paper plane“Both (pilots) stated there was a distraction in the cockpit” reported Alan Levin in a USA Today article (October 27, 2009, 3A). What was the distraction? We have all been waiting for a conclusive answer since the story broke a few days ago. Most Americans who fly regularly have been interested in the story for, well, let’s say for reasons related to their own lives and the lives of their loved ones. And because we still freeze when we hear about plane crashes killing hundreds of human beings.

Learning that repeated calls from controllers to the cockpit of an Airbus A320 operated by a reputable airline, flying at 37,000 feet and moving at 450 miles per hour or so tends to grab your attention. It also leaves you feeling very vulnerable. But now, at least in this case, we know the truth.  What is it? Well, the answer doesn’t exactly put us at ease, and we kind of figured that it would be that way. Planes just don’t keep flying past Minneapolis when they are supposed to land there. Pilots don’t just ignore radio contact from controllers. Usually we get a joke or two from the co-pilot, or a captain’s update (I always picture the captain looking like Jimmy Stewart who flew B-17s over Europe in World War II and I am comforted; it is problematic on many levels, but this self-medication works).

Here is the truth, finally. According to the story entitled, “‘Distraction led pilots to fly too far,” the answer is embedded in the title of the story: the whole thing was about distraction. The distraction led the NTSB authorities to describe the situation by saying “there was a concentrated period of discussion where they did not monitor the airplane or calls from (controllers).” I hate it when that happens on giant tubes of steel and electrical wires hurling through crowded skies at 37,000 feet, don’t you?

Well, here is the scoop: this was a long flight from San Diego to Minneapolis. There was an argument between the pilot and the co-pilot. If you want to look deeper, there was (is) a corporate merger providing an intriguing background for the whole near-catastrophic affair, if you like that sort of thing in your mysteries. And then, and this is the real culprit that came out of the pilots’ confession and this article, there was this really nifty, new computer program that caused them to become “engrossed” in their laptop screens. We expect that from 13-year-old boys with their Gameboys, but not from professionals with a combined 31,000 hours of flying time. Thus, it was only when a flight attendant called on the intercom that these experienced professionals realized they had missed their destination and were headed for, well, maybe a really cool view of Lambeau Field: really cool except that a few hundred folks trusted their lives to go to the Mall of America instead.

Due to other problems with the black-box, that likely needs fixing too, we just don’t have the reaction of the pilots to the flight attendant’s little question at that point. We can just imagine what they said. O.K., let’s not imagine that. Well, thank God, the plane turns around, lands, and all is well. All is well? Kind of.

Neil Postman’s work is helpful to us at this point. In Technopoly and in Amusing Ourselves to Death, the late, famous author and professor from NYU prophetically warned that we are perilously distracted by the technology that always comes at a Faustian price. But the issue goes even deeper than the distractions of a new computer program.

The truth is that even when we punish little boys and seasoned airline pilots for spending too much time on their computer programs and not paying attention, we still have this problem of human beings getting distracted. Theologically, this is a result of the fall. That is the epic but very real rebellion of mankind as taught in Genesis (and in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and in so many other places and is, in fact, the second great point of a Christian worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption) in which all humankind and creation itself is subjected to a deep, humanly incurable condition that mars the original product.

We are sinners. That is the problem. And sinners, among other things, get distracted. You see, even when the matter at hand, the lives of hundreds of people, demands our utmost attention, training, experience and dedication we can just look away. We fiddle with our iPhones as our automobiles move at high speeds amidst others at high speeds who are also fiddling with their iPhones. And, of course, one mistake, one look away, one distraction and you end up on the front page of newspapers all over the world. Or you end up with a broken home. Or a lost career. Or an eternal destiny unsettled, or a rejection of the God who made you, whose creation speaks of His presence, and whose law is even written on your heart. But you get distracted. You miss His Gospel. You overshoot your destination. You fly too high, too long, and disregard every voice that comes at you. Other things just have your attention.

And the truth is, whether we are flying planes, or running seminaries, or leading a congregation, or arguing cases in court, or raising a family, being a friend or a son or a daughter, we can all get distracted. We get distracted by the most inane things, things like computer programs. Or other women (maybe even soul mates in Argentina). Or pornography. Or new boats. Or buying houses that we can’t afford. Or really nifty, new religions that promise everything. Or sweet-talking spiritual gurus who tell us to go meditate in sweat houses in the heat of Arizona until we die. Or, well, you get the picture. I hope. The answer is not just to say, “Oh, now I will focus on my job! I will focus on my family!” The idea is to listen to the voice. The flight attendant that asks, “By the way, where are we?” comes to us in all sorts of ways.

Thank God she asked the question. And thank God that the Word of God comes to us in all sorts of voices, through pastors and Sunday School teachers and tracts left on trains and books given at Christmas, and sometimes in the gift of a child who asks, “Dad, is there a God? And why are we here? Where are we going?” It is in listening to the voice, the voice that is really the voice of God speaking through His Word, the Bible, attested to by the voice of His Son, Jesus. For we are all hurling through time and space, flying high, with so much at stake. We can all get distracted. But thank God that there is a divine interruption that has now come, if only we will hear:

This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him (Matthew 17:5 ESV).

Copyright ©2009 Michael A. Milton

About Michael A. Milton, Ph.D.

Michael A. Milton, Ph.D., MPA (University of Wales; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), is an American Presbyterian pastor, theologian, and author.
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