O. Alan Noble. Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2018.
Note: This review is written from a pre-release copy via InterVarsity and Netgalley. This explains some of the discrepancy of citations. Some are from the PDF Kindle edition while others are from the a different file. I hope to update and reconcile in the future.
Each new period of history presents Christ’s people with unique challenges or barriers to overcome in order to persuasively proclaim the gospel. In Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age, Alan Noble argues that the challenge of our culture is twofold: we are distracted and we are increasingly secular. In order to confront the challenges and breakdown cultural barriers the church must offer up a disruptive witness – a witness to our faith that disrupts our “buffered and distracted culture.”
In order to lay the groundwork, to make the case for our distracted, secular age Noble builds on the work of Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor. Taylor provides the philosophical foundation for much of Noble’s work. Thankfully, Noble adequately defines Taylor’s terms and explains his thinking in a simple enough way that you can grasp Taylor’s arguments without having read his thickly 800+ page The Secular Age. As a side note, I am not sure if Noble convinced me to invest in reading Taylor or not. Part of me really wants to while the other part hates books over 300 pages. My cursed ADD always kicks in and I have a hard time not becoming overwhelmingly bored at around page 275… And that leads us to talk about our distracted age!
Distracted Age. We are constantly distracted. Distraction is the one constant today. There’s “no break from distraction.” Noble describes our technology as the overly eager child tugging on our sleeve, begging, “Look what I can do.” (Loc. 203). As a father of five this sums up technology well. Technology’s purpose is to captivate us, distract us, and to take us away from our present.
The greatest threat is not the distraction which our technological culture offers us but its the way this distractedness shapes and molds us unwittingly. “It forms our minds, often in ways that are harmful for deep, sustained thought – the kind of thought so important to religious discourse.” (Loc. 223). We are losing the ability to think deeply.
Noble’s concern is this: “how can we speak the truth in a culture where this [distractedness] is the norm?” (Loc. 220). If everyone is distracted and if all around us there are countless voices of [apparently] equal importance calling for our attention how do we break free from the noise? How do we see the truth ourselves? And how do we speak the truth to others?
Secular Age. God has competition. Christianity is no longer the only option. It’s not even considered as one of the most viable options. Often, it is not even considered. Christianity has become the awkward kid who no one picks for their team. Charles Taylor defines secularism as “the constant background sense that there are any number of possible beliefs, and many of them involve no reference to a transcendent being.” (Loc. 467). The sheer amount of competing beliefs end up excluding any sense of transcendence because transcendence would require exclusivism.
Noble writes, “Our secular age has produced an explosion of possible belief systems, all of which are endlessly contested and all of which make the idea of transcendent God less conceivable.” (Loc. 409). This leaves us with thin, fragile beliefs. These “thin beliefs” are “a set of foundational ideas about the world that lack robust explanatory power.” (Loc. 501). There is no weight to them. We hold them very loosely. Our hyperawareness to the multitude of competing belief systems has left us non-committal. Or if we do commit its half-hearted. Our beliefs become just one more way we “articulate our identity.” (Loc. 423). Our beliefs become little more than something to fill out our social media profiles.
We exist in what Taylor has called the immanent frame. It is the secularist box which keeps the transcendent out of our way of life and our way of thinking. The result of our secular age is that “providence, mystery, contingency, uncertainty, wonder, and randomness have been systematically, bureaucratically, technologically, and economically drained from our world.” (Loc. 650).
How to Speak
The second half of Disruptive Witness seeks to answer Noble’s question: “how do we speak the truth in a distracted secular age?” It’s at this point where Noble weds the thought of Charles Taylor with the work of James K. A. Smith.
Noble argues for a threefold approach to a disruptive witness. We need a disruptive witness at every level of life. First, we must have a disruptive witness on the personal level. “We need to cultivate habits of contemplation and presence that help us accept the wonder and grandeur of existence and examine our assumptions about meaning and transcendence.” (Loc. 962-964). Noble focuses on what he calls the “double movement.” “The double movement is the practice of first acknowledging goodness, beauty, and blessing wherever we encounter them in life, and then turning that goodness outward to glorify God and loving our neighbor.” (92). Culture calls us to find the end in ourselves. Noble’s “double movement” calls us to look past ourselves.
Noble offers a few practical ways to put this “double movement” into play in our personal lives. First, we are to live aesthetically. This involves taking the time to slow down and see beauty in God’s world. And once that beauty is seen to pause a bit longer in order to give God the rightful praise and glory for its beauty. Second, we need quiet reflection. This quietness affords us time to look inwardly which will inevitably lead us outward toward God. Third, he reminds us of the importance of prayer, particularly such public prayers as giving thanks before meals. Publicly praying is an act of cultural defiance. But our motives must be to glorify God, not to obtain attention (113). Last, he mentions the importance of Sabbath rest. Resting for one day is a disruptive witness to our neighbors as well as an act of faith, that God will provide for all our needs (117).
Second, we must create a disruptive witness at the church level. We need to recover and re-create disruptive church practices. “The greatest witness to the world will always be the body of Christ gathered to worship…” (Loc. 1329). Therefore, he argues for a return to “traditional church practices that encourage contemplation and awe before a transcendent God.” (Loc. 964). Noble is worried that our current church practices tend to downplay or unwittingly hide the transcendent glory of God. All mediums shape and mold the message. He particularly focuses on prayer and the Lord’s Supper as elements of worship that pull us out of the immanent frame and into the throne room of God’s transcendent glory.
Third, we must create a disruptive witness at the cultural level through our own cultural participation. Noble has a very helpful discussion on how suffering (and latter tragedy) reveals our mortality and pulls us out of the isolated experiences of distracted secularism (153ff). He ends by focusing on how stories may help disrupt our closed world because they “have a unique ability to tap into and evoke our desires for the transcendent” (154).
Noble ends by arguing that Christianity has the power of life and death, the power to disrupt the world around us. But we must carefully assess the cultural and societal changes around us in order to speak prophetically to the world (175-176). Noble ends Disruptive Witness by writing: “It is this kind of witness that we are called to bear in the world today – a witness that defies secular expectation and explanation, that unsettles our neighbors from their technological/consumerist stupor, and that gambles everything on the existence and goodness of a transcendent (and immanent!) For, whose sacrificial love for us compels us to love in return” (180).
How are we to make Christianity viable amidst the cacophony of voices? Noble’s concern of how do we show off the beauty, depth, and uniqueness of Christianity in the midst of a distracted secular age is one of the most pressing questions the church faces today.
One of the most sobering things I have to wrestle with as a pastor is the fact that our church members sing, rejoice, worship, and hear God’s Word for only an hour and a half every week. The remaining 166 1/2 hours they are being preached at by countless other substitutes, lesser gods, idols, and false deities. Most devious of all, the sinfulness of our own hearts.
The only hope I have as a pastor is that the Holy Spirit and the Word of God are never separate. When the Word is proclaimed the Spirit is present. And the Word of God will never return void because the Spirit of God is working in the hearts and minds of his people. That is my only confidence and hope as a preacher of God’s Word.
While I appreciate the language of “disruptive witness” as I read through the first three chapters the phrase that kept repeating in my mind was this: We must create an apologetic of wonder. This is how we offer up a disruptive witness. We must develop and present an apologetic of wonder.
An Apologetic of Wonder
What disrupts the world? Wonder. As we seek to speak truth in our distracted secular age we need to develop an apologetic of wonder. Chesterton’s remarks on wonder remain apropos: “We are perishing for lack of wonder, not for lack of wonders.” There are plenty of amazing things in this world, plenty of wonders, but the very quantity of them take us away from qualitative wonder. We are perishing not because we lack wonders, but because we lack wonder.
This sense of wonder is foundational to a disruptive witness. Noble writes, “The challenge for Christians in our time is to speak of the gospel in a way that unsettles listeners, that conveys the transcendence of God, that provokes contemplation and reflection, and that reveals the stark givenness of reality.” (Loc. 333).
At one point Noble writes, “of all the movements in a church liturgy, the two that perhaps most strongly challenge life in a closed, immanent frame are prayer and the Lord’s Supper, because at their core is communion with a living God” (141). While I certainly don’t disagree that prayer and the Lord’s Supper are central elements to our communion with God and therefore are disruptive forces, I fail to understand why preaching receives such short shrift. If our concern is something that is disruptive to our immanent frame you cannot get more disruptive then the faithful proclamation of God’s self-revelation.
If God’s self-revelation serves as the foundation and focal point of our disruptive witness then our entire lifestyle of worship becomes disruptive to the buffered self and the immanent frame. All of life. All of worship. Our worship is both personal and corporate. Therefore, every act of personal worship may serve as a disruptive witness. Every act of corporate worship may serve as a disruptive witness.
On the personal level, what have been traditionally called the Spiritual Disciplines, all function in such a way to disrupt our distracted secular age. I would be hard pressed to say one is more disruptive than the other. They all disrupt in unique and powerful ways. Second, on the corporate level, we must first recognize that every church has a liturgy. What we need to understand and think through is this: “how may our church’s liturgy be used to effectively disrupt and speak witness to the world?”
I believe my main point here with focusing on disruptive revelation and disruptive witness is simply to affirm what Noble says when he writes, “The Christian faith gives us resources to challenge distraction and secularism in our own lives, which naturally provides a disruptive witness to those around us” (Loc. 1324). I simply want to expand beyond the practical suggestions Noble offers in the second half of his book to focus on all of Christianity. The religion of Christ is wholly disruptive. Christianity in it’s fullest expression is entirely, wholly, completely disruptive.
Two Specific Responses
I have a question and criticism of Disruptive Witness. One is simply a request for clarification while the second is how I believe the book could have been better. From my understanding Noble is already at work on a second book so maybe some of my constructive criticism will be answered and fleshed out in the second work.
First, it seems to me that Noble places too much emphasis and weight on general/natural revelation and the sensus divinitatis. This is where I’d like some clarification.
Maybe I am misunderstanding Noble’s “double movement.” He defines it, “The double movement is the practice of first acknowledging goodness, beauty, and blessing wherever we encounter them in life, and then turning that goodness outward to glorify God and loving our neighbor.” (92).
First, does the double movement always and only move this way, from inward/earthly to outward/heavnely? Must we always first look inward in order to then look outward and give God glory? Or must we always first see some beauty within the world and then move upward to God? I’d argue that there is a reciprocity here. It’s both/and and there is no direct logical order. Well, maybe if forced, I’d say God must receive our first look.
I think Calvin understood the reciprocal nature of the knowledge of God and the knowledge of humanity. Noble, at the least, seems to give the impression that it is knowledge of humanity which then leads us outward to the knowledge of God. If this is the case, I believe he is putting too much emphasis on the sense of the divine within each person. And possibly, too much weight on general revelation.
Calvin writes, “it is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself” (Inst. I.1.2). We need the mirror of God’s self revelation in order to see ourselves clearly. Otherwise we are prone to hypocrisy and we will not be able to see ourselves for who we truly are.
For example, we would not know what sin was if it were not for the law. The law, while written on our hearts, is an external reality. Yes, we know things are wrong with the law implanted upon our hearts, but we need the clarity of God’s external word in order to fully grasp the weight of our sin and rebellion against God. This is apologetically significant, because we always need the word to interpret.
Yes, the sensus divinitatis working within us may push us outward and upward, but without the Word of God, the Lord’s self-revelation, we will not end up with Biblical Christianity. While all know God apart from Christ, all suppress this knowledge of God. An inward look, apart from God’s self-revelation, would result in a generic deity, a basic theism. This is a far stretch from the Lord Almighty of full-orbed Biblical Christianity. We don’t aim for theists. We aim for biblical theists.
Second, Disruptive Witness needs more scriptural support. I am not speaking about proof texts, but a full orbed under pinning that only God’s self revelation can offer. Let me flesh this out a bit.
I would love to see Noble work out a biblical-theology of disruption. I think it could work without forcing the idea too much upon the text. What is creation? God’s disruptive act of challenging the quietness of non-existence. Was there even quiet to disrupt? What is the fall? Humanity’s disruption of God’s good creation. This disruptive act is flat out rebellion and rejection of who God is and what he demands. It is willful rebellion and that rebellion has created the world we live in. The immanent frame of Taylor exists because we have traded in the glory of God for lesser deities. We have closed ourselves off to God because we are in rebellion against him. If we are seeking to understand how we may speak the truth in our distracted secular age we need to understand that those distracted secular people are such because of their willful rebellion against their Creator.
But here’s the good news: God has become incarnate in order to disrupt our feeble disruptions. Jesus, God in human flesh. You cannot find a more disruptive witness then the Son of God incarnate. God disrupts our world by sending his one and only Son. And he was sent with a mission, a purpose, a plan. He was sent to die. He was sent to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). He was sent to disrupt.
Here’s my overriding concern with Disruptive Witness lacking an in-depth biblical foundation. What keeps Noble’s suggestions from just being another appendage we add to an already complex system? What keeps our disruptive witness as suggested by Noble from just becoming another cog in the busyness of our lives? If Scripture doesn’t underpin our disruptive witness then it will lack the power of truly becoming a disruptive force.
It is this: Scripture. God’s entire self-revelation is disruptive and if that is not the foundation and focal point of our witness then all our suggestions may be charged with falling under the criticism of “just one more thing.” If Christianity is already perceived as irrelevant both from within and without the church how do we press upon others it’s truthfulness, weight, beauty, power and might? We need all of Scripture. Scripture has a weight to it that we cannot reproduce.
First, Scripture has weight because it is never devoid of the Spirit. As Calvin argues, the word of God is the instrument of the Spirit whereby the Lord dispenses illumination and understanding (Inst. I.4.3).
Second, Scripture has weight because it is able to cut, divide, shape, and mold. “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give an account” (He. 4:12-13). This is the power of God’s Word. It is the most disruptive force we have.
Third, Scripture has weight because God has promised that it will never return void. It is powerful and purposeful. It will accomplish God’s purposes (Isaiah 55:10-11). Throughout redemptive history God’s word has disrupted over and over again.
These are some of the reasons why I’d love to see Noble offer us a more in-depth biblical foundation for his “disruptive witness” program. For our witness to succeed, to truly disrupt the distracted secular age, we need it to be rooted deeply in the Word of God and focused upon the Lord Jesus Christ.