Present Shock and Paul

present shock and paul

In haste, I broke open my fortune cookie, discarding the cardboard tasting shell, searching for that slip of paper of banal wisdom.  But to my surprise, there was nothing inside.  Thinking I must have missed it hidden within the folds of the golden-ochre pieces, I double-checked to no avail.  I had no fortune.  Maybe this was an omen that I have no future.

While I don’t believe that fortune cookies can tell the future, I do believe that the relationship between the present and the future is growing more and more complex.

In popular culture, there is ample evidence that the present is overtaking the future.

A simple perusal through the top 40 charts finds “tonight” being a major character in the plots of the party songs rocking the radio.  Songs by FUN, Pitbull, and almost every song by Ke$ha are commanding us to live in the moment, to seize the night, and to maximize our pleasure in the moment.  Though this youthful cry to live in the moment is nothing new (the Grass Roots have been singing this since 1967), the desire to live only for today is present as ever across all genres including dance, folk, blues, rock, and indie.

One musician took the sentiment and turned it into a movement.  In 2011, rapper Drake sang “Now she wants a photo/ You already know, though/ You only live once/ That’s the motto, n—a, Y.O.L.O.”  And thus YOLO gained popularity – gaining enough critical mass for an entire movement to attach itself to the acronym, which in turn attached itself to Zac Effron’s wrist in the form of tattoo.  Even Drake himself was surprised by the steam YOLO gained, telling MTV its proliferation was “epidemic.”

The YOLO phenomenon is a justification to live a youthful, worry-free lifestyle free from the shadow of tomorrow.  “You only live once!”  This phrase has become a rally cry for stupid behavior and actions done without regard to future consequences.  The recklessness of the YOLO mentality was highlighted when hashtagged by rapper Ervin McKinness on Twitter just before his death in a drunk driving accident.

Not only has presentism infiltrated music and popular culture, but it has reached Hollywood as well.  August saw the release of the movie, The Spectacular Now, a film about one alcoholic, dreamless, drifting teenager’s philosophy of living in the “now.”  Based on a novel by Tim Tharpe, the coming of age film follows high school senior, Sutton Keely on his journey to self-discovery and out of a present-focused apathy.  Directionless as John Cusack’s character Lloyd in Say Anything, Sutton coasts through high school abusing alcohol and worshipping the god of present impulses, with depressing and heart-wrenching consequences.  When you don’t think things can get any worse, Sutton hits rock bottom, and makes the choice to grow up, thinking beyond himself and his solipsistic present-driven impulses.  The end of the movie finds Sutton finishing a college application essay with the words, “It’s fine to just ‘live in the now.’ But the best part about ‘now’ is — there’s another one tomorrow.”

We live in the present, but every action has lasting consequences.  Being future-minded and yet being fully embodied in the present is a trick that Sutton Keely, along with all of humanity, is continually trying to figure out.

Douglas Rushkoff, media theorist, writer, and lecturer, recently published a book called Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, describing the phenomenon of being stuck in the present.  Members of our digital culture are spread across the ever-updating, ever-connecting, ever-connected media environment.  “Our society has reoriented itself to the present moment.  Everything is live, real time, and always-on.  It’s not a mere speeding up, however much our lifestyles and technologies have accelerated the rate at which we attempt to do things.  It’s more of a diminishment of anything that isn’t happening right now–and the onslaught of everything that supposedly is” (2).

Rushkoff goes on to detail how present shock affects every level of society from business, sports, politics, and finance, to the broader myths and cultural narratives of our civilization.

We live in an age of the present.  Inundated by wave after wave of real time data, we gasp for a breath of air just to survive the millions of bytes of current data crashing around us.

This tension between present living and future hope has been an issue for Christians since Christ left this earth.  The future kingdom that is promised is one of wholeness, peace, and life.  But we live in a world that is far from a fully realized eschatology.  Lions still eat the lambs, and our swords are not yet beat into pruning hooks.  We are caught in the tension of the already and the not-yet.  But Christians are not immune from being thrust into “present shock.”  The lateral panopticon of information surrounding the 21st century American Christian can easily overpower the future-oriented view of the kingdom that has yet to be fully realized here on earth.

Faced with this present shock, Christians have at least two options.

The first is to hit the stop button and try to slow down the pace of information racing towards us.  Often criticized as being Luddites and backward-thinkers, some have chosen to live a life removed from the distracted, dissonant, and worldly life.  Citing verses like 1 Peter 2:11, these denominations and individuals have chosen to live as “aliens and strangers” in this world of sin.  Mennonites and the Amish are the most prominent of these groups that choose to stop the flow of information that leads to present shock.  Trying to realize the kingdom of God on earth, these groups choose to live in community without strong connections to the world.

The second option is to try the pause/unpause strategy.  This option of making a habit of unplugging is advocated by media theorists as well as psychologists in Kansas.  A habitual Sabbath from technology is necessary for our minds as well as for our souls, this group declares.  Present shock can be overcome by periodically stopping the flow of information.

The first option seems to me to be too much a withdrawal from the world.  In John’s gospel, Jesus prays not that we would be removed from the world, but that we would be protected as we are sent into the world.  While there are many strong arguments for why we would be better off living this unplugged lifestyle, when it all boils down, disconnecting from the world does not seem like the best way to follow the Matthean command to let the light of Christ shine out.

Option two seems like a much better strategy than the first.  But is it realistic?  It may be the case that we are actually becoming addicted to social networking.  Internet Addiction may not yet be included in the DSM-5, but for many, this is a real struggle, as evidenced by the opening of the first inpatient treatment program for Internet addicts.  As with other addictive behaviors, is it realistic to think that we can voluntarily unplug ourselves from the connectivity, the information, and the entertainment that our digital world provides?

Perhaps.  But perhaps there is another option for those who wish to stay connected to the world yet avoid the debilitating crush of present shock.

In the letters of undisputed Pauline authorship, the apostle writes often of the coming of Christ and the future kingdom to come.  1 Thesslonians 4 tells of Christ’s return and the resurrection of the dead.  Paul expounds in 1 Corinthians on the resurrection of the dead as well as the transformation of all at the coming of Christ.  Paul employs language of life, glory victory, of triumph, and of imperishable bodies in association with the coming kingdom of God.  However, Paul does not focus solely on the future life to come but also addresses daily living.  In Galatians, the apostle writes, “So then, as we have the opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”

Paul does not abandon the present in his writings, nor does he forsake the hope of the future.  What then does this mean for us today?

J. Louis Martyn writes that apocalyptic theology was central to Paul’s theology.  Martyn writes that Paul is focused on the person and work of Jesus, “The focus is on power, and in the first instance the power question is posed because, as we have seen, the coming of Christ, the apocalypse of Christ, is the powerful invasion of Christ” (Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul, 283).  The gospel for Paul is the invasion of Jesus Christ into our space, time, and reality.  The kingdom of God is now, it is at hand, and though it is not fully realized in our historical space and time, it is here, in the process of making all things new.

Paul writes in 2 Corinthians, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation, everything old has passed away; behold! Everything has become new!”

Yet we still see the old.  We still are stuck in the present.

Martyn writes that to understand Paul, we must understand the way that the first century apostle saw the world.  “If we are to converse with Paul, then, we are required to speak of bi-focal vision, an expression not found, of course, in Paul’s letters, but one which may help us to understand those letters…In order to find a metaphor helpful to our interpretation of Paul, we will have to imagine looking simultaneously through both of these lenses” (284).  We are faced with the present, but we also see through the present to the future.  “To see bi-focally in Paul’s terms is to see both the enslaving Old Age and God’s invading and liberating new creation” (284).

Is it possible then for us to be in the present, the Old Age, while simultaneously keeping an eye on the future, the age to come?

Behold! Everything has become new.  Everything includes technology, relationships, as well as our sight.  Through the invasion of the kingdom of Christ, I believe it is possible to see past the present and into the not-yet.  Present shock occurs when we are so wrapped up in the moment of the present, so connected laterally to others in the same moment, that we lose focus on the future.  But what if, in the present, we were able to simultaneously see the future?  I don’t mean being able to spout out prophetic fortunes, but being able to see past the rush and the flow of the information swirling around us, seeing that Everything – the tweets, the status updates, the over-scheduled Google calendar, all of creation – is being made new.

To be able to do this effectively will require creativity and inspiration.  But as we seek after the new creation and the invading kingdom, I have hope that we will be able to focus both on the present issues surrounding us as well as focus on that still to come.

Paul was able to see the not-yet in the already, and I believe that we too, through the power of Christ, can live apocalyptically in the ever-present, ever-connected, ever-updating digital world.


Martyn, J. Louis. (1997) Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul. Edinburgh: T&T Clark.

Rushkoff, Douglas. (2013) Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now. New York: Penguin Group.

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About the Contributor

Michael Toy

Michael Toy
Michael Toy is an amateur theologian, studying at Princeton Theological Seminary. Having studied media studies at Wheaton College under Dr. Read Schuchardt, Michael hopes to more fully dissect and analyze the intersection between theology and media ecology within the academic and the ecclesial settings. 

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