ought.