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Distraction, Truth, and Witness

A Q&A with Alan Noble about his new book, Disruptive Witness

Published on:
July 20, 2018
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3 min.
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Why is your book titled “Disruptive Witness”?

Every Christian is called to bear witness to their faith—to give a ready answer for the hope within us—but how we bear that witness is determined by the needs of our time. This book tries to evaluate the particular challenges to bearing faith in a contemporary world. Specifically, I consider the way secularism and technology of distraction create barriers to belief for most modern people. These barriers are not usually overcome with better arguments, but by offering a disruptive witness, one that unsettles the listener’s assumptions about God and encourages them to be contemplative rather than distracted.

Is your book anti-technology?

For modern people, not only do we assume that our lives cannot be influenced by spiritual forces, we tend to see ourselves as buffered from all outside forces.

I wanted to give an honest account of some of the effects of technology upon our culture and how we conceive of faith and our identities. Some of that account is critical of technology, but for the most part I’m not concerned with making value judgments about technology, because whether or not our smartphones are good for us, our neighbors will continue using them. And so the question for us remains: How will this technology affect the way my neighbor receives and interprets my witness?

You draw a lot on Charles Taylor’s work. Can you explain why he’s such an inspiration to you?

My favorite authors tend to be those who can paint a rich, colorful, detailed depiction of a scene I’ve only witnessed in glimpses, in shadows, or out of the corner of my eye. Taylor’s A Secular Age explained to me the great tension between life in what feels like a closed, material universe and our sense that such a life is inadequate. To me, this tension is at the heart of my book, my scholarly writing, and my teaching.

One of your chapters is titled “The Buffered Self.” What does that term mean?

Disruptive Witness

Charles Taylor uses the term “buffered self” to refer to the way most people experience life in the contemporary West. The easiest way to understand this concept is to understand how people tended to experience life in the pre-modern world. In the Middle Ages, for example, people took for granted that their lives could be influenced by spirits, that God could miraculously heal them, and that the sacraments affected them whether they chose the sacraments or not. For modern people, not only do we assume that our lives cannot be influenced by spiritual forces, we tend to see ourselves as buffered from all outside forces. Because of our reliance upon rationalism, our society’s emphasis upon choice, and the sense that we live in a disenchanted world, most of us experience life as if there were a buffer between our internal self and the outside world. And this has dramatic implications for our we conceive of God and how we interpret conversations about faith.

How has your engagement in conversations on social media played into the writing of this book?

My experiences on social media definitely influenced the book, particularly in the way I have seen people share their faith. For a great many people, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are the public square. These are spaces where Christians witness to non-Christians, make arguments about the Bible, and generally promote our worldview. In my participation on social media, I’ve been able to consider the kinds of interactions that are profitable, the kinds that are not, and the ones that appear profitable but may actually contribute to the trivializing of our faith.

How does your book differ from works by Os Guinness or Charles Taylor?

Churches that mimic the multimedia experience of concerts and TED talks resonate with us because they appeal to our culturally-conditioned aesthetics.

Like Guinness, I am concerned about how to be persuasive in a contemporary world. In fact, I’d like to think that Disruptive Witness works as a helpful companion to Guinness’s award-winning book, Fool’s Talk. My book approaches this problem from a slightly different angle, using technology of distraction and Taylor’s work on secularism to elucidate our challenges. Although it relies heavily upon Taylor’s scholarly work, Disruptive Witness tries to contribute to the conversation on secularism by applying some of Taylor’s insights to the particular issue of bearing witness to our faith. It is also an attempt to make Taylor’s ideas accessible, much like James K.A. Smith’s How (Not) to be Secular.

You write about how the church adds to the problem by emphasizing marketing and branding. How do you think that plays into millennials’ seeming disenchantment with the church?

I do think the attraction to liturgy and more historic Christian traditions among many millennials reflects in part a hunger for a religion that transcends the flat, immanent, optional, branded, marketed, slick version of evangelicalism that they may have been raised with. But I think it’s also true that there are plenty of millennials who are attracted to that kind of church because it feels like home. Churches that mimic the multimedia experience of concerts and TED talks resonate with us because they appeal to our culturally-conditioned aesthetics. My hope is that this book will offer both a charitable critique of contemporary Christian culture and worship and point to a better way.

Alan Noble
Alan Noble is Assistant Professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University, editor in chief of Christ and Pop Culture and author of Disruptive Witness. In addition, Alan is an advisor for the AND Campaign and has published articles in The AtlanticVoxFirst ThingsBuzzfeed, and The Gospel Coalition.

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