Gregory E. Reynolds
“Woke” is the new byword for social awareness. But Alan Noble’s book Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age is calling us to be “woke” to the transcendent God, rather than 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 breathe. He also challenges us to bear disruptive witness to a world distracted by triviality. Noble has been deeply influenced by the philosopher James K. A. Smith, who has in turn been influenced by the sociology of Charles Taylor. Noble’s numerous citations of these two authors will whet the reader’s appetite for more.
Noble is aware of the important influence of electronic media in cultivating the modern way of thinking that locks us into the lie that what you see is what you get. 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” (111). This should not surprise us since we are born in our first parents, “who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Rom. 1:18).
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.
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 world seeks to capture our attention in order to gather our data through a relentless bombardment (18). Consequently, much of our privacy is disappearing, but like fish in water we remain largely unaware of how all-absorbing this environment is. 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,” protected behind a barrier of individual choice, rationalism, and a disenchanted world (37). 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.
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).
In Part Two, “Bearing a Disruptive Witness,” Noble invites us to challenge the assumptions of unbelievers with countercultural thoughts, words, and deeds, meant to purposely disrupt the assumptions of moderns. 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).
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.
Noble speaks honestly of his own struggles with his smart phone and his embarrassment at saying grace in restaurants, which he still recommends as a type of disruptive witness (114). He also 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).
In the penultimate chapter, Noble calls the church back to means-of-grace ministry instead of imitating the latest cultural fad. 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).
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. 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.
The author is pastor emeritus of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. A longer version of this review was published in Ordained Servant Online, November 2018.
Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age, by Alan Noble. Grand Rapids: IVP, 2018, 192 pages, $16.00, paper.