In the two years since I purchased my first smartphone, I’ve marveled at how effectively it has trained me to surrender my attention. It has become my gateway into an immersive world in which I feel both buzzed and better-than-human. My online persona wields a facsimile of digitized agency that I do not enjoy in my actual body or with the flesh-and-blood humans I live with. And when I periodically feel the tensile strength of these technological bonds—immediately followed by the malaise of life—I can dive back into the anesthetizing hum of social media, the “fidget spinners of the soul,” as L. M. Sacasas once put it. It’s not that I don’t have the time to reflect on my own solitude or to enter into companionship with God and others. I’ve just learned, like a lab rat, to push buttons to avoid that hard edge of living.
Alan Noble is concerned with what this brave new reality has done and continues to do to the Christian faith and witness. In his book Disruptive Witness, he invites us to learn and think about how our distracted selves have come to be, and how our particular moment bears on belief and the embodied act of believing. The story is larger, deeper, and older than we realize.
Disruptive Witness joins a growing corpus concerning our culture’s neuroscientific and technological entanglements, which emerge from post-Reformation Western philosophy. But whereas Neil Postman, Nicholas Carr, and others have examined the effects on our minds, bodies, and our body politic, Noble offers a unique contribution that considers matters of faith. He argues that belief today refers to little more than personal preference in a world so fundamentally disenchanted, in lives so buffered by technology, which is why “disruptive” forms of witness are necessary. A disruptive witness looks for cracks in the concrete of secularism, knowing that good earth remains beneath.
But if we are to witness to the divine disruption, the incarnate reality of God-in-Christ, then we have to be able to present Jesus as more than simply one option among many available means of coping with the difficult business of being human. Yet rather than focus on the unbelieving world, Noble aims at the Christian tendency to subscribe to and live by the rules of secularism far more than we realize.
The book is a lively conversation with Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, one Noble ably bridges to ordinary life. Using some of Taylor’s concepts and terms, he endeavors to plow the stony field of our secular age in order to equip readers for gospel service. But, again, his primary audience is the buffered, distracted—that is, the secularly formed—evangelical Christian, unaware of his or her philosophical predicaments. The harder plowing seems to be on the home turf.
According to Noble, the distracted self is an old problem. Medieval society was largely organized around belief making it impossible to not orient to the divine. But today, “not believing in God is a live option” alongside an endless buffet of other options. Naturally, these cultural forces shape how we hold, frame, and live out what we believe. And in this thoroughly material, largely mechanized and globalized world, not believing in God is possible because, really, we don’t need him—not like the pre-moderns did.
If “the heart of the secular age is the individual in their effort to create and project their identity in a chaotic and hostile world,” Noble shows how the church has said yes and amen to the secular project in how it celebrates and narrates its life. His insights into why the church tends to celebrate adult conversion while viewing cradle belief with suspicion, for instance, are powerfully explanatory. The same holds true for his discussion on why evangelicals are more conversant in the Enneagram or Myers-Briggs typologies than in the historic creeds. In all these ways we find our footing in the “inner depths” of ourselves, the only place we feel we can firmly stand—just like everyone else.
In the second half of the book, Noble begins to seed the freshly plowed field. He lays out practical possibilities for cultivating a disruptive witness, faith that is embodied and potentially costly. These include personal—not individual—habits, like a rediscovery of Christian personalism, ecclesial/liturgical practices, and cultural participation. Each category offers plenty to consider, including larger common good cultural practices that would push back on the monopolizing techniques of the attention economy.
But Noble argues that disruptive witness will have to occur on every living level, and most of them require making space for reflection, encounter, and formation. These occur through personal contemplation, presence to God and the world, gathered communities shaped by their liturgical practices, and cultural engagement that exposes the “cross pressures of the secular age,” acknowledging both the joy and misery endemic to being human.
Noble’s endearing disclosures of his own misery in some of these embodied practices—his discomfort at praying over a burger in a booth at McDonald’s, or his curmudgeonly reluctance to pass the peace in church—illustrate his point. These practices can make us miserable because they pull us out of ourselves, but they also invite us into places where true joy is possible. Reorientation requires encounter with creation and revelation. “We need habitual movement toward God,” given the monumental cultural forces that relentlessly habituate us inward and toward greater levels of attention fragmentation.
His insights in this second half are good, even commendable, but they also provoke a certain tension. I wanted more of an authoritative bite behind his reasoning for why the church has forgotten how equipped it really is. If we are liturgical animals, as Noble contends, then we must pay attention to our everyday liturgies just as much as our ecclesial ones. Even if some of us no longer identify with term like “liturgy” or “ecclesial,” American evangelicals are often tempted to re-invent wheels we simply don’t have to.
Noble is most at ease in the language of allusion, opening possibilities with the sharp edge of an incisive question or a poignant personal story—and that is not a fault. It is more a function of his vocation. He is teaching readers how to think, intellectually loving the evangelical mind, and bearing witness to the “cognitively costly” gospel. His section on cultural participation is quite good, discussing how stories can disclose the cross pressures—the points of tension where we feel our inbuilt longing for transcendence within the immanent frame, most acutely sensed in our (lack of) human agency, our (unmoored) moral obligations, and aesthetic experiences—and how tragedy can wake us to our mortal flesh in unique ways. I was particularly taken with his vignette of listening to his mother vacuum after he watched the film version of Bridge to Terabithia. Tasting the sting of mortality through that story, the then ten-year-old Noble couldn’t understand how his mother could vacuum, or function at all, in the face of death. We, as Christians, must be ready for those exquisite moments everywhere we go.
A Long-term Harvest
Rarely do reviews include a comment on a dedication page, but I found Noble’s worthy of one. He expresses gratitude to his mother for skills that she passed along, teaching him “to read, to learn, and to think,” all relatively commonplace skills that are increasingly under threat or undergoing monumental transformation. (Even Philip Yancey wrote about how hard it is to read a book!) Churches don’t need to invent a new app, or launch a new program, to preach Christ and him crucified. They need to cultivate Christian disciples who encounter the word of God, whose minds have been renewed in his life. This is quiet, hidden work, but constitutive, even as it is disruptive to the frame.
I closed Disruptive Witness with an enormous sense of gratitude that there are still Christian public intellectuals inhabiting this world. Noble is rightly counted among them, and I hope his influence continues to grow. While he claims “self-avoidance is probably [his] most advanced skill set,” his book suggests otherwise, for he won me most in his moments of self-critical vulnerability.
What I hope is that there are enough people left with the skills his mother taught him to engage his work. As a theologian of culture, Noble reminds us that Christian discipleship entails the habitual renewing of our minds, which is dependent on the power and work of the Holy Spirit. Even without the myriad distractions available to us, that work will never be easy or quick. It requires perseverance, patience, and time. With Disruptive Witness, Noble has plowed a stony field beautifully, allusively, and I am eager to see what harvest will emerge from the seeds.
Cover image by Becca Tapert.