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Are You Woke? A Review Article

Gregory E. Reynolds

Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age, by Alan Noble. Grand Rapids: IVP, 2018, 192 pages, $16.00, paper.

“Woke” is the new byword for social awareness. Noble’s book on Christian witness is a quest to awaken a world numbed by the immanent frame of the contemporary mindset. Noble includes Christians in his critique of modernity showing that we are not immune to the cultural smog we breath. He is also aware of the important influence of electronic media in cultivating this way of thinking, which locks us into the lie that what you see is what you get. This is the buffered self of sociologist Charles Taylor,[1] whose thinking has deeply influenced Noble. The Internet spreads us over a thin surface of reality and tends to block out transcendent realities, especially the immanent presence of the true and living God. Metanarratives are out since everything has a natural explanation (3). Back in 1968 Francis Schaeffer was one of the first to alert thoughtful twentieth century Christians to this danger. In his influential book The God Who Is There he warned that secular people “have already accepted with an implicit faith the presupposition of the uniformity of natural causes in a closed system.” [2]

This should not surprise us since we are born in our first parents, “who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Rom. 1:18). This, of course, is not unique to modernity—although enhanced by the electronic matrix—as Puritan Richard Sibbes eloquently reminds us:

The souls of most men are drowned in their senses, and carried away with weak opinions rising from vulgar mistakes and shadows of things. Satan is ready to enlarge our imaginings of what is outwardly good and evil, and to make them greater than they are; he is ready to make spiritual things less than they are, and to present them through false glasses. And so men, trusting in vanity, vanquish themselves in their own apprehension of things. It is a woeful condition when both we and what we highly esteem vanish together. And this will happen, as truly as Christ’s judgment will come to victory. To the extent that the vain heart of man is enlarged to conceive a greater good in the things of this world than there actually is, so the soul is enlarged to be more aware of misery when it sees its error. This is the difference between a godly, wise man and a deluded worldling: what the one now judges to be vain, the other will hereafter judge, when it is too late. But the vanity of our natures is that, although we avoid above all else being deceived and mistaken in present things, yet in the greatest matters of all, we are willingly ignorant and misled.[3]

Noble has also been deeply influenced by the philosopher James K. A. Smith,[4] who has in turn been influenced by Charles Taylor and written about Taylor’s sociology.[5] Thus, Noble acknowledges a measure of agreement with the secularization theory of the mid-twentieth century, but believes that it was essentially wrong because Christianity remains popular in the United States. But Noble adds a caution: “But while Americans haven’t lost faith, the space that faith fills in our lives and our ability to effectively communicate what the Christian tradition means has changed” (175). Noble’s numerous citations of these two authors whet the reader’s appetite for more.

One of the great strengths of Noble’s book is that both his critique and the application of his critique are of equal length. This is refreshing since most books on this topic are long on critique and short on what to do about it, or they may have lots of practical advice with no analytical foundation.

Noble also flavors the narrative with many personal examples of his own shortcomings. While some of us older Christians would not be comfortable doing this, at least to the extent that Noble does—especially older New Englanders like myself—he will certainly appeal to his generation that thirsts for authenticity. His honesty should be applauded.

In his introduction Noble shows that Christians have unwittingly succumbed to the idea that Christian faith is simply a preference (1). One barrier to comprehending the gospel is “the practice of continuous engagement in immediately gratifying activities that resist reflection and meditation” (2). Another is “the growth of secularism, defined as a state in which theism is seen as one of many viable choices for human fullness and satisfaction, and in which the transcendent feels less and less plausible” (2). The challenge is to break through the protective, defensive bubble of the modern person with the gospel. It is incumbent upon Christians to consider the ways that their lives have compromised with the ways of the buffered self (7). The following two parts of the book unpack these concerns.

In Part One, “A Distracted Secular Age,” Noble analyses the barriers that endless distraction and the buffered self present to disruptive witness. His final chapter describes the human quest for fullness as a chief motivational factor in human life, one that needs to be addressed in Christian witness.

In his first chapter Noble focuses primarily on the electronic distractions that consume our attention. The boundary between work and leisure is blurred, so that people are constantly available for “communication” (13). The “electronic buzz” has fostered a whole new industry of mindfulness techniques and institutions. In some ways this seems to me, as a former member of the sixty’s counterculture, to be a revival of our rebellion against the “military industrial complex,” or what seemed to us the inauthenticity of modern culture. But the contemporary mindfulness movement is not a back to nature rejection of modernity as much as a means of dealing with the electronic environment—a kind of détente (15–18).

The electronic world seeks to capture our attention in order to gather our data through a relentless bombardment (18). I have always warned people that by joining Facebook they are engaging in the largest focus group in history. Consequently much of our privacy is disappearing, but like fish in water we remain largely unaware of how all-absorbing this environment is. All of this unsuits us for concentration and thoughtfulness, thus undermining the kind of reflective discussion necessary for sound Christian witness. We are adrift in a sea of triviality (22) that enables people to ignore the logical flaws in arguments, to resist introspection, and to assume that “conversations about faith can be easily perceived as just another exercise in superficial identity formation” (25). In this context the gospel seems like “just another image vying for our time” (29). Thus, evangelical witness often naively clothes its evangelism in pop culture, unaware of how the medium is an integral part of the message (30).

In chapter 2 Noble investigates the buffered self. The modern quest for fullness is subjective, looking within for meaning (36). We have moved from faith to feeling, assuming that there is no transcendent source for fullness and meaning. “We are buffered selves, protected behind a barrier of individual choice, rationalism, and a disenchanted world” (37). In this way Christianity becomes just another lifestyle choice (38). The everchanging inner life is always aware of numerous alternatives (42–43).

Noble counsels humility through proper self-assessment in resistance to what he calls “the immanent frame” (55). This means becoming aware of our being seduced by the ways in which the modern world advertises itself as being the product of human ingenuity and achievement (57). Noble insists, “Our witness must work to disrupt the normative experience of life in a closed frame” (58).

The last chapter in Part One deals with the human quest for fullness. “[A] culture of technological distraction inclines us to look for meaning in preoccupation, novelty, consumer choices, and stimulation” (62). Moderns are not disposed to seek fullness from a transcendent source. Identity formation through self-expression is believed to be the only path to fulfillment (62). Noble believes that the urge to justify one’s existence is essential to our being human (64–65). But the wonder of being alive in this world is suppressed by the buffered self. “To live a life of meaning is to have an interpretive framework for explaining how our significance relates to the rest of existence” (67). But a kind of popular existentialism moves people to believe that there is no inherent meaning in anything. We must create meaning from within (68). Citing Calvin, Noble asserts that the knowledge of God and the knowledge of the self are inextricably related, thus emphasizing the human need for God, for becoming like Christ by his grace rather than through seeking self-actualization (71). Taylor observes that “a total and fully consistent subjectivism would tend toward emptiness: nothing would count as a fulfillment in a world in which literally nothing was important but self-fulfillment” (74). The inherent futility of this quest points to the need for something beyond the self. Noble concludes Part One: “A disruptive witness denies the entire contemporary project of treating faith as a preference” (81).

In Part Two, “Bearing a Disruptive Witness,” Noble offers excellent prescriptions for disruptive witness in our personal habits, church practices, and cultural participation. He invites us to challenge the assumptions of unbelievers with countercultural thoughts, words, and deeds, meant to purposely disrupt the assumptions of moderns.

Noble reminds us that secularism is not so much a rejection of Christianity as a “deeply ingrained cultural assumption” (85). Thus, we “simply can’t reorder society or argue our way out of this societal condition” (87). In discussing some of the dangerous liabilities of the electronic environment, I have often said the same, encouraging wise navigation of our situation, while building the kingdom, not through cultural transformation, but through discipling the nations one convert at a time. Noble describes our task as a disruptive witness in every part of life. This is similar to McLuhan’s idea of a counter environment, which I have co-opted and applied to the church.[6]

This means “we must abandon practices adopted from the secular marketplace that trivialize our faith, and instead return to traditional church practices that encourage contemplation and awe before a transcendent God” (88). In other words, we must ourselves be disrupted by God as our creator and redeemer before we can be disruptive witnesses. Nobel describes this as a “double movement in which the goodness of being produces gratitude in us that glorifies and acknowledges a loving, transcendent, good, and beautiful God” (92). Noble goes on to demonstrate this double movement in Scripture from passages like 2 Peter 3:4, Matthew 5:16, and 1 Corinthians 10:31, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (95). So our lives must allude to something beyond ourselves, to God (97), “unsettling our notions of a containable universe and a self-defined individual” (101). Noble quotes a lengthy passage from Calvin’s Institutes: “our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone. . . . [W]e cannot aspire to Him in earnest until we have begun to be displeased with ourselves” (107–8).

Noble speaks honestly of his own struggles with his smart phone and his embarrassment at saying grace in restaurants, but recommends it as a type of disruptive witness (114). He goes on in a surprisingly traditional way to recommend sabbath keeping as a radically disruptive testimony that there is something more important than this present world (115–18). Noble does tell us that he is part of a Presbyterian church.[7]

In the penultimate chapter Noble calls the church back to means-of-grace ministry instead of imitating the latest cultural fad. Noble really understands the relationship between form and substance, medium and message. He asks four penetrating questions to be asked of all media used in the church (125). It is refreshing to read a millennial who understands that tradition, good tradition based on Scripture, can be normative and should always be explored to find out why generations have practiced in such ways. Noble agrees with Smith that historic liturgies embody the presence of both God and his worshiping people (137).

Noble concludes this chapter by valorizing prayer and the Lord’s Supper as two aspects of the liturgy that “most strongly challenge life in a closed, immanent frame” (141). This is the most important and useful chapter in the book.

The final chapter addresses disruptive witness in cultural participation. As an English professor Noble has seen how the reading of twentieth-century literature can assist a disruptive witness. Books like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Hemingway’s The Sun also Rises, which describe the world as a bleak place, can puncture the buffer and reveal the cross pressure between belief in a meaningless world and longing for meaning and hope (149).

Noble goes on to explore the three points of contact described by Taylor as points where “the cross pressure is most keenly felt: our human agency, our moral obligations, and our aesthetic experiences” (151). “The test of our beliefs is whether they can account for existence as we know it” (152). Although we know that the truth suppressing activity of the unbeliever’s thinking distorts the way things actually are, nonetheless the givenness of our own natures and God’s world are always impinging on the fallen human consciousness through the work of the Holy Spirit.

Noble makes a strong plea for the importance of stories because of their power to “portray worlds, not just ideas” (155). Of course, the entire Bible proves this value. But not all stories are helpful and some are dangerous. The best stories instill in us what C. S. Lewis described in Mere Christianity: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world” (159). I think Van Til would modify this to say that this is the only explanation, but Lewis’s point is well taken. Noble explores the value of stories by looking at examples from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, and the W. H. Auden poem “Funeral Blues,” recited in the 1994 movie Four Weddings and a Funeral (161–65).

I wish Noble had used the doctrine of original sin more in his analysis of the buffered self. He seems to assume it, but could have been more explicit. Thus, a more explicitly presuppositional approach to the human condition would be helpful.[8] Certainly the idea of unsettling people (60) reminds us of aspects of the presuppositional method.

This leads us to recognize that, while the environment of modernity adds unique challenges to our understanding of the human condition and to witness, human nature has not essentially changed; only the means of buffering the self have changed. Whether Paul was evangelizing in Jerusalem or Athens his basic approach assumed a natural resistance to the truth, a presentation of the gospel that calls people to reckon with God, and a deep dependence upon the internal work of the Holy Spirit to convict sinners of the truth of the gospel. Only the effectual work of the Spirit can bubble of rebellion and suppression of the truth.

While Noble’s sociological analysis and prescription for witness may not be completely satisfying for the presuppositionalist, his book offers an intriguing analysis of the contemporary situation and some thoughtful and stimulating proposals for improving our witness.

Unencumbered by clichés or facile solutions Noble’s book is a valuable contribution to the conversation about how to reach our lost world.

Endnotes

[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2007); The Ethics of Authenticity (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1991); Sources of the Self (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1989).

[2] Francis A. Schaeffer, The God Who is There (Downers Grove: IVP, 1968), 111.

[3] Richard Sibbes, The Bruised Reed and Smoking Flax (repr. 1630, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1998), 112–13; The Bruised Reede and Smoking Flax 1630 (Menston, Yorkshire, England: The Scolar Press, 1973), 302.

[4] James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2016);

How (Not) to Be Secular (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014); Imagining the Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013); Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009).

[5] How (Not) to Be Secular.

[6] Gregory Edward Reynolds, The Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures: Preaching in the Electronic Age (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001), 298–308.

[7] Noble attends a Presbyterian Church in America church plant in Shawnee, Oklahoma.

[8] Noble has told me that he is familiar with Van Til through Covenant Seminary and Reformed Theological Seminary lectures, which have dealt extensively with presuppositionalism.

Gregory E. Reynolds is pastor emeritus of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, November 2018.

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