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128 pages
Sep 2003
Baker Book House

Prophetic Untimeliness

by Os Guinness

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Chapter 1

Faces of the Sinister God

The present clash of cultures in the world makes this an ideal time to see ourselves in the West as we might not have done earlier. For example, the first months after the September 11 terrorist attacks were like a crash course in the history of the relationship between the West and Islam. Various dates were flashed across the screen of public consciousness: 732 and the battle of Tours when the Islamic tide almost reached to the gates of Paris; 1492 and the defeat of the Moors in Spain; September 11, 1683, when the last Muslim forces were repulsed at the siege of Vienna; and 1798 when General Napoleon Bonaparte landed in Egypt and subjected the heartlands of the Muslim world to Western military dominance.

But in fact the real conquest of the Near East began far earlier, and the conqueror was neither a crusader, nor a general, nor a diplomat, nor a missionary. Interestingly, it was a Western machine. And in fact, it has been called “the mother of machines” and even “the ultimate missionary machine.” I am speaking of the clock. Perhaps surprisingly, we need to understand the clock to understand our own position in the church today, for the clock has colonized its Western inventors as much as people in the rest of the world to whom we have taken it.

The mechanical clock was invented in Europe around a.d. 1400. It was pivotal to the rise of the modern world and therefore to modern consciousness and the impact of the modern world on the rest of the world. “The clock did not man make,” an African saying runs. But the clock was certainly instrumental in the making of modern man and woman. Not only is it infinitely more influential than often-cited carriers of globalization such as Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and mtv. But it is the catalyst—or culprit—behind the pressures of modern time on us, and on our views of the present and the future.

By and large the Muslim world was resistant and slow to adapt to mechanical clocks, just as the Chinese welcomed them at once but kept them as toys for the emperor rather than as tools for the whole of society. In the seventeenth century, the English diarist John Evelyn quotes a traveler as saying that the Persians “had neither clocks nor watches.” As late as 1947, a French visitor to the Near East remarked that he made a point of being late for appointments on the advice of his hosts, who said, “Here the sky is too blue, the sun too hot. Why hurry? Why do injury to the sweetness of living?”

Today, when globalization is bringing the modern Western view of time to the whole world, the contrast between traditional and modern views is captured in a hundred homespun sayings from people outside the West. Filipinos, for instance: “Westerners are people with gods on their wrists.” Or Kenyans: “Westerners have watches but no time. Africans have time but no watches.” It is precisely this modern view of time, which I will refer to as “clock time,” that we “Westerners are people with gods on their wrists.” — Filipino sayingഊmust understand if we are to escape its worst effects while simultaneously reasserting the importance of humanness as well as faithfulness.

Choice and change are at the very heart of the modern world. From manufacturers to marketers, from smorgasbords to supermarkets and shopping catalogs, choice is paraded before us in an endless variety of ways. So when it comes to clocks and watches, we are so used to our options that we don’t notice the things over which we have no choice. Do you want a Rolex, an Omega, or a Swatch? A watch that is analog or digital? A traditional or a contemporary style? A watch that’s self-winding or battery-driven? Do you want it to be gold or stainless steel? Do you want your alarm to ring or play music? Do you want to wake up at once or to be able to press the snooze button?

In areas like these the choices go on and on, with the only constraints being those of money and fashion. Choice, after all, is the birthright of the modern consumer. But options such as these are actually the trivial faces of modern time. Far more important are the features we can neither choose nor change. In particular, for better or for worse, three features of modern clock time decisively shape our lives and our thinking. Here, as so often, we must understand if we are to withstand.


The first feature of modern clock time is precision. Time and space are the two basic elements in which we live and move as human beings. So the measurement of time is essential to human life as we master nature and take control of our world. Of course, there were ways to measure time before the invention of the clock. But this measurement was largely seasonal, spiritual, and imprecise.

Three important developments lie behind our modern sense of time:

First, the shift from the lunar calendar, which depended only on observation, to the solar calendar, which depended on calculation.

Second, the shift from a natural sense of time, as in days, to an artificial sense of time, as in weeks.

Third, the shift from a sense of periods, as in a.m. and p. m., to a sense of precision, as in hours, minutes, and seconds.

But the decisive development in the rise of the modern world was the invention of the mechanical clock. All the various instruments in use before it were slow and restricted. For instance, without the sun, there was no sundial—which made it useless at night and limited in effectiveness in countries with short days or bad weather. Needless to say, this gave the Greeks and the Italians a great advantage over the Norwegians and the Scots. Equally, the slightest leak or irregular flow in the water clock made it unreliable or put it out of action. And obviously the hourglass had to be turned over exactly as the last grain of sand ran from the top to the bottom if it was to mark more than one hour with any accuracy.

All this was changed by the clock. Not only was the mechanical clock the first important all-metal machine, but it was an instrument for all seasons, all weathers, and all hours of the day and night. Above all, as the technology of the early devices called escapements was replaced by pendulums and then main springs and finally by digital movements with atomic accuracy, the clock became a force for precision that was quite new in human history.

Whether measuring in light years or nanoseconds, we can now measure anywhere and everywhere in the entire universe. The result is a split-second precision in timing that the traditional world would have found astonishing. Precise time is a universal means of measurement and one of the greatest innovations in the entire history of humankind.

Naturally, we modern people take this precision for granted just as we take in the air we breathe. Ours is a world in which lawyers and psychiatrists charge by the hour, telephone companies bill by the minute, television networks charge advertisers by the second, Olympic athletes win or lose by hundredths of a second, and astronauts execute their life-and-death maneuvers in nanoseconds.

Whenever we need and want to be, we can be precise, precise, precise. And in this world of modern precision, punctuality has become a virtue in its own right, and unpunctuality a vice—at least for most people.


The second feature of modern clock time is a central consequence of precision—coordination. As a moment’s thought makes obvious, a precise sense of time is essential not only to science and technology. In our world of modern precision, punctuality has become a virtue in its own right, and unpunctuality a vice. It is influential for ordinary life, above all in planning and coordinating our daily affairs. Much of the best and most basic in our daily lives pivots on timing—getting up in the morning, meeting friends, keeping appointments, catching planes, fulfilling deadlines, expecting deliveries, watching the news, or arriving at the church on time.

No ancient religious devotee could rival us modern people in our instant, total obedience to the “gods on our wrists” that send us scurrying from one appointment to the next.

It is even said that a central feature of the Western world is our polyphony—the harmony we achieve through balancing unity and diversity, and through blending different parts to give them a common purpose. Such polyphony can be heard in our music (for example, in choirs), in our politics (for example, in different parties under law), and in our sports (for example, with keen rivals competing within the same rules).

The key component of this coordination is clock time, for clock-time precision is what makes possible the plans, schedules, timetables, and logistics of the modern world. For an earlier generation the supreme symbols of this new coordination was the railway and its timetable. Suddenly the nineteenth-century world exploded and contracted at the same time. Whole continents were crisscrossed with lines of communication called railway tracks and little puffing engines ran to and fro industriously according to giant station clocks and weighty timetables. Swiss trains, for example, have always run with the smoothness, efficiency, and cleanliness of Swiss watches.

Their coordination is so smooth and efficient that they represent the highest standards of precise coordination. In our day airports have often replaced train stations, computers have taken over from station masters and timetables, atomic accuracy has done away with ponderous Victorian timepieces, and we are awash with jargon such as “access,” “connectivity,” and “networking.” But when things go well we still say that “they run like clock-work.”


The third feature of modern clock time is the one about which we are most aware—pressure. Today at the high noon of modern life, time in the clock-driven world has become so precise and coordinated that it’s all around us, driving us from behind, pulling us from in front, pressing us from above, and squeezing us from both sides. The gods on our wrists have become, in the words of Charles Baudelaire, “the sinister god.” As the nineteenth-century French poet protested in his poem “The Clock,” “3,600 times per hour, the second whispers: Remember!”

If we want to, we can still speak of “killing time” or “doing time”—the first phrase meaning a voluntary and the second an involuntary passing of time when time’s passage is its only object. But for most of us, such moments are rare. In fact, after childhood there are very few periods when the clock goes too slow and far too many when it goes too fast. To be sure, a few sharp observers saw the effects of measured time and protested early on. The Roman playwright Plautus, for example, wrote in 200 b.c.,

    The gods confound the man who first found out
    How to distinguish hours! Confound him, too,
    Who in this place first set up a sun dial,
    To cut and hack my days so wretchedly
    Into small portions.

Two millennia later, we can all sympathize with the poet. Time-drivenness is our reality. “Harried and hurried” is now our way of life. “Fretting and fussing” has become our chronic condition. Six centuries after the invention of the clock, the idea of time-keeping has become a euphemism; the idea of time-saving a joke. The tick-tock of the clock has become the background drum-beat and staccato bark of the drill sergeant who drives us across the parade ground of life.

No wonder ours is a marginless world of “24 x 7 x 365” living. In 1751, novelist Henry Fielding was the first to write that “time is money.” Today time is big money and scarce money. So we “buy time,” “maximize time,” and make sure we are having “quality time.”

We figure out the “opportunity costs” of all we do. We become adept at “multi-tasking.” We press life to the edges and make the most of every spare second we have—with “split-screen news” packing in the information for us, “on-hold advertising” filling in the empty seconds, and “professional queuers” standing in line to save us from the unwanted tax on our time that bureaucrats love to impose.

In our world, a lot happens all the time, so much so that we not only expect it, we require it. Change has to be unceasing, voices have to be rudely grabbing, and the latest has to be replaced instantly by the newest latest. All this has gone so far and become so natural that for many people jam-packed eventfulness is a necessity and attention deficit disorder a common condition.

If it were possible, time and motion experts would like to rationalize every last second of our days so that we could be even more efficient and productive—even in our leisure. At the beginning of the age of mass-production, Henry Ford said of his ideal worker, “He must have every second necessary, but not a single unnecessary second.” Was he being generous or ruthless? It all depends on the standard by which he judged what was necessary.

But the underlying modern attitude to time is plain: pressure, pressure, pressure. Too much fast food may lead to the “slow-food movement” and wall-to-wall busyness to a sharp rise in time-out practices such as meditation. But the latter are only reactions and diversions. The central thrust of mainstream time-pressure is unrelenting and unstoppable.

Time is the ultimate credit card, speed is the universal style of spending, and “the faster the better” is the ideal tempo of life. Call it “craziness,” call it “the curse of our age,” call it “the tyranny of the urgent,” call it anything you like. But it is impossible to stop the world today even if you want to get off—and this manic speed is affecting our faith as much as our blood pressure.