Sometimes the best blog entries are the ones you don’t write.
Last Friday, I’d planned to do a column on the upcoming weekend’s three-way showdown at movie theaters between The Expendables, Eat Pray Love and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. I was going to give it a WWE-style introduction (“Good God … th-that’s Scott Pilgrim’s music!”) and recap the casting by some of Expendables as the Great Masculine Hope against the feminization of Hollywood represented by EPL (as documented here). And I was going to end with a prediction — that due to its appeal to youth of both genders, I thought Scott Pilgrim might win the weekend box office title in a squeaker over Expendables.
Well, Friday I was dragging a little, and then proceeded to burn my arm taking a pizza out of the oven (in the process also flipping the pizza over, causing it to splatter on the kitchen floor and thus ruining the planned family dinner). So, pretty much shot for the rest of the night, I decided I’d take a run at it the next morning before taking in a noon showing of Expendables. (Alone, alas — my planned wingman went on the 15-day DL with a bad toothache.)
Well, Saturday morning they released the box office estimates for U.S. ticket sales Friday:
- The Expendables: $12 million
- Eat Pray Love: $8 million
- The Other Guys: $6 million
- Inception: $4.7 million (after being in theaters for a month)
- Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: $4.5 million
And the numbers remained consistent for the rest of the weekend, except for Scott Pilgrim … which earned less each subsequent day. For Friday-Sunday, Expendables finished with $35 million in domestic sales, Eat Pray Love with $23.7 million, and Scott Pilgrim still in fifth with $10.5 million. So wouldn’t I have looked like a prize nimrod if I’d posted that blog entry? (More than usual, I mean.)
But it got me thinking … why do we have such an attraction to predictions?
I mean, we see it every day. The airwaves are flooded right now with football pundits making predictions for the upcoming NFL and college football seasons. For the last week or so, ESPN.com has been running a series of pieces where their experts make predictions for the coming NBA season — which doesn’t start for two and a half more months. And that’s not as far away as the November elections … but Slate Magazine today began a contest inviting readers to pick who’ll win the major congressional and governor’s races! In almost three months!
And I’m participating in it! I’m far from the only one, but still, I keep thinking I ought to know better. Because things never, ever, EVER go the way anyone predicts they will. ESPN has all their football people picking who’ll win the Super Bowl … and then after the Super Bowl, ESPN.com’s Gregg Easterbrook (aka “Tuesday Morning Quarterback”) runs his annual Bad Predictions Column, skewering all the fearsomely horrid picks by such supposedly knowledgeable people, including his own colleagues at the Worldwide Leader. Predictions in other sports likewise almost always prove to be laughably inaccurate. And politics? I still remember a news magazine (memory suggests it was Business Week) saying in 1995 that “the GOP will take back the White House next year as long as they run a candidate who doesn’t drool on stage.” A year later, the Republicans nominated the non-drooling Robert Dole … and Bill Clinton steamrolled him on the way to re-election. Never fails — or should I say, usually fails.
And despite all the evidence that no human knows the future, I’m a sucker for these things. Every year, I do predictions for the Oscars. I used to do baseball pre-season prediction columns for my high school newspaper. And no matter how badly I crater, I get back up and do them again. I don’t know if I enjoy the pain or just forget about it in the aftermath, the way women forget about labor pains when they’re cuddling their babies. Nevertheless, why do I (and millions of others) keep doing it?
Well, here’s my theory — it gives us the illusion of control.
See, we all know that no mortal can know the future. And yet, we have a big stake in being prepared for that unknowable future. Our lives and our well-being rest on what is coming down the pike tomorrow, the next week, the next year. We’re invested. We’re motivated. But because we are mortal, because we are trapped in this cage of time for as long as we live, we’re also frustrated. There’s information we could use “out there,” and for the most part we can’t get at it.
Yet we know we could use it, so we try to get at it anyway. People go see psychics and palm readers. They read their horoscopes. They listen to self-styled experts on trends. They pay good money to get exclusive insights on sporting events. All in this constant effort to try to get one step ahead of the present, to get a grip, no matter how tenuous, on whatever’s going to happen next. And no matter how often the methods fail, most people keep going back to the trough, again and again, hoping that this time, things will be different.
Almost nowhere is this habit more pronounced than in the church. Not just evangelicals, either — this business reaches across every denomination, era and theological hobbyhorse. And by “business,” I mean business — it’s quite the cottage industry. Go into a Christian bookstore, Protestant or Catholic, and you can find all manner of “Bible code” this and “vision” that and “end-times” the other, all marketed to people hungry for just a glimpse of what they’ll have to face in the coming days/years/millennia. And much of it is about as reliable as the newspaper horoscopes. But it all sells or it wouldn’t be there. Likewise, a huge percentage of pastors these days either a) promote sermon series on end-times prophecy where they attempt to use Bible verses to predict coming events, b) start off every year with a sermon or sermons on how this year in the life of their congregation will be different from all the previous ones, or c) both. A few even go so far as to play pundit and try to predict specific happenings — and are later relieved that the old Jewish law that false prophets should be stoned to death is no longer in effect.
Now, before someone decides to stone me, I do believe that God still speaks through His people prophetically here in the 21st century A.D. And that some of what He speaks through them is predictive prophecy (though not the majority, just as prepictive prophecy doesn’t make up the majority of the prophecies in the Bible). But that’s God’s prerogative as an infinite, immortal being who resides beyond the dimension of time. He knows the future — and sometimes He’s nice enough to give a mortal or two a peek. But that doesn’t mean He’ll do it on demand, or that everything somebody purports to be a vision from God is actually so. The Apostle Paul acknowledged this when he told the church at Thessalonica, “do not treat prophecies with contempt — test everything. Hold on to the good” (1 Thessalonians 5:20-21). We need to be careful.
But even more than that, we Christians need to acknowledge that we don’t know all the future, we can’t know all the future, and we need to trust in One who does — even if He’s isn’t required to give us all the details in advance. Even the prophets in Scripture — Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah and all the rest — didn’t know everything held in store for them or the world. That would’ve required writing much larger books than they did. Instead they trusted God, who on occasion told them parts of what was in store, to take care of the parts He didn’t tell them as well.
To trust God with the future is to break away from the need to control it. It takes it out of our hands and puts it back where it belongs, in hands big enough to hold it. And it leaves our hands free to cope with the present, to do whatever they find to do (Ecclesiastes 9:10) — whatever He gives us to do. It leaves us free to live in the now and stop worrying about the not-yet, knowing that each day brings its own trouble (Matthew 6:33). It allows us to be in peace rather than war with the unknown and (for us) unknowable.
So that’s what I hope to do more of. Though I’ll probably do Oscar predictions again next February too. But I know my future isn’t riding on them — that is in God’s hands.