Every era of history presents unique challenges to the Christian faith, which requires believers to develop a unique expression of Christian witness. College professor Alan Noble is well aware of this phenomenon, and his fascinating new book, “Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age,” claims that the way many modern Christians converse with their unbelieving friends is little more than “orchestrated social games, which both sides leave without having wagered anything.”
Noble argues that the challenges of 21st century American culture–namely, technological distractions and a growing secularism–can only be overcome if and when Christians decide to develop a “disruptive witness” that will sort of interrupt these pervasive social radio signals. Such a posture will require difficult conversations about our “personal habits,” “church practices,” and “rethinking how [Christians] participate in culture” For some reason, I didn’t expect much from Noble’s book, but I was terribly wrong. The questions Noble raises are timely, and he performs cultural exegesis with a surgeon’s precision.
Here we discuss his vision for a reformed Christian witness that is competent to address the needs of our present age.
JM: I imagine that most people think of technology as morally neutral, but you say that technology is often a serious barrier to speaking the truth and to people hearing the gospel. How so?
AC: Technology can create a barrier in several different ways, but probably the easiest to see is distractions. As I mention in the book, the gospel is “cognitively taxing,” which doesn’t mean you have to be intelligent to understand the gospel, but you do need the mental space to reflect on your sin and need for redemption. Technology tends to suck up all our free mental space.
JM: In recent years, churches began integrating technology–screens, apps, facebook groups–in order to enhance their gospel presentations and outreach efforts. Are churches unwittingly undermining their goals by trying to become more tech-savvy?
AC: In some cases, I would say “yes.” Insofar as technology distances us from embodied worship and makes the individual the center of attention, it does undermine the purpose of a church service. And some social media outreach presents Christianity as just another lifestyle option you can encounter online.
JM: Technology is one of two obstacles you describe in the book. The other is secularism, which you say is problematic because it creates a “buffered self.” How does this work, and why is it bad?
AC: Secularism does a number of things that make sincere, rich faith difficult for modern people. It tends to flatten all beliefs or worldviews to varieties of lifestyles. We are hyperaware that there are always other things we could believe or worship. We always have options, which makes it hard not to think of Christianity as just an option, rather than a Divine Revelation.
Secularism also involves living in the “immanent frame” as Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor calls it. The Immanent frame is the sense that this physical, material is what is most real and important. In such a culture, it is hard to conceive of a transcendent God. The “buffered self” is a part of the immanent frame. It refers to our tendency to see ourselves as detached, autonomous, individuals who choose to make meaning of our world, rather than beings who are vulnerable to outside meaning or spiritual forces.
JM: Secularism has been a favorite boogeyman of evangelicals for decades. How is your argument about secularism different from these age-old tropes?
AC: Growing up in evangelical and fundamentalist circles, the secularism I was warned about was really atheism. It was something out there, not something in here. Charles Taylor gives us a way of seeing how we are all, to varying extents, living within secularism. So, my book helps to tease out how the church has adopted practices and beliefs that make a transcendent God who revealed himself in Scripture into a lifestyle option we choose to express our individuality. In my opinion, this kind of secularism has been allowed to affect many churches, even churches that have traditionally railed against “secularism” as atheism.
JM: You claim that the way to overcome these barriers is to develop a “disruptive witness.” Give us the definition of this term in a sentence or two.
AC: A disruptive witness invites a hearer to intentionally contemplate the Gospel as truth grounded in a transcendent God.
JM: Name some disruptive personal habits that might surprise readers and why you think they are needed today.
AC: Like most profound truths, they are not really surprising; we just like to forget about them. Praying over a meal and stressing our contingency upon God for our sustenance and being is a simple way of reframing our minds toward an awareness that the immanent frame is not everything. There is a God and he is actively caring for us. There is a reason so many of us feel uncomfortable praying for food, especially in public. It is disruptive in a secular world.
Making a habit of attuning to the beauty and wonder of the created universe has a similar effect.
JM: How can churches cultivate a more disruptive witness?
AC: As James K.A. Smith and others have carefully demonstrated, our liturgies form our hearts and the way we conceive of God. Our church services ought to be disruptive, dislodging our minds from the business of life, pulling us out of our individualism toward the body of Christ, reminding us that we worship a living and transcendent God, and restraining us from the use of mediating technology like smart phones.
JM: Part of me feels like I’ve heard this before–a call to be countercultural and stand against the prevailing winds of secular culture. How is your solution any different than the call, to be “Jesus Freaks,” which was so prevalent in the 1990s?
AC: One big difference is that “Disruptive Witness” does not have a rock-rap CCM cross-over success theme song. The other thing is that the emphasis is not upon our identity as counter-cultural. Living during that 90’s fad, it often felt like we were being called to identify with a lifestyle–specifically an oppressed one. The purpose of a disruptive witness is to make the Gospel more visible to a society that has created barriers to belief, not to rally people or form an identity.
TO EXPLORE THIS TOPIC FURTHER, CHECK OUT ALAN NOBLE’S “DISRUPTIVE WITNESS: SPEAKING TRUTH IN A DISTRACTED AGE.“