Perhaps the hardest task for Christians of any era is determining how best to inhabit their cultural context. Although doctrine doesn’t change, there are different challenges in every age for those contending for the faith. Each generation must reflect on Scripture’s changeless truths and apply them to their changing contexts to discern what commitment to the gospel looks like in their world.
Our age offers a constant flood of distractions, disruptions, and diversions—which assault our senses and choke out our inner life. It seems impossible to be still, but easy to assume we know God by ascribing to him the characteristics we idealize. So often we’re unaware of this water in which we swim, even when it’s tainted by poison and slowly causing us to die.
Alan Noble’s new book, Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age, provides a helpful diagnosis of our cultural condition and offers practical advice for combating the spirit of the age. The point of non-conformity isn’t merely to be countercultural, but to offer a legitimate testimony to the redemptive work of the gospel. Noble—assistant professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University and cofounder and editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture—does this by building on the philosophical framework of Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor.
We live in a distracted, secular age.
These two trends define life in Western society today. We are increasingly addicted to habits—and devices—that distract and “buffer” us from substantive reflection and deep engagement with the world. And we live in what Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor calls “a secular age.” Drawing on Taylor’s work, Alan Noble describes how these realities shape our thinking and affect our daily lives. Too often Christians have acquiesced to these trends, and the result has been a church that struggles to disrupt the ingrained patterns of people’s lives.
Gospel as Disruptive Force
Disruptive Witness is divided into two parts. Part one offers a diagnosis of our culture’s distracted condition. To many this seems obvious—especially those who’ve been dragged through the rapid rise of personal technology. Those who’ve grown up in the smartphone age, however, may need Noble’s argument for just how abnormal our distractedness is and how it has reduced faith to a superficial lifestyle choice.
Such distracted consumerism has significantly complicated evangelism in Western culture. Distractedness enables us to believe the myth that meaning comes from inside us. Religious labels—whether None, Baptist, or Buddhist—are merely a form of self-expression on the level of favorite store, college choice, or musical preference.
Distracted consumerism has significantly complicated evangelism in Western culture. Distractedness enables us to believe the myth that meaning comes from inside us.
Our immersion in diversion and consumerism, Noble observes, affects our ability to communicate about faith and truth in three ways:
(1) it is easier to ignore contradictions and flaws in our basic beliefs; (2) we are less likely to devote time to introspection; and (3) conversations about faith can be easily perceived as just another exercise in superficial identity formation. (25)
In other words, the challenge is getting people to see that being a Christian is more than just adding another label to an already crowded social media biography.
Unlike our consumeristic choices, Noble argues, “the gospel is cognitively costly. It upsets our innate and cultivated assumptions about power and guilt and existential validation” (27). People spend billions of dollars each year to have themselves affirmed. If our local communities won’t do it, we find affirmation in niche internet communities meant to fulfill our lifestyle preferences.
Part two of Disruptive Witness suggests methods to overcome distraction. Noble mixes concrete examples with enough theoretical abstraction to allow the reader to make her own applications. He recommends resistance to cultural currents at three levels: the inner life, the church, and the culture at large. The goal is to effect change in the world, forming Christian individuals and communities in a way that embodies the gospel.
The gospel is a redemptive force in the world; it’s not supposed to build impenetrable walls to keep bad things out. This is the error of legalism, which often rejects the good things of the world in an attempt to avoid their misuse. Noble suggests a “double movement” that entails “acknowledging goodness, beauty, and blessing wherever we encounter them in life, and then turning that goodness outward to glorify God and love our neighbor” (92). Cultivating that practice in combination with practices like silent contemplation and sabbath rest is critical to living as disruptive witnesses.
The local church should structure its liturgy—both during the regular Sunday gathering and throughout its weekly ministry—in ways that recognize common-grace goodness and turn it back to God. We needn’t succumb to worship wars to realize that if our music is merely a knockoff of better material with a bit of Jesus added for good measure, we’re dominated by our culture. The church should carefully develop its own aesthetics, avoiding consumeristic expressions of identity like pithy mottos emblazoned on T-shirts and bumper stickers. Noble avoids exact prescription for how to pull it off, but the church should seem disruptively strange to visitors.
Christians need better art and artists.
Noble’s vision of Christian participation in culture resonates with Andy Crouch’s idea of culture making. Christians need better art and artists. We must get beyond saccharine novels into literature that explores tragedy, envisioning the eucatastrophe beyond the story even when the author leaves it out. Our music must lead people to see Christ as true, good, and beautiful, not merely a nice storybook character who can teach children manners. Cultural engagement at that level uses recognized techniques to point toward the morality, personal agency, and beauty native to Christianity; it’s a trail marker on the way to understanding ultimate meaning in God.
There’s clearly more room for exploration of practical application based on these themes. One question Noble leaves readers with is precisely how Christians can build communities that disrupt the distractedness of this age. Given the pace of change and variety of subcultures, it would be impossible to propose a simple, universal solution. Real change must come by engaging the Christian community broadly with ideas that help them diagnose and live within their own cultures. Disruptive Witness supports this process because it’s written for the average church member, not the theologically educated.
Disruptive Witness is a treasure for the Western church in this distracted age. It offers a call not just to live for Christ, but also to find a way to herald the good news to our friends and neighbors. Our evangelism needs to be disruptive enough to get them to look up from their smartphones, loud enough to be heard over their earbuds, and different enough to give them a reason to ask us about the hope within us. This is just the sort of book the church needs right now.