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Disruptive Conversations

An unpublished “bonus track” from Alan Noble’s Disruptive Witness

Published on:
July 19, 2018
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5 min.
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A disruptive witness involves creating the conditions under which your neighbor is invited to meaningfully contemplate the gospel as the revelation of a living, transcendent God. One way to practice this is through the way we interact with others. There are practical steps we can take to bear witness to both Christians and nonchristians so that they are invited to see the gospel as something more than another preference and to allow them to reflect on this truth. And it is valuable for us to think in concrete terms about what it looks like to meet with people in a way that accurately represents this truth. 

A Practical Approach

You might start by reflecting on how you devote time to being with people. Are you willing to give them enough time out of your busy schedule to be present with them, or will you be anxious and distracted? What we model with our time will affect how others use their time. If we give others enough time to think and open up, they may see the value of introspection. The gift of time demonstrates to someone that they matter, and that their questions and thoughts and fears matter. 

As you plan to meet with someone, consider what kind of place will encourage rich conversation. Keep in mind that your goal here is not to achieve the ideal conditions to make a gospel-sales pitch. All that you are trying to do is love your neighbor by making them feel comfortable and safe and focused enough to speak honestly about their life, and by so doing, disrupt their unconscious way of being in the world. So, what kind of setting will be conducive to that? Some people find crowded restaurants safe, as the hum of conversation offers some privacy. Other people may prefer a walk or to do some kind of work together. There are no universal right answers. 

The gift of time demonstrates to someone that they matter, and that their questions and thoughts and fears matter.

In your conversations, consider how you discuss careers, marriages, and life goals—all the popular values our culture sets up as defining us and giving our lives purpose. How are you unintentionally feeding into society’s belief in the sovereign self? We do this by exaggerating the importance of such things, by bragging about our achievements, by focusing on our lives, by solemnizing what is not solemn, by making sacred what is profane, by treating other ideologies as essentially the same as Christianity. 

Even while we avoid exaggerating the significance of other ideologies, we also cannot take the opposite approach and treat everything with mockery or irony, because irony and certain forms of mockery as used today have their roots in a toxic form of postmodern nihilism, not the Christian understanding of truth. If you have been in Christian culture long enough, then you have witnessed Christians who use mockery as an apologetic. They hope that by mocking other faiths or ideologies others will see the foolishness in their ways. We should not dismiss the fact that there is a biblical precedent for the use of mockery. But it is not a rhetorical tool to be wielded lightly. Its effects are often brute and indiscriminate, where for most conversations about ultimate things in a secular world we need surgical precision to cut right to the heart, revealing its desires and challenging its assumptions. 

Irony also tempts us with the allure of nihilistic discourse. Where mockery disparages with contempt, irony trivializes with levity. Every ideology, belief, and worldview becomes flattened and condensed into one, vacuous sameness. The only true thing about any of them is what is true about all of them, that they are sad, vain attempts to cobble together meaning in an empty life. Call this the South Park view of belief. Notably, once we begin ironically depicting and treating other worldview, we very easily slip into treating Christianity the same way. Jesus gets transformed into ironic action figures and parody t-shirts. 

Irony is the natural way of negotiating a secular world, because we are overwhelmed with choices all asserting their significance and value. When everything is sacred, everything becomes silly. Striking this balance between not treating non-Christian ideologies as fundamentally equal to our faith and not treating them with irony and mockery is no easy task, but it tangibly demonstrates to your neighbor the distinction of Christianity.

Disruptive Witness

Listen and Show

Ideally, when you meet with someone, you spend most of your time listening and asking questions, in order to model self-reflection and disrupt their ideas of faith. Francis Schaeffer was famous for saying that if you only have one hour with someone, you should spend 50 minutes listening and 10 minutes talking. And while this may be a slight exaggeration, I think it gets a something very important for helping to disrupt the way people understand their world. The gospel is not a product or service or fact that can be applied on top of your life. 

Within your neighbor’s life, whether they are Christian or not, the economy of the gospel is already at work, despite our best efforts to deny and contradict it. The knowledge of their sin, their desire for existential validation, and their sense of the ever-more-ness of life are present in everyone in varying ways. Which means that if we simply allow someone to talk openly and honestly for long enough, these truths will surface and provide us an opportunity to share how the Christian faith explains these truths. When you bear witness to the faith, you bear witness to not only its truth, but also its beauty, the lovely way it ties together the disparate threads of existence. By listening to someone and using the Christian tradition to frame your reply, you can speak to deep needs and desires in someone’s heart and show them a more satisfying and true explanation. 

What’s important here is that you are not making a case for the superficial distinctions of Christianity—how it will make you happier, or how it will help your marriage, or how it gives you good morals to live by. You aren’t comparing your personal life preferences with theirs. You are helping to reveal how the mystery of the gospel pierces deeply, through our self-perception, our egos, our identities, our preferences to the bone. The gospel provides a language to explain and frame these ultimate questions of meaning and value and purpose, which is not to say that it provides simply a better explanation; it doesn’t. It provides the true explanation, the one which all others point towards feebly and in starts. 

When everything is sacred, everything becomes silly.

The Buffered Self vs. The Free Self

Disruptive conversations involve a commitment to openness before your neighbor that invites reciprocation, although it may not come. Keeping in mind that you should primarily be a listener, approach the conversation with an openness about your life. When you demonstrate that it is safe to share personal desires and fears, it will encourage them to do likewise. But more importantly, telling the truth about our experience of life is one of the most human things we can ever do, and therefore one of the most loving. 

So often when modern people talk about what they believe, they do so safely hidden behind the buffered self. The conversation becomes an intellectual pursuit. You begin to focus on their language and ideas to try and find some weakness, a flaw in their logic, an angle of attack, an exposed flank that you can exploit to your advantage. With this mindset, you also guard your own words, careful not to reveal too much, or acknowledge your flaws, or admit when you don’t have an answer. Rather than offer a defense of the faith, you have become defensive about the faith. 

When you demonstrate that it is safe to share personal desires and fears, it will encourage them to do likewise.

For a couple of reasons, this approach to bearing witness is inappropriate. First, it wrongly takes for its model modern debates or high-pressure sales. In these situations neither party is (typically) concerned about what is true. Instead, they are merely focused on persuading the other party. In that way, this approach continues the secular understanding of beliefs. Second, in a conversation where nothing is waged, nothing is gained. It is incumbent upon us to be vulnerable about our beliefs, not defensive, not closed off, but also confident and relaxed. Because the gospel is true, we have the freedom to boldly and confidently discuss our lives and faith. We do not need to stand hidden behind a wall of righteousness or superiority. 

Pray that they would be attracted to and desirous of only that in you which is from God, that they might desire those things too. 

Delight in what is good and mourn for what is tragic. Remember that you are not trying to sell anyone on anything. You are not trying to close the deal. You do not need to give them a partial truth or lie to them. This is not about putting your best face forward or even your most persuasive face. 

Alan Noble
Alan Noble (PhD, Baylor University) is associate professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University, cofounder and editor in chief of Christ and Pop Culture, and an advisor for the AND Campaign. He has written for the Atlantic, Vox, BuzzFeed, The Gospel Coalition, Christianity Today, and First Things. He is the author of You Are Not Your Own and Disruptive Witness.

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