It’s the fundamental lie of modern life, says Alan Noble: that we are our own. Compared to our ancestors, we’re less worried about war. We’re less worried about starvation and famine. But by believing that we are our own, we tend to struggle with new problems: the loss of meaning, identity, and purpose.
Noble says this in his new book, You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World (InterVarsity):
Everyone is on their own private journey of self-discovery and self-expression so that at times, modern life feels like billions of people in the same room shouting their name so that everyone else knows they exist and who they are—which is a fairly accurate description of social media.
Noble’s book feels like a douse of cold water that wakes us from our delusion. His book builds off the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism. And he helps us find our way back to this well-worn path of divine wisdom. He writes, “Our selves belong to God, and we are joyfully limited and restrained by the obligations, virtues, and love that naturally come from this belonging.”
Noble is assistant professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University and co-founder and editor in chief of Christ and Pop Culture. You may know his previous work, Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age. He joined me on Gospelbound to discuss the sickness of modern life, the burden of freedom, and the power of Caligula, among other subjects.
Collin Hansen: It’s the fundamental lie of modern life, says Alan Noble, that we are our own. Compared to our ancestors, we’re less worried about war. That’s a good thing. We’re less worried about starvation and famine, but by believing that we are our own, we tend to struggle with new problems. The loss of meaning, identity, and purpose. Noble says this in his new book, You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World, published by InterVarsity. He says this, “Everyone is on their own private journey of self discovery and self expression, so that at times modern life feels like billions of people in the same room shouting their name, so that everyone else knows they exist and who they are.” Which is a fairly accurate description of social media.
Collin Hansen: Noble’s book feels like a douse of cold water that wakes us from our delusion. His book builds off the first question and answer of the Heidelberg catechism, and he helps us find our way back to this well- worn path of divine wisdom. He writes this, “Our selves belong to God, and we are joyfully limited and restrained by the obligations, virtues, and love that naturally come from this belonging.” Noble is assistant professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University. He’s co-founder and editor in chief of Christ in Pop Culture. You may know his previous work, Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age. He joins me on Gospel Bound to discuss the sickness of modern life, the burden of freedom, and the power of Caligula among other subjects. Alan, thank you for joining me on Gospelbound.
Alan Noble: Thanks. I’m excited to be here. You know, hearing that description of my book, I was thinking, “I agree with that. So I guess that’s a good sign.”
Collin Hansen: So that’s typically a good sign for an author, but who knows how long ago you wrote this, and who knows what happened in the middle?
Alan Noble: Exactly. Exactly, that’s my point. It was like, “Oh, those are good words.” Just in case you’re wondering, I’m still there. I’m still at that place.
Collin Hansen: Let’s jump right in, Al. You say the modern person is aware of more suffering and injustice than a person living at any other time in history. Is that a good thing or a bad thing.
Alan Noble: It’s a thing. Well, so there are good things about it. So I have more agency to… So for example, just this week in Haiti, a group of, I think, 17 missionaries were kidnapped by gang members. So I can pray about that immediately, and that’s awesome. So that’s a positive thing. The other aspect of that is that there is so much going on in the world that I can’t adequately give the attention that all the problems of the world deserve. And that means I have to come up with coping mechanisms to figure out what do I attend to, what do I not attend to, what do I invest my time in? What am I responsible for? What am I not responsible for? And it’s a lot, because everyone’s telling me that I have to care about everything. Sometimes on social media, people will be like, “Why haven’t you spoken out about X?” And I’m like, “I didn’t know X happened yet. Why are you yelling at me?” But that’s the kind of world we live in.
Collin Hansen: Now just… Yeah, we could talk a lot about that. I mean, I think I guessed that your answer would be, it is. Because the fact is, with any technological development, the good comes, the bad comes and it’s our job to try to sift through both of those. So, and as long as prayer is an option for us as Christians, then it can be a good thing. But the kind of helplessness it also can engender, and the anger it can engender is a problem. Now, what do you mean that the church in the West tends to be good at helping people cope with modern life, but not undoing the disorder of modern life?
Alan Noble: So I think, and to be clear, the church, when I say this, I don’t think that they’re doing anything particularly irresponsible. I think that most of society is helping us cope rather than dealing with the problems. So for example, we might have congregations, hypothetically, where parents are living frantic worried lives, that they are pressured to be parents who are doing everything, taking their kids to all kinds of events. Where the husband and wife have very difficult time making time for each other, spending any time together. Where they’re constantly being asked at work to allow their work to creep into their home hours via email, or working from home, or whatever it might be.
Alan Noble: So lives that are hectic, that are frantic, where there’s a constant, gnawing sense that they’re overwhelmed and falling behind. And sometimes what can happen is that churches, rather than helping people look at the disordered way in which we are living, and identify that, and say, “Okay, this is not right. We need to live differently.” Sometimes what we can do is just help people cope. And that’s not necessarily… We do need ways to cope, because some of these problems, we can’t just wish away. They’re going to be here. So it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but we need to be able to do both. We need that comfort and that coping, but we also need to be admonished to challenge ways of living in the world.
Collin Hansen: My oldest child is only six. And one of the challenges I face as a parent that continues to come up is that I feel as though I’m always falling behind with him, like there’s something he’s missing out on. And I keep having to remind myself of some advice I heard from Jen Wilkin years ago, which was, “Why do we feel as though there’s always some activity, some skill, some event that we’re missing out on with our kids?” And she said, “Because a lot of people want your money, and they convince you that you need to do these things.” And those people that didn’t exist a generation ago, certainly didn’t exist two generations ago and beyond. So why do you feel that way? Because a lot of people are marketing you that way. You don’t mince words, Alan, in this book, you say that we treat mothers… Or you say that, “The way we treat mothers, especially in relation to, and also careers and work, is sick.” Why do you say that?
Alan Noble: So this is partly coming out of my own wife’s experience, watching my wife go through this. She has two master’s degrees, one in English and one in economics. And for a number of years after I first got my job here at Oklahoma Baptist, she was not working and she was staying home with the kids. And she would always have these awkward interactions with other adults when they would first meet her. They would ask, “So what do you do?” And the implication is what do you do for a career? And so when she would reply, “Well, I’m staying home with my kids right now,” even if they were people who had positive views about that, who supported stay-at-home moms, they might say something like, “Wow, that’s great. So what does your husband do?” There’s always this sort of, even among people who support this, very conservative, evangelical people, a kind of acknowledgement that, “Hey, this is great, but your life is on pause. You’re not a very interesting person because you’re not pursuing this career.”
Alan Noble: And that, of course, is sick. I mean, it’s bizarre that we would look at people who choose to raise children, which is one of the most fundamentally human things you can do, is help humans grow, right? And view that activity as less than, or as empty, as meaningless, as wasted time, uninteresting time in your life. So that’s what I have in mind. And behind that is this idea that career can be one of the primary ways we define ourselves. And if you don’t have something exciting and interesting that you’re pursuing in your career, then you’re just sort of wasting your life.
Collin Hansen: And you need two people working because you have to be able to pay for all of those kid’s activities that we just described right there. Not to mention all the other things that were marketed. Alan, do you see the meaning of life as more freedom to discover, or a burden? Because you described this choice as the defining dynamic of our modern anthropology.
Alan Noble: So it’s the way life is presented to us, not actually how it is. But how it is presented to us is both. On the one hand, we are offered, we’re given this promise, this contemporary promise, which is, you can be who you want to be. Your life is a project. You’re the one in charge of it. You’re the only one who can make something interesting and significant out of it. And you have all the options available to you. You can change your personality, your body, your habits, your name, whatever. Everything is plastic and available for you to play with to make something beautiful and interesting with your life. That’s the optimistic side. That’s this limitless freedom that we’re offered.
Alan Noble: But very quickly, there’s the flip side, which is that also, you don’t have a choice. You have to create yourself. Your life is fundamentally a project, and only you can complete the project, and you have to complete the project, and you’ve got to make it interesting. You’ve got to make it meaningful, and there are no guidelines. There’s no rubric for this. You just have to go and do it. And it’s that tension that’s overwhelming, because we, on the one hand, we’re constantly striving to pursue this. And the other hand we’re recognizing its insufficiency, the impossibility of actually meeting these expectations, which you know, can crush us.
Collin Hansen: Alan, when did the concept of this book crystallize for you? At what point did you stop and say, “I can’t… Something’s wrong here. Something sick here. As Christians, there has to be a better way.” Was there a moment, was there an experience, something you read, something that happened to you that made you stop and say, “We’ve got to think about these things on a deeper level. We can’t just keep coping. We need to seek change.”
Alan Noble: I don’t know exactly what triggered it, but I know that this was several, three plus years ago, and evangelicals were debating some hot, contemporary social issue, a legitimate social issue that we were wrestling with. It might have had to do with secular ethics, or the public square, and gender or orientation, one of those kinds of things. And it struck me that so many of these things that we debate, that we’re in tension with the rest of society, hinge on this idea of belonging. They hinge on this idea that well, that we belong to ourselves. And because we belong to ourselves, these limits, which as Christians we would say are right and good limits that allow us to actually live freely as human beings made in the image of God. But these limits are perceived to be inhibiting and destructive and inhuman, right?
Alan Noble: And so that was the first point, because I made that connection with the Heidelberg catechism and it struck me, “I think we can…” And I tweeted something like this, but that the church will be able to weather modernity, what we’re going through, to the extent that we accept that we belong to Christ. And to the extent that we acclimate, to the extent that we give in and believe that we belong to ourselves, I think that we will not be able to offer an alternative witness. So that was going on in the public square and intellectual side of me. But then also, as I’ve continued, I finished my PhD and I go to get my first full-time teaching job, and I’m raising kids with my wife, and going to church, and I’m realizing it doesn’t slow down.
Alan Noble: It doesn’t get… This is, people talk about, well, it’s a season. Apparently all of life is a season, because it is always, there’s always this overwhelming pressure to, as you’re describing, do more for your kids. And there are things that we can… Some of these things we can push back on. So you’re very consciously saying, “Okay, when somebody guilts me for not reading to my kid the appropriate number of hours per day, I can say, you know what, he’s going to be fine. She’s going to be fine, and this is why.” But there are some of these things that you can’t, you just have to deal with. So I was putting those two things together. The idea that a lot of the structures in our contemporary world are disordered, fundamentally disordered, and that that very disorder has to do with our anthropology. How we understand who we belong to.
Collin Hansen: It strikes me, Alan, that this level of critique allows you to be able to break out of some of the political dichotomies at our time, because you start to realize that Americans across the board… and I don’t think it’s exclusive to America… that Americans across the board reject constraints. Now they reject constraints in terms of different issues, different topics. We could easily look at that right now. And I don’t think we’ve ever had a better example, and I’m not trying to get into the specifics here, but about vaccines and abortion. Just the idea of constraints, demands, it’s something that we’re very against. And your book is not trying to pick a side in those debates. It’s trying to elevate our perspective so we can see what it means to live for Christ, because we belong to him and we’re not then beholden to all these things that are happening in the world. We don’t have to succumb, I guess, to whatever narratives are coming out of media or things like that.
Collin Hansen: So here’s a, this is a little bit more of an experience, Alan, that I’ve seen on the left, and for a long time, I’ve observed friends and acquaintances who determine their identity and especially their sexuality in a way that requires them to be true to themselves. And when they do that, when they make that declaration, they receive generally positive feedback. And one of the things I’ve noticed is that there appears to be no regard for the spouse, and no regard for the children, especially if that identity requires them to seek a divorce, or to leave their family, or to forsake that. And I keep wondering… I mean, I keep wondering how do people not see the inconsistency here? To be true to yourself means you have to inflict pain on other people. And I’m wondering what makes it so hard for Christians to be able to call this out for what it is, which is certainly a variation on the good old sin of selfishness.
Alan Noble: Yeah. And so if you assume that you are your own and belong to yourself, then your spouse can’t make your life meaningful. Your children can’t make your life meaningful. Your community, your church, none of those people or institutions can make your life, your life project, significant. And so if you know, I looked inside myself and I’ve discovered this self that has to be authenticated by coming out and expressing. And this can happen as, as you say, in sex orientation, gender, but lots and lots of other ways.
Collin Hansen: Exactly.
Alan Noble: I’m glad you pointed out that this is a non-partisan… That’s part of the goal of this is to say, actually, it’s so much deeper. We’re talking often about these sex, gender and orientation issues, which are important. But my suspicion is that we’re accepting a lot of esteemed, fundamental ideas about belonging that we’re critiquing over here. And so we need to dig a little bit deeper. But if that’s true, if this person belongs to themselves, then gosh, it would actually be foolish, and ignorant, and wrong for them to not listen to that voice.
Alan Noble: It’s only if they don’t belong to themselves that they have to say no to their desires. And then that makes sense. But that’s hard for us to accept. And you’re right, I mean, I’ve seen this with a lot of… I mentioned this in the book… a lot of heterosexual couples, people in the church who, some of them, I even admired and respected. And then at some point the husband or wife meets someone and realizes that their true life has to be with this other one. And so they abandon wife and kids, is often the way it turns out, and it’s heartbreaking. And it’s heartbreaking.
Alan Noble: But if all of society is telling you, no, that’s the way you’re supposed to live, then it can very easily feel normal. So the challenge, I think part of the challenge for the church, is seeing not only the very obvious cases where we see, “Okay, this person is making a choice to follow their true self,” quote unquote, and it’s hurting others, as you point out, in this relationship. But also see the other ways in which we do that. So for example, how do we choose occupations and careers, and purchase things, and live in the world where we’re saying I’m going to pursue my desires, and my appetite, and my will, even if it hurts other people. And I think if we’re honest with ourselves, there’s quite a few ways that we do that. In fact, I would say anyone who reads this book and feels like, “Well, those other people are going to feel really guilty reading this book.” They’re probably not reading it honestly.
Collin Hansen: Yeah. That’s a good way to put it, Alan. It seems as though, to give an example of what I’m speaking about here, that a generation ago, we might’ve thought, “Okay, the 50 year old deacon in your church who leaves his wife and his five kids for the 28 year old woman, even if he says, I’m doing this for me, this is who I really am. This is my true love.” We would still generally speaking see that as being selfish. But now in recent years we see the exact same scenario play out with the wife who decides that she’s a lesbian, or the father who decides that he’s always been a woman, and the same issues play out. And yet all of a sudden they seem to get encouragement, whereas in the past, at least you would have said, “Come on. You know what this is here.”
Alan Noble: Yeah.
Collin Hansen: But that’s part of how sexual identity and orientation has been elevated to such a level tied to our identity that it’s very hard for us to push back on that. But I think also it’s hard for us to push back on that because all of us are compromised in some ways, when it comes to thinking that we belong to ourselves. And related to that, Alan, it seems as though we all want to feel unique, and yet we’re all on the same journey together. I mean, we’re all unique, doing the exact same things. And I’m wondering, from your perspective, is this just consumer marketing all the way down? I mean, I’m struck by your description in the book of the teenager who defines Republican identity by music that rejects judgment from anyone else.
Alan Noble: Right. And this student who was very clearly expressing herself through the music actually does want you to judge them, because judgment is a kind of evaluation. So they want to… Yeah. So there’s always that paradox in identity. We want to be original, but we only have the tools given to us by society. So is it marketing? Is it consumerism all the way down? Well, yes and no. And I do think that it’s in… That sometimes… So let me say that all of the ideas I discussed in this book, none of them are new. That better, smarter people than me have been talking about them long before then. So for example, these questions about expressive individualism and identity, old topics, but they continue to be relevant, which is why I felt it was still worth writing.
Collin Hansen: Not just continue, increasingly so.
Alan Noble: Increasing, yeah. It’s intense. Yeah. So, that has been written about for a long time. Now I’m forgetting what your question was.
Collin Hansen: Well, is it just consumer marketing, this everybody unique in their own, in exactly the same way, or is there something else going on?
Alan Noble: So I think a lot of the critics have been good about looking at the something else. And I think it’s very hard. I don’t think we can entirely extrapolate, and separate the role of the market in the rise of individualism in identity formation. I think that any account of expressive individualism today has to have a heavy emphasis upon the forces of consumerism, but it is not just consumerism. I mean, secularism is part of it. We live in what Zygmunt Bauman calls liquid modernity. So there’s a lack of solidity to our lives. Our identities, our personhood, our value, our worth is constantly being questioned and tested. And so it makes sense for us to pursue identities, and pursue expressing those identities, to give us a sense of stability. Like I know who I am. So the teenager who is expressing herself through this music, it’s a way of projecting out into the world and saying, “I am someone. Observe me. I am someone,” which is, we all want to be affirmed in that way. To have someone see us, and recognize us, and accept us.
Collin Hansen: Yeah.
Alan Noble: Yep.
Collin Hansen: Well, one of the things you write about in this book is how a lot of the ideas came out of working with young people. And I’m in a church where there are a lot of young people. Why do you think that younger millennials, gen Z have a hard time finding community? But I guess I have another question. Is this even something you find that they desire?
Alan Noble: The sense of belonging to a community?
Collin Hansen: Yeah. Just friendships, community.
Alan Noble: I think, no. I absolutely think that they do. And I think you will find that many of them are really hungry for it, that they’re willing, and they are ready to give themselves to something. Because a lot of them feel that what they have been taught from a very young age, that the kind of achievement that is necessary for them, the kind of making, as I said, this project out of their life. They’ve got to achieve these things and be this person, and be the best version of themselves or whatever, live their truth. All of that. It’s exhausting and they feel overwhelmed. So I’ve very frequently counseled seniors in college, who realize, “Okay, now I have to leave and go out into what has been called the real world, even though college is real. And I’m terrified because if I make the wrong decision about who to marry, or what career to pursue, then that project might get off track, and then my life comes to nothing.”
Alan Noble: And so when they hear this idea that well, okay, but what if your life is not about you? What if you don’t belong to yourself, and so this whole project idea is a lie? And instead you belong to Christ. And so there are limits, and there are things for you to sacrifice for. I think a lot of them resonate. They resonate with that. They’re excited. I think they are excited about that. Because they want something to have meaning and for it to be real, and rich, and give them purpose.
Collin Hansen: Yeah. I’m preparing some talks to deliver next week at a Christian college. And I was just reviewing that this week, and one of my big application points is that I hope you go off and you change the world. But I also hope that some of you will just consider moving back to where you came from.
Alan Noble: Oh man, amen. Yes.
Collin Hansen: Going back to your home church that baptized you, the church that sent you off to college, the church where people know you and have loved you. I said, “Just consider that.”
Alan Noble: Amen. You know, I feel like sometimes… I had a conversation just last week with a college student who was feeling this same existential crisis about, “Okay, what do I do after school next year?” And so we talked about the fact that she could just get a nine to five job. Just a job that’s ethical, that’s good for her community. And then serving her church, love her family. And that’s it. And she’s like, “That is so freeing.” And the thing is, it’s like school teachers and parents and other adults, and role models have all been telling us, you’ve got to follow your dream. You got to be achieving, you’ve got to do this college and then this career, and do the best. And nothing necessarily wrong with that in isolation.
Alan Noble: But when that is the overwhelming burden that’s placed, this student felt like she had to be… As you said, change the world in this cosmic sense. When all we’re doing is being used by Christ as agents of grace, and very often what we need, what we so desperately need… I think a lot, I talk to my male students a lot. We need men who are trustworthy, who are faithful, who are safe, who are godly. That, just that work. Forget the traditional achievements. Do that work, and there’s so much you can do for the kingdom.
Collin Hansen: This is why I like David Brooks, is the concept of eulogy virtues as opposed to resume virtues. Because if you take a lot of the advice that young people are getting today, and you don’t give that advice to them at 20, but you give that advice to them at 70, it sounds ludicrous. Because we understand at age 70 or beyond that your life is lived in what you’ve given to others, and what you’ve given to a place, what you’ve given to a family, what you’ve given to a church, what you’ve given to a neighborhood. That’s how we define success. That’s how we define a life well lived. If you were to carry out your 20 something angst all the way through your 70s and beyond, we would think your life had failed. The limits are there because you can’t love everyone the same way. It’s about your commitment to a place, a commitment to a covenant. A covenant with a church, covenant before God, ultimately before all covenant to a spouse and then to children.
Collin Hansen: So we seem to understand it if we reverse engineer our lives. It seems to be a lot of the confusion comes from projecting out this unknown, that is a particular thing to this life building project that you described. He described in your book, Alan, that the state is committed to neutrality in the common good, so toleration is our highest good. But I wonder, don’t you see that changing? Because I certainly see a state more than willing to impose a common good when it comes to economics, or sexuality, or racism. And in fact, even for those people who might disagree with the common good that’s being defined those ways right now, want to impose a different common good. I actually don’t see many people talking much about toleration right now at all.
Alan Noble: I don’t remember why I said that. So here’s the thing. I agree with that first part that you read earlier at the very beginning. I’d have to look at the context of what I said there, because-
Collin Hansen: I was actually surprised about that, Alan. That’s why I’m asking you about it. Because I thought… I could see you writing that 10 years ago, but it feels like something has really flipped in the last five years or so. Across the board with people.
Alan Noble: Yeah. I think this is what I meant. So I’m just shooting from the hip here, because I don’t remember. I’d have to reread that chapter. This is what I think I meant. Not that they actually achieve tolerance, but the idea is that there is no common good for the state to pursue. So instead there’s a kind of equilibrium. Now that equilibrium can be upset if one group gained some cultural capital, and pressures others in various ways, through social media, through boycotts, through whatever, then you know, that tilts the balance. But the government doesn’t have a specific… The state doesn’t have a vision of what it means to live a good life in community, that it’s working towards. I guess, I think that’s what I meant. So there’s like a-
Collin Hansen: Different levels you’re talking about here, then.
Alan Noble: Yeah. Yes. So it’s a different kind of… So yes. Yes. That’s what I mean.
Collin Hansen: Well, and even if we say that there is a perspective that government is trying to pursue with the common good, there’s not a philosophical foundation for it. There’s not a rationale. There’s not any kind of authority. It remains inherently unstable and open to change. And I guess that’s my point, is how if we’re living in this liquid modernity, how you can go from a celebration 10 years of tolerance to a widespread repudiation of tolerance, across the board, in the last five years. It’s hard to know what’s next. I don’t know what’s next. I don’t think anybody knows what’s next. It’s just, we can know that things are not a straight line up or down. They seem to be jagged and they lurch in different directions. And guess that’s what happens when there is no common vision for what kind of life we’re trying to promote. We’re speaking in our Gospel Bound with my guest, Alan Noble, we think he wrote this book, You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World.
Alan Noble: It’s possible. It’s possible.
Collin Hansen: I got a couple more questions Alan.
Alan Noble: Sure.
Collin Hansen: You caught my attention with this. “We all have the power of Caligula now.” What do you mean?
Alan Noble: Yeah, this is the depressing reality about the role of pornography in contemporary life or contemporary society. It doesn’t have to part of our lives. That in my opinion, it reflects a lot of the disordered values that our society has. And so one of those is that the self, and the self’s desires, are good and can be pursued, and have a right to be pursued. And there are lots of different places in our society where corporations in particular are telling us, “Yes, you deserve this.” So for example, I had a doughnut last week, and on the box it said, “You deserve this donut.” I was like, “Ah, I already had one. I don’t think I deserve another one,” put it away, put it away. I used my willpower. But so, this is happening in lots of places, but what’s interesting is that pornography, because of the internet, because where we are, and the market, it’s, I think, the place where you can have your desires affirmed. The answer is yes, you may, I think is the way I talk about it in the book.
Alan Noble: More than anything else in society, and certainly anything else in history. So for example, whatever fetish, whatever desire, whatever fantasy that you want, it’s out there. You can have that all without restriction, without restraint, except for very tiny few exceptions, which as society we say, “Okay, well, that’s too far.” But for the most part, it’s wide open. And you know, that is how we perceive ourselves is at the center of the universe. And so it makes sense. We all have the power of a Roman emperor to demand that people give their bodies to you for your personal pleasure. Yeah.
Collin Hansen: It’s sad to say, I think if you looked at pornography over the preceding decades, you could anticipate a number of cultural trends in there. That’s one of the things that Joe Carter has written for us at the Gospel Coalition, about actually the prevalence of lesbian and gay pornography, and how that preceded a lot of other cultural changes. If that trend continues, then I think the taboos on incest are about to disappear quickly.
Alan Noble: That’s depressing.
Collin Hansen: I’m just… Now, that is discouraging, which is why I’m leading up to my last question, which is, it’s a big question. So just feel free to take it wherever you want to go. Give us a taste of the resources in Christianity for building meaning, identity, and purpose, and part of… as I give you a chance to think about that… part of why I bring up this example is that we don’t remember Caligula as, “Wow. I wish I could have been that guy.” Generally speaking. That’s not how it comes up. It’s seen as, this was a problem. This is the epitome of evil decadence. And I think that when we look back on pornography, when we look back on a number of the things that you’re talking about here, I think they will change because I think they have to change. Because they’re inhuman, as you talk about. So as Christians, it’s easy to just get really discouraged. And I do think to some extent, you need to get discouraged so that you can be vigilant about it.
Alan Noble: Yes. Yes.
Collin Hansen: But then you turn from a vigilance into a hopefulness, so help us to make that turn here.
Alan Noble: This is the hardest part of the book. And so you’re asking me to talk about one half of the book. And so, but that’s totally fair. Because we got to talk about hope, because it does, it ends with hope because we live our faith, it’s not a tragedy. It’s a comedy in the sense that it ends in a marriage feast of the lamb, right? Not in death with no resurrection. And so we do, we have hope. And in writing this, as I say in the book, I wish I could have just said, “Here are the five things that we need to do to retake our civilization,” or America, or whatever, or our families, or… But I’ll want to be honest that it’s going to be difficult. The example I gave earlier about my wife getting into these conversations, and people assuming that she didn’t really have much to contribute because she didn’t have a career.
Alan Noble: Well, my wife can learn to be more aware, more self-aware, and recognize when people say that, even people who agree with her philosophically and theologically about the goodness of raising children for God, et cetera, when they treat her that way, they’re wrong. And she can make that recognition and say, “Okay, if I’m feeling in fear, if I’m feeling guilty, if I’m feeling that kind of shame, that’s a lie,” and she can push back against it. But guess what? Those people are still going to keep doing that. It’s not going to stop anytime soon. And so the hope that I offer in the book is I’m trying to offer a sober hope. I’m trying to say that there are many inhumane aspects of our society that I don’t anticipate changing any time soon, but we have no right to lose hope.
Alan Noble: We have no right to stop fighting for justice. We have no right to stop standing up for righteousness. And that’s the tension that Christians live in. We have to recognize that we’re not the ones who are going to save the city. We’re not the ones that are going to save the world. Christ is redeeming the world, not us. And yet we don’t get to sit around. We have to act. And so in our spheres of influence, we have to be able to say, “Okay, here are ways that I can treat my neighbor in a more humane way that doesn’t reduce them to a tool for my pleasure,” okay? Here are things that I can do, and it’s not going to be perfect, but we can and I think we do have an obligation to act. But you know, you were saying that you think, okay, for example, pornography just can’t continue like this. At some point, because it’s inhuman, it’s going to have to break.
Alan Noble: And there are a few thinkers that I follow who are charting the fact that among young people, there is a kind of… Maybe it’ll fizzle out, but there is a small movement of people who are recognizing that this is just, this sexual license is, it’s toxic, it eats at us. It’s not okay. And so a movement back to commitment. And that’s where I think, you asked initially, what are the resources? Well, things like marriage, this natural community that God has built into creation itself helps us. Can help us so much. But also the church.
Alan Noble: We have a community in the church, but we’re going to need to do a lot of sacrificing in order to make that community meaningful. What I mean by that is what you described earlier about saying, “Okay, I’m not going to take to my kid to all these enrichment activities, or sports, or whatever.” That’s the kind of sacrifices we have to be able to make if we’re going to live meaningfully in community, and have deep abiding relationships that will help us weather the storms of living in an inhuman society. And those are just some of the resources that we have.
Collin Hansen: Well, I so appreciate talking with you, Alan. We read a lot of the same works and thus we follow a lot of the same paths. And it’s interesting that before I settled on this Gospel Bound concept, this concept that we are bounded to the gospel, and therefore we abound in hope. We’re tethered theologically to this historic belief, but this belief then helps us to withstand all the winds of change. And so that we can abound in hope. One of the other ideas that I toyed with was sober hope. That was exactly the concept that came to me. Or if anybody’s out there listening and feeling especially discouraged, 2 Corinthians four. So we do not lose hope. We do not lose heart. The theme of that passage is what I come back to all the time in these conversations. Let me wrap up with a final three here with Alan Noble. We’ve been talking about his new book with InterVarsity, You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World. Quick answers here, Alan.
Alan Noble: Okay. I’m ready.
Collin Hansen: How do you find calm in the storm?
Alan Noble: The most calming thing for me right now is doing the dishes, and listening to TS Eliot read Four Quartets.
Collin Hansen: Ooh. Okay. That is wonderfully specific. I like that.
Alan Noble: It just is.
Collin Hansen: Wonderful. And where do you find good news today, Alan?
Alan Noble: With my students, honestly, with my students. Because there’s still a great hope and there’s a joy. You know I teach literature, the joy that I see in my students as they’re seeing beautiful things and understanding it as Christians, that gives me hope. That gives me hope.
Collin Hansen: And I can ask an English professor this question, what’s the last great book you’ve read?
Alan Noble: See that’s what… Stop stereotype. Look, not all English professors have time to read.
Collin Hansen: Not all English professors read books! Some of us are just teaching grammar out here.
Alan Noble: I’m just trying to keep up with the reading assignments for my classes. I don’t know what the last great book that I read. I read, this is not fiction, but The Uncontrollability of the World by Rosa, is his last name. I think he’s German. And it’s not a Christian book, but it’s taking the question of secularization from a different angle. This desire that as modern people, we have to try to control everything, which I think I read it after I wrote this book, but after I read it and I was like, “Dang, I could have just inserted that everywhere.” And so that’s fine. It’s okay.
Collin Hansen: That’s good. We’ve been talking with Alan Noble. I knew it’d be a fun time talking with Alan, author of You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World, new from InterVarsity. Alan, thanks for joining me on Gospel Bound.
Alan Noble: Thank you.